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.

Nearly two years back I asked for statistics about the victims of this Ordinance. This followed a presentation by IHR of what goes on at Methsevana, about which it had complained some years back to the Human Rights Commission. The Commission took some action then, and it seems that the Ministry of Social Services tried to improve things, though not entirely satisfactorily, given the number of the mentally ill, who have no adequate medical support. What was a complete failure was the effort to get the Ministry of Justice and the Judiciary to actually treat people brought before the Law under the Ordinance as human beings.

My question was postponed six times, because it seemed the Ministry of Justice was trying to find statistics. An official of the Judicial Services Commission, last year, before the appointment of what I hope will be an active new broom to sweep the place clean, told me the judiciary did not keep details of those it committed into custody in such cases. This is strange, given the statutory requirement that magistrates visit places of custody, but this was not an obligation taken seriously, except by a few dutiful individuals, who were usually promptly transferred for their pains. Thankfully, it has now been announced that magistrates have been appointed to visit prisons (and, I hope, Remand Homes), and though I would have preferred it rather being entrenched that those who commit people should also take responsibility for what happens to them, I will not complain if these specially designated magistrates at least look into the welfare of those the State has incarcerated.

My question was finally answered on the 22nd of February, but the answer I got was that statistics were not available. This means that the State in effect admits people have got lost in the system it enforces. We have long known this, but now that it has been officially granted, perhaps the State will be spurred to do something about this neglect. I have written accordingly to the Minister of Justice, but I suspect it will be a long time again before I get a response.

It is for that reason that the constant attention to such inadequacies evinced by IHR is so important, and I hope its engagement on the subject with the Human Rights Commission, which our committee assists in, will continue. Unfortunately the energy the Commission displayed soon after it was appointed, as exemplified by its visit to Welikada and the strong recommendations made at the discussion convened afterwards, seems to have faded, but I suppose we have to keep trying, and hope it will revive.

Meanwhile IHR has also drawn our attention to another grave problem, namely the plight of youngsters in Remand Homes, for whom no provision is made for a productive life after they are released. The report they sent in suggests that sometimes youngsters are absorbed by the religious organizations which run such homes, Buddhist and Hindu as well as Christian, because there is no alternative. Given that the homes to which they should be returned were dysfunctional in the first place, which is why they were taken into care, and that no remedial action was taken, it would serve no purpose to send them back there – if indeed there were still a home that could take them in.

I have written then, to the head of the National Child Protection Authority, to suggest not only preparation programmes for families, to include psychosocial support, but also vocational training to give youngsters opportunities to build their own lives. Given the energy of the NCPA now, and its concern with care, as opposed only to punitive action for abuses, I hope that productive plans will be forthcoming. The present decision of the Ministry of Education to pay greater attention even in schools to vocational and technical training bodes well for the future, and I am sure agencies such as ILO and UNICEF will also be able to contribute both to planning and to implementation. But whether the concerted efforts needed will be forthcoming remains to be seen.

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