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First published Daily News 28 Dec 2012

I reproduced last week some of the recommendations I had submitted to the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the National Human Rights Action Plan. Here are the other areas to which I drew attention, though I should note that there is much more in the plan which requires concerted and effective action. I look here only at some areas that concerned me, of which the first seems to me extremely important.

  • Legislation to strengthen Rights

The Action Plan requires the Ministry of Justice to review within one month the Report of the Committee that drafted a Bill of Rights. We found that initially the Ministry did not have a copy of the draft, which reinforces the idea that a Ministry to ensure basic administration with regard to the NHRAP is essential. The Action Plan envisages that a Minister will be assigned the subject of Human Rights, but that has not happened, and it is unfair to expect a Minister to act as a Special Envoy when he has no mandate to ensure fulfillment of any commitments he might enter into.

We have heard nothing for some months with regard to progress regarding the Bill of Rights, and clearly no one takes the timeframe in the NHRAP seriously. We also seem, in this instance as in many others, to be ignoring the requirement that we have agreed to in general, to consult Civil Society about such measures. Though obviously government must decide on what is appropriate, it cannot do nothing and expect acquiescence in inaction.

A particular problem is our commitment to ensure the Right to Information. The responsibility for that, as for ensuring Freedom of Expression, lies with the Ministry of Justice according to the Plan, but the Ministry has pointed out that responsibility with regard to the Right to Information lies with the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, and that responsibility with regard to Freedom on Information lies with the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs, in consultation with the Ministry of Defence. However, given that the Ministry of Justice has appointed a Committee to look into the draft Bill of Rights, it would be appropriate to at least report on the views of those Ministries with regard to the Bill.

At the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee, it was noted that a Freedom of Information Act was not necessary, though it is not clear whether this is the view of the Ministry of Mass Media and Information or the Ministry of Justice. While that is a tenable position, it should be accompanied with details of an alternative mechanism to ensure the Right to Information as pledged.

Recommendations

The Inter-Ministerial Committee should, through its Chair, participate in the deliberations of the Committee looking into the draft Bill of Rights and expedite action. Since responsibilities must clearly be shared in some areas, the Chair could report accordingly to Cabinet, and either have the allocation of responsibilities altered or else obtain a mandate to coordinate discussion and action in areas of concern.

The IMC should also engage more actively in discussions with Civil Society and seek inputs into proposed legislative changes.

  • Women affected by conflict

Though much work has been done in this area, recent incidents suggest that more concerted action is needed. The LLRC recommended an Inter-Agency Task Force to address in a comprehensive manner the needs of women and others affected by conflict, but the Action Plan thought it would suffice to implement activities identified in the NHRAP to achieve this objective.

That would have sufficed had implementation of the NHRAP proceeded apace, but this has not happened because of the multiplicity of agencies that are responsible for different areas of action, with none having sufficient personnel to ensure interventions as needed. Thus though the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs has done its best, it lacks resources to formulate a policy on war widows, especially given the difficulties of accessing precise information.

There is also grave need of psycho-social support, but no agency has been working in this field at the required levels.

Recommendations

An Inter-Agency Task Force should be set up, headed by the Women’s Ministry but with representation of the Ministries of Defence and Health and Economic Development and Skills Development.

The Ministry of Health should formulate a policy with regard to enhancing the psycho-social support available, and ensure swift implementation with mechanisms, in collaboration with Divisional Secretariat Women and Children’s Units to track those in need

  • Equity in Education

Though the Ministry of Education has been working for several years now on reforms, with a view to enhancing equity, it seems to have taken no notice whatsoever of the suggestions in the NHRAP which has been approved by Cabinet. Thus, whereas the NHRAP talks of a least two secondary schools in every Division with full facilities, the Ministry proposals refer to one such school in every three Divisions (though I hope that I have this wrong and what is meant is three such schools in every Division).

Then, where the NHRAP talks of identifying alternative forms of teacher training and curriculum development, the Ministry proposals are firmly stuck in a mindset whereby the Ministry monopoly of these elements continues.

Recommendation

The Ministry should be asked to explain its approach to the activities identified in the NHRAP and explore alternative methods of service delivery.

  • Multiculturalism

We have had no feedback with regard to the promotion of multi-culturalism, and in particular the establishment of a multi-sectoral task force and the development of a strategy which involves coordination of several ministries. Meanwhile, in addition to the confusion caused by the division to two Ministries of responsibility for Cultural Affairs, there are reports of an erosion of cultural pluralism, with exhibits for instance being withdrawn from museums.

Recommendation

The IMC should ensure the participation of all Ministries concerned with cultural activities in discussion on the NHRAP [National Human Rights Action Plan – English, Sinhala, Tamil].

Daily News 28 Dec 2012http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/12/28/fea04.asp

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