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Though the National Human Rights Action Plan is now available in all three languages on the web (at, 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, 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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The recent vote at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva was upsetting, and it would make sense for Sri Lanka to assess what happened and work towards ensuring that such a situation does not occur again. However there seems little chance of that, since the same was obvious a year ago, but nevertheless nothing was done, except to sit back and hope disaster would not strike twice.

The only efforts at analysis we saw from the Ministry of External Affairs were leaks to the effect that the vote engineered by the United States had put Sri Lanka back on track to working with what were described as its traditional allies. Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam were denigrated as having tried to turn us towards what were described as virtually rogue states such as North Korea and Cuba.

That juxtaposition revealed very clearly where the thinkers in the Ministry of External Affairs, if that is an appropriate word, were coming from. Cuba, loathed by the United States, is a model as far as foreign relations are concerned, and we would do well to try to understand why internationally it gets support from almost all countries in the world except for the United States and its absolute dependants. North Korea is a different phenomenon, and the idea that Dayan or Tamara would advocate getting ourselves into that particular category is absurd. But, as far as the mandarins in the Ministry are concerned, there is no need to make distinctions; as J R Jayewardene advocated when he turned to the West after 1977, we should be even more bitter than the West is in denigrating its opponents.

That philosophy underscored his appalling attitude to India. The attitude of the United States to India then explained however our attempts to take on India, even though we should have realized – and the United States indeed make this clear to us – that they would not come to our rescue in the event of conflict. 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 »

sithamuLast week the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanetham Pillay, issued a critical statement on Sri Lanka. Unusually for the Ministry of External Affairs, there was a forceful rebuttal of this, written by the Acting Secretary, Ms Kshenuka Seneviratne.

I have been a strong proponent of prompt rebuttals of unfair criticism, but the Ministry had seemed to disapprove of this position. Often through former diplomats, as well as journalists connected to Ministry personnel, it claimed that Dayan Jayatilleka and I had engaged in megaphone diplomacy which had ruined Sri Lanka – even though it was under Dr Jayatilleka’s leadership that Sri Lanka had achieved its most substantial diplomatic victory in years.

That approach was denigrated and, ever since Ms Seneviratne replaced Dr Dayan Jayatilleka as our Representative in Geneva, the impression created was that criticism had to be taken lying down, and obsequiousness would solve all our problems. Though Ms Seneviratne’s successor, Tamara Kunanayakam, tried to defend the country forcefully, this was not to the taste of the Ministry and they came down on her like a ton of bricks.

This cannot have been a pleasant experience when ladies are involved. But seeing the volte face that has now occurred, Tamara and Dayan would doubtless be laughing, were they not deeply patriotic. As it is, they must be wondering what will hit the country next, given that Dayan’s and Tamara’s strategy of building up international support was thrown aside and we put all our eggs in one basket, described by one of the more aggressive of their critics as Sri Lanka’s ‘traditional liberal democratic alliance base’, by which was meant the West.

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It was finally announced recently that Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe had been asked definitely to lead the team that would represent Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review scheduled for November. This followed a number of news items indicating that the Ministry of External Affairs had claimed the team would consist only of officials, which I suppose was only to be expected, given the particular genius of at least some individuals in that institution – which is the incapacity to do anything, combined with an unwillingness to let anyone else try.

I was pleased that Minister Samarasinghe had been asked, but I told him, when he kindly asked me to be on the delegation, that I could not accede to his request. Two years ago, when he was finally asked to take on responsibility for Human Rights, or at least some aspects of it, he held a meeting at which he tried to recreate the old team that had dealt so successfully with attacks on us in Geneva between 2007 and 2009, while also taking the cause of Human Rights further. We had engaged actively with the Office of the High Commissioner, and hosted two productive visits by holders of special mandates; we had responded immediately to any communication from the High Commissioner’s Office, so much so that the Working Group on Disappearances had mentioned this positively, and our efforts to deal with the backlog of cases they had been maintaining for a couple of decades.

None of that had happened in the intervening period. Though the Ministry had taken over some of our staff, they had not given them any real responsibility, and indeed the only thing they had taken forward, albeit too slowly for my liking, was the Human Rights Action Plan, and that only because the then Attorney General found time in the midst of everything he was loaded with to promote it. I remember at the time the Minister of External Affairs telling me that the Attorney General should not take on more than he could handle – this was after his abortive trip to New York to meet the Secretary General about the Darusman Panel – to which my response was that the same was true of him. I suppose that is one reason why I am said to be disliked too much to be entrusted with formal responsibilities, but I would prefer to say what needs to be said rather than restrain myself in the hope of promotion. Sadly, though, I have to recognize that what is said has as much effect as water off a duck’s back.

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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.

I was pleasantly surprised at the effectiveness of the consultation organized by the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka with regard to its report for the forthcoming Universal Periodic Review of the Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka. The Chairman, whom I had found both incisive and creative in our earlier discussions, was unable to be present, but the two Commissioners who presided, Jezima Ismail and Prathiba Mahanamahewa, were clearly well aware of the issues that need to be considered.

The Report of the HRC is particularly important

The Report of the HRC is particularly important, because it will be incorporated into the compendium the Office of the High Commissioner prepares for consideration by the Human Rights Council. The other components will be the Reports submitted by other stakeholders, which in the case of Sri Lanka will include a number of Non-Governmental Organizations that are extremely hostile to government.

We can hope that some moderate NGOs will also send in submissions, but sadly Sri Lanka has failed to engage actively with such NGOs so it is unlikely that many will take the time or trouble to present an objective perspective on the situation here. I suspect this failure to develop synergies, instead of simply engaging in hostilities when something negative is said, is why the Secretary of Defence suggested to me that I ask to be appointed Monitoring MP for NGOs.

Earlier I had not known that MPs were supposed to apply for such positions, and indeed the brighter of my fellow MPs had not been made aware of this either. The President was the first to point this out, when I suggested some educational initiatives, in saying I had been remiss in not asking to be appointed to monitor Education. He was evidently under the impression that the instructions to apply had been circulated to all MPs, but this was clearly another example of the dysfunctionality of whichever of his officials was entrusted with the task. Fortunately Education now has an excellent Monitoring MP in the form of Mr Grero, and we have already seen some constructive innovations there.

With regard to NGOs, when I did write in, and then submitted as requested a list of responsibilities, I found that all this was ignored. What I got instead was a suggestion that I be asked to any discussions that were held, something that hardly ever happens. The absurdity of this has become even clearer, now that I have experienced the active cooperation of NGOs in the consultations initiated at the Reconciliation Office with regard to the National Human Rights Action Plan. Active interaction with them, given that many are full of ideals and only seek direction as to how these could be most effectively fulfilled, would be immensely useful. Instead what we do now is react adversely to the few who are totally negative, and refuse to recognize and take advantage actively of the potential for good of all the others.

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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.

Soon after the New Year, the Human Rights Commission summoned a consultation  with regard to the recommendations made with regard to Sri Lanka at the Universal Periodic Review conducted by the Human tights Council in Geneva in 2008. This was a timely move by the Commission, and brought home to me how grossly we had neglected paying formal attention to the recommendations since their inception. We had after all accepted several of the recommendations made, and we had an obligation therefore to carry out our pledges.

The fault is mine even more I suppose than that of anyone else, since having been appointed  Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights in the middle of 2008, I continued in that position for well over a year after those pledges had been made. Though I think I did a little bit, and perhaps more than anyone else would have done, I should obviously have been more systematic. In mitigation however I should note that I had a massive problem with regard to one important area with regard to which there were several recommendations, namely the Human Rights Commission itself. We were supposed to get international assistance for this, but our principal collaborator in this, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, refused to recognize its status.

That this involved deceit and sleight of hand had been clear to me earlier, when I discovered that a UNDP sponsored report on the HRC had been suppressed and not shown to the Head of Capacity Building in Geneva. The line being pushed by critics of the government in Colombo was that the HRC was illegal, and this had been swallowed – if indeed he had not been responsible for propagating it in the first place – by an Australian (yet another to add to the serried ranks of David Savage and Gordon Weiss and James Elder and Peter Mackay) called Rory Mungoven who was in charge of the Sri Lanka desk in Geneva. He had previously been the representative of the High Commissioner in Colombo, and had no affection at all for our elected government.

I tried early on to engage with him, but found him a liar, and sanctimonious at that. When I asked him why he had not supported regional activities of the HRC, he told me that donors were not willing to contribute to the HRC as it was constituted, but a Swiss diplomat who was very helpful while also clearsighted about our shortcomings that should be overcome, told me that the Swiss had provided funds for the purpose, and they had not been used. Rory, I should add, had proconsular ambitions, and was one of those who told me the UNOHCHR could do a better job than the Norwegian led Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission at monitoring the ceasefire, on similar lines to Gareth Evans who thought that he would do a better job himself, as head of the International Crisis Group.

Rory’s successor was a much more helpful person but, typically, she was soon taken away and replaced by an American young lady called Cynthia Veliko. Cynthia, like Rory, thought her primary allegiance was to opponents of the government, but she was more gracious, and helped to set up a training session for police trainers, which was I think extremely helpful.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

February 2020
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