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Amongst the agencies that I have worked with over the last year to encourage movement on the National Human Rights Action Plan, the most important from outside the government sector has been the Institute of Human Rights. They have been the most regular in attendance of the groups that come together in the informal consultative mechanism I set up together with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee responsible for implementation of the Plan. Ironically, given the absence of a Ministry with direct responsibility for Human Rights, sometimes I feel the informal committee we have does more work.

The Institute of Human Rights has done yeoman service in ensuring attention to those victims of human rights violations who fall through the net. The unfortunate obsession with War Crimes spun out by those determined to attack the Sri Lankan State sometimes takes away from the real issues we face. These relate not so much to the victims, direct and indirect of terrorism, which we have now overcome (unless the motives of the less innocent of the War Crimes brigade triumph), but to the naturally vulnerable, who are not of concern to the vast majority of their fellow human beings.

The most appalling example of these are the Women and Children swallowed up through the punitive system we inherited from the British for those considered socially inferior. The British have long moved on from the Victorian systems of incarceration Dickens so graphically condemned, but we still have a Vagrants Ordinance, and government claims that it will be amended have fallen prey to the lethargy of officials with regard to anything they are not compelled or personally motivated to pursue actively. Worse, they seem unashamed of the callousness with which it is implemented.

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Grim though the subject can sometimes be, one of the pleasures of convening the Task Force on expediting implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan has been the excellent cooperation evinced by so many institutions. These include governmental and non-governmental institutions, though involving the latter has had to be through the consultations initiated at the Reconciliation Office at the beginning of this year at the instigation of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies.

Last week we had two very useful discussions, on the issues of women and of children respectively. Presentations were made by a range of institutions, including the Human Rights Commission, the Probation Department, the National Child Protection Authority and the Consultant on children’s issues to the Attorney General’s Department. Equally helpful however was the analysis of Methsevana done by the Institute of Human Rights.

Much of what will appear here is copied from that, which noted that Methsevana in Gangodawila is the only state owned detention centre for women in Sri Lanka. It is maintained by the Dept. of Social Services, and serves as a prison, vocational training centre and rehabilitation centre.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

August 2020
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