A wave of problems with regard to Human Rights has swept the country recently, most tragically the events at Welikada. The resolution to impeach the Chief Justice has made it clear our constitution has deficiencies with regard to ensuring the independence of the judiciary while also promoting accountability and transparency with regard to judicial decisions. Then we have had the internal UN report on the conduct of the UN in Sri Lanka during the war, and a spate of recommendations in Geneva that we thought had to be rejected.
Those who have read this column will realize that I have discussed these problems, and the dangers they present, and have also suggested remedies. I pointed this out to the President, but was duly crushed by his rejoinder, that since I functioned in English, necessarily I had little impact.
One of the pleasures of talking with him is that he listens, even when there is disagreement (though occasionally, when one argues too much, there is the firm injunction not to try to persuade him), and his rejoinders make a lot of sense. This is a characteristic he shares with the Secretary of Defence, who is even more definite about what cannot be done, but extraordinarily positive about most matters – as I found in my first formal dealings with him when I headed the Peace Secretariat, and he straight away allowed the A 9 northward from Omanthai to be open almost every day of the week, when the LTTE had previously not allowed the ICRC to facilitate this.
The President’s advice about the need for me to function more actively in Sinhala, and especially in Parliament, clearly makes sense. Given that my analyses are written in English, I cannot really expect them to have much impact on most decision makers. I am grateful therefore to those who do respond, to the letters I write in English after meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings. Health and Defence are always prompt, I should note, which confirms my view that institutions that observe the proprieties are also the most efficient. But recently I have been delighted to receive positive replies from the Ministry of Agriculture (though sadly not Irrigation, despite the many problems in that field drawn to my attention), and even the Ministry of Education has been helpful.
But by and large I am aware that most decision makers do not function in English, and there is certainly no need for them to do so, since their obligations are to the country at large. Nevertheless, while I cannot expect the President to know how strenuously I have argued for implementation of his ideas with regard to prison reform and better provision of educational services, I don’t think those who make decisions with regard to External Affairs can claim that English is an alien tongue. And the same goes for decision makers with regard to justice. In that respect, I have repeatedly over the last few months pointed out the need for developing better processes, to ensure conformity with the law and uniformity – with an emphasis on rehabilitation rather than retribution – with regard to sentencing.
Incidentally, I have also pointed out, which is most relevant given the controversy over the 13th amendment that is developing, that our lawmakers must develop protocols to ensure that National Policy is monitored, and that the Central Government, which is responsible for such Policy, has mechanisms to ensure its application. If that is done systematically, it will be much easier to promote implementation by Provincial and local bodies, without the overlap and interference that now adversely affects relations between the various levels of government.
Some of those I speak to, such as the current Attorney General, and the able representative of his Department who attended the meeting arranged by the energetic new Secretary of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, understand such conceptualization, others look blank. But unless we develop a culture in which concepts are discussed, and the best practices to enforce principles developed through discussion, we will simply lurch from one disaster to another.
For this purpose it is essential to ensure better knowledge of English. Principles with regard to Human Rights, and modern methods of implementing political theories, are developed most often in English. Unless those who make policy in this country understand what is going on elsewhere, they will not be able to move quickly into the modern world. Just as English is no longer a luxury, to be enjoyed only by the privileged, but a necessity that our educational system must provide more effectively to all, so too it is now essential for advancement, and indeed for survival, given what Sri Lanka now faces, in a globalized world.
I realized how important this was when yet again, at the Seminar on Indo-Sri Lankan Relations I attended in Hyderabad, an Indian journalist talked about the damage that had been done because we had claimed there had been no civilian casualties during the war. He was extremely sympathetic to Sri Lanka and nearly bit the head off an academic who referred loosely to mass slaughter of civilians (which Colonel Hariharan also characterized as erroneous). But he rejected my explanation, that what was meant by the now derided claim was that there had been no targeting of civilians. We should have been precise from the start, instead of which, once the false claim seemed to have been made, the usual gang of sycophants attacked anyone who said anything more sensible, as I found after my initial interview with the Guardian in June 2009, when I referred to civilian deaths of between 5000 and 7000, while noting that this did not mean culpability.
Even now, it is not too late to publish a detailed account of what did happen, to refute the more extravagant claims. But because of the difficulties of being precise in English about complex matters, I suspect this will never be done.