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Last week saw an extremely productive consultation on promoting the Rights of Children. Organized by the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, as decided at the meetings we have been holding over the last several months to better understand the problems and possible interventions, it was presided over by the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs.

In addition to officials from different branches of his Ministry, we also had excellent input from the Ministry of Health, which is especially important given the gaps in the provision of psycho-social support nationwide that we need to fill. While delivery will have to be through various agencies – school counselors that the Ministry of Education appoints, Probation Officers appointed by the Provinces, Social Service Officers appointed by that Ministry – we obviously need better coordination as well as training, and this can best be provided by the Ministry of Health.

We also had representation from the Ministry of Social Services. The Secretary had not been able to attend, which was in part our fault because it was only after the meeting had been arranged that we realized the importance of her presence too. But she was enormously cooperative when we met her and, though committed to a visit to Japan – which is a model that we should aim at in the care it provides for the vulnerable – she has agreed to pursue cooperation in this field on her return.

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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.

August 30th is the day chosen by the United Nations to commemorate missing persons, a subject that is of great concern to Sri Lankans. Its official title is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, and we are claimed to have the second highest number of such disappearances in the world. Though that statistic is based largely on past history, namely the large numbers of those alleged to have vanished during the JVP insurrection of the eighties, it is nevertheless a sad reflection on us that we have not provided clarifications to the UN Working Committee on Disappearances which maintains those statistics.

There are several reasons for working on this expeditiously, not least the fact that the figure is thrown about freely by extreme elements in the diaspora and the international community who imply that it relates to the recent conflict. An example of this came up recently when there were questions raised about a figure that appeared in a recent ICRC report, even though a careful reading of that report would have made clear that the figure relating to recently reported cases was comparatively small, and the figure of over 10,000 related to complaints of over a decade back.

We should in all cases however take steps to have the figure reduced. This is connected with what seems to me the main reason for working on the problem, namely that we need to do whatever is possible to assuage the grief and the problems of those who have no idea as to what has happened to their family members. For this purpose we ourselves should maintain records and ensure not only material support for those who lost their breadwinners but also spiritual support to help them cope with indeterminate loss.

For this purpose we must pay more attention to the development and deployment of counseling services. This has been grossly neglected over the years, and I fear our efforts to fast forward training, when the Peace Secretariat noted in 2008 that there would be great need of more trained Counsellors in the near future, were not successful. Though I had discussions with both WHO in Geneva, and those spearheading the programme in Colombo, we could not get concerted action. Indeed, because of what seemed to be internal rivalries, the excellent programme begun by John Mahoney, shortly after the tsunami, was brought to a close, and the poor man had to leave, to be redeployed later in Vietnam which clearly had a greater sense of purpose about this than we did.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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