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While I continue to believe improving consultation as well as efficiency at local level should be the most important priority for government, I will interrupt the discussion of appropriate mechanisms for this briefly, to look at a very interesting initiative that was publicized recently. This was the launch of a website called http://www.manthri.lk which grades Members of Parliament with regard to their performance in Parliament. This is an interesting effort which could be very useful to the country, but I felt that there had been a lack of intellectual rigour in preparing the website, and it could thus seem to be designed simply to promote particular politicians.

Prominence was given to Members of the Opposition, which is understandable since the system is based only on Hansard. Obviously there are more opportunities for Members of the Opposition to speak. The exception that proves the rule is that the only government Member within the first five was Dinesh Gunewardena. While he fulfills his functions admirably, the reason he is ranked so highly is that he spends much time on his feet only because other Ministers are not present to answer questions.

If rankings are to be made, then it would make sense to have three distinct categories,

a) Opposition members who have far more time allocated to them proportionately, given their paucity, than those on the Government side

b) Ministers who have to answer questions and obviously get more time in debates than backbenchers

c) Government backbenchers. I hasten to add, since on the common system of argument used in Sri Lanka, it will be assumed I am critical of the method because I come out badly, that in fact I am in the first half of all, and comparatively high amongst my peers. But this surprises me because, having been the first MP on the government side to ask a question and to move an Adjournment Motion in this Parliament, I rarely do this now because answers took so long to come and were not precise – while hardly anyone ever waits in Parliament for the Adjournment motions that take place after regular Parliamentary business.

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I was pleased to find last week a Divisional Secretary who had already put in place consultative mechanisms at village level. I have been suggesting these at other Secretariats, where I found an absence of systems to ensure attention to what people needed. Though some Secretaries seemed to take the ideas on board, I fear they will not be entrenched – and therefore will not be productive – unless clear instructions are issued by the Ministry.

The innovative Secretary was at Dehiattakandiya, where perhaps the difficulties he faces had led to action on the principle of necessity being the mother of invention. He has only 5 Grama Niladharis, for 13 Divisions, which in fact span 46 villages and nearly 60,000 people.

This is preposterous, and I could not understand why action had not been taken earlier to fill up the vacancies. I am assured now that an examination has been held and interviews will be conducted this month and the vacancies filled, but I was bemused that initiating the process had taken so long. However there was a good explanation, in that I gathered there had been a proposal to appoint Samurdhi officials to the post.

That would have been a mistake, since the basis on which those officials had been appointed initially was dubious, and the position of Grama Niladhari requires a certain stature. This is not always present, but I have been pleasantly surprised by the commitment of many of the GNs I have come across, in meetings now at 75 Divisional Secretariats. Were they given clear job descriptions, with a requirement of reporting in writing, I have no doubt that most of them would give excellent service to the people, and also function as the sort of early warning mechanism this country needs to avoid problems such as led to the tragedy at Weliveriya.

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Parliament excelled itself last week when it cancelled three Consultative Committees (of those I had planned to attend – there were others too that were cancelled). The third of these, which I think a vital Ministry though not many others share my views, that of National Languages and Social Integration, was cancelled on the morning of the scheduled day, apparently because the Minister had to go to a funeral outside Colombo.

This did not seem to me proper because, much as Ministers feel obliged to attend funerals, they really should not subject other Members of Parliament to their own convenience. Either they should attend the event at another time, or else they should instruct their Deputies or their Secretaries to go ahead with the meeting. This seems the more urgent, because in any case Committees meet rarely, the plethora of Ministers we have (raised to 69 last week when the Police were entrusted to a newly created Ministry of Law and Order) making it impossible to respect the Standing Order enjoining meetings once a month.

If my proposed Amendments to Standing Orders are accepted and implemented, this problem will be solved, but I gather that, the Speaker being away, the motion was not taken up at the Parliamentary Business Committee. Since Parliament is going to meet on only two days in September, it looks like I will now have to wait a month and more, though I have pleaded with both the Speaker and the Leader of the House to take the matter up in early September. Since statutorily the matter is not debated but simply referred to the Committee on Standing Orders, this will take up hardly any time, so I hope Party Leaders will agree to this.

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In the last column in this series, I will look at the Civil Rights Movement, which was founded in 1971. In discussing its contribution to Rights, and the manner in which Rights can be most productively promoted, I will also talk about one of its founding members, Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, whose 86th birthday it would have been today.

Like his father, Cyril Wickremesinghe, who was the first Ceylonese Government Agent, he was a radical in his commitment to social equity. At least, I like to think this was his father’s essential approach, though he was also a pillar of the establishment, a great friend of D S Senanayake and D R Wijewardene, whose eldest daughter married his eldest son. But, like DS, much of his working life was spent providing better opportunities to the peasantry, through the opening up of agricultural lands in the North Central Province.

Lakshman, as Bishop of Kurunegala, worked in what was seen as the rural diocese of the Church of Ceylon, and followed in the footsteps of another great visionary, Bishop Lakdasa de Mel. Both of them, unlike some of their elite brethren in Colombo, worked closely with the Buddhist clergy.

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Earlier this month the Liberal Party sent some suggestions for reform to the Parliamentary Select Committee meant to recommend solutions to current national problems. They are based on a vital principle that should be followed in all discussions, namely that we should try to assuage the fears of others rather than seek to assert one’s own desires. Through sensitivity to the concerns of others, one can often also ensure sensitivity to one’s own concerns.

Our suggestions reaffirm the primary obligation of the State to fulfil the objectives detailed in Chapter VI of the current Constitution. Safeguarding the independence, sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity of Sri Lanka are vital and all those wishing to broadbase the decision making process should recognize that these principles should be paramount. But equally those concerned with national integrity must also appreciate the importance of decentralizing the administration and affording all possible opportunities to the People to participate at every level in national life and in government. National unity should be strengthened by promoting co-operation and mutual confidence, while discrimination and prejudice should be eliminated.

To avoid concentration of power, the doctrine of Separation of Powers should be followed. The different layers of government should be sensitive to the needs of other layers and the People they represent, and this needs to be encouraged by structures that enhance accountability. Some suggestions below need to be entrenched in the Constitution. Others are more appropriately fulfilled through legislation, but the Constitution should direct that such legislation be put in place. I should reiterate here the importance of the first suggestion, since it is little recognized that we have the only Executive Presidential system in the world in which the Executive President is tied down to a Cabinet that is hamstrung by its Parliamentary responsibilities – which means electoral concerns in the main.

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I was deeply touched last week, at the Reconciliation Committee meeting in Manthai East, when Father James Pathinather expressed appreciation of a position I had put forward, and said that it had required courage. I also felt very humble, for nothing I had done could come close to the courage he himself had displayed, in April 2009, when he tried to protect LTTE combatants who had sought shelter in the Valayanamadam Church.

He had been attacked for his pains by the Tigers. After he was gravely injured, and evacuated from the War Zone in one of the regular rescue missions we facilitated for the ICRC, the LTTE drove off those who had sought to escape from them by taking shelter in the Church. Many of those forced again into combat are doubtless among the few thousands who then disappeared.

The courage of those like Father James, who sought to stand up to the LTTE when it was at its most ruthless, should be celebrated by the Sri Lankan State. But we have completely ignored these heroes, who had an even tougher time than our soldiers who had to fight virtually with one hand tied behind their backs, given the use the LTTE was making of the human shields it had dragooned into Mullivaikkal. Those soldiers had at least the comfort of comradeship, whereas those who stood up against the LTTE inside the No-Fire Zone were isolated, and subject to enormous pressures as well as brutality of the sort Father James experienced.

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The recent incidents at Weliveriya raise a number of questions which should not be confused. Most important is the fact that three civilians died at the hands of the army. As the new Army Commander has indicated, this is not acceptable. Measures must be taken for a full and credible inquiry, with appropriate penalties as well as the institutionalization of safeguards to prevent repetition.

But it is also important to look at the way in which a simple problem escalated out of control. The preliminary inquiry of the Human Rights Commission has indicated that there was no coordination amongst the various agencies responsible, both for the technical questions as well as the representational ones.

Several weeks ago I wrote to the President about this situation, and suggested some remedial measures. What I said then is worth quoting – ‘At present there is little possibility of particular shortcomings with regard to basic services receiving the full attention of authorities at a higher level, whether the Province or the Centre. This amendment will focus the attention of local bodies on important services, and allow them leeway to take corrective action if none is forthcoming from other authorities. As Your Excellency has noted, this is vital with regard to transport, but it should also extend to educational and vocational training services, and to basic health facilities.’

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Amongst the agencies that I have worked with over the last year to encourage movement on the National Human Rights Action Plan, the most important from outside the government sector has been the Institute of Human Rights. They have been the most regular in attendance of the groups that come together in the informal consultative mechanism I set up together with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee responsible for implementation of the Plan. Ironically, given the absence of a Ministry with direct responsibility for Human Rights, sometimes I feel the informal committee we have does more work.

The Institute of Human Rights has done yeoman service in ensuring attention to those victims of human rights violations who fall through the net. The unfortunate obsession with War Crimes spun out by those determined to attack the Sri Lankan State sometimes takes away from the real issues we face. These relate not so much to the victims, direct and indirect of terrorism, which we have now overcome (unless the motives of the less innocent of the War Crimes brigade triumph), but to the naturally vulnerable, who are not of concern to the vast majority of their fellow human beings.

The most appalling example of these are the Women and Children swallowed up through the punitive system we inherited from the British for those considered socially inferior. The British have long moved on from the Victorian systems of incarceration Dickens so graphically condemned, but we still have a Vagrants Ordinance, and government claims that it will be amended have fallen prey to the lethargy of officials with regard to anything they are not compelled or personally motivated to pursue actively. Worse, they seem unashamed of the callousness with which it is implemented.

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By Rasika Jayakody

 

Professor Rajiva Wijesinha, who is a national list Parliamentarian of the ruling party, is a strong opinion-maker in the government where reconciliation is concerned. In an interview with The Sunday Leader, he strongly backed the government’s move to appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, following the South African model. He termed that such an effort can be construed as part of implementing LLRC recommendations.

Speaking of the relation between the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission the Parliamentarian says, “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission is suggestive of a broader mechanism of this nature and this is in line with implementing LLRC recommendations. LLRC presented an excellent report and the commission perfectly fulfilled the task it was entrusted with. The TRC focuses more on problems concerning the people on the ground and give them solutions. That is one of the most important aspects of reconciliation. One should understand the fact that the LLRC, the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission have their own ambits. And they don’t clash with each other”.

He also commends the President’s approach to the matter saying he reflects pluralism and the traditional SLFPers are pluralist to the core. “But the problem is their voice is subdued and as a result, extremists are ruling the roost,” Wijesinha says.

On Sri Lanka’s journey towards reconciliation, the Parliamentarian says, Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. “Given its urgency, I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them.”

 

Following are excerpts of the interview:

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Rajiva Wijesinha

January 2014
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