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As this series draws to a close, bringing with it perhaps intimations of mortality, I thought of engaging in reflections relating to the death anniversaries of some people I admired tremendously. Closely connected to a range of human rights issues was the murder of Richard de Zoysa, 13 years ago this week, undoubtedly by government para-military forces.

At the time of his death government papers engaged in a campaign of disinformation and vilification, but the case resonated, and I believe it contributed to the disbanding of the forces that had been used to quell the JVP insurrection. Memories of those events have returned, with the discovery of a mass grave in Matale, but I am not sure that it would make sense to revive inquiries into the subject now.

That was a brutal period, with the initial provocation coming from a government that had completely subverted the democratic process. However the violence the JVP engaged in was disproportionate to the provocation, and lasted beyond the removal of the principal cause of despair. When elections were finally held, at the end of 1988, the JVP should have re-entered the democratic process, but the excesses that followed, directed also against the opposition party that had suffered so much from UNP violence, led to even greater violence on the part of the State.

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As I have noted before, the thoughtful new Secretary to the Ministry of Resettlement remarked, at a seminar at the Officer Career Development Centre in Buttala, that Nation Building needed much more attention, to complement the State Building that is proceeding relatively well. His Ministry, along with the Bureau of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation and the Presidential Task Force for the North and the Ministry of Economic Development, have amply allayed the fears expressed in 2009, that were claimed to be the reason for the Resolution brought against us in Geneva.

The displaced who were at Manik Farm have been resettled, and the former combatants have been released after rehabilitation. This has been done under much better conditions and more swiftly than elsewhere in the world. Economic activity is at a higher level in the Wanni than ever before, helped along by remarkable infrastructural development. That extends to schools and hospitals and other basic requirements, which are available now at a higher standard than ever before in the area.

But there are still problems, and the mutual satisfaction and trust that Reconciliation requires are still inadequate. To remedy this there is need of concerted action, and the Secretary, who has obviously studied and understood the problem, noted that fulfilment of both the LLRC and the Human Rights Action Plans would go a long way towards Building a Nation.

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The Indian journalist Sathiyamoorthy, one of the sharpest – and also I think most sympathetic – commentators on the Sri Lankan scene, wrote recently on questions in connection with the army and the police in the North. With regard to the latter, he seems to be of the view that the police should not come under the Ministry of Defence, which is not an argument I accept.

My main reason for this is the very simple belief – on the basis of a principle known as Occam’s Razor – that one should not create entities unnecessarily. Unfortunately Occam’s Razor is unknown in Sri Lanka, where we multiply entities endlessly, as with Ministries and layers of government. In affirming the need to keep the police under the Ministry of Defence I believe we should also extend the principle more widely, but that is another question, and requires more thought and strength of mind than is usually applied in this country.

Sathiyamoorthy thinks a division between the police and the Ministry of Defence would help ‘in recapturing the imagination of the police as a civilian force, easily approachable by and comforting to the civilian population. Not just the Tamil minorities, but even the Sinhala population in the run-up to the JVP insurgencies had felt alientated from and by the police, for possibly no fault of theirs’.

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One of the most depressing features of government is the readiness with which transfers are used to solve problems. At the Education Consultative Committee in Parliament, some of my colleagues pointed out what seemed to them grave faults in Principals or Zonal Directors of Education, and recommended that they should be transferred at once. They were startled when I said that would be wrong, but then acknowledged that, if the officials concerned were unsatisfactory, it would be destructive to transfer them to other responsibilities where they would also prove unsatisfactory.

Last week the same thing happened at a Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meeting, when strong objections were made to a particular Grama Niladhari. Again, the community representatives who made the charges – with no inhibitions about naming their subject – seemed surprised when I said that was inappropriate, but agreed with my point that their complaints should be investigated. The man should then be reprimanded if the charges were established, and subsequently dismissed if he did not improve.

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Though the National Human Rights Action Plan is now available in all three languages on the web (at http://hractionplan.gov.lk/), we still have a long way to go in getting information across about progress. The reports that have been received have not been uploaded, which is essential if ownership of the plan is to be extended to the public – which is essential for a National Plan.

This is not the fault of the officials in charge. Though I have drawn comparisons with the LLRC Action Plan, the monitoring report of which is available on www.priu.gov.lk, that Task Force has all the resources of the Presidential Secretariat at its disposal. With a capable Additional Secretary in charge of collating reports, and bright youngsters familiar with web technology at his service, he has now been able to provide clear information of what the many Ministries involved have achieved. Some of the Ministries which had failed to report when I checked previously have now sent in their accounts, and the Plan currently seems well serviced.

Far different is the situation at the Ministry of Plantation Industries, which is supposed to coordinate work on the Human Rights Action Plan. The Minister is supposed to chair the Inter-Ministerial Committee that is tasked with implementing the Plan, and he has set up a Task Force to expedite this, but neither body has power or even influence to ensure that things move quickly. Though the government agencies involved have all been extremely positive at the meetings that have been held, we still do not have effective means of coordination, and the classic government approach to action means that there is no sense of urgency.

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After a hiatus of some months, during which we had been working through the Government Task Force on the specific areas of Women and Children and Lands, we had the first meeting this year of the forum inclusive of Non-Governmental Organizations which has been trying to help with implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan.

We have throughout had helpful contributions from the Government Analyst’s Department, who had explained problems they faced. One was claims that they had not submitted reports when in fact they had done so, and another was that, after they had travelled to distant locations, they were told that the prosecution was not ready and had requested a postponement. We had therefore suggested at a meeting of the Task Force that the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice institute regular meetings, at which government agencies responsible for cases could coordinate work.

The Secretary had initiated such meetings, though not as often as I would have liked, and we were told this time round that they continued and had been helpful. Unfortunately she was not in a position to ensure a positive response from the Judiciary, and indeed she had been ignored when she had written to the Chief Justice suggesting a committee to look into sentencing policy and coordinate action in this regard in line with government policy of reducing the number of those remanded.

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The latest pronouncement of the UN High Commissioner does not bode well for Sri Lanka. The immediate reason for this is the impeachment of the Chief Justice, but if reports in the papers a couple of weeks back are inaccurate, she has been simmering for some time.

It was reported that she had sent a letter suggesting visits by what are termed Special Procedures, but the response she had received had ignored this and simply suggested that she visit us soon. We knew at the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the National Human Rights Action Plan that there had been a letter, but what was being done was not made clear.

This seemed a bit hard on Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who has been the ministerial envoy to the Human Rights Council for well over half a decade now. It would obviously make sense to keep him in the loop, and indeed consult him about our official position but, as I have noted before, coordination is not something common in Sri Lanka.

This is particularly hard on him now, because he has lost his principal ally in recent years in dealing with problems in Geneva. Mohan Pieris began to join us in Geneva in Dayan Jayatilleka’s time even before he became Attorney General, and continued to attend every session since then, including when Mahinda Samarasinghe was not deployed. He was obviously a crucial player when he was Attorney General, and perhaps even more so afterwards, when he chaired the Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC, and now that he has been in virtual charge together with the President’s Secretary of the LLRC Action Plan. However as Chief Justice he will probably not be able to be on the delegation, which will be tough on Minister Samarasinghe.

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I was privileged last week to contribute to the first Seminar conducted by the Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala. The subject was Post-Conflict Nation Building and the role of the Security Forces, and we had two days of interesting presentations with much opportunity for discussion. The questions put by the officers who participated were stimulating, and the general approach made clear the impact of the training, in thinking as well as practical action, that the armed forces have developed over the last couple of decades.

Five of the twelve speakers were civilians, including one academic apart from myself. There were two presentations by members of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, indicating the importance the forces attach to that body, even if there is less attention than there should be elsewhere to implementation of its recommendations. The one person I did not know was one of the new Secretaries, of whom I had a favourable impression given the excellence of the two with whom I had previously interacted.

This one was in the same mould, and produced a well constructed speech on harmonizing the efforts of Government Machinery and the Security Forces in Nation Building. He made a convincingly argued distinction between State Building and Nation Building, and noted the great achievements thus far with regard to the former, including infrastructure development as well as resettlement and rehabilitation.

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Going through the figures released by the Census Department, I was struck again by the contrast between data based on investigation and wild claims based on general statements and suppositions. The most recent example of this occurs in the book by Frances Harrison which is rapidly becoming the new Bible of critics of Sri Lanka, following on the Darusman Report and the book by Gordon Weiss. Interestingly the Petrie Report does not seem on the way to iconic status, perhaps because its selective attacks on UN officials, with no regard for truth, was too much for any establishment to stomach.

I cannot but reiterate enough however that the perpetuation of much of this hype is our own fault. Whereas we should have engaged straight away, as possible, in systematic investigation of the fate of all Sri Lankan citizens, we allowed several years to lapse before setting in motion any mechanisms at all. And now that we have the census data, we have done nothing about it that will facilitate refutation in the public domain of the claims of Harrison and her ilk.

This is the more astonishing in that we have long known how statistics can be regurgitated to haunt us. The legacy of the disappearances during the second JVP insurrection continues to dominate the records about Sri Lanka maintained by the Working Group on Disappearances. Sadly there was no systematic effort to convey the findings of the several Commissions set up in President Kumaratunga’s time to the WGD. Though at intervals the Foreign Ministry tried, together with the Attorney General’s Department, to work on this later, those efforts too were sporadic. And though we did our best when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights, leading for the first time in ages to positive comments on our engagement in WGD reports, that too was abandoned when the Ministry was shut down. Responses to communiqués ceased, leading to the harsh criticism that has resurfaced in recent WGD pronouncements.

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The first Consultative Committee to meet in Parliament this year was the Education Committee, and it went on for over two hours. This was heartening, because it suggested a high level of interest amongst Members of Parliament. However it was also sad that much time was spent discussing specific problems, such as the transfer of Principals and Officials, and individual admissions to schools, since these take away from what should be the main purpose of Consultative Committees, namely policies and general principles, leading where necessary to legislation.

There is of course need for Members of Parliament to raise such issues, and the Minister made some valuable suggestions in this regard. He proposed to have consultations with regard to particular areas, and I hope he will do this in small groups, since it makes no sense for officials and parliamentarians from all over to waste time listening to parochial problems.

Interestingly, Parliament has I think taken a step in the right direction in decreeing that not more than 25 officials come to meetings of Consultative Committees. Though it was pointed out that this was inadequate, given the range of officials needed to discuss Education, it would make far more sense for meetings intended to discuss details of educational administration in particular districts to take place at the Ministry, with only officials and parliamentarians from the district or the province. Four or five meetings in each of the two weeks per month during which Parliament meets would cover the whole country, with opportunity to go into detail without time being wasted by the generality.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2019
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