I was pleased, if astonished, to see a complimentary reference to my writings in a newspaper. I was reaching the conclusion that no one read any more, or bothered about Human Rights issues except to make political points, so this was heartening. Admittedly a positive reference by one of the editors who publishes my writings is not evidence that they might make a difference, but it may help.
The reference was the more welcome, because this week there is yet another reminder that, as Anne Ranasinghe put it, ‘nothing remains but to mourn’. Nearly two years ago I asked a question in Parliament about women who suffer because of the Vagrants’ Act, and it has not as yet been answered, even though it has been placed on the order paper over half a dozen times. Each time the Minister asks for more time.
A few months ago I was heartened, because I was told there was a flurry of activity in the Ministry of Justice, since they had been told they must supply the answer. But that came to nothing, and on that occasion too the matter was put off. Subsequently I met an official of the Judicial Services Commission, who informed me that the Judiciary did not keep statistics of the people it sentenced. He seemed to think that this was not their business.
The young man was a lawyer, but it did not strike him that this was an outrageous position to adopt. When people are sentenced, or even remanded, the State takes responsibility for them. That is why members of the Judiciary are expected to visit Prisons and Remand Homes. A few do this, but the vast majority do not bother, and I have been told that one particularly conscientious magistrate was transferred when visits proved embarrassing.
I had asked the question in Parliament following a visit to Methsevana by members of the informal group my office had set up to look at Human Rights issues. This was even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan (another task in which I fear, as the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe put it, that ‘I have taken on many tasks and failed in all of them’). The group found many women who had been completely forgotten, with neither them nor anyone else having any idea about where they came from or who their next of kin was. Several – over 70 if I remember aright – were mentally unstable, but professional support was grossly inadequate. Drugs were administered by someone without even Ordinary Level qualifications.
The group that visited have now got a commitment from the National Institute of Mental Health, a thoughtful body that deserves much more support, to visit Methsevana daily, but the plan has not been implemented as yet since arrangements have to be made for transport. Donor assistance is being sought, but I cannot understand why the State cannot provide transport on a daily basis.
Meanwhile my question has remained unanswered, and there have been no signs of remedial action with regard to the point I was making in asking the question. Unfortunately the purpose of Parliamentary questions, which is to draw attention to problems which must be addressed, has long been forgotten. They are seen mainly as sources of potential embarrassment, which is why nearly 90% of all questions asked are by opposition members.
Indeed, I was the first MP on the government side to ask a question – and to propose an Adjournment Motion – in the present Parliament. When my question appeared on the Order Paper, one of my colleagues suggested that this was embarrassing to the Government. I have been vindicated however by the President urging us at Group Meetings to ask questions. Unfortunately, I have practically given up now, since answers are so rare, in spite of the President drawing attention to this deficiency when he addresses us. We did try to introduce some provisions in Standing Orders to remedy this. Unfortunately the Committee to amend Standing Orders has not met for well over two years – though that, I trust, will soon be remedied.
I should note that, in October last year, there was some movement in that it was announced that the Judicial Services Commission had instructed Judicial Officers to fulfil their responsibilities with regard to visits to places of detention. I wrote promptly to the Secretary to express my appreciation of this, hoping that the instructions applied to Remand Homes as well as Prisons, and that activities wold be monitored. Indeed I had been told shortly before that by the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission that, when he had responsibility for such things, he had measured such visits for deciding on promotions, but the practice seemed to have since fallen into abeyance.
I did ask the Secretary to share the instructions he had sent out, but I did not get a response. That was perhaps understandable at the time, but I was sorry he had not responded also to a letter sent a month earlier, in which I had expressed appreciation of the fact that, having considered a letter we had sent them, the JSC decided to inform us that measures had already been taken by them ‘to inform Magistrates regarding the detention of women and children’. I had suggested then that preparation and publication of such guidelines be extended to all types of cases.
Unfortunately, in the climate of secrecy we live in, publication of guidelines is unlikely. But ensuring that the public know the guidelines might help us to avoid absurdities such as occurred recently in the case of a young child.