Much of this series has been about my personal travels, and the slow but steady dissolution of the world I had known. To dwell only on these would however give a misleading impression of what occupied me most during the years from 2012, when I began to realize that my efforts to promote reform were getting nowhere. But that realization took time to crystallize and, in the period when I continued in Parliament on the government side, I tried hard to effect some changes.
It was something I felt that the National Human Rights Action Plan, which we had begun drafting when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, was finally adopted by Cabinet. There was no Ministry of Human Rights following the 2010 election, and it became clear that the Ministry of External Affairs, to which in theory the subject had been entrusted, was neither competent nor concerned. Minari Fernando, the Consultant we had taken on to draft the plan, found it impossible to work from there, but fortunately Mohan Pieris, as Attorney General, took on responsibility, though he was too busy to attend meetings and I had to do most of the work. But he allowed the more able members of the Department such as Yasantha Kodagoda to contribute, and with yeoman service from Dhara Wijayathilaka and Hiranthi Wijemanne, who had been deeply involved in improving the lot of women and children for many years now, we got a good draft together.
After it was adopted, Mahinda Samarasinghe, who had been made the President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights when the failure of the Foreign Ministry became obvious, was appointed to chair an Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the Plan. That did not I think ever meet, but he appointed a Task Force to expedite implementation, and asked me to help. By then I had realized how insincere Mohan Pieris was, so I told Mahinda I would do this only if I chaired the Task Force. Mohan was clearly upset, and said at the meeting at which Mahinda asked me to take over that I could be a bloody nuisance, but he made no further objection, and for a few months we were able to work towards consensus on many issues.
But before long it became clear that, to expedite action, we needed a dedicated Ministry as we had had before. Though Secretaries to Ministries seemed most cooperative, in particular the Secretaries to the Ministries of Land and of Women and Children’s Affairs, the representatives they sent to meetings could not ensure follow up. In some cases there was vast confusion about who was responsible, given the proliferation of Ministries, and the plethora of Departments within Ministries. We also had to cope with a very conservative Ministry of Justice, which seemed determined for instance not to repeal the horrendous Vagrants’ Ordinance, on the grounds that that was the only way to control prostitution. The fact that it was used to remand women at will, with no provision for checking on their fate, while prostitution flourished in various forms, was ignored.
The then Chief Justice also clearly had no interest in expediting justice. Efforts to get her to introduce Rules and enforce guidelines about magistrates checking on prisons and remand homes proved fruitless. Ironically, given that I was one of the few on the government side to refuse to vote to impeach her, I was the only one who had been critical of her previously on matters of principle, instead of the personal resentment that motivated Basil Rajapaksa when she ruled that his Divineguma Bill needed amendment.
The Human Rights Commission also proved a broken reed. Though Justice Priyantha Perera seemed concerned about Human Rights, he was quite incapable of ensuring action. Jeevan Thiagarajah and I persuaded him to visit the prisons, but he did nothing after that about the ghastly conditions we found, and the unnecessary numbers remanded because the police and magistrates were not encouraged to use alternative instruments.
When, after in theory agreement had been reached on several reforms but nothing happened, I told Mahinda that he should insist on there being a Ministry. If the President was not willing to make him Minister, but wanted to keep the subject under his aegis, he should suggest that he be made Deputy Minister. Mahinda was a bit upset at this suggestion, but I said he would of course continue in the Cabinet as Minister of Plantation Industries, which was the portfolio he had. But for Human Rights to be advanced, he needed authority to act and ensure that his colleagues took the steps that were necessary to ensure the Plan was implemented.
When it became clear that he would not move, I resigned, and indicated the reasons to the President, stressing the need for a Ministry. But of course there was no reply. At intervals over the next year Mahinda told me how disillusioned he was, and that he might resign, but nothing of the sort happened.
Efforts to initiate action in other respects also came to naught. I was particular concerned about the issue of Missing Persons, for I could see how, with no clear policy guidelines about this, those who had suffered loss continued in anguish. There were models of what could be done, as in the excellent service the Vavuniya Government Agent, Mrs Charles, had set up to seek for missing children. But she was soon enough transferred to Batticaloa.
I had managed to stop this when it was mooted just after the war ended, and at that stage the President did not permit it, though whether it was my argument that that would send the wrong message that prevailed is a moot point. But I was certainly the only person in the room who raised objections. Sadly, two years later, she was replaced by a Sinhalese, an able and decent man, but he had little understanding of what the people of the area had been through during the conflict period.
I have noted elsewhere my failure to persuade government to work together with the ICRC, when its deeply committed head Yves Giovannoni was anxious to act. I also tried to initiate a project with the Oxford Research Group, which had got in touch with me after they noticed the stress on accurate recording of casualties in the draft National Reconciliation Policy.
The ORG prepared a letter which I sent to the Ministry of Health as well as the Department of Census and Statistics, but these were ignored. I had tried earlier to get the Deparment to publish its record of alleged disappearances, since it seemed ample evidence that it was largely those of combat age who were missing. As I wrote to the Army Commander, urging study of the facts, ‘the vast majority of alleged disappearances are of those of an age in which they would have been forced by the LTTE into combat. There are very few children amongst them or adults over 40, and a very high percentage are of those in the 20-30 age group – which suggests that deaths were of those engaged in combat’.
There was a deafening silence, and I realized from something the Director of Census and Statistics told me that Government wanted the figures he had collected suppressed. I could not understand this since they were evidence for the Government position that we had not engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians during the War. The reason I found out only later, when I met the head of the Media Centre for National Security, Lakshman Hulugalle, another of those odd characters on which the Rajapaksa government relied heavily in its latter years. He had been keen initially to work with me when I was appointed Adviser on Reconciliation, not least because he had been asked to check on the effectiveness of aid programmes and he had no idea how this was to be done – something I had noted earlier also in Mr Divaratne’s office, where there was no one capable or willing to go through the reports supplied by agencies working in the North.
Hulugalle had however panicked when I objected to the shooting at Weliveriya, and avoided me, but he was forced to talk to me briefly when we met at a party. I asked him then about why we had not used the census figures, and he looked at me as thought surprised I did not know the reason: he claimed it was because the figures showed a massive rise in the Muslim proportion of the population, and this it was thought could have adverse political consequences. So the more urgent need of defending our servicemen against perverse allegations was ignored, in the anxiety for political advantage.
And there were other omissions for which there was no reason at all, except lethargy, or perhaps the lack of cognitive skills which ILO has identified as lacking in our education system. I had noted that hardly any public servants were missing, and indeed most of them had got to the government side with their entire families during the war. I wrote to the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration to request him ‘to do an audit of public servants at Divisional Secretariats in areas not controlled by government before 2009, and let me know the figures of those who worked in these Secretariats at the end of 2008, and how many still survive, along with details also of family members’. But this was not done, nor was there any effort to publicize the fact that there were no casualties at all amongst the aid workers whom the LTTE held back when the UN and Non-Governmental Agencies left the Wanni in 2008.
Neil Buhne, the UNDP head, who was punished for his honesty and decency by international decision makers through the Petrie Report that Ban Ki Moon deviously commissioned, confirmed to me that the only injury to UN local staff was from an LTTE landmine, and our forces had provided prompt medical attention. But the incapacity to think outside the box prevented our decision makers from highlighting such facts.
And if they were unconcerned about the past, they were less concerned about reconciliation or human rights in the present. So, between the President and his Secretary, the Reconciliation Policy I had drafted with support from opposition parties in the form of Eran Wickremaratne and Mr Sumanthiran, was totally ignored, and efforts to develop links between schools, or to use the forces under civilian control to contribute to social work, came to nothing.
And the Human Rights Action Plan was completely forgotten after I resigned. Interestingly I was told recently by the Ministry Human Rights Consultant, Nishan Muthukrishna, who had been a tower of strength to both Minari and me, and who had accompanied Mahinda Samarasinghe to the Ministry of Plantation Industries (and later that of Skills Development and Vocational Training), that the Foreign Ministry, which has now undertaken responsibility for a new Action Plan, wanted to see me on the matter. But I said, as I said to the person who rang me up from one of Chandrika Kumaratunga’s Reconciliation outfits about the Reconciliation Policy, that I would only respond to written requests. I had after all, when I took her seriously, sent the Policy document to her and she wrote back to say it had some interesting ideas which could be used in the Policy she was preparing. That was eighteen months ago and she has still not put forward a policy, and I have had nothing in writing. This is scarcely surprising, for the rest of her letter was an attack on Mahinda Rajapaksa, suggesting that she too was stuck in the past, and the personal bitterness that makes reconciliation so difficult in this country.
Ceylon Today 13 Sept 2016 – http://www.ceylontoday.lk/print20160701CT20161030.php?id=5374