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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

Last week the Human Rights Commission held a consultation on the current situation in prisons. There was excellent attendance from all relevant agencies, except sadly for the Attorney General’s Department. This was disappointing, but I was not surprised, since the designated officer had failed also to attend the meeting on the same subject arranged recently by the Human Rights Action Plan Task Force.

Though initially the Department had been assiduous in attendance, and extremely helpful, recent developments confirm my view that a largely competent Department has some members who do not care enough about working to deadlines and plans, and cooperating constructively with other agencies for this purpose. This doubtless is why we also have several instances of cases being postponed endlessly, without reference to other stakeholders, as was explained to us passionately by the very competent representative of the Government Analyst’s Department who attended. I hope therefore that the Attorney General will remedy the situation, and take appropriate action, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice promised to do when one of her staff, having been designated for the Task Force meeting, failed to attend. Whether such discipline is possible now in Departments that were a byword for efficiency in earlier days is however a moot point.

The meeting began with a succinct introduction by the Chairman to the problem, based on a visit the Commission had undertaken to the prisons. I had been privileged to accompany them on part of the visit, organized very helpfully by the Prisons staff. I have written about this before, and the horror that a matter so easily solved, with moral and social and financial benefits to the country, is left in abeyance for so long. Read the rest of this entry »

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Some years back the Council for Liberal Democracy produced an influential book called ‘Ideas for Constitutional Reform’, edited by Chanaka Amaratunga. A shorter version of this was issued a few years back, and I have now put together a brief outline of further Ideas for Constitutional Reform, based on principles that have emerged in recent consultations with regard to a National Reconciliation Policy, and on the needs expressed in Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings. These are given below, and will be followed by brief articles on the various topics covered.

  1. Electoral Reform

To ensure responsibility of members for a limited area and accountability to a constituency

And

To ensure that Parliament as a whole is proportionate to the wishes of the electorate

The House of Representatives shall consist of two hundred Members elected on a mixed system. One hundred of them will be elected on the basis of constituencies in which the electors shall be similar in number. Such constituencies shall be prescribed by a Delimitation Commission which shall combine the Grama Niladhari Divisions into Constituencies which have commensurate numbers or as near commensurate as possible.

Voters shall vote for individuals in these constituencies. They may give up to three preferences in order, of which only the first shall be counted initially. This is in accordance with the alternative system of voting. After the first count, unless a candidate has received over half the votes cast, the candidate with least first preferences will be eliminated, and such candidate’s preferences redistributed. The process shall be repeated until one candidate shall have received 50% plus one of the total votes cast.

Voters will also cast a second vote for a political party. The remaining hundred members of the House of Representatives shall be chosen so as to reflect the proportion of votes obtained by each party. Each party shall submit a list known as the Party List. After the constituency representatives are declared elected, parties shall receive an allocation that brings up their total representation in Parliament to the proportion they received in the Party vote. .

In the event of a party receiving more seats on the Constituency Vote than the proportion it receives on the Party Vote, it will not receive any seats on the Party Vote, but the surplus shall sit in the House of Representatives which, for that Parliament alone, may have more than 200 members. If independent candidates are elected on the Constituency Vote, without being part of any Independent Group obtaining Party Votes, they too may constitute a surplus for the life of that Parliament.

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I have now had an opportunity to go through the report of the Parliamentary Select Committee that looked into the conduct of the Chief Justice, and its contents amply confirm the position I have advanced, namely

  1. Shirani Bandaranayake has not always acted properly
  2. She should not be impeached

With regard to the first point, the main problem is her getting rid of other judges and appointing herself to head a Bench looking into Trillium matters. It was quite improper that, following a request for a ruling on a very different matter, she should arbitrarily have put herself in charge of those cases instead of a senior judge of proven competence. And it was particularly deplorable that she should have done this when engaged in business deals with concerned parties.

One problem with regard to which the Select Committee finds her guilty does not seem at all appalling. To accuse her of misconduct because she is in overall charge of judicial procedures at a time when her husband might be subject to them is not at all reasonable. Had she tried to influence the judiciary in such a situation, she would certainly have done wrong, but to find her guilty because she is in a position to do wrong is a strange interpretation of justice. All she need do to ensure nothing improper occurs is recuse herself from decision making with regard to cases involving her husband.

The other point on which she has been found guilty is not declaring various accounts in her annual declaration of assets and liabilities. Several other improprieties in this connection are also noted in the Report, some of which also seem reprehensible. However, there is provision for prosecution for any serious misdemeanours in this regard. Given that there is a judicial process laid down for those suspected of offences, it is best that that process be followed. For Parliament to sit in judgment on such matters, without ensuring due judicial process, is inappropriate, and worries in this regard have been increased by the haste with which the Parliamentary Select Committee went about its business.

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sithamuI wrote a couple of weeks back about ‘nasty personal attacks on the UN leadership in Sri Lanka during the conflict’ and noted that long ago I had ‘suggested that we should highlight the positive input of senior UN officials and question the UN as to why their reports had been ignored’. This was prompted by a report by a Britisher called Julian Vigo that used allegations by junior personnel in the UN system to claim that senior UN officials were complicit in abuses that they claimed had occurred during the conflict period.

Given the potential danger this represented, I wrote to the Secretary to the President to remind him of how we had failed to strengthen links with senior members of the UN who worked in terms of the UN mandate to assist us with humanitarian needs whilst also upholding basic principles of human rights. I added that ‘Time is running out, and no one has any sense of urgency’ but, given the time usually taken for responses within our governmental system, I suppose I should not be surprised that he has not been able to suggest remedial action.

I hope however that he realizes the need for him to act expeditiously, given that the President, obviously realizing the incapacity of the Ministry of External Affairs to which he had initially entrusted the job, finally entrusted preparation of an Action Plan for the LLRC Recommendations to his Secretary. As usual when he puts his mind to things, Mr Weeratunge turned up trumps. Since however implementation has also been entrusted to him, he must realize that a clear system of monitoring progress and improving on it is vital, and he is clearly the only person able to ensure this at this stage.

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Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, Emeritus Professor of Languages
Prepared for the session on ‘Language and Literature’
Of the Sabaragamuwa University Symposium on
Harnessing Knowledge through Research to address emerging Global Issues
January 11th 2012

I am grateful to Sabaragamuwa University for having invited me back to chair this session and speak to you. I am delighted that amongst the speakers today are two former students of this university, one of whom is now a Senior Lecturer. He deserves special congratulations for this, since he succeeded finally in overcoming all the difficulties that confront academics in this country who need to obtain further degrees in the field of English so as to continue in service. Fortunately the situation is somewhat better now, and the Rapporteur today, yet another former student of mine, though from Sri Jayewardenepura, has a doctorate under the scheme implemented by the National Centre for Advanced Study of the Humanities, which we finally managed to set up when I was Acting Dean here.

That institution is a egregious example of what I wish to address in this presentation. I should note however that your invitation came at a bad time, when I was in even greater despair than usual about education in this country, and about English Education in particular. I had been with yet another couple of students of this University, who were telling me all about how several Ordinary Level question papers were for sale through tutories before the examination. I was told in graphic detail about the subject for still life drawing that appeared in the Art Paper, with the details – including the number of leaves in the croton in the vase – all known beforehand.

I am perhaps simplistic in blaming primarily the tuition industry for this, since it takes two to tango, but I had just before that been confronted with forceful complaints at Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the East, about how tuition was ruining the young. Obviously I could not accede to the request that I suggest to the President that tuition be banned, since government must bear at least some of the responsibility for permitting the privileging of the tuition culture. Teachers and parents cannot be blamed for believing that tuition is an essential part of education, given the nexus that exists between the formal education system and tutories –  of which the most obvious evidence now is the relentless leaking of public examination papers by tuition masters.

But this urge to have recourse to outside elements is an essential part of our approach to education, as I realized in thinking about the other horror story that was brought to my notice. This related to a training programme for lecturers in English at Technical Colleges, which had been conducted by the British Council at a substantial cost. I was told over 6 million rupees had been expended, though the participants were expected to pay for their board and lodging, in comparatively squalid conditions.

I have regularly been told by decision makers who agree that standards of English have to be improved that they will ask the British Council for assistance. Unfortunately they believe that the British Council is an aid organization, as was the case until the eighties, when it provided seminal assistance with regard to English and other training needs.

Unfortunately no one in authority now seems to understand that the Council is no longer run on the old lines, being also required to function on commercial principles. In the old days the idea was to develop Sri Lankan counterparts so that we could be self sustaining in time, now the aim is to continue to be needed, so that it can go on from contract to contract. Aid is thus a tool of business, with grants – and even more often loans – being instruments of winning business deals, which later have to be renewed without such support.

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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

At one of the discussions on the promotion of Human Rights that the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies has been arranging together with the Reconciliation Office, it was decided to set up a more structured consultation, to look into conceptual questions as well as make practical recommendations. Given that clarity of conceptualization is largely lacking in the world of politics – or even recognition of the need for conceptualization – I was deeply impressed by the presentation at that discussion of the Consultant on Children to the Attorney General’s Department. What he presented seemed a good basis for further analysis so as to promote more helpful state interventions.

His argument, if I understood it correct, was that social policy in Sri Lanka continues to be based on the colonial legacy of Poor Law with emphasis on Criminal Law, on institutionalization of social rejects, and on very generalized administrative approaches without a positive social agenda. I am not sure that I agree with this completely, but he certainly presented a convincing contrast between our administrative framework for social services and that which we have in education and health. The latter promotes equity and inclusivity, whereas the former entrenches the dichotomizing view of society that Victorian England seemed to embody – but which was fought against and changed by advanced social thinkers and, perhaps most prominently, by Charles Dickens, who had suffered himself from the prevailing patronizing philosophy.

Coincidentally I happened, during the time our discussion took place, to have been reading one of his early works, entitled ‘The Mudfog Papers’, which satirized the practice of putting people in workhouses. In that Dickens produced a mock scientific paper on how to treat fleas, which was clearly meant to suggest that this was how the dominant sections of society regarded their less fortunate brethren – ‘He suggested that measures should be immediately taken to employ the labour of these fleas as part and parcel of the productive power of the country, which might easily be done by the establishment among them of infant schools and houses of industry, in which a system of virtuous education, based upon sound principles, should be observed, and moral precepts strictly inculcated. He proposed that every flea who presumed to exhibit, for hire, music, or dancing, or any species of theatrical entertainment, without a licence, should be considered a vagabond, and treated accordingly, in which respect he only placed him upon a level with the rest of mankind’.

The word vagabond of course recalled the Vagrants’ Ordinance which we still have on our statue books. Everyone agrees that it should be got rid of, or at least amended, but no one seems concerned enough to proceed with this. So we still continue to hear horror stories of how it is applied, most recently of a woman who went out shopping, and was taken in under the Ordinance.

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A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Antony Powell is one of the most impressive fictional works of the last century. The narrator comes across different characters in different settings over the years, and I was reminded of this as I saw so many old friends coming in here today to celebrate Parvathi Nagasunderam and her work.

I was delighted to see Prof Wilson, who was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura when Paru and I

began our work there, and was a tower of strength. Dinali Fernando was one of those we recruited along with Paru, and I also see here Madhubhashini Ratnayake, who is now at USJP, though I am sorry to say we did not succeed when we tried to recruit her then, way back in 1992.

I see Lakshmi Cumaranatunga, who headed the Higher Institute of English Education when Paru taught there, before we persuaded her to come to USJP. Then there is Prof Narada Warnasuriya, who was on the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education, when I chaired it in 2004. And I see students such as Lalith Ananda and Sarath Ananda and Palitha Dissanayake, whom Paru taught at the Pasdunrata College of Education, whom she introduced to the Asset Course I ran while at the British Council, and who subsequently joined either USJP or its Affiliated University Colleges when we began English courses there in revolutionizing English at universities.

And then there are Paru’s sisters, including the one I know best, Dr Fernando. When I say I know her, I should say that this is not directly, it is through her husband, Dr Joe Fernando, who was Secretary of the Ministry of Health, who was a constant visitor at my home because he lived nearby and would often drop in on my father during his relentless healthy walking round the block.

I discovered, in the dance of different characters to time’s music that we come across, that Joe was Paru’s brother-in-law. This happened because there was a news item, about 20 years ago, to the effect that the Secretary to the Ministry of Health had developed aids – which as we know from Joe’s continuing healthy walking, was not the case – and I mentioned this to Paru during one of the long journeys we would take together to the AUC at Belihuloya which later became Sabaragamuwa University. Paru laconically said that she would ask her sister, who was married to the Secretary.

I am delighted then to see Dr Mrs Fernando and another sister here, because I feel I know them well. They belong to a very distinguished family of educationists from Jaffna. I am sorry I never met Paru’s  eldest sister, who was Principal of the Kopay Training College, though I did regularly meet the second, whom Paru looked after when she had to leave Jaffna after her elder sister’s death, since the family was then scattered far and wide.

I have not come here with a prepared text, because I wanted to see the type of audience there was before I spoke. The vast numbers of young people here, I am told, are Paru’s students from USJP and from Pasdunrata, and their presence here is a tribute to the deep devotion they feel towards her for her commitment to them. I thought therefore that I would talk about the challenges that Paru has faced, and how she has overcome them to move from strength to strength, in the hope that the range of her work will inspire these youngsters too to become teachers like her.

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Sri Lanka Parliament(This was not delivered as there wouldn’t be time for me to speak, but this is what I would have said).

Both this resolution, Mr Speaker, and the manner in which it has been pursued, make very clear the need for radical reform. We have long known that we have an illogical Constitution that confuses all sorts of political principles. Sadly we have not taken seriously the crying need to change it wholesale, not simply engage in piecemeal reforms.

Nowhere is inconsistency more obvious than in the relations between the three traditional branches of government. Underlying this inconsistency is a failure to ensure accountability, despite the claim that power belongs in all instances to the people. The Executive is accountable in that it submits itself to democratic elections every few years, but the period of six years that is prescribed, and the provision, based on Westminster norms, of having an early election, make this accountability less than perfect. And the system of elections we have for the Legislature makes a nonsense of accountability, since that requires a closer relationship between constituencies and their representatives than the preferential vote system makes possible.

With regard to the Judiciary, there is almost no accountability. Over the last year I have tried, in pursuing action on our National Human Rights Action Plan, to suggest that the Judiciary lays down norms with regard to its activities, but replies when received were not positive. The Secretary to the Ministry of Justice got no reply when she suggested that the Chief Justice convene a meeting on sentencing, and the Institute of Human Rights was not allowed to proceed with a training programme on this subject. Given the gross overcrowding in our prisons, the failure of the Judiciary to act as requested is most depressing.

Depressing too is the failure to institute codes of conduct. The report of the PSC suggests, even on the best possible interpretation, indiscretions that should never have been perpetrated. It is true that many have been responsible for such indiscretions, but in the absence of strict guidelines, that are carefully monitored, a culture of propriety is hard to sustain.

I would have hoped that the Judiciary would draw up its own guidelines but, if this does not happen, it will be necessary for Parliament to do this. The judicial power of the people is exercised by Courts set up by Parliament, and therefore it is our responsibility to draw up guidelines for the exercise of such power even while scrupulously refraining from interference in decisions. It is best then if we leave it to the Judiciary to enforce those guidelines, and only ensure careful monitoring through the financial controls exercised by Parliament.

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Responses to questions from IRIN, the news agency funded by the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance.

1. As a government official, how do you view the report and what is your response?

I no longer have any executive responsibilities, so cannot speak for the government, but as a former government official, who headed the Peace Secretariat during the conflict period, I feel that much has been omitted. As with the Darusman report, there seems to have been reliance on allegations that have not been substantiated, and inadequate attention has been paid to facts that can be established.

2. Were there any parts you felt specifically strongly about? If so, which ones?

 I have only gone through the main part of the Report, but amongst omissions there are –

a)    Failure to record that government initially wanted WFP and UNHCR to stay on in the Wanni, along with the ICRC, when it asked other agencies to leave. Some Non-Governmental agencies had allowed the LTTE to use their vehicles for military purposes, and at least one worker declared that he thought he should be fighting for the LTTE, so you can see why government could not allow such people to continue en masse. There was also the suspicious case of an attack on a FORUT vehicle, which suggested some connivance, and clearly it was best to ensure that no casualties occurred. However the agencies that provided the most needed assistance were specifically asked to stay.

b)   The record of damage to Kilinochchi is minimal, including after the UN agencies left. As head of the Peace Secretariat, I would check each day on any allegations of abuse, and ask for explanations, and the records I have (in Colombo, but I will go over them again if you wish) indicate minimal harm to civilians. There were I think over 400 air attacks, for instance, until Kilinochchi fell, and in fewer than 30 were there even allegations of civilian deaths, and in over 20 of these the numbers were one or two. It is a pity that similar concern is not shown by the UN, or those who now criticize the UN about Sri Lanka, about civilian deaths in drone strikes and other attacks that seem to violate norms of conduct with complete impunity.

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I was privileged last week to attend a Conference at the Osmania University Centre for Indian Ocean Studies on ‘Indo-Sri Lankan Relations: Strengthening SAARC’. The Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies had nominated me, along with scholars from Colombo University and the Kotelawala Defence University, as well as an army officer with diplomatic experience, who delivered an excellent paper on Security Concerns, and dealt ably with questions that arose.

I was pleased to attend, for I have always believed that one of the keys to good relations with India is interaction with its lively academics. Last year, the then Deputy High Commissioner in Chennai, a Tamil diplomat who had very good connections with the media and the intellectual community there, arranged a series of meetings for me, during which my interlocutors indicated I was the first person to have discussed such issues in depth.

In turn I found them balanced and willing to listen, and the concerns they raised were understandable. It was more our fault than theirs that we had not engaged in disseminating information about the conflict and its aftermath, and indeed I found that responses I had prepared to the Darusman Report, which had been sent to Delhi, had not found their way down to Chennai.

I have long known, having made several presentations in the course of the last few years at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, of the keen and generally positive approach of Indian academics to Sri Lanka, but I was astonished in Hyderabad last week at the range of scholars who participated. I was fortunate to chair a session in which some young students presented very clear and scholarly papers, including two bright young ladies from JNU who spoke about the Diaspora and, with slightly different emphases, noted the disjunct between Diaspora aims and the much less aggressive objectives of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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