qrcode.26572681Basil had told me that I did not need to worry about the Peace Secretariat being closed because I had another position too, that of Secretary to Mahinda Samarasinghe’s Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. That was correct, and for anyone else that would have been a full time job. But the wider dimensions of the work we did, and in particular the need to coordinate work with regard to the North, had been facilitated by my position at the Secretariat, with the authority to coordinate responses from a range of Ministries.

In theory the Ministry had a coordinating role with regard to humanitarian assistance but, during the course of that year, Basil had ensured that was eroded. The Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance, which Minister Samarasinghe had chaired, hardly met in 2009, and its role was taken over by a Task Force for the North which Basil chaired. That did not initially include any Tamils, which was typical of the command structures Basil enjoyed, though after some protests Minister Douglas Devananda was included.

Still, there was enough to do, given the situation in the Welfare Centres and the need to continue to liaise with the UN, and in particular the Special Representative for the Rights of the Displaced, Walter Kalin, who visited us three times during this period and was extremely helpful, whilst also pointing out areas in which we could do better. I also continued to work on humanitarian support, and in particular tried together with Mr Divaratne, who was the Secretary to Basil’s Task Force, to introduce some cohesion into the inputs of the various Non-Governmental Organizations keen to work in the welfare centres, and then in the areas in which the displaced were being resettled.

Most important of all, though, I felt, was finishing the plans we had been tasked with formulating with regard to Human Rights. One was the National Action Plan, which we had pledged in Geneva at the Universal Periodic Review, in May 2008, that we would get ready. This was done, despite all our work in relation to the conflict, through committees chaired by professionals of great ability, and we managed in the latter part of 2009 to bring the recommendations together and produce a draft.

As important I felt was the Bill of Rights, which the President had pledged in his 2005 manifesto, and for which a Committee had been appointed under the aegis of the Ministry of National Languages and Constitutional Affairs. When Mahinda Samarasinghe crossed over to the government early in 2006 and his Ministry was created, obviously it became the body responsible, but I found when I was appointed to be its Secretary in June 2008 that there had been no progress on the matter. Together with his Consultant, Nishan Muthukrishna, whom I had known long ago as a schoolboy, through the cultural activities I had worked on while at the British Council, we went into overdrive and persuaded the Chair – a distinguished lawyer who was however close to President Kumaratunga and had little confidence in the current President’s commitment to Rights – to produce a draft. He and his committee did in the end deliver, and I had that draft too ready by the end of 2009.

We had indeed also made a significant intervention in another area, when I pointed out in 2008 that we had no plans at all for the rehabilitation of former combatants. At that stage there was much concern about the child soldiers the LTTE had deployed, some of whom were now in government custody, without any coherent plans for their future. It was also clear however that there would soon lbe increasing numbers of young adults requiring rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation was at that stage under the Justice Ministry, which was understandably enough concerned mainly with the children, given the enormous publicity the country had got with regard to the child soldiers. We would find out in time how unfocused this publicity, and those who wallowed in it, were, when one of the young ladies Nicholas Sarkozy had elevated to ministerial office asked us whether the Sri Lankan government had stopped using child soldiers. This was not something that had ever happened, but even this outrageous sin of the LTTE was in some eyes cast on us. And we had not done enough about highlighting the abuses, as I found when looking into a massive amount of money UNICEF had given the LTTE, supposedly for rehabilitation during the period of the Cease Fire Agreement. No reports had been required by the LTTE and, though there had been a critical assessment by the UN, no remedial action had been taken.

The level of complacency became clear to me when the then head of UNICEF, an elderly American lady, saw me after I took over at the Peace Secretariat, and told me she had recently come down from Kilinochchi, where the LTTE had assured her that they would soon release everyone under 17. I expressed surprise at her credulity, since they had also promised this several years earlier, when the CFA was first signed. But I also asked her why they had said 17, when the legal position was that soldiers under 18 should not be employed.

Her answer was that they had explained they had a problem with regard to their legislation. At this point I exploded, and asked her why she referred to ‘legislation’ in connection with a terrorist organization. She was immediately apologetic, but I said I would make a formal complaint to the UN Resident Coordinator, and I did so. She then sent me a letter of apology confirming that the UN stood by the law, and indeed the UN Under Secretary for the subject, Radhika Coomaraswamy, in her next report affirmed the UN’s commitment to both national and international law. But it was clear that the UN in Sri Lanka had been immeasurably complacent in the period after the CFA had been signed, and would indeed have had no difficulties had the LTTE set up a separate state – though fortunately the UN Resident Coordinator with whom I had to work, Neil Buhne, was a man of comparative integrity, as was his UNICEF Representative, who told me frankly that he simply could not understand the lack of supervision of the project UNICEF had funded.

Given the lack of concern about former soldiers, I suggested to the Minister that we should develop an action plan, for which we were supported by ILO, the head of which was perhaps the most thoughtful and efficient of the UN leadership in the country. Unfortunately the ILO did not get as much funding as agencies concerned with emergency aid, but she managed to arrange for a consultant who was extremely helpful, and early in 2009 we had an action plan for Rehabilitation and Reintegration.

At this stage though we fell prey to Inter-Ministerial rivalries. The plan was to be unveiled just after Daya Ratnayake had been appointed Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, taking over from the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice who had doubled in the role. It transpired then that he had been invited by his Ministry to a briefing meeting, evidently designed to keep him away from us, though in fact he turned up briefly at the end. That led to the rebuke to me from the Australian High Commissioner, generally one of the most helpful envoys we had, that a military man should not have been appointed to the position. My response was that our obligation was to the former combatants and we needed efficiency, not the neglect there had been before.

Daya, and his successor when he became Chief of Staff, Sudantha Ranasinghe, did an excellent job and the rehabilitation programme was generally praised. But unfortunately our action plan, though followed to a great extent, was not adopted in full, and so responsibility for reintegration was not given to the Commissioner. When I pointed this out to Gotabhaya, he told me they were doing it, but without a clear mandate they could not make coherent plans, nor was it possible to collect funding easily for the purpose. And of course others too thought they had a role to play, ranging from Basil’s Presidential Task Force to the Security Forces Commanders on the ground. The rehabilitees then, once released to their homes, were by and large neglected, and it was just a matter of luck whether schemes were in place to build on the vocational training they had been provided or to ensure productive employment, or credit to enable them to stand on their own feet.

That plan then, though unveiled with great pomp and ceremony, did not achieve quite as much as we wanted. With regard to the other two memoranda we had prepared, they fell victim in 2009 to electoral considerations. Minister Samarasinghe took the draft of the Human Rights Plan to the President, but was told to leave it till after the election. I told him to take the Draft Bill of Rights too, but he said this was not the time to push that. My efforts to persuade him to put the two drafts on our website and invite comments proved vain, and instead it became clear that nothing further would be done until both the Presidential and Parliamentary elections were over.

One other plan I prepared during this time also bit the dust. I had been impressed by the work of the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation, whose Secretary was Dhara Wijayatilaka, the most senior of secretaries. She had trained as a lawyer but was given this very different set of responsibilities since she had some years back been removed from the position of Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, after a falling out with G L Peiris when he was Minister. She had then spent some years in subsidiary positions at the Ministry, but been sent to Plan Implementation when the Secretary position there became vacant. While there she was extremely helpful with regard to the Action Plan, having been instrumental in first introducing legislation with regard to the Rights of Women and Children.

She and I sent a memorandum to the Secretary to the President suggesting that, after the election, the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation should have an enhanced role. We noted the tendency, particularly given the proliferation of Ministries, to respond individually and often idiosyncratically to crises, without developing clear priorities and working to fulfil these with efficient coordination mechanisms.

Perhaps we were unwise to put the position so clearly, because that Ministry was abolished after the April 2010 election.

The Human Rights Ministry too was abolished. I had resigned as Secretary in February 2009 so as to be placed on the government’s National List for the forthcoming election, so I could not really comment, but was happy that the subject was to be looked after by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Our project staff were housed there, but I soon found out that they received neither guidance nor support. Nishan Muthukrishna, had not received an appointment, so there was only one person in place with professional knowledge of the subject. Fortunately she, Minari Fernando, was extremely able, and worked together on the Plan with me and Nishan (whom Mahinda Samarasinghe had appointed to head the Sugar Corporation) and also Mohan Pieris, who proved helpful though busy with all his other work.

We met in his office at the Attorney General’s Department, though often he could only start the meeting and then leave. However the Chairs of the committees we had set up for the different areas were committed, in particular Mrs Wijayatilaka and Yasantha Kodagoda, and we were able to move quite quickly. We had several consultations also with civil society, and early in 2011 we finalized the draft. This then went to Cabinet, which required some changes, but those were swiftly made and the plan was finally adopted later that year.

11 December 2014 – http://dbsjeyaraj.com/dbsj/archives/36018

  1. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy (Part 1)
  2. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy (Part 2)
  3. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy (Part 3)
  4. Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Seven Dwarfs – Sneezy (Part 4)