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

At one of the discussions on the promotion of Human Rights that the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies has been arranging together with the Reconciliation Office, it was decided to set up a more structured consultation, to look into conceptual questions as well as make practical recommendations. Given that clarity of conceptualization is largely lacking in the world of politics – or even recognition of the need for conceptualization – I was deeply impressed by the presentation at that discussion of the Consultant on Children to the Attorney General’s Department. What he presented seemed a good basis for further analysis so as to promote more helpful state interventions.

His argument, if I understood it correct, was that social policy in Sri Lanka continues to be based on the colonial legacy of Poor Law with emphasis on Criminal Law, on institutionalization of social rejects, and on very generalized administrative approaches without a positive social agenda. I am not sure that I agree with this completely, but he certainly presented a convincing contrast between our administrative framework for social services and that which we have in education and health. The latter promotes equity and inclusivity, whereas the former entrenches the dichotomizing view of society that Victorian England seemed to embody – but which was fought against and changed by advanced social thinkers and, perhaps most prominently, by Charles Dickens, who had suffered himself from the prevailing patronizing philosophy.

Coincidentally I happened, during the time our discussion took place, to have been reading one of his early works, entitled ‘The Mudfog Papers’, which satirized the practice of putting people in workhouses. In that Dickens produced a mock scientific paper on how to treat fleas, which was clearly meant to suggest that this was how the dominant sections of society regarded their less fortunate brethren – ‘He suggested that measures should be immediately taken to employ the labour of these fleas as part and parcel of the productive power of the country, which might easily be done by the establishment among them of infant schools and houses of industry, in which a system of virtuous education, based upon sound principles, should be observed, and moral precepts strictly inculcated. He proposed that every flea who presumed to exhibit, for hire, music, or dancing, or any species of theatrical entertainment, without a licence, should be considered a vagabond, and treated accordingly, in which respect he only placed him upon a level with the rest of mankind’.

The word vagabond of course recalled the Vagrants’ Ordinance which we still have on our statue books. Everyone agrees that it should be got rid of, or at least amended, but no one seems concerned enough to proceed with this. So we still continue to hear horror stories of how it is applied, most recently of a woman who went out shopping, and was taken in under the Ordinance.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

July 2019
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