I plan to conclude this series on March 25th, since by then I would have written over a hundred columns on the subject. Besides, I see March 25th as a special day, because it is the birthday of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement in the seventies.

I will write about him for that date, but meanwhile I would like to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the achievements of those who have made some sort of a difference to the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I don’t think people like me who engage in advocacy, such as through this column, have achieved very much. When they do so, it is by engaging the attention of those who have responsibilities for executive action and who take their responsibilities seriously.

That responsibility does not necessarily have to lie with government. There are several agencies that have formal responsibilities that can also take initiatives. Chief amongst them in Sri Lanka is the Human Rights Commission, which has certainly shown itself willing, but which at present does not have enough capacity to push through the reforms it understands are needed. Unfortunately it is not moving swiftly enough on proposing the reforms to its own powers and structures, as envisaged by the National Human Rights Action Plan, which the Cabinet has approved.

This is disappointing, because it is clear that, when individuals take initiatives, they can ensure satisfactory results. In this regard I cannot stress enough the achievements recently of the police, largely because of the dedication and commitment of the current Inspector General of Police. Not only has he transformed the system of community policing, but he has moved swiftly on training programmes, with agencies such as the ICRC, which has done much quietly and without much publicity in this regard in the last few years. This is in accordance with its mandate which is to work together with national governments, while promoting conformity to the highest standards with regard to human rights.

Sadly, though the mandate of the UN is similar, it has not been so successful, largely because some elements in it see their role as confrontational. The stage was set for this by the first Representative of the High Commissioner to be posted to Sri Lanka, who I see as destructive in the same way that the previous IGP was, both of them having other priorities.

The second representative was better, but she was soon withdrawn. The third we managed to work with but I sometimes got the impression that her heart was not in cooperation with government. However it is possible that, when the Human Rights Ministry was abolished, she had no counterparts with whom she could work effectively. Certainly the failure to follow up on the very successful Trainer Training programme we had conducted in 2009 lay as much with the IGP who told me he did not want to do anything till after the elections.

The rest was history, but fortunately his successor also began to rebuild the old team that had worked so well with us when the Ministry took on the task of assisting with police reform. It was that team that told me firmly, when I talked about the need for training in Human Rights, that they also needed professional training, because it is policemen who are good at investigating and interrogating and prosecuting who do not resort to other measures.

As the recent horrors in Los Angeles showed, our police are not alone in violating norms, and that is why we need to emphasize training and professionalism, as the army did. That is how it transformed itself from an amateur and indisciplined force in the eighties to the highly competent and responsible body it now is.

I can only hope then that, though the current ICRC Representative, who has achieved so much, is leaving, his successor will continue to work on the lines he has established. But I also hope she will, now that foundations have been laid, help us with developing our own training institutions. Though training of police trainers is vital, it is also important to have outside agencies able to step in and offer alternative mechanisms and perspectives.

In this regard I hope very much that the Colombo University Centre for Human Rights is strengthened. I found them admirable when I needed training in a Rights based approach for local officials working on the Confidence Building and Stabilisation Measures project that the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights implemented during the last years of the conflict. We had an excellent imaginative coordinator for that, and indeed some of the programmes she implemented provided the most prominent publicity material when assistance was sought for the Welfare Centres established to look after the displaced.

Unfortunately, given the centripetal tendencies of our administrators, and the decision by UNHCR to streamline its operations and abandon any that provided value addition, CBSM folded up. Some of its innovative proposals, for home gardens and agricultural training, are only being taken up now, though I am glad that the forces are involved in this since they will achieve their objectives efficiently, and make use I hope of institutions such as the Gandhi Centre that have long experience in empowering local communities.

But it would be useful if in all this both administrators and recipients of support and training were imbued with a Rights based perspective, sympathetic to the needs and aspirations of others. I hope then that both the ICRC and the UN will think of developing a comprehensive project with the Colombo University Centre, to provide training programmes for the Divisional Secretaries and their officials who will need to oversee the various programmes envisaged for community development. And this should encompass also communities in the North Central and North Western Provinces, in addition to the North and East, since they too require such support and strengthening.

Daily News  15 March 2013http://www.dailynews.lk/2013/03/15/fea04.asp

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