Prepared for the debate on the Votes on the Ministries of Justice and of
Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms
During the Committee Stage of the Budget Debate, November 21st 2014
(Not delivered because of the common candidate press conference)
I rise to speak on the votes today of two important Ministries. My main concern will be rehabilitation, where I think the Ministry can be proud of its work in having rehabilitated around 12,000 former combatants after the conclusion of the conflict with the LTTE in 2009.
This is of special concern to me, Mr Speaker, because as Head of the Peace Secretariat I was deeply worried about plans for rehabilitation. Nothing was being done about this, in part because the subject was then the preserve of the Ministry of Justice, which was more concerned then with what might be termed judicial issues. This was understandable, since there was much concern then about child soldiers, given the brutality of the LTTE in its system of forced recruitment.
In this regard, Mr Speaker, I must pay tribute to the Norwegian ambassador in place when I was first asked to work in this field, Mr Hans Brattskar. He was categorical in his response to the LTTE when it tried to remove the subject of child soldiers from the agenda of its discussions with government in June 2006. He made it clear that the Sri Lankan side had every reason to raise the issue, and perhaps it was that which led to the LTTE dodging those talks.
Later it was Mr Brattskar who first formally told the Sri Lankan government that the LTTE was engaging in forced recruitment of two persons in each family, by the time of his last visit to Kilinochchi. This was in marked contrast with the silence of the other internationals working in the area, who were complaisant in the wicked practices of the LTTE. Indeed when I upbraided the then Head of Save the Children, about his only worrying when the families of his staff were affected, he asked whether I objected to his trying to save them. Not at all, I said, what made me furious was his failure to have spoken out when other children were being abused.
All this was of a piece with what seemed unprincipled connivance, though I believe one should not attribute to viciousness what springs often from moral laziness and incompetence. Thus the head of UNICEF did nothing to check on the abuse of the 1 million dollars given to the LTTE for rehabilitation, and even seemed to acquiesce in recruitment of 17 year olds on the grounds that the LTTE had not amended its legislation in that regard – a shocking tolerance of the pretensions of terrorists.
It is incidents such as that, Mr Speaker, that have contributed to the deep distrust displayed by government towards the international community, and this must be understood even as we urge a more positive attitude, which will take advantage of the many with decent and positive values. We must set in place systems that will limit abuses, but there is no justification for blanket prohibitions. And of course we must also do more to make it clear that we can work effectively with aid agencies, guiding them to fulfil our national priorities whilst working in accordance with their fundamental principles and policies.
In this regard, Mr Speaker, I am glad that the Ministry of which I was Secretary in 2009 managed to get UN support for a consultancy on Rehabiliation and Reintegration. We worked with the ILO, headed then by one of the most intelligent and positive UN officials in Sri Lanka, Tina Staermose, and an excellent report was produced. However, given the different departments responsible, we could not get the report formally adopted.
Despite this the current army commander, when appointed Commissioner General of Rehabilitation in August 2009, did a fantastic job and, though unable formally to work in terms of the document we had produced, used it whilst also bringing to bear his own expertise. His successors also did very well, and I was happy to contribute to training programmes in entrepreneurship for some of the youngsters through my decentralized budget. I must pay tribute here to Mr Sarath Buddhadasa, who ran excellent programmes. Recently these received international recognition at a meeting in Japan organized by its Human Resources and Industry Development Association, and he was presented with an award by Prof Abe, the wife of the Japanese Prime Minister. Needless to say, he was asked why the initiative had not received more publicity, but given the terror of our Ministry of External Affairs in highlighting anything positive achieved by other Sri Lankans, there is no chance of this happening.
Despite all this excellent work, with the dedicated involvement of the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, there are however problems, since there is no agency responsible for Reintegration. When I complained about this, the Secretary of Defence told me they were doing the job, but in the absence of a specific mandate, they could not do the work effectively and comprehensively. I did suggest handing over the responsibility to another competent agency within the Ministry, namely the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority, headed by a sympathetic and efficient chairman, Mr Samarasinghe. But that was not done, and there is no agency with responsibility for promoting livelihoods for the rehabilitated, and monitoring their progress. Leaving this to the forces, and to intelligence agencies, is counter-productive, for such a policy is based on suspicion rather than the inclusivity that a civilian agency, even if staffed by military personnel of competence, could display.
The crux of the blueprint we developed way back in 2009 was closure, and I fear rehabilitation alone will not suffice, so I continue to hope that government will think more carefully about the issue and provide the necessary structures and funding for reintegration too.
The same principle, Mr Speaker, should operate in our justice system, where reform should be the aim. Unfortunately we still suffer from stress on retribution, which I fear often contributes to increased criminal activity. Some years back, in the budget speech, His Excellency the President mentioned his desire for greater recourse to rehabilitation, but this was not followed up effectively. Certainly there has been some change, but there is need of concerted effort, and this has not been forthcoming.
Some years back I wrote to the then Chief Justice about the need for more guidance to magistrates, to avoid unthinking remand and instead use community services more, particularly with regard to first time offenders in minor cases. I received a dusty reply, and though the Secretary to the Judicial Services Commission appointed later was more sympathetic, the institutional changes needed have been slow in coming. These and other matters concerning the training of judges have been brought up often in the Consultative Committee on Justice, but despite good will on the part of the Minister and the Secretary, progress is limited.
With regard to structure, Mr Speaker, it is unfortunate that both the Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draughtsman’s Department have been moved out of the purview of the Ministry. Now there is insufficient accountability, and no way to ensure that swift action is taken when needed. Back in 2010, His Excellency the President was ill advised with regard to several institutions, abolishing the Ministries of Human Rights and Policy Planning and Implementation, which perhaps reflected what he himself has remarked on, the tendency of those around him to grasp everything to themselves. The emasculation of the Ministry of Justice also perhaps occurred for this reason, and I hope that the pledges of reform that are so common in the current context will in fact be fulfilled, and with regard to these matters too. Freedom and Democracy require a plurality of centres of authority, and we must hope that this has now been recognized, and the absurdities this Constitution has permitted will soon be a thing of the past.