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I returned from Azerbaijan on June 23rd and had to go that morning to Parliament for a COPE meeting. The report on the Bond scam was being drafted, and it was clear that it would show that Arjuna Mahendran had interfered egregiously with bond placements to the great detriment of the economy. The Opposition was feeling quite confident, but this made it push its luck and indicate that it would press for a motion of No Confidence on the Prime Minister, who had clearly been responsible for what had happened, as indicated by his spirited defence of his acolyte – and indeed the instructions he had given to less scrupulous members of COPE to delay proceedings.

But this was not the only issue of importance, and it should not I felt be allowed to detract from the reforms that had been pledged in the President’s manifesto. The most important of these, which had been ignored when the Constitution was amended in April, was electoral reform, but the President had promised that he would not dissolve Parliament until that was accomplished. I believe he was sincere, but I worried given the rumours that were circulating about an early dissolution. However Nimal Siripala de Silva, the Leader of the Opposition, assured me during this week that the President had again promised that he would ensure electoral reform before having an election.

One area that I had not been able to address in the Manifesto was the need for a comprehensive Bill of Rights. This had been pledged in Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2005 manifesto, and he had indeed appointed a Committee headed by Jayampathy Wickremaratne to draft one. But by 2007, when I was appointed to head the Peace Secretariat, this lay forgotten, with the President and Jayampathy clearly no longer trusting each other. I was sorry about this, and told Jayampathy he should proceed, but it was clear he did not think the effort worthwhile in the prevailing dispensation.

But when in 2008 I was appointed also to the position of Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, following a renewed pledge in Geneva that a Bill of Rights would be introduced, I felt I could press, and Jayampathy was persuaded to reactivate his committee. We used many of the people who were also working on the Human Rights Action Plan that had been promised in Geneva, and well before the end of 2009 we had good drafts ready.

The silly season however had set in by then, and the President was concerned now only about the election. He had said work on the HR Plan should only continue after the election, and Mahinda Samarasinghe was not willing to press, nor even to bring the Bill of Rights to his attention. I foolishly asked him whether I could put it on the Ministry website as a draft, which he forbade, whereas I should have gone ahead without asking him, so that he would not have got any flak. Read the rest of this entry »

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24102013240The cultural programmes I worked on in 2013, with Daniel Ridicki and the Indian High Commission and various universities, went hand in hand with the Divisional Reconciliation Committee meetings that were my main official responsibility during this period. Having been to all the 35 Divisional Secretariats in the North, which I did three times in fact in the less than three years in which I was Adviser on Reconciliation, I had started on the East. Over that year I covered all 45 Secretariats, bemused though by the way new ones had been set up at the drop of a hat, simply to satisfy the sectarian compulsions of particular politicians. And it was clear that there were many problems in the East too, and that government simply had no system in place to listen to the people.

But in September I found that the DIG in charge of the Eastern Province, Pujith Jayasundara, had tried to institutionalize community relationships through what were termed Civil Defence Committees, which were supposed to function in all Grama Niladhari Divisions. This did not always happen, but Pujith, whom I had known for a long time, was 30102013323analytical in his approach, and had set up formal mechanisms to ensure action. I knew nothing about all this, but I was by chance in the vicinity when a meeting of their community advisers took place, and was asked to address them.

This obviously went down well, for I was asked to address a larger gathering later in the week. Though my book launch at the Indian High Commission was scheduled for the day before that meeting in the East, I thought I should not refuse. So having come back and got through the launch, I left well before dawn to get to Batticaloa in time for the meeting which was held at the Municipal Hall. This was followed by another meeting next day at Kattankudy.

IMG-20131031-16830I took advantage of all this to rationalize the system, which we were able to do when the Secretary to the Ministry of Home Affairs, P B Abeykoon, sent a letter I drafted asking the Divisional Secretaries to revise the manner in which what were termed Civil Defence Committees were constituted. Earlier the Chairman was  supposed to be a leading member of the community, but such people, however worthy, had no official position. They could therefore be ignored by those with formal authority. Though in some cases they commanded respect, this was not always the case. Though the Grama Niladhari was supposed to act as Secretary of the Committee, this did not always happen, and there were no mechanisms for follow up.

The Secretary’s letter instructed that the Grama Niladhari chair the meeting, with the police acting as secretaries to the committees. This was not done everywhere but, where instructions were followed, there were better results in terms of people actually feeling they had an opportunity to be heard by those in decision making positions. Unfortunately our administrative system had not enjoined clear follow up mechanisms, as I found when I happened to visit the Nittambuwa Police Station when my car broke down near there on a journey the following year. I found a very intelligent and committed OIC, who was happy to talk to me at length about what he was doing. He had ensured that there were well maintained files for each GN Division, but he had not been able to break through the system and take advantage of the other government officials who were allocated to specific GN Divisions. These were the Economic Development Officers and the Samurdhi or Divineguma Officers, both working for Basil Rajapasa’s Ministry, but without clear instructions as to how they were to coordinate with other government departments. Read the rest of this entry »

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. Read the rest of this entry »

There are two reasons why I find ridiculous the constant assertion that the Executive Presidency must be abolished. This was made most recently by the most prominent member of the Human Rights Commission, who claimed that it was the root cause of all our problems. But I do not think that he, or all the others who parrot panaceas, have thought about what will replace it.

And the problem with such panaceas is that no effort is made to actually make the current situation better, as for instance the Human Rights Commission could do in its own area of responsibility, by taking forward the Bill of Rights. There is an excellent draft, which we managed to get done before the Ministry of Human Rights was abolished. But the Minister did not agree that it should be put forward, given the then concentration on elections, and since then it has languished. I suspect I am the only who who has even reminded the President of its existence, and the fact that it was prepared in fulfilment of a pledge in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya. His answer was that he did not agree with everything there, but the simple solution, to admit those elements, was obviously not thought satisfactory.

With regard to the Presidency, it is assumed that we can go back straight away to the Westminster system. But the Westminster system demands a functioning Parliament, and with the complete dysfunctionality of the current Parliament, we will have even greater chaos if it had supreme power. Even now, Parliament does not fulfil the role laid down for it in our Presidential constitution, which is one reason why the Executive has nothing to check it.

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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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Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.

This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.

How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »

Join us in calling on His Excellency The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet to 20, with no more than 20 Cabinet Ministers and no more than 20 other Ministers of Junior Ministerial rank.

You can sign the petition by clicking here.

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/his-excellency-mahinda-rajapaksa-the-president-of-sri-lanka-introduce-constitutional-amendment-limiting-cabinet-to-20-cabinet-ministers

Short link – http://chn.ge/YbSBgY

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First published Daily News 28 Dec 2012

I reproduced last week some of the recommendations I had submitted to the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on the National Human Rights Action Plan. Here are the other areas to which I drew attention, though I should note that there is much more in the plan which requires concerted and effective action. I look here only at some areas that concerned me, of which the first seems to me extremely important.

  • Legislation to strengthen Rights

The Action Plan requires the Ministry of Justice to review within one month the Report of the Committee that drafted a Bill of Rights. We found that initially the Ministry did not have a copy of the draft, which reinforces the idea that a Ministry to ensure basic administration with regard to the NHRAP is essential. The Action Plan envisages that a Minister will be assigned the subject of Human Rights, but that has not happened, and it is unfair to expect a Minister to act as a Special Envoy when he has no mandate to ensure fulfillment of any commitments he might enter into.

We have heard nothing for some months with regard to progress regarding the Bill of Rights, and clearly no one takes the timeframe in the NHRAP seriously. We also seem, in this instance as in many others, to be ignoring the requirement that we have agreed to in general, to consult Civil Society about such measures. Though obviously government must decide on what is appropriate, it cannot do nothing and expect acquiescence in inaction.

A particular problem is our commitment to ensure the Right to Information. The responsibility for that, as for ensuring Freedom of Expression, lies with the Ministry of Justice according to the Plan, but the Ministry has pointed out that responsibility with regard to the Right to Information lies with the Ministry of Mass Media and Information, and that responsibility with regard to Freedom on Information lies with the Ministry of Public Administration and Home Affairs, in consultation with the Ministry of Defence. However, given that the Ministry of Justice has appointed a Committee to look into the draft Bill of Rights, it would be appropriate to at least report on the views of those Ministries with regard to the Bill.

At the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee, it was noted that a Freedom of Information Act was not necessary, though it is not clear whether this is the view of the Ministry of Mass Media and Information or the Ministry of Justice. While that is a tenable position, it should be accompanied with details of an alternative mechanism to ensure the Right to Information as pledged.

Recommendations

The Inter-Ministerial Committee should, through its Chair, participate in the deliberations of the Committee looking into the draft Bill of Rights and expedite action. Since responsibilities must clearly be shared in some areas, the Chair could report accordingly to Cabinet, and either have the allocation of responsibilities altered or else obtain a mandate to coordinate discussion and action in areas of concern.

The IMC should also engage more actively in discussions with Civil Society and seek inputs into proposed legislative changes. Read the rest of this entry »

The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

The Universal Periodic Review has come, and gone, and as usual there seems to be general satisfaction in Sri Lanka as to how it went. I have no doubt that the generally excellent team sent from Sri Lanka performed well, and gave sensible answers to the questions raised.

What is sad, though, is that the Review seems to have become an end in itself. Some of the blame for this should go to a few organizations who see this as a chance to attack Sri Lanka, whereas the original conception of the UPR was that it would provide an opportunity for all stakeholders to work together to improve the Human Rights situation in the country under review.

It is in that spirit that Sri Lanka should approach the Review, and this was what I thought happened last time round, in 2008. On that occasion we made a number of voluntary pledges, and then accepted several of the recommendations made by other countries. I believe that was done sincerely, and certainly we made a great effort to move on many matters, ranging from formulation of a National Action Plan and a Bill of Rights, to training for the police, and of course the fantastic effort we made with regard to resettlement of the displaced.

However several matters fell by the wayside. A good reason for this – though it should have spurred us to greater efforts after the emergency situation had passed – was the continuation of the conflict and the problems caused by the large numbers the Tigers had held hostage, who had to be rescued and nursed back to health, and resettled with basic facilities. A not so good reason was the abolishment of a dedicated Ministry for Human Rights. As a result the pledges made could not be pursued consistently. Read the rest of this entry »

LLRCThe LLRC Action Plan gives great weight to land questions, which makes a lot of sense. Solving problems relating to land ownership and usage would go a long way towards satisfying personal needs with regard to what we have described as Recovery in the Draft National Policy on Reconciliation. While government has done well with regard to the public aspects of Recovery, through large scale infrastructure projects and livelihood programmes, ensuring a sense of dignity requires affirmation of property rights.

Certainly in the several meetings of Reconciliation Committees I have participated in at Divisional Secretariats, it is questions of land that are brought up most frequently. Indeed, other aspects of the LLRC Action Plan are barely touched on, but this is of crucial importance if we are to achieve levels of contentment that will lead to healing.

But while swift satisfaction of these material needs is of the essence, there is another element in the Action Plan which I believe requires attention, since it is the key to resolving several other problems. I refer to the recommendation of the LLRC that legislation should be enacted to ensure the right to information. Unfortunately there is no time frame for this, and the Action Plan simply asks the Cabinet to decide on a suitable time frame for drafting legislation. The Media Ministry is cited as the key responsible agency and there are no Key Performance Indicators, simply a comment that the Cabinet Office will be the interface for the interaction with the Cabinet of Ministers on the acceptance of such legislation by the legislature.

Conversely the National Human Rights Action Plan, adopted by Cabinet about a year before the LLRC Action Plan, noted that the required activity was the adoption of legislation to ensure the right to information, and the Key Performance Indicator was that such legislation was adopted. A period of 1 year was given for this, with the Key Responsible Agency being the Ministry of Justice.

I can see why the Ministry of Justice thinks that this is not its business, and it should rather be dealt with by the Media Ministry. However, since the Right to Information was one of the important new elements in the draft Bill of Rights that had been prepared in accordance with the Mahinda Chintanaya of 2005, and since the Justice Ministry was supposed to review that draft in a period of one month, I feel they should have consulted all relevant Ministries, including the Media Ministry, and set out a plan of action. As it is, the delay has allowed a much less forthright approach in the LLRC Action Plan.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sri Lankans sometimes tend to feel that foreign forces are trying to destabilize the country, and they may not be altogether wrong, given the concerted efforts of a few individuals, who exercise disproportionate influence in some countries, to upset things. But instead of only reacting angrily to perceived interference, we should also work more coherently to get rid of the reasons for such interference. Even if they are sometimes only pretexts, there is no reason for us to lay ourselves open to attack – especially since getting rid of the causes of complaint is not difficult.

Thus, given that the Action Plan on implementation of the LLRC Recommendations has been accepted by Cabinet, we could easily set up a formal mechanism to ensure action. Such a mechanism should also involve systematic reporting, so that what we are doing is apparent to all, including ourselves – for knowing what has been done is the best way of identifying for ourselves what more needs to be done.

We also need to give teeth to any mechanism that is established, since there is no point simply engaging in platitudes. The Action Plan on Human Rights for instance suffers because there is no clear mechanism to ensure progress. There is an Inter-Ministerial Committee which is supposed to coordinate work, and that Committee set up a Task Force which I convene to expedite action – but even though I have received excellent cooperation from most agencies involved, actually getting action is not easy. Given the range of responsibilities that a few ministries have, and the range of responsible ministries for some areas, coordination is not easy, and swift action impossible.

Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

December 2017
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