Sinhala  Tamil    Seperate    
Governtment of Sri Lanka

National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 - 2016





Sri Lanka Rights Watch 1  - The Welfare of Prisoners - 5 April 2012

Over the last few weeks, a number of consultations have been held about measures to improve the Human Rights situation in the country. These started on an initiative of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, working together with my office as Adviser on Reconciliation. Springing from an excellent seminar series which CHA began on Reconciliation, the first of which was addressed by MPs Muralitharan, Wickramaratna and Sumanthiran, in addition to myself, moderated productively by Javid Yusuf, the series of Consultations began with sessions on Prisoners, Women and Children.
We began with these because we felt that these were areas in which there was broad agreement on what needed to be done, and no ideological opposition. The only reasons for failure to move forward on policies on which there was consensus were, on the one hand the lethargy that is endemic in any governmental system worldwide, and on the other the difficulties of achieving concerted action when responsibility is so confusingly divided up between several Ministries.
I had had an inkling of such problems when the Minister of Justice mentioned a very helpful paper he had received from the ICRC about improving the situation of Prisoners, but noted that, while half the paper dealt with issues pertaining to his Ministry, the other half related to the Ministry of Prison Reforms and Rehabiliation. This had indeed been noted by His Excellency the President in the budget speech, which made some excellent suggestions about prisons, from the idealistic perspective of serving the interests of those languishing in jails, as well as the very practical perspective of reducing the unnecessary expenditure we now incur.




Sri Lanka Rights Watch 2 - Ensuring sensible judicial activism: the problem about suspended sentences for rape - 6 April 2012

I was recently sent an article which suggested that in Sri Lanka sexual offenders went scot free.  Coincidentally we had been discussing this matter at the last meeting of the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementing the National Action Plan on Human Rights that I convene, given the seriousness of the matter. It had in fact also raised concerns when we were formulating and finalizing the Action Plan. The article, I was happy to note, had identified the problem accurately, and noted that the problem lay with the judiciary, which has – and again I must commend the writer of the article – given in to arguments used by ‘several criminal lawyers’.
 The problem arose from what seems to me clear violation on the part of the judiciary of the express purpose of the legislature. I have long understood, and before I got into Parliament too, that talking of the express purpose of the legislature is not very sensible, given the absence of express purpose on the part of most legislators including myself on most issues. But that does not take away from the fact that the Courts should not, in the course of interpretation, pervert clear prescriptions in laws. The rot started – or perhaps this was when I first realized the significance of such interpretations – when the Constitutional Court decided to ignore the law that said a judgment had to be delivered within a specified period, and claimed that that provision was what they termed directory rather than mandatory, ie the Court followed it if it saw so fit, and ignored it otherwise. This is a clear nonsense, but it has got away with this view. Another example was when the decision of the Legislature to allow for divorce based on mutual consent was perverted by a judge who doubtless thought himself very moral, and reintroduced the concept of fault based divorce alone.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 3 - Developing Community Structures - 9 April 2012

One of the biggest problems with promoting Human Rights in Sri Lanka is that it has turned into either a business, or a battle, or both, for many. Those NGOs which believe it their duty to attack government, and use the funds they obtain primarily for this purpose, bear a heavy responsibility in this regard, but so do those elements in government which therefore react by being antagonistic to all NGOs. Many I know do extremely good work, and most are extremely well intentioned. Sometimes the overlap and failure to monitor and report coherently arises from incompetence, but often it is because government has not prescribed easy and effective systems of reporting and coordination.
Indeed, elements within government too often do not coordinate. There is also, often, a lack of clear cut job descriptions and reporting mechanisms. Recently for instance, in surveying the work of several Women’s and Children’s desks in terms of my efforts to facilitate District and Divisional Level Reconciliation Committees, I was struck at how different were the levels of involvement and achievement.
In the first place I should note that I was pleased at how the service has grown, as compared with when I first monitored its progress when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. I also found a very competent and thoughtful person in charge in Colombo, and in a few stations – such as Vavuniya South and Kilinochchi, since I believe one should give credit where credit is due - there was innovation and coordination. The latter sent a pair of police officers, Sinhala and Tamil, the latter a fluent bilingual, who showed how easy it is to work together to ensure communication and mutual understanding.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 4 - Promoting the Rights and the Welfare of Children - 10 April 2012

I discussed in Rights Watch last week the need to develop community structures for protection purposes. Whilst this will go some way towards helping the vulnerable, we also need much better structures at state level for dealing with problems, in particular those affecting women and children.

The conditions of many of our children’s homes are disgraceful. Some do a good job, and I am sure that many who fall short do so out of helplessness rather than cruelty, but that is no excuse in the eyes of those who suffer. We need then to radically rethink the system, making more use of foster care and ensuring both proper supervision, and a practical allocation of available resources.

One suggestion we have made to the police is that they maintain a system of accurate statistics that should inform all decision makers. Thus, if they are recommending to a magistrate that a child should be sent to a particular home, they should also provide statistics as to how many the home is designed for and how many are actually in residence. They should also request clear instructions from magistrates as to how long children should be placed in custody, with specifications as to when that custody should end or be renewed, and if so, under what conditions.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 5 - Strengthening the Human Rights Commission - 11 April 2012

I was delighted last week to be told that the Human Rights Commission was receiving assistance from the Asia Pacific Centre which coordinates work with National Human Rights Commissions. When, following my appointment to convene the Task Force to promote and monitor action on the National Human Rights Action Plan, I met the HRC, I had been told that such assistance had been requested. I asked for a meeting, since I believe that the HRC is one of the core elements in the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka, but I heard nothing, and later I was told that they had said they were too busy to meet me.

It was fortuitous that I found out they were present. During the Council of Asian Liberal and Democrats Congress that was held at Colombo, I noted the presence of the UN and on checking was told that a number of UN Human Rights personnel were staying.

The Ministry of External Affairs knew nothing about this, but I then checked with the UN Resident Coordinator who was helpful as always, and said he thought it was the Asia Pacific people who were working with the HRC. The chairman confirmed this, and kindly arranged a meeting for me at short notice.

I found the individuals who had come thoughtful and helpful, and I believe the meeting was successful and could lead to more dynamic progress, given the synergies that the HRC and the Task Force should develop. I was most grateful to the former Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Dhara Wijayatilaka, who also attended at short notice, since she has proved one of the most helpful persons on the Task Force, given her encyclopaedic knowledge of legislation that was enacted during her time as Secretary, when for the first time Human Rights was entrusted to a Ministry.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 6 - Strengthening the Human Rights Commission and cooperation with other state agencies - 12 April 2012

One area in which the Human Rights Commission has an vital role to play, in terms of the National Human Rights Action Plan, is that of training the judiciary. This cannot be done easily by another branch of government, since it would not do for the executive to trespass on the independence of the judiciary. At the same time it is important that the judiciary observes high level norms in its operations, with regard both to its professional decisions as well as the administrative rules it sets for itself.

Foremost amongst these is the need to establish a mechanism to ensure that justice is swift. The number of dates given to lawyers is positively outrageous now, but one can see why magistrates and even judges give in to pleas. In a context in which indulgence is the norm, to stand out against this is difficult. The result is endless delays in settling cases and mounting expenses for litigants, including the state.

The answer is not easy, but the judiciary, with guidance from the HRC in terms of the Action Plan, should set itself benchmarks with reporting requirements from judges and magistrates. There should be performance indicators which should be examined and upon which promotions should be granted. Fortunately the present Chair of the HRC had tried to institute something of the sort when he chaired the Judicial Services Commission, and is therefore in a good position to encourage compliance with whatever regulations can be developed.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 7 - Developing psychosocial support systems - 13 April 2012

Amongst the recommendations developed at the consultations on Human Rights arranged by the Consortium for Humanitarian Agencies that were held in my office a few weeks back, perhaps the simplest to implement swiftly is that about the lack of well-trained counselors for children. It is true that the Education Ministry has set up a system of counselors in schools, but training has been minimal in some cases, and there are no clear guidelines as to how they should be used.

Counselors need to work in collaboration with the teachers who are most likely to be a child’s first point of reference, while they should also have access to social workers from the relevant Ministries as well as well as medical personnel in the field. In addition, it would be useful if the education system worked more coherently in developing peer group support mechanisms, in particular through the entrenchment of extra-curricular activities that ensured socialization through cooperation. In this regard I had  approached the Girl Guide Association about doing more to support youngsters in the North, and they have responded positively. I have not as yet had a response from the Boy Scouts, which was not surprising since they have generally been socially less aware than the Guides, but perhaps cadeting would be better anyway for our youngsters.

Such basic attention is one necessity, given the alienation that can develop so easily in students subject to the pressures of our current schooling system. However, in addition to setting up a system of possible referral for problem cases, we also need to pay greater attention to professional counseling for these. In particular we need to ensure high quality psychosocial care for children involved in court cases. Mechanisms must also be developed to empower children to speak in such cases, and to ensure that what they say is given due notice.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 8 - Police Training - 16 April 2012

Whilst I have been impressed recently by the work of several police officers in the North, who have initiated imaginative and effective programmes to support the vulnerable, there is clearly need of much more concerted work to ensure that the police uphold Human Rights as they should. I should note though that I used to be accused of excessive criticism of the police, when I would suggest that they needed to have much better training with regard to Rights protection.
This was when I chaired a Committee on training, when indeed the senior officers who were my colleagues acknowledged that police training programmes had declined since their own days. They pointed out that this included training in investigation and interrogation and also prosecution, since without skills in these areas police might resort to improper methods, and might end up failing to obtain prosecutions even when they thought they had sufficient evidence. I remember in particular regrets about the Senior Detective Course that had falled into abeyance in the nineties, but the problem was that even the basic detection course was not systematically conducted.
There had been some efforts to remedy this, and there was much praise of a Swedish programme on Scene of Crime investigation, which had also involved access to modern equipment. Apart from this, though, the only sustained training programme from which the police had benefited was one on Community Policing the British had conducted, and this did not seem to have been at all systematic. In contrast, the army had benefited immensely from advanced training programmes during this period, which explains its greater professionalism. But the police had had even their usual training cut short, the period of commissioning for officers having been reduced to a few months, whereas the equivalent army personnel had had their basic officer cadet training extended from two years to two and a half. This had included much more attention to law.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 9 - The Laws’ and Other Delays - 17 April 2012

Even before I was asked to convene the Task Force on implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, we had commenced at the Reconciliation Office a series of consultations with relevant Government officials as well as Civil Society, to develop suggestions as to how best the Plan could be taken forward. We had three such consultations which all produced a wealth of ideas, and these fed in to a meeting of the Task Force which looked in particular at Children’s issues. The Secretary to the Minister who chairs the Inter-Ministerial Committee sent out several requests on the basis of the decisions taken then, though we still need a clear directive from the Presidential Secretariat about swift implementation of the Plan.

Unfortunately the next set of Consultations we had planned had to be postponed when I was suddenly asked to go to Geneva. I fear now that we will again have to devote time and energy to dealing with misguided criticism rather than moving forward with productive action. I suppose that has to be expected though, when Human Rights becomes a political tool rather than an entitlement for people that needs to be strengthened.

Anyway, we were able to resume the Consultations this week, and had two very helpful sessions on Torture and on Delays in the Law. The former area will require a lot of concerted effort since, as I noted a few years back when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights, there were several abuses which needed to be addressed. We had had a very helpful visit by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred Novak, and his report seemed a good foundation on which to build. Unfortunately, with concentration on other matters, and then the absence of a dedicated Ministry, nothing much was done – and we even lost out on his offer to find funding for a model correctional facility to overcome some of the problems created by the archaic jails we use and crowd beyond belief.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 10 - The importance of Training, Operational Directives and Reporting - 18 April 2012

At both the informal consultations on implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan held at the Reconciliation Office, and the official meetings conducted at the Ministry of Plantation Industries by the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee, three factors have been stressed by many participants. The first is better training, not only for the police but also for public servants in general. The Action Plan asserts the need for this in many places, talking not only about internal programmes but also about outside training. The institution it mentions most prominently in this regard is the Human Rights Commission, but it was also noted that agencies such as the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration, and universities that conduct courses in Public Policy and Management should incorporate Human Rights awareness in their programmes.

An important distinction was made however in the course of discussion, that training of officials should be not so much in awareness of human rights as in awareness of duties that ensured that human rights were protected. Whilst there is also need, and the Action Plan notes this, to educate the public about their Rights, with regard to those whose activities impact through a power relationship on others, the vital point is that they should function with sensitivity about the rights of those they affect. Thus, a course on Human Rights for police personnel should lead not to more complaints by them that their rights have been violated with regard to transfers etc, it should lead to fewer instances of violations of the rights of the public. In that regard we hope that the training programmes enjoined by the Action Plan will include a listing of the desired outcomes, and involve monitoring programmes to check on how effective the training is.

In order to do this we need also greater attention to the second factor that came up in our discussions, namely the need for operational manuals that make clear the way in which officials should function. In this regard I was delighted that the manual we had suggested years ago, in the Committee set up with regard to the Police and Human Rights, has finally been published.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 11 – The Girl Guide initiative about Violence against Women and Children - 20 April 2012

A couple of days after government had held a consultation about implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan with regard to Women and Children, the Sri Lanka Girl Guides Association convened a General Assembly on the topic of Violence against Women and Children. It seems that the World Association had thought this a matter of urgency to have ‘a wide spread campaign of stopping violence against women around the world’, and the Sri Lankan Association had taken the matter up through a very effective mechanism, namely asking each Province to examine a particular topic and make recommendations.
I had to be away for a couple of hours, so I missed some presentations, but I was privileged to hear the Northern, Southern, Central and Wayamba Provinces talk about Child Abuse, Child Labour and Rape. I was told too that Uva had made an excellent presentation, so I talked to the young ladies concerned over lunch and indeed found them aware of the scope of the problem, and full of ideas about how to resolve it.
All groups spoke of the need for greater awareness, and noted that not enough of this was given in school. This had come up in the government discussions too, as well as in the Civil Society consultations held at the Reconciliation Office, and also at a special session I had convened about children through the Task Force. Sadly – and I must take some responsibility for this, since the change was made when I chaired the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education – what is termed Life Skills is no longer compulsory at the crucial stage, namely Grades 10 and 11.




Sri Lanka Rights Watch 12 – Labour and Migrant Workers - 21 April 2012

The Consultation with responsible government officials we convened last week, to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, would I thought be easy, since the subjects to be discussed were not at all contentious. In one sense this turned out true, because there was no disagreement at all about what needed to be done. However we also realized the enormous slowness with which government departments have been acting and I don’t suppose it will be easy to ensure swift responses.

The first area we looked at was that of Labour Rights, where our record is relatively good. One area we must do better is ensuring protection of children from hazardous occupations, for which obviously there needs to be better coordination between the Police, the Labour Ministry and the Child Development Ministry and its relevant agencies. Similarly, we must ensure conformity with regard to legislation concerning compulsory schooling, employment, and the right to join trade unions. At present there are some discrepancies, which could lead to children who are employed, albeit legally, being exploited.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 13 – The Displaced and Land Issues - 22 April 2012

The third subject on which government held consultations last week about implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan was that of the Internally Displaced. I had thought there were no great problems there, given the swift resettlement programme government had implemented, and in fact I think this is an area about which we can be proud. However, as the Plan indicated, we could do more to institutionalize practices and make sure people do not fall through the net.

This section of the Plan begins with the need to adopt a National Policy on Displacement, something we had realized three years ago was lacking. Indeed I have now realized that preparing National Policies is not something we are very good at. Half the problems about land, that it seems now bedevil discussions about devolution, could be resolved easily if we had the National Land Policy that the 13th Amendment introduced, but which has been completely forgotten over a quarter of a century.

Part of the problem is the total lack of responsibility with which Cabinets are constructed and functions allocated. While rethinking is sometimes advisable, very few of the changes that occur are the result of thinking. Thus new Ministers come in, without an institutional memory to rely on, which means that those thus inclined simply use their Ministries as tools of electoral success. Of course there are several who do want to do a good job, but they are not helped by the absence of clear guidelines, or creative understanding in the officials who are shuffled around amongst newly conceived Ministries.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 14 – Acting on Recommendations accepted at the Universal Periodic Review - 23 April 2012

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.




Sri Lanka Rights Watch 15 - The question of torture - 1 May 2012

Those in authority in Sri Lanka have long known that torture is a problem that needs addressing. This is not unique to Sri Lanka, and indeed our record is comparatively good as compared with what is done in countries that are critical about us. Some of those countries engage in contortions to convince themselves that they are not really evil, as with the American efforts to justify waterboarding – which is not perhaps the worst excess they indulge in. Others simply farm out their dirty work, as we have seen in the blind eyes turned to the programme of secret renditions on which the nastier aspects of the Western War on Terror relied so heavily. 
Reading Craig Murray’s ‘Murder in Samarkand’, and his description of the hypocrisy of his colleagues in the British Foreign Office, as well as the then Home Secretary Charles Clarke, who fought to subvert a principle of British justice and allow material obtained under torture to be used in prosecutions, was extremely illuminating. But the fact that others engage in mischief is no excuse whatsoever, and it is important that Sri Lanka address the question and ensure remedial action to prevent any repetitions of aberrations – whilst also dealing through a transparent judicial process with such aberrations.

Both the government consultation, and the informal one I had conducted some weeks earlier, approached the problem in a positive spirit, looking at the difficulties police faced as well as the need to institutionalize safeguards. One problem brought to our attention is the inability to use statements made to the police in evidence. It seems – and I am subject to correction, for the whole area seems obscure – that this was a provision made by the British, but it does not in fact obtain in most jurisdictions. I should have thought this needs to be changed, so that material obtained through skillful interrogation is admissible – while of course there should be provisions for lawyers to be present during such interrogations.




Sri Lanka Rights Watch 16 - Preparing for the Universal Periodic Review - 3 May 2012

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, 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.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 17 – Better Prisons, Fewer Prisoners - 7 May 2012

Perhaps the most important thing we have achieved through the Task Force to expedite implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan is to ensure better coordination between the various Ministries that share responsibility for particular concerns. Thus last week the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms, which had participated actively in our consultations through a very committed Additional Secretary, convened its own meeting under the Secretary. In addition to the various Departments under that Ministry, he brought together the Ministry of Justice as well as representatives of the Judiciary.
The discussion was lively and constructive, and the Secretary seems determined to move, not only on the Action Plan, but also on the positive suggestions put forward by the President in the last Budget Speech. The most important of these is to reduce the numbers now committed to jail. Currently, as we were informed during the informal consultations we had with NGOs and relevant government departments at the Reconciliation Office, there are about 130,000 persons in prison, of whom only about 30,000 have actually been sentenced to jail. The rest have simply been remanded, which seems a shocking business.
Former Attorney General Mohan Peiris made several suggestions, citing recent developments in Britain, as to how to get over this problem. Meanwhile the dynamic new Secretary to the Ministry of Justice had sent another letter to establish a Steering Committee on ‘Access to Justice’, which is also intended to ensure that vulnerable groups do not suffer. We can be pleased then that the adoption by Cabinet of the Plan has led to so much activity, much of which was contemplated before but was laid aside until just such a catalyst emerged.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 18 – The Rights of Labour  - 9 May 2012

Given that May Day was celebrated last week, it occurred to me that I had been rather cursory in my discussion of Labour Rights a few weeks back. This was not entirely arbitrary, for the section on Labour Rights is by far the shortest in the National Human Rights Action Plan.
This in turn is understandable for we really have a very good record as far as Labour Rights go. However we cannot be complacent, for apart from the fact that we can do more, we must note that we have been attacked in this regard by two powerful critics. When we lost GSP+, even though obviously the reasons were political, with a twisting of the knife by the former British government and its representatives, there were nevertheless allegations made against us with regard to our labour laws.
These have also surfaced through the American Labour Movement, ironically one might say because a lot of the objections apply to regulations in the Free Trade Zone, and these were introduced precisely to provide incentives to American investors and others who are used to much more docile labour unions. But the capacity to speak with forked tongue of those determined to screw us should never be underestimated, and we should not therefore allow them any excuse. While it may well be in the interests of Labour itself to remove some of the stipulations about dismissal, so that we can encourage more employment opportunities, the claims of equity and basic security should not be forgotten.
Ironically, the most forward looking measure government planned in this regard has been forgotten. I refer to the provisions for Pensions for private sector workers, which was a commitment in the government’s manifesto, and which reflects the Issue highlighted in the Plan, that there is inadequate protection and social security coverage for those in the informal sector.




Sri Lanka Rights Watch 19 – Educational Reform - 14 May 2012

One of the issues that comes up again and again in the Human Rights Action Plan is the need for reforms in education and training. This is obviously connected with the ‘variance in the quality of education’ in different areas, which entrenches iniquity, but in addition there are several instances in which the Plan notes the need for different and better training, so as to produce personnel able to promote rights based action.

That the public at large understand this issue became clear to me when I participated in a workshop organized by the Young Liberals. This was a satisfying experience because, after some years away from teaching, it was refreshing to have a range of young people addressing issues and ideas with enthusiasm and keen interest. I should note that I have felt a similar satisfaction at the openness with which participants at our Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings raise issues, but the additional bonus of having fresh ideas from youngsters on an intensive scale was particularly rewarding.

When asked to highlight three areas in which reforms were urgently needed, all groups put educational reforms at the top of the list. A couple of groups fleshed this out in referring to the need for reform not only of basic education but of all types, and in suggesting that we needed to go beyond traditional methods.

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Sri Lanka Rights Watch 20 - The role of the Police in Coordination - 18 May 2012

I have been deeply impressed over the last few weeks by the quality and commitment of police officers in the North. This has not been true in all cases, and indeed on a couple of occasions the police failed to attend the meetings of the Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committees to which they had been invited. But on at least one occasion it turned out that the Divisional Secretary had not ensured that the invitation had been delivered, having entrusted the job to a Grama Niladhari who had far more important things to think about.
The police turned up promptly however the moment they were called, and it turned out too that, despite a poorly manned post, just one in Dharmapuram for the whole of the Kandaweli Division, they had dealt promptly with complaints, using the services of the larger station at Kilinochchi. Problems arose only because there was inadequate liaison between local officials and the police, and for this purpose it seemed best to maintain daily contact, with regular meetings once a week to discuss protection issues.
After all, according to their list of duties, Grama Niladharis are the first point of contact for the public when protection issues arise, and in the old days it is possible that the prestige of the postholders allowed them to settle many disputes without recourse to higher authority. In today’s world however, much less obsequious to what should be moral authority, there is need of reinforcements, and the Grama Niladhari and the police should liaise closely, with the involvement also of the other protection mechanisms put in place by the state, Probation and Social Service Officers, Counsellors, and those concerned with Development of Women and Children.

In some areas this has proceeded apace. The Inspector acting for the officer in charge of the Nanattan Division, knew the area and its problems well, though the post could be helped by having more Tamil speaking officers. It would also make sense for the area it looks after to be coterminous with the Division, instead of its more populated area being the responsibility of Mannar, which already has a massive area to look after.
The Task Force held another consultation last week with regard to safeguards against Torture. We had gone into this at some length at a meeting of all Ministries particularly concerned with Rights Protection, and this had been followed by a discussion chaired by the Inspector General of Police, which had however also dealt with other matters such as the dissemination of information regarding police duties and responsibilities.

It was thought best, following that meeting, to have a smaller consultation as to particular issues, and we were helped immensely by the presence of those in the Attorney General’s Department who had been dealing with torture problems for a long period, extending back to well before I became Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and began to study the problem, following the extremely helpful visit of Manfred Nowak, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Unfortunately the former Attorney General, Mohan Pieris, could not attend the latter consultation though we had actually shifted the date to accommodate him. This was a pity because he had been full of good ideas at the meeting chaired by the Inspector General of Police, and agreement had been reached in a number of areas which he agreed to pursue to ensure quick action.

Amongst his innovative ideas was the concept of Duty Attorneys to be available at all police stations to which anyone was brought for questioning. At present there are State Counsel assigned to I believe every High Court area, but their duties are not clear, and they certainly do not perform the watchdog role that is required as a protection against possible abuse while people are being questioned.
After several discussions with government officials on the implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, I reverted last week to what we had begun in the Reconciliation Office in February, before I was asked to convene the Task Force on the Plan. This was a series of consultations with Civil Society on the Plan, and as mentioned previously, a number of good ideas had come up with regard to areas of particular concern, Women and Children, the Law’s delays and Prisons.

It is always refreshing to get a different perspective on the measures to be taken, and I was reminded again of the need to consult regularly with civil society, since it is easy for bureaucrats to lose sight of the fact that the rules and regulations they work by were initially created principally to provide a better service to the public. Rarely do bureaucrats summon up a sense of indignation about abuses that occur, and I feel this is essential if action is to take place with the speed that is needed.

Facilities for children in remand are a disgrace, but those responsible for implementing them seem totally to have forgotten the clear rulings given by Justice Shirani Thilakawardana in this regard. Following her ruling, there should have been a thorough overhaul of the Probation Department, with clear guidelines issued as to daily duties, but this has not happened. Though the National Child Protection Authority  does its best now, and the new Secretary to the Ministry of Women’s Empowerment and Child Development has been a tower of strength, the structural reforms needed, with procedures for monitoring and reporting on a regular basis, have not been set in place.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 23 - The Right to Information - 17 June 2012

One of the most important commitments of the National Human Rights Action Plan, as agreed by Cabinet, is the adoption of legislation to ensure the right to information. Not only is this an obligation to our citizens, on whose behalf government acts, it is also practically desirable. In this modern day and age, when disinformation can be circulated so easily, and not necessarily out of malice, but through carelessness and ignorance, it would be helpful for government to have the facts readily available in clear and comprehensible form.
How useful this would be became even more clear to me when listening to the falsehoods and incomplete information purveyed by those critical of Sri Lanka at the recent discussion based on the Channel 4 documentaries that took place in London at the Frontline Club. Callum McRae, who had made them, declared that over 11,000 former LTTE combatants were still in custody, and could not be visited.
The issue of disappearances, which looms so large in public discourse at present, is hardly mentioned in the National Human Rights Action Plan. This is understandable because the Plan is intended for the future, to ensure that Human Rights are not violated, and therefore it suggests mechanisms to prevent disappearances occurring in the future.

The question of disappearances that have occurred, or are alleged to have occurred, is however a significant one, and requires concerted action. The LLRC recommendations also point this out, as does the Draft National Reconciliation Policy, which refers to losses which must be recorded and compensated.

One problem is the confusion that besets us about the various types of disappearances. The first, which is used to build up horrendous sounding statistics, are those that occurred two decades back, largely in connection with the JVP insurrection. Though commissions were appointed in the nineties to go into these, and concurrent disappearances in the North and East, their findings were not collated systematically. We also failed to respond systematically to queries from Geneva, to which these disappearances had been reported.

The Foreign Ministry had, in Mr Kadirgamar’s time, set up a good system for dealing with these, with the assistance of the Attorney General’s Department, but his had fallen into abeyance at the time I took over as Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights. We got this going again, and were in constant contact with the Working Group on Disappearances in Geneva, which was quite positive about our responses. We did not get very far however in clearing the backlog, or at least bringing closure to cases which probably cannot now be clarified, before the Ministry was wound up.
Another area which does not figure to any great extent in the National Human Rights Action Plan, but which is also of great concern currently, is that of former LTTE combatants. This is understandable for the intial draft of the Plan was prepared in 2009, and concurrently our Ministry was working, with ILO assistance, on a Rehabilitation and Reintegration programme for those combatants. So a field of action which seemed a temporary problem rather than something to be entrenched in a National Plan was omitted, since it should have been dealt with through special provisions.

Unfortunately that necessity too fell prey to the division of responsibilities between various Ministries. There had previously been a civilian Commissioner General of Rehabilitation, and in view of the mandate we had with regard to Human Rights, which seemed to me obviously to apply to those who had been conscripted, I had tried hard to evoke more concerted action. But it soon became clear that, with all his other responsibilities, as well as the difficulties of liasing with the Ministry of Defence when it had other major priorities, he simply could not handle the job.

Understandably too, when moved to action, he concentrated on the child soldiers, whose plight was obvious, but this meant neglect of the adults, who languished without much concerted support in a couple of centres that had been established. I should note that, when I visited the centre at Weli Oya, I found tremendous dedication on the part of the military personnel in charge, but without a clear plan, this did not seem likely to lead anywhere. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 26 - Land Issues - 30 June 2012

During the first set of consultations on the Human Rights Action Plan arranged by the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee expediting its implementation, it became clear that one of the most important cross-cutting issues was that of land rights. I realized that this was also important in another respect, since land came up as a central issue when I served on the government delegation that met with representatives of the Tamil National Alliance. LLRC recommendations also deal to a significant extent with land issues, though unfortunately these are not treated in general discussion with the same importance as matters of less concern to the people at large. And of course efforts by government to deal swiftly with some problems with regard to land were met with strong resistance which has now brought the matter into the Courts.

This seemed therefore a matter which should be discussed in a small group of stakeholders able to take action, and we requested the Ministry of Lands to arrange this. While many problems are exacerbated by the range of decision makers involved, and no clear understanding as to which is the lead agency, in this case the situation was simpler, since obviously it was the Ministry of Lands that had to take the lead. Its Secretary however decided initially, very sensibly, that we should have a preliminary meeting to discuss the various issues involved, though I was fortunate to have with me the consultant who had helped finalize the Action Plan, and who has a much better grasp of the issues involved than I do.

So does the Secretary, as we found out, and he had already taken action to resolve some of the problems. A slight one, but complicated, was the Land Development Ordinance, or rather the changes that were required, in particular to ensure gender equality. This had been amended for the purpose a couple of years ago, but abortively, since it was then noticed that Provincial Councils had to be consulted before any such amendment could proceed.




 Sri Lanka Rights Watch 27 - The Laws' Delays - 1 July 2012

A couple of months back, I wrote in this series about the laws’ delays, but I was talking then of a very different sort of delay. I was referring to delays in the application of laws, the manner in which dates are given ad infinitum (endlessly) for cases, how cases are adjourned sine die (without a date, so that those who suffer have no idea when they can get closer to justice), that individuals are remanded with no idea for how long this might be. I wrote of women committed to custody who are forgotten, of children sent to homes without proper records being kept so they do not come to the attention of the courts again, of cases not taken up because some information the state should provide is not available, but those responsible are not told that they should supply this promptly.

I suggested at the time that the state authorities responsible should have regular coordinating meetings to ensure that everybody knows what is needed, and they prepare or produce as required, and keep each other informed of any delay, with a commitment to act by a fixed date. My view that such meetings should be held weekly – prompted by the horror story of the analyst who travelled to the East only to be told the lawyer was not ready – was shot down, but there was a commitment to meet once a month. I can only hope that this is happening, and that at least the practice of coordination to minimize inconvenience to the public is being implemented.

What I want to address this time however is something quite different, namely the delay in preparing laws. We have a Law Commission which is meant to propose legislation, based not only on the particular requirements of different government agencies, but also in terms of developing perceptions of social needs. Thus in recent years the Law Commission has made recommendations about promoting gender equality, about clarifying conflicting claims with regard to land rights, about resolving conflicts when the judiciary feels that legislation is inappropriate (as with regard to provisions about statutory rape).



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 28 – Awareness as to the Rights of Women - 2 July 2012

This week saw the launch, by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, of two books that provide guidance with regard to women’s rights. One is a Commentary on the provisions of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, which came into law in 2005. It is written by Dhara Wijayatilake, our most senior Public Servant, who also has a sterling reputation for integrity – which is perhaps why she was removed as Ministry Secretary, when she thought something she had been instructed to do was not quite ethical.

I suspect such questioning will not be common now, and perhaps one can hardly blame the new generation of Public Servants, who have been trained to believe that politics is more important than ethics. But the combination of intelligence and practicality that this Commentary encompasses is perhaps the best indication that, unless we swiftly develop a better system of training, with greater attention to identifying objectives and prioritizing them rather than processes, the best laid plans of governments will get nowhere. Indeed perhaps there will be no such thing as plans, let alone well laid ones, as we replace governance with simply reactions to one crisis after another.

Practicality in the pursuit of identified goals is the keynote of the Commentary, and this needs to be stressed when, too often, laws are interpreted without sensitivity. The law was introduced to prevent violence against women, but there are still officials who, as the Ministry introduction to the book indicates, consider domestic violence ‘as a private matter that needs to be resolved within the family’. Such an approach obviously leads only to further suffering for women, from what we are gradually beginning to realize is the most prevalent social problem all over the world. It is for this reason that I have been advocating community based solutions as well, to prevent rather than cure, with local protection committees that will identify potential problems and deal with them through counseling and support mechanisms rather than necessarily resorting to the law.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 29 – Problems of Women in the North - 7 July 2012

During the last round of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, held in Mullaitivu, Kilinochchi and Vavuniya Districts, four very different problems were brought up with regard to women. The one that I think needs swift and concerted action is that of women headed households which need support for livelihoods. This is an area in which much assistance has been provided, but it could be more systematic, and should more concertedly move beyond financial support to the development of sustainable employment.

Efforts in this regard could be twinned with another problem that came up, which was the lack of preparation to deal profitably with the abundant harvests that the area is experiencing. One women’s group, at an earlier meeting, had asked for training in marketing, and that should certainly be provided along with training in food processing and other value addition activities which will at least to some extent increase the profits of locals as opposed to middlemen. For this purpose we should be encouraging the establishment of Women’s Cooperatives, and developing systems of credit that, as all experience shows, will prove viable when women are the chief beneficiaries.

Such organizations will also help with the community support systems that we must encourage. I have been urging the establishment of Protection Committees in each Grama Niladhari Division, that will not only settle problems when they arise, but also anticipate problems and prevent them coming to fruition. Initially the Committees were coy about discussing these, but they did note when I asked about sexual problems that there were increasing numbers of unwanted pregnancies. I had been told about this previously, by medical personnel too, who noted that it was not a question of rape, which is what the gossip circles claim, but rather consensual sex amongst minors. In addition, as one would expect in cases of single women, there were instances of pressures, beginning with ordinary social intercourse and offers of support, that eventually took their toll.



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 30 – Preventing languishing in jail - 9 July 2012

When I wrote about the Laws’ Delays last week, I was referring to delays in bringing forward laws or amendments that everyone agreed were essential, but which were held back because of inefficient coordinating mechanisms for all stakeholders. This factor, combined with the lethargy or perhaps diffidence that affects so many government departments, leads to protracted suffering for citizens.

But there is another area too in which the laws’ delays cause problems. This is systemic failure with regard to those in remand or indicted, which results in cases not being settled for years. I have referred to this previously, but now the Human Rights Commission has done some investigation and produced a Preliminary Study which includes some worrying statistics. It seems that 53 persons have been in remand for over 3 years with no prospect of an end to their cases. One has been in remand for over 15 years, having been arrested in 1996, while seven others have been in remand for over 10 years.

I was told about this when I met the Chairman of the Human Rights Commission, in pursuing fulfillment of the policy laid down by the President in last year’s budget speech. There he spoke of the enormous wastage in human and material resources caused by the practices of remanding practically automatically, and of indiscriminate sentencing to jail, and suggested alternative procedures. In addition to greater reliance on non-custodial sentencing, these could include much readier recourse to bail, as well as entrenching systems to ensure swift disposal of cases.



Sri Lanka Rights Watch 31 – The police as a positive social force - 10 July 2012

A couple of years back, when I was first given some responsibilities with regard to Human Rights, the Police thought I was excessively critical of them. I was, for which I was rebuked on the grounds that the lapses I noticed, as compared with the military, happened because of the reduction of the training period for both officers and men. Having seen how, even in the midst of the conflict, the training period for Army Officer Cadets had been increased from 2 years to 2 ½, and having realized that the much shorter period for the police had been shortened still further, I realized that what the senior officers told me was quite true.

The pressures on the police have been terrific over the last few decades and, with military needs taking precedence, their training had indeed suffered. DIGs bewailed the lack of the detective training courses they themselves had undergone, and though the Swedish government ran what I gathered was an excellent course on Scene of Crime investigation, that was exceptional. The British had done some work on community policing, but that had not been followed up very successfully, and apart from that I believe there was very little. We did manage to run one trainer training course on Human Rights, but though that was well received, with changes in personnel we found that even the Manual that had been prepared was not being finalized.

In fairness to the IGP at the time, he said that he was fully occupied with elections, and would work on what we wanted after the spate of elections was over. That, I should note, is another unnecessary burden on the police, for with all the elections we have at different times, and all the politicians for whom security has to be provided, they are further stretched, to say nothing of the various demands that politicians, not quite understanding the role of the police, make on them.
I discussed recently three of the four problems with regard to women raised in the last round of meetings of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings. The fourth I thought had to be looked at separately, because it seemed extremely serious.
This was an issue raised by one of the Women Development Officers, about a complaint made to her by a man whose wife had been offered an overseas job by an employment agency. It seemed that she had been taken to Colombo, after which he had lost contact with her. However he had heard that she was being kept there, the implication being that this was for prostitution.
Similar stories abound, such as of girls from the estate sector being brought to Colombo and moved from one house to another, and then being lost sight of. This however was the first time I had been told such a story from ground level as it were, and I have asked for further details. The Minister of Foreign Employment, to whom I mentioned the matter, has promised to look into the matter carefully if details are supplied.


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Sri Lanka Rights Watch 33 – Preventing Domestic Violence - 17 July 2012

After I had written my last piece on women, I attended a consultation organized by Oxfam to discuss two presentations by women’s groups. They were on very different subjects, but dealt with two vital issues concerning women and their empowerment.

The first was the impact of the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act, which had been prepared in the days when Dhara Wijayatilaka was Secretary to the Ministry of Justice. Her removal from that position was a tragedy, for her commitment and her efficiency (qualities not always found in combination) were unparalleled. Fortunately, she continued to work on the subject, and a couple of weeks ago I was at the launch of her simple guide to the Act, which the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs had published.

Her own speech was characteristically matter of fact, but the other speaker, who had prepared a portfolio of legislation pertaining to women, referred to some cases of abuse. If that was upsetting, what we were shown at the meeting organized by Oxfam, by an emotional but restrained woman from a group that actively helps to implement the act, was horrifying.


Sri Lanka Rights Watch 34 – Promoting women in politics - 24 July 2012

The second area discussed at the consultation on women’s rights arranged by Oxfam was that of female participation in politics. The National Human Rights Action plan lays down as a goal an increase in female representation at all levels but, as was shown by the women’s organization that had prepared an excellent presentation on such representation, the percentage at present is painfully low.

This is in marked contrast with the high proportion of women in administrative positions. Indeed, as I have pointed out, the work of the Task Force to expedite implementation of the Plan is taken forward largely by women, three of whom are amongst the most efficient Permanent Secretaries we have – though, sadly, one of them retired last month.

There are those who say that increasing the power of women to actually influence public life is much more important, and indeed it is argued – by some women, as well as one of the male parliamentarians who contributed to the discussion – that women in politics do little for other women. That may be the case, but the point made through the Action Plan, and emphasized by those who had arranged the discussion, was the need for greater female participation in politics to present different perspectives on all issues. Whilst sensitization with regard to the needs of women and children is increasingly essential, it is also necessary to promote wider perspectives on economic and social issues in general.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 35 - The Care of Children - 26 July 2012

Amongst the suggestions made at recent Reconciliation meetings in the North was that Divisional Secretaries should prepare systematic schedules of assistance that has been received in each Grama Niladhari Division in vital areas such as housing and livelihood. The first such returns have now come in, and will provide a useful planning tool for helping to ensure that assistance is supplied in the future to where it is most needed.

I am however also indebted to the Divisional Secretary of Vavuniya Town for initially adding on a page on Child Protection work, since that is an area of particular concern, and should be all over the country. Prominent on this page, in addition to Divisional Child Development Committees, were Children’s Clubs, which had only recently come to my attention. This was because, when I was looking through the schedule of aid projects, in a massive document that dealt with all projects in the North, I found several relating to the establishment of Children’s Clubs, with tiny amounts spent in each area, expenditure about which the Divisional Secretary concerned had no idea at all. This suggested that such projects were not especially useful, but when I questioned them I was told by the head of the National Child Protection Authority, which has been instrumental in promoting some packages that included these projects, that such institutions were essential.

They provided a forum for those concerned with the welfare of children to meet, and discuss problems and try to provide solutions. Such coordination it seemed had not been common previously. Indeed I noted that the membership did not in all places include all relevant personnel, but at least a start had been made in bringing together officials such as school principals and public health inspectors with members of Rural Development Societies and other community based organizations. Officials such as the police and Child Protection and Samurdhi Officers were also included in different areas, and members of the crucial but much neglected profession of pre-school teachers. I was also glad that the unit of responsibility was the Grama Niladhari Division, since that is the best way of ensuring a sense of responsibility, although, as the reports noted, problems of any degree would need to be referred to the next level up. This is the Divisional Secretariat, which has better access to professional support services.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 36 -  The Right to Higher Education - 11 Sept 2012

There has been much concern expressed in Parliament recently about the Right to Education, including through an Adjournment Motion dealing with university admissions. Opposition Members of Parliament have gone so far as to highlight the need for reforms on the lines suggested by the Minister of Higher Education when he initiated legislation to encourage and monitor alternative methods of provision, though sadly one cannot be sure that their leadership will back such measures.

Dr. C. W. W. Kannangara
Experience has shown that political expediency often trumps principle when such issues come to a vote, and I fear that those who have been forthright in their appeals for reform will succumb to pressure if there is a bandwagon to join.
With regard to education, we are still stuck in a mindset that confuses the Right to Education with a state monopoly. The fact that government must provide education to those who will otherwise be deprived of it for financial reasons is sacrosanct, and we in Sri Lanka must be proud that we have instituted this at all levels.
Less idealistic countries confine this to primary level, which is all that UN Conventions demand - though even this is not universal. Most countries manage also to provide secondary education free as their needs dictate, though sadly even those countries that pioneered free tertiary education have in some cases made adjustments that entail charges, of various magnitudes. One way of removing the injustice of this, in the Rawlsian sense of justice requiring level playing fields, is to provide loans to cover charges, repayable only when university education has led to a higher level job.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 37 - Affirming the Right to Education - 14 Sept 2012

In discussions at District and Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meetings, one of the most common complaints is with regard to teacher shortages in rural schools. The lack of English and Maths and Science teachers is seen as deeply detrimental to the education of children in the area, but even though this is recognized at all levels of government, for decades little has been done to remedy the situation.
The complaints I hear come in many forms. In Cheddikulam it was said that, though the Division suffered from a lack of teachers, the Zone had more than enough – Vavuniya town being its principal component - so it was not possible to demand more. In Mahaoya the Zonal Director of Education said that his Wednesdays were full of parents coming to him to complain that their children had no teachers. In Batticaloa again there was a distinction between the town area, which did comparatively well, and the rural Divisions, with Grama Niladhari areas belonging to Batticaloa Town Division also suffering.
These anomalies are amongst the greatest injustices our people suffer, for they serve to perpetuate inequalities. Though we have moved beyond the days in which political movements claimed equality was a right, and thus destroyed both initiative and growth, accepting the absurdity of this must go hand in hand with an active commitment to equality of opportunity. For this purpose nothing, not even health facilities, vital though they be, are as important as ensuring that all children get a decent education.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 38 - Why officials face too much undue influence - 19 Sept 2012

A couple of weeks back I wrote about the pernicious impact of our current electoral system on female representation in political bodies. The last week has convinced me more than ever that this system is the root of many of the evils that beset us, and that inhibit good governance.
An obvious example of this was an article that referred to political interference with the police, which obviously also contributes to abuses with regard to human rights. At the same time I should note that I have been very pleasantly impressed in recent months, in my frequent visits to the North to meet with Grama Niladharis and other local representatives at Divisional Secretariat level, by the generally positive impressions of the police. This was not the case a couple of years back but, particularly after the instruction issued recently by the IGP that there should be one or two policemen attached to every Grama Sevaka Division, levels of consultation and collaboration seem to have improved. By and large there seems to be much greater confidence than previously, and if there were more concerted efforts to ensure that at least half the policemen in the North spoke Tamil, I suspect we would have very few social or civil problems in the area that could not be readily resolved.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 39 - Saving Women from Houses of Detention - 1 Oct 2012

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.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 40 -  Prison visit - 4 Oct 2012

Amongst the Ministries and Departments that have contributed most actively to work on the National Human Rights Action Plan are the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prison Reform, and the Department of Prisons. They have explained to us the problems they face, and have made it clear that they would welcome a reduction in the numbers they have to take charge of. Unfortunately that aspect of Prison Reform is not their responsibility, it comes under the Ministry of Justice.
Unfortunately Justice too has some difficulties in this regard, for the Prisons are full beyond measure because people are committed to them by Magistrates. Unfortunately Magistrates do not carry out their duties with the full awareness that the system in fact demands of them, and most of them, as the Commissioner General of Prisons told us, hardly visit the prisons, to see the consequences of the, at best careless, certainly callous, approach they adopt.
We heard this during a visit to the Prisons arranged by the Human Rights Commission. Its active , and members of his staff, including several Commissioners, had asked the Commissioner General to permit us to look over some of the areas in his charge. This is in fact a right the HRC enjoys, and I believe its officials do exercise this, but sadly they do not have enough staff to maintain the practice at the level of frequency that is needed. However, even if they did so, and were therefore able to prevent the abuses that occur because of individual aberrations, they could not prevent the systemic abuse that results because of overcrowding.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 41 - Saving Children from Neglect - 7 Oct 2012

The recent occurrences at a Children’s Home in Mawanella have highlighted the need for better systems and better supervision with regard to the care of children. This is something we have been pressing for, with regard to the National Human Rights Action Plan, but I should note that the need for some remedial action has been felt for a long time.
In this and other areas Milinda Moragoda, when he was Minister of Justice, commissioned several reports, though unfortunately not all have been produced. Perhaps for this reason, or whether it is because of the chaos that arises from constant changes of Ministers without adequate briefing mechanisms, action has not been taken on those that were produced. This is particularly sad with regard to children, for Shirani Thilakawardhana produced an excellent and very caring report. Had that been implemented, with proper monitoring, the tragedies we hear of now might have been avoided.
At a recent meeting of the consultations with governmental and non-governmental organizations that have been instituted under the aegis of the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, we were presented with a very informative report by one of the few professionals at the Department of Probation. Further information was received from Save the Children, which has done yeoman service in this regard, and a UNICEF publication tellingly entitled ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind: a report on Voluntary Residential Institutions for Children in Sri Lanka’.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 42 - The LLRC and Human Rights Action Plans - 12 Oct 2012

Having now gone through the LLRC Action Plan, I can understand how sensible it was of the Cabinet to appoint, not politicians, but the Secretary to the President to work on it. And he in turn was inspired to appoint extremely competent public servants who would not be looking over their shoulders to see what political or personal fallouts their recommendations might cause. It was also very sensible to have selected a couple of people who, in addition to their personal integrity to recommend them, have work experience that relates so closely to the major concerns of the LLRC report
Not obviously coincidentally, these two Secretaries are perhaps the main contributors to the Task Force intended to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan. One of them also contributed seminally to its formulation, both by chairing one of the Committees we had appointed in specific subject areas when the Ministry of Human Rights was preparing the plan, and then by contributing more actively than I think anyone else, when the Plan did not have a home as it were and the Attorney General kindly steered it through and gave us his rooms for meetings to produce a final draft.

Not coincidentally either, the two Action Plans have much in common. Though the LLRC Action Plan only mentions the HR Action Plan twice, it has been noted that there are I think 28 areas of congruence. This must obviously be the case, for the LLRC strives to ensure a Rights based approach to problems that unfortunately have been canvassed more in terms of vindictiveness and self-justification. Obviously in a situation of war, and especially one driven by a terrorist agenda, suffering will occur. Instead of engaging in atrocity snap, and engaging in blanket generalizations, we need rather to look at the suffering and strive collectively to assuage it.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 43 – The Bill of Rights - 18 October 2012

I was sorry last week to miss the Nandadasa Kodagoda Memorial Oration for two reasons. One was because of great assistance rendered by his son Yasantha Kodagoda to Dayan Jayatilleka and our Mission in Geneva at sessions of the Human Rights Council. He was a pillar of strength in dealing with the Working Group on Disasppearances, when we decided, after I became Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, that we had to clear the backlog. Much of this related to the late eighties, and Yasantha had done much work on this in the mid-nineties when the Foreign Ministry had developed tried to respond systematically.
Unfortunately changes of regime and personnel led then to that system being forgotten, in yet another example of our national curse of not ensuring continuity when structures and people change. Another example was Yasantha not joining the delegation to Geneva after Dayan left, though I was delighted to find, when I too went back to Geneva in March this year, that he was once more on the delegation. He had also done yeoman service in preparing the National Human Rights Action Plan, especially in the final consultations we had in the Attorney General’s office when Mohan Pieris, in the midst of manifold other duties, took on the responsibility of preparing the final draft for Cabinet. And since then he has been extremely helpful, along with his colleague Shavindra Fernando, in the Task Force set up to expedite implementation.
The area in which our interests coincide was the subject of the oration this year, since it was delivered by Jayampathy Wickramaratne on the topic ‘Human Rights: Theirs or Ours?’ I had first dealt closely with Mr Wickramaratne when I found that he chaired the Committee set up to draft a Bill of Rights, as promised in the original Mahinda Chintanaya. Unfortunately the Committee seemed to have fallen into abeyance at the time I became Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, I believe because there was confusion about where responsibility lay for the Bill. At the time Jayampathy’s committee was set up, in came under the then Ministry of National Languages and Constitutional Reform, but after a Human Rights Ministry was established shortly afterwards, responsibilities were not clear.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 44 – The LLRC and Human Rights Action Plans

The first part of the LLRC Action Plan deals with what are termed International Humanitarian Law Issues, which may create the wrong impression given the excessive attention focused on what are termed war crimes by some national and international critics of the government. This is a pity because what I would term general Human Rights issues figure here, and these should be dealt with swiftly and constructively. 
The need to stop abductions and enforced disappearances is widely recognized, and steps must be taken to prevent such happenings, and to both investigate and prosecute when wrongdoing is apparent. If such wrongdoing is on the part of the state, or forces associated with the state, it is even more important to act decisively, and restore confidence in law enforcement agencies. 
To confuse this with dealing with war crimes is a mistake, and might prevent swift action. The LLRC made clear that it did not think there was good reason to assume war crimes had been committed, though it does note that there should be further investigation of complaints based on specific incidents. The specific incidents it does describe are those connected with disappearances after surrender or arrest. These should not be confused with the conduct of the war, but relate to the wider phenomenon as to which we still hear allegations, though few of these now, it seems relate to Tamils.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 45 - Consultations to finalize legislation to protect children - 31 Oct  2012

Following on the consultation we held with NGOs and government agencies directly concerned with the protection of children, the Task Force appointed by the Inter-Ministerial Committee to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan met last week to work out how to take things forward. 
I was a bit worried because there was a new Secretary of the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Rights and, given the excellent input and understanding of his predecessor, I was worried that we might have to start from scratch as it were to work out what was needed. But I need not have worried. He was every bit as sensitive as his predecessor, and his sharp comment when we were discussing Children’s Homes, that what was being done amounted to incarceration, made it clear that he will do his best to promote the necessary reforms. 
As I have noted previously, the officials who attend are committed to change, and this time too we had the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Department, as well as the Human Rights Commission and the Probation Department and the National Child Protection Agency, all anxious to move on the legislative changes necessary to minimize abuse. Drafts are ready for the Child Protection Ordinance as well as for safeguarding those who have to appear in Court, and the Secretary will soon have a consultation to agree on finalizing the Protection draft and expediting its presentation to Parliament.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 46 – The LLRC and the Detained - 09 Nov 2012

I looked last week at the provisions in the LLRC Action Plan for dealing with questions about disappearances, and noted the importance of the recommendation regarding greater transparency and precision as to the actual facts. This is also important regarding detainees, where much confusion has resulted from conflation of two separate issues. 
I should note that there is also a third, which is even more serious now, given that we have dealt quite effectively with the first two issues. I refer to those who have nothing to do with the conflict, but should definitely be considered under the Action Plan recommendation to create ‘a special mechanism to examine cases of persons being held in detention (for long periods without charges)’. The recent visit to the Prisons that we undertook with the Human Rights Commission brought home to us graphically what statistics had already indicated, that large numbers are held in remand with no prospect of their cases being heard. At Welikada itself there are over 1000 remandees, some of whom have been in remand for years, while the State continues to ponder as to whether charges can be brought.
I had been astonished at the failure in coordination that sometimes led to this situation. At the consultations the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies persuaded me to commence at the Reconciliation Office even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force on the Human Rights Action Plan, I found the Government Analyst’s Department for instance, which participated actively and helpfully, noting that sometimes reports they sent in were lost, and sometimes they travelled miles for cases only to be told that the prosecution was not ready.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 47 – The Rights of Elders - 13 Nov 2012

I was surprised to be invited last week to a consultation on the Rights of Elders organized by the Human Rights Commission, since this was not an area I knew about. In fact the Rights of Elders do not figure in the Human Rights Action Plan, which led to questions as to whether the latter should not be amended, to include these as well.
I was wondering why the topic had not been introduced, during the initial consultations about the Plan when we first began preparing it in 2008, but the reason became apparent when Mrs Jegarajasingham, who had been Secretary to the Ministry of Social Services under whom the subject comes, noted that a National Policy on Elders had in fact been adopted by Cabinet. That covered a lot of ground, and it clearly made no sense for the Human Rights Action Plan to duplicate what had already been agreed. However it would seem that that Policy had not been implemented, which seems to be the fate of many good intentions in Sri Lanka.
I don’t think this is intentional, but it certainly is a national hazard, given the large number of institutions owing allegiance to different authorities that have to be coordinated to give effect to policy – and our general failure to set up effective coordinating mechanisms. I could understand then why Minister Samarasinghe, having been asked to chair the Inter-Ministerial Committee, appointed me to convene the Task Force to promote implementation, because in addition to having worked with a number of the relevant agencies previously, I did not represent any institution that could be seen as invading the space of other institutions that fiercely guarded their own turf. This has enabled the Task Force to develop coordinating mechanisms in a number of areas, where we make it clear that there is no lead agency, it is simply that one must take the lead to ensure action.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 48 – The Right to a fair trial - 24 Nov 2012

I have been deeply disturbed by some reactions to what seems a spate of criminality relating to the abuse of children. The argument is that we should respond to this by reintroducing capital punishment. 
This is absurd, and not only because punishment should always fit the crime. Capital punishment for murder is another question, but that we already have, and the simple fact that it has not been implemented indicates the deep disquiet felt in general about the process. What we certainly should not do is introduce capital punishment for other offences, and then go through the horrors of either implementing it or else keeping people indefinitely on what is termed death row. 
The Chairman of the Human Rights Commission was deeply moved during our recent visit to the prisons by the plight of those incarcerated in this manner, and I trust he will urge a review of policy in this respect. Equally disturbing however was the evidence that emerged there of injustices related to protracted sentencing, in a case that also made clear the perversities that can affect our judicial system when dealing with emotionally charged issues. Putting in place mechanisms to avoid these, or to provide remedies when they occur, is also part of protecting Human Rights.
Unfortunately we have no coherent system of checking on the judiciary. At the recent seminar on contemporary issues in South Asia arranged at the Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies, a bright young lady from the Law Faculty pointed out that we had no mechanism for review of judgments of the Supreme Court, and that it was up to Parliament to fine tune legislation to deal with instances in which the Courts subverted the clear intention of the legislature – as for instance with judgments concerning mandatory sentences for statutory rape, or the provisions designed to prevent crossing over with impunity by Parliamentarians. 
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.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 50 – Clarifying statistics as to Rehabilitation - 29 Nov 2012

One of the few people who actually reads this column seriously drew my attention to what seemed inaccuracies when I last wrote about the detained. One point was my mentioning being asked to monitor implementation of the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC. He had thought the Committee looking into the LLRC Recommendations was composed only of bureaucrats, and thought I must have been referring to my task of convening the Task Force on the Human Rights Action Plan.
He was certainly right in pointing out that I had no role with regard to the LLRC Recommendations. I suppose this seems peculiar, given my position as Adviser on Reconciliation, but I do see that bureaucrats like Mrs Wijeyatilaka and Mrs de Silva and Mr Dissanayake might seem more objective in their approach. My own worry is that such a monitoring committee should have a clear structure with transparent reporting requirements, and that I believe has yet to be set in place.
For my own part I am finding it difficult to provide publicly accessible reports on the Human Rights Action Plan, which I believe is a necessity. Sadly the website that should be devoted to this has still not been started, and I fear that it is not seen as urgent by anyone other than myself. This is a pity, because the sterling work that has been put in by many government agencies needs to be put on public record, while doing this systematically will also help us to see where there are shortcomings. Meanwhile the two young ladies who help me (reduced from three, because the one I worked most closely with initially has been translated to higher things) need constant guidance. Even the basic mechanism of fitting what has been reported to us as having been done, directly under the requirement as to action, had to be explained, and may take time to implement – through no fault of theirs I hasten to add, more a matter of scarcity of resources and of time for effective supervision.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 51 – Detainees, Prisons and the ICRC - 7 Dec 2012

A couple of weeks back the Task Force to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan for the first time invited persons not in government service to participate in a formal meeting. I had long wanted to do this, but government had, I suppose understandably, been wary of external involvements, which can often be interference. I had therefore continued with the system of informal consultations that had been set up earlier through the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, but it was I think a great boon that the Minister had met the ICRC head and realized how much they do and can contribute. 
The ICRC after all works only with governments (or parties to conflict) and though, as we saw from Wikileaks, some of its officials succumb to the charm of powerful countries, in Sri Lanka, except for a brief period in early 2009, they have been the souls of discretion. Indeed, a study of communications between them and government during that year (as I saw from the few documents the army gave me when I was looking into claims about hospitals and civilian deaths) would make it crystal clear that we are innocent of the allegations made in the Darusman Report about the conduct of our armed forces during the conflict. Sadly study is something neither we nor our critics engage in.
I was instructed then by the Minister to set up a meeting, which proved most informative, with active contributions also from Ministry of Rehabiliation and Prison Reforms, the Bureau of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation and the Prisons Department. Unfortunately the representatives designated to attend by the Attorney General’s Department and the Ministry of Justice failed to turn up, though the Secretary to the latter was most apologetic and promised to take up the matter formally with the officer concerned.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 52 – Overcrowding in Prisons: Causes, Remedies - 11 Dec 2012

The ICRC study on overcrowding in prisons is deeply depressing, not only because of the sordid picture it reveals, but also because reform would be so easy, if only there were better coordination. Unfortunately we have now in Sri Lanka built up a system in which coordination is almost impossible, and the information that should stir authorities to change things is rarely systematically collated and effectively presented. 
It was the Minister of Justice who initially alerted me to the ICRC study, and much of the change has to come from institutions connected with justice. However getting the Judiciary to move is almost impossible, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice found, her plea to the Chief Justice to convene a meeting to look at the issue having fallen on deaf ears. I have been luckier, in that I have got replies to letters I sent, but the effect of these is to make it clear that nothing will be done since the judiciary is not responsible for action. 
I suppose this is strictly speaking true, but I cannot understand why the judiciary will not develop norms for sentencing based on reducing unnecessary suffering as well as expense. The ICRC study notes that, ‘Out of the total admissions in 2010…… 75.7% (100,191) consisted of remandees, of whom  21.9% spent between 14 days and 1 month in remand and 25.5% (3'367) spent less than 14 days in remand’.
Since the approximate average cost per prisoner per day is Rs. 318.00, the total per month (· Estimated approx total cost for month (100,000 detainees x 30 days) is Rs. 954,000,000, ie 12 billion rupees a year, given that some months are longer.
A week ago, in writing about former combatants who have undergone rehabilitation, I referred too to the decision of government to send several of those remanded before the conclusion of the conflict for rehabilitation instead of seeking to punish them. These had been taken in under the PTA or Emergency Regulations, on suspicion of terrorist activity or of aiding and abetting terrorism. 
I noted then that, from what I had been told last year, there were 4195 of these, a figure which fitted with the 4000 I remembered from my days as Secretary of the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, which had monitored their fate. We would get regular reports about them from the ICRC, which visited them regularly, and they were also amongst those visited by Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, who produced a very helpful report that we should have acted on more expeditiously.
Our Ministry indeed advocated that these remandees should be charged soon or else released. However we understood that at least some of them were extremely dangerous, given the long and terrifying reach of the LTTE in those days. We understood therefore the need for special care, as provided for by the special measures in force, but after the war we suggested that those measures needed to be reviewed, and that decisions as to the remandees should be made swiftly.
The President was also evidently of this opinion, for he asked us to set up a Committee to go into the cases. I chaired that Committee, and found all agencies involved, the TID and the Prisons and the Attorney General’s Department, extremely helpful. The only problem was that the TID sent more cases than they could easily deal with for decision as to whether to prosecute to the AG’s Department, but even so, in the three months during which the Committee sat, we reduced the number remanded by I think close on a thousand.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 54 – Systematizing Units for Women and Children at Divisional Secretariats - 21 Dec 2012

In dealing at some length, over several columns, with the meeting on Prisons convened by the Task Force on expediting implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, I have neglected an equally important meeting that took place the next day. On August 4th the new Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment had a meeting to discuss initiative regarding children, to deal with problems raised in the plan.
The meeting on Prisons, which I had convened as requested by the Minister to look into the excellent report the ICRC had prepared on Overcrowding in Prisons, had ranged over a number of other issues too, including former LTTE combatants and those still in detention under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Though we dealt much more swiftly with these problems after the conflict was over than other countries engaged in what they term a war against terrorism – which has with one notable exception never laid low hundreds of their citizens as happened to us, Muslims and Sinhalese and Tamils – there are still some issues to be resolved, and better coordination would I think help us to ensure justice as well as security for all our citizens.
In a very different way, this is what we need for children too, and the discussion in the Ministry covered a number of issues. Most important perhaps was a proposal the Secretary had initiated previously, by writing to the Secretary to the Ministry of Public Administration, to ask that a Unit for Women and Children be set up in every Divisional Secretariat. The nucleus for such a Unit is present, with Women and Children’s Desks now established in most police stations, and a host of officials appointed to deal at that level with the problems of Women and Children.
Unfortunately there are many vacancies in these positions, and there seems no concerted effort to fill them. Instead of each Division being provided with a Probation Officer and a Child Rights Protection Officer and a Women’s Development Officer and an Early Child Development Officer, I find just one or two of them at most in the Divisional Secretariats – about 30 of them thus far – at which I have had Reconciliation meetings in the North and East. To make matters worse, in some cases the officers have vanished, being swallowed up in the new graduate recruitment scheme. And though imaginative Divisional Secretaries have allocated them work in these areas, this is not the same as having dedicated officials with clear instructions as to their responsibilities and reporting mechanisms.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 55 – The Right to Development

I was privileged last week to attend the 5th South Asia Economic Summit that was held in Islamabad, with active participation by South Asian academics, politicians, government officials and think tanks. The theme was ‘Making Growth Inclusive and Sustainable in South Asia’, and almost all participants stressed the need for equity in the developmental process. The one exception, according to the Chairman of the Bangladesh Centre for Policy Dialogue, one of the cooperating partners for the event, was my old friend Nadeem Ul Haque, former IMF Representative in Sri Lanka, now Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission of Pakistan.
Nadeem’s point, made in his usual combative but convincing fashion, was that we had to ensure growth first, before thinking of inclusivity. However I think Rehman Sobhan was wrong to suggest that Nadeem was practically neo-liberal in his approach, believing that the trickle down effect of growth would suffice to fulfil the social aspirations of countries wedded, at least now, to the democratic process. Nadeem had after all shown himself deeply committed while in Sri Lanka to reform of the education system, so as to enhance opportunities, which is after all one of the best ways of promoting equity.
That had been the theme of my inaugural speech. I had been somewhat diffident when I was first asked to address the gathering at its opening session, given my relative ignorance of economics (the dismal science as the Victorians termed it, to my mind based on the same epistemic principles as astrology, as opposed to the accessible certainties of the hard sciences). However it turned out that the points I made recurred in several of the presentations that followed, and the Pakistan papers highlighted some of the general points I made, including the  need for attitudinal change as well as better technical skills.
The general feeling was that Asia was poised to dominate the world economy over the next decades, but South Asia might let slip the opportunities available if we did not upgrade our work force, and ensure more coherent planning. Listening to the input of thinkers as well as decision makers from some of the other SAARC countries, I realized how deficient we were in the planning and administration of public policy, and I hope we will be able to develop systems that can ensure more inclusive formulation of plans and more effective implementation – and also better monitoring. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 56 – Inclusivity and Participatory Budgeting - 27 Dec 2012

Inextricably bound up with the Right to Development is the right to participation, and to knowledge. Sadly, though consultation has been a pillar of the President’s approach to politics, and has found expression in the manifesto, this has not been institutionalized as intended. Local advisory committees are not in place, and though occasionally the views of local communities are sought, as they have mentioned to me in Divisional level Reconciliation meetings, their ideas more often than not do not find realization in development plans.

More galling perhaps, for no one expects all their ideas to be taken on board, there is no system to explain the reasons for the decisions that are made. So those who have taken the trouble to express themselves feel doubly left out. While obviously they do not have a right to have their ideas implemented, they do have a right to know what is happening, and how the problems they have identified are being addressed. It is up to the elected government and the administration it has put in place to make decisions, but it must remain accountable, and explaining how concerns are being addressed should be an essential component of governance.

While in Islamabad I was delighted to discover that, through a Civil Society initiative, some elements of accountability have been introduced. The project was warmly supported by my old friend Cashian Herath, a quiet but extremely effective public servant as I found when he swiftly implemented the idea of the Secretary of Defence to recruit youngsters of all communities as English Teacher Cadet Officers (when the Ministry of Education was being recalcitrant). As Secretary to the Ministry of Provincial Councils, Cashian had supported an initiative called Participatory Budgeting, whereby communities were involved in the budgeting process at local government level, and could hold their elected representatives accountable.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 57 – Guidelines and Independence for the Judiciary - 29 Dec 2012

There have been some rumblings recently about the conduct of the Supreme Court with regard to the judgment it delivered on the proposed Divineguma Bill. Fortunately I have heard little criticism of the substance of the judgment, and this is as it should be. While I believe that blatantly unjust decisions of the Courts should be challenged, and in particular by academics, using reason (not by politicians resorting to prejudice), this does not seem to me to be such an instance. Where the Courts are allowed discretion, that should be exercised independently and, provided good reasons are given for the judgment, the matter should be allowed to rest. 
Of course there is a case for allowing appeals from the judgments of the Courts, but these should be only to superior Courts. Given too that even the Supreme Court could reach erroneous conclusions, occasionally blatantly unjust ones, more often ones that arise from carelessness, perhaps because lawyers failed to make relevant points, there should be provision for review by a larger Bench of the Supreme Court. 
In the present instance criticism seems to be on a procedural issue. I am not sure that the issue seems to me particularly significant, but I am glad the question has been raised of how to ensure that the Courts follow the procedures laid down by the legislature, even while ensuring that their independence of judgment is preserved. I have drawn attention to this previously, but of course no one takes such matters seriously until they are personally affected, and perhaps I too would not have thought of the distinction had I not been entrusted with convening the Task Force on expediting implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 58 – Moving from patronage to equity in social services - 31 Dec 2012

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.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 59 – Reducing overcrowding in prisons - 2 Jan 2013

Last week the Human Rights Commission held a consultation on the current situation in prisons. There was excellent attendance from all relevant agencies, except sadly for the Attorney General’s Department. This was disappointing, but I was not surprised, since the designated officer had failed also to attend the meeting on the same subject arranged recently by the Human Rights Action Plan Task Force
Though initially the Department had been assiduous in attendance, and extremely helpful, recent developments confirm my view that a largely competent Department has some members who do not care enough about working to deadlines and plans, and cooperating constructively with other agencies for this purpose. This doubtless is why we also have several instances of cases being postponed endlessly, without reference to other stakeholders, as was explained to us passionately by the very competent representative of the Government Analyst’s Department who attended. I hope therefore that the Attorney General will remedy the situation, and take appropriate action, as the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice promised to do when one of her staff, having been designated for the Task Force meeting, failed to attend. Whether such discipline is possible now in Departments that were a byword for efficiency in earlier days is however a moot point.
The meeting began with a succinct introduction by the Chairman to the problem, based on a visit the Commission had undertaken to the prisons. I had been privileged to accompany them on part of the visit, organized very helpfully by the Prisons staff. I have written about this before, and the horror that a matter so easily solved, with moral and social and financial benefits to the country, is left in abeyance for so long.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 60 - Bringing government closer to the people - 4 Jan 2013

I wrote a couple of weeks back about the Participatory Budgeting initiative that is currently being conducted in selected local government bodies, after hearing about it at the South Asia Economic Summit in Islamabad. It seemed most timely, because sadly we have no formal system of training those elected to local government bodies so that they can plan for their areas and implement projects effectively. As a result, one of the most important Rights for countries such as ours, the Right to Development, will be ignored, for that requires active participation by citizens in decision making as well as transparency and accountability.
Some of those elected to office do of course manage to serve their people well, but given the electoral system we have had for decades now, and the very different skills required to succeed through this, we must recognize that capacity has to be built up. Having spent much time recently in Divisional Secretariats, and seen how distant people feel from planning and administration, I was delighted that an initiative to promote participation, and consultation and accountability, had been undertaken, and with what seems to have been remarkable success in many areas in which it had been piloted.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 61 - The need for precision - 8 Jan 2013

At the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee on implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, there was much emphasis on the forthcoming Universal Periodic Review which Sri Lanka will undergo in Geneva in November. I would have preferred direct concentration on the Action Plan, since I believe we should be committed to progress in this area for our own people, rather than because there is an External Review. I am pleased that Mahinda Samarasinghe is in charge of the delegation, notwithstanding the various leaks from the Ministry of External Affairs to suggest that only officials would be on the delegation, and I was glad that he was taking a forthright approach to the process. However I continue to believe that we are not being practical enough in our pursuit of Rights for our people, and we really must ensure clearcut responsibilities and reporting mechanisms.
After all sincerity – which Minister Samarasinghe has in abundance, along with his principal aide in the process, the former Attorney General Mohan Pieris – is not enough, as compared to statistics. I recall some months back the withering reply of Ambassador Patricia Butenis, when she was complaining that Sri Lanka was coming out with various contradictory positions about the LLRC, and I told her that she should not take seriously what others said, but should concentrate on the official position as expressed by the Minister of External Affairs and by Mr Pieris. Her comment was that they no longer had credibility in her eyes.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 62 – The principles behind Electoral Reform - 11 Jan 2013

The passing last week of the Local Government Elections Bill was a singularly important occasion. It abolished the single most destructive element of our current political system, the preferential system of voting operating over large electoral units. To tabulate the vicious elements of this system, it
  1. Requires candidates to canvas on a massive scale, entailing excessive expenditure

  2. Creates rivalries between candidates on the same slate, leading to violence as well as electioneering at more intensive and expensive levels than are readily affordable

  3. Makes impossible a close link between elected members and constituents on a scale that can ensure responsibility and accountability

  4. Demands excessive spending over a large area to ensure continuing popularity

  5. Entails using supporters on a scale that increases expenditure 

The system then was a breeding ground for rent seeking and corruption. It also took attention away from legislative responsibilities as well as policy formulation. I can only hope then that this initial step will be followed by abolishing this pernicious system for Parliamentary as well as Provincial Council elections.
The urgent need of reform in this regard overcame to my mind the numerous flaws in the bill. I was glad to note that this seemed to be the view of the opposition too, for it did not press the amendments it had suggested, but instead accepted the assurance of government that changes could be made subsequently. 
One exception was the speech made by Sajith Premadasa with regard to changing the provision in the Bill that 25% of the candidates nominated ‘may’ be women and young persons. He moved that 20% should be women and 20% young persons, which is of course the only way of ensuring increased representation of these categories. Indeed I believe this is the first instance of a wish list being included in legislation: while it may be interesting to introduce good ideas in all future legislation (perhaps by tagging on to every new Act the suggestion that we should all love one another, or refrain from criminal actions, or anything else we think desirable), it is more sensible to make laws about what must happen, not about worthy possibilities. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 63 - Transparency with regard to Law - 14 Jan 2013

The importance of recent legislation to change the electoral system for local government elections was such that it clearly made sense on all sides to refrain from trying to improve the content of the Bill, but instead to concentrate on making it law. The government has after all agreed to further amendments by mutual consent later on, including increasing the proportion of those to be elected on a list basis to 40%.
I was told that one reason for not introducing that amendment at the Committee stage was that the Legal Draughtsman’s Department had said that would be difficult. I am not sure if this was correct, but if so it indicates how useless that Department has become. It was because of flaws in the draft last year that consideration of the Bill was postponed, and I very much feared then that opponents of the changes would prevail and prevent the Bill being brought forward again. 
After all, though the whole country wanted change in the perverse system of preferences that J R Jayewardene introduced, the only people who had benefited from it, namely legislators elected under that system, were those who had to make the changes, and one cannot expect modern day turkeys, unlike those in the 1977 Parliament who allowed Jayewardene to destroy the power of Parliament, to vote for Christmas. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 64 - Deploying Resources more effectively - 16 Jan 2013

Because of both the National Human Rights Action Plan, and Reconciliation work that involves meetings at distant Divisional Secretariats, over 50 in the last year, I have become deeply conscious of the gaps in our systems with regard to protection for Women and Children. Most obviously there is a woeful lack of coordination of the various agencies and personnel supposed to work in this area. 
But equally worrying is the absence of such personnel in most places. This has been brought home to me more forcefully, following the suggestion of the Secretary to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affaris to set up Women and Children’s Units in each Division. I now check on what human resources each Division have, and I find none that have officials in every area. 
This is true of many fields. After the very productive discussion between the Secretary of the Children’s Ministry and the Secretary to the Ministry of Social Services – whom I had known in another incarnation as the courageous and efficient Government Agent in Mullaitivu and then Jaffna – I looked also for Social Services and Counselling and Welfare Officers, in addition to Women’s Development and Probation and Child Rights Protection and Early Childhood Development Officers. But more often than not these too are lacking – and the same goes for Sports Officers and Cultural Officers too.
In some places there had been Officers on probation, but they had left to take up places in the latest Graduate Recruitment Scheme government has begun. That absurdity made me realize how bizarre this scheme was, though I had already had inklings of the confusion caused in many officers by hundreds of these new recruits, for whom jobs had to be found.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 65 – Settling land problems swiftly - 20 Jan 2013

Land continues to be perhaps the single most problematic issue at Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings. This is understandable given the complexity of the difficulties, and the number of people affected. That is why the issue is given prominence in the National Human Rights Action Plan, and why the Action Plan on implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission virtually gives it priority.
The Task Force for expediting implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan accordingly had a consultation a couple of weeks back with the participation of all governmental agencies involved. We also had support from the University of Colombo Law Faculty, since I have found the University Human Rights Centre has taken a number of positive initiatives to develop Human Rights awareness and best practices in various areas. 
The Consultant who helped to finalize the Action Plan, and who had provided invaluable support at a meeting I had a couple of months back with the energetic Secretary to the Ministry of Lands, also participated. I am awaiting the Minutes they were asked to prepare to go deeper into the issues discussed, but I fear that delay seems endemic even in the most committed, and it is perhaps because I have little else to do that I expect everyone to take action immediately as I try to do.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 66 – Streamlining administrative procedures - 23 Jan 2013

In writing recently about the need to deploy resources more effectively, I concentrated on human resources, and the failure of government to develop a coherent policy that ensures attention at local levels to local problems. Employment is created en masse, without careful study of needs, and of the skills required to fulfil those needs.
The other side of this coin is the absence of procedures that will ensure, or at least encourage, the desired results. Administrative efficiency is not seen as necessary, and administrative and financial regulations seem designed to inhibit initiative and energy rather than promote them.
One major problem is the lack of any sense of urgency. When I was appointed Secretary to a Ministry, I was horrified at the manner in which files were piled up in the in-trays of my colleagues. When I expressed surprise, I was told that government did not require matters to be dealt with for three days. This struck me as preposterous and, when I probed further, I found that three days was supposed to be the maximum period within which responses should be sent.
This had become a minimum. I explained painstakingly that responses should be made immediately, unless there was need to seek further information, and that the guideline of three days was intended to set a limit on the time any institution should take to find information internally. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 67 – Restoring and Acquiring Land - 25 Jan 2013

I finally received the Minutes of the meeting on Land Issues of the HUMAN RIGHTS ACTION PLAN TASK FORCE which was held last month. They were worth waiting for, for the representative of the Law Faculty, together with the Consultant who had finalized the Plan, had done a thorough job in identifying the issues, and the action needed.
Land, as has been previously noted, is perhaps the single most pressing issue in the North, and the East, and it has accordingly been highlighted too in the Action Plan for the LLRC recommendations. Fortunately, after far too long a delay, we seem now to have begun to move, and I received also a copy of a letter sent by the Secretary to the Ministry of Lands urging action, in accordance with the regulations.
Unfortunately there is still some confusion about which instructions are valid. In addition to uncertainty about how to proceed with regard to some of last year’s circulars, given the court cases that have still not been settled, the letter does not make clear whether the Gazette Notification of October 1989, which forbade redistribution of lands vacated because of conflict, is still valid. I was told this was not the case, but given the worries expressed by the Divisional Secretary who had brought it to my notice, I think it is necessary to spell things out in detail.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 68 – Reforming the Judiciary in a civilized manner - 27 Jan 2012

Colombo Telegraph 12 Nov 2012
I am sorry about the current attempt to impeach the Chief Justice, since it seems to me rather like taking a sledgehammer to crack a nut. What makes it worse is that those responsible for the impeachment motion seem to be going after the wrong nut.

Over the last year, in trying to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, I noted many problems arising from the failure of the judiciary to establish norms with regard to the processes entrusted to them. I sent several letters on this subject, to the Chief Justice as well as the Judicial Services Commission, but initially received only dusty replies, ie claims that the responsibility was not theirs.

Recently though – and this may reflect the fact that the Judiciary realized it could not go on in an ivory tower with no regard for basic human problems – I got more positive answers, and most notably the assertion that advice had been given to the magistracy with regard to rulings. However my subsequent request, that that advice be made public, has been thus far ignored. I am sorry about this, because the public has a right to know the norms under which judgments and sentencing are imposed.

We had also, at meetings of the Task Force on the Plan which I convene, suggested meetings to ensure that magistrates were more careful about fulfilling their responsibilities, not only with regard to sentencing, but also for visiting prisons and remand homes. This happened rarely, though I should also note the commitment of a few members of the judiciary who did take such responsibilities seriously.

The Secretary to the Ministry of Justice then wrote to the Judiciary asking that a meeting be convened, but she did not get a response. I have urged her to take the matter up again, but I can understand diffidence if there seems to be no interest. That is why I brought the matter up with the Presidential Secretariat, which now has responsibility for the Attorney General’s Department and the Legal Draughtsman’s Department. Unfortunately that initiative too did not find a response. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 69 –The Universal Periodic Review and its aftermath - 29 Jan 2013

The Daily News 12 Nov 2012
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.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 70 –Strengthening the rights of people, not politicians - 31 Jan 2013

Recent heated statements about the 13th Amendment confirm the view, heard recently at the Seminar on Indo-Lankan relations held at Osmania University in Hyderabad, that most commentators look on issues through a single prism. They fail to look at the principles that they would like to think they are advancing. Rather they concentrate on slogans, and become emotional, without concentrating on what those slogans are meant to represent.
Perhaps this is a necessary evil in political jousting for, if you looked at the principles, you would have to accept that even people coming from different perspectives have a lot in common. With regard to the question of devolution of power for instance, we find this to be the case, the moment we use the word decentralization instead. Most people don’t understand the distinction between them, understandably so since, for all practical purposes, there is no great distinction.
Thus there is universal agreement that we need decentralization. This is because any administration needs to have clear responsibilities with regard to the people, it needs to consult their wishes as well as be aware of their needs, and it must be accountable to them. This is not possible with regard to day to day matters when you have centralized decision making. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 71 – How the discourse on Human Rights is perverted - 3 Feb 2013

I was called up by the BBC when they received a leaked copy of the Report to the Secretary General on the work of UN Agencies in Sri Lanka during the conflict period. They wanted me to comment and, though they would not share with me what they had, I agreed since I did not want the debate to go by default. 
They promised to send me the text of what their correspondent Lyse Doucette was posting on their website at 2 pm GMT. They would not send this to me beforehand, though they said they could give me some time to study it. Since however they were going on the air at 2pm, I thought I should respond straight away, and this proved sensible, for even before the email arrived, I saw the discussion begin on BBC television. 
Radio actually gave me a reasonable time, though nothing like as much as had been allowed all those who attacked Sri Lanka. TV, which followed soon afterwards, cut me off after a couple of minutes, though they did ask me to answer another question for a later programme. They have not confirmed that this was used, and a friend in Britain who accessed the link to the Newsnight programme found that I was not there. Perhaps there was a mistake, but the track record suggests that suppression is the order of the day.
Lyse Doucette’s piece had comments from several of the usual suspects, including Benjamin Dix who first surfaced in Geneva in 2008, when the UN in Colombo apologized for his antics. He is joined now by someone called Edward Mortimer, who is involved in something called the Sri Lankan Campaign. Not one of those she cites on the piece put up on the Web challenged the basis on which the current UN Report has been produced.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 72 – Functioning with precision in English - 4 Feb 2013

A wave of problems with regard to Human Rights has swept the country recently, most tragically the events at Welikada. The resolution to impeach the Chief Justice has made it clear our constitution has deficiencies with regard to ensuring the independence of the judiciary while also promoting accountability and transparency with regard to judicial decisions. Then we have had the internal UN report on the conduct of the UN in Sri Lanka during the war, and a spate of recommendations in Geneva that we thought had to be rejected.
Those who have read this column will realize that I have discussed these problems, and the dangers they present, and have also suggested remedies. I pointed this out to the President, but was duly crushed by his rejoinder, that since I functioned in English, necessarily I had little impact. 
One of the pleasures of talking with him is that he listens, even when there is disagreement (though occasionally, when one argues too much, there is the firm injunction not to try to persuade him), and his rejoinders make a lot of sense. This is a characteristic he shares with the Secretary of Defence, who is even more definite about what cannot be done, but extraordinarily positive about most matters – as I found in my first formal dealings with him when I headed the Peace Secretariat, and he straight away allowed the A 9 northward from Omanthai to be open almost every day of the week, when the LTTE had previously not allowed the ICRC to facilitate this.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 73 – Legal clarity with regard to empowerment - 5 Feb 2013

One of the main problems we have had with regard to devolution is the failure of our law makers to draft legislation properly. The 13th Amendment is a case in point, since it is full of confusion about how power should be exercised. 
The most obvious example of this is in relation to what is termed the Concurrent List, where the Constitution says that, where there is conflict, the decision of the Central Government will prevail. This is not concurrence. When this is pointed out, the response is that the clause was taken from the Indian Constitution.
In India that provision did not matter much, since the States had had governments before the Centre did. State governments therefore had experience in passing legislation, and the Central government would not counter such legislation, unless there were potentially destructive consequences. 
In Sri Lanka however, Provincial Councils were new, and Jayewardene compounded the problem by choosing good fighters to head the lists for the elections that were held. This was understandable, given the violence in the country at the time, but it put paid to constructive development in the Provinces, except in Wayamba, where the toughie chosen also happened to be an able and imaginative administrator.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 74 - Eastern Muslim problems - 6 Feb 2013

I think it was Aristotle who noted that the roots of injustice lay in treating similar things as dissimilar, and different things in the same way. In line with this dictum we should recognize that the issues which trouble people in different parts of the country are different, and solutions should be specific to the problems under consideration. But, conversely, there are also some common problems, and these should be addressed in a consistent manner. Unfortunately we all tend to look on problems that affect us as particularly serious, and this can lead to injustice.

Thus over the last few years there has been much concern about those who were displaced in the North. Given the gravity of the problem, the indignation of the international community was understandable, though their failure to have addressed this issue when Tamils were being driven along by the LTTE to be used as hostages, as highlighted by Kath Noble recently, raises issues about their actual motivation subsequently. So does the fact that previously they by and large neglected the Muslims driven from their homes in the North. When the issue was raised, it was by hucksters such as Gareth Evans who used their suffering to claim that Sri Lanka was ripe for the implementation of his R2P doctrine. In asserting that ethnic cleansing had taken place in Sri Lanka, he – or rather his sidekick Alan Keenan, for poor Gareth confessed that he had no idea what he had meant by using the phrase about Sri Lanka – implied that this was by government, only to admit that they were in fact talking about what the LTTE had done to the Muslims in 1990.
I was privileged, at the end of November, to attend a workshop arranged by a group of women’s organizations looking into Gender Based Violence and related issues. It is chaired by the head of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities, which I found had been assisting with police training. This is extremely helpful because, given the revitalized role of the police in community support, and in particular the enhanced role of their Women and Children’s Desks,  assisting their officers in a better understanding of the assistance they can provide is invaluable. 
In this regard I noted that I wished the section of the UN that is supposed to look after Human Rights was also similarly active. It seems rather to see its role as the lead agency in persecuting us about war crimes. Though the very helpful young lady who attended noted that it had assisted with police training, this was with regard to a programme I had initiated four years ago when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights. That had indeed been successful, largely I think because of the energies of the British Consultant in training through role play, who had also provided the initial draft of a manual which was finally published a couple of years later.
But there had been no follow up, and I was appalled to find that the office had not even contacted the head of the Police Women and Children’s Bureau. All incumbents of the post I have had to work with, since I was appointed to convene the Task Force to expedite action on the National Human Rights Action Plan, have been extremely positive and helpful. It was disappointing to find that the UN agency that should be working with them had ignored them, whereas a much smaller UN agency had been so helpful.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 76 – Principles for Educational Progress - 12 Feb 2013

At a regional consultation last week on educational assistance, I was immensely struck by the assertion of one participant that programmes should aim at ‘making the classroom more joyful’. Sadly, that is not seen by many educational administrators or trainers as important. The result is that teachers do not focus on this sufficiently, even though doing this would also help to make teaching an enjoyable vocation for practitioners, and not just a job.
I was the more conscious of this for recently I read a critique of a description I had written some time back of members of the Hela school who had made learning at S. Thomas’ such a joy. Arisen Ahubudu for Sinhala, and his great friends Mr Coperahewa and Jinadasa for Art and Science respectively, had hugely enjoyed their work, and we had hugely enjoyed both their teaching and the performances in which they engaged. In the process we had also learned a lot. Perhaps I had not made this clear, but I had the impression that the critique was based on the assumption, not uncommon in Sri Lanka, that I had been rude in describing the additional input of these memorable masters. 
The absence of such teachers in many schools, or the failure to encourage them to use their social gifts effectively, is perhaps what leads to a situation in which ‘school-based education is often perceived as irrelevant’, as the position paper for the consultation put it. Of course there are other factors, such as the tuition culture which seems almost sanctified now, and the fact that many teachers in schools give tuition and expect their own pupils to attend their classes. But underlying this is the assumption that education is a top down process, and not a partnership, in which teachers and students work together towards a common goal.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 77 – Youth perspectives on bringing government closer to the people - 15 Feb 2013

24 Dec 2012

Last month I judged the semi-finals of the MTV Debating Competition. I don’t usually accept such invitations, given the time these engagements take, but the topic was whether the 13th Amendment should be abolished, and I thought I should get an idea of what young people were thinking.
To my surprise, both teams expressed the view that the 13th Amendment was a mess because it did not sufficiently empower people at the periphery. Those who did not want to abolish it granted that it needed amendment, to which the Proposition said that there was no point in amending it out of recognition, and that it made more sense to replace it altogether. 
Of course the views expressed could not be taken as representative of the country as a whole, since the debate was in English, and it was two Colombo schools which were in the Semi-Final. But I remembered then the nationwide polls taken at the time I took over the Peace Secretariat in 2007, when the government had come to the realization that it had to deal with the Tigers militarily. Even polls taken by NGOs that had been in favour of the Peace Process initiated by the UNP government – as I had been, until I realized, very soon I should add, that this was not likely to lead to peace but to further confrontation and suffering as the Tigers used that period to build up their military strength – indicated that the vast majority of the people were in favour of getting rid of the Tigers. But they also advocated a peaceful political settlement with greater devolution.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 78 – Other areas for Action to promote Human Rights - 18 Feb 2013

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.  

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 79 – The messiness of Multiple Ministries - 19 Feb 2013

I received recently a letter from the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, pointing out that her Ministry had been allocated responsibility for several elements in the National Human Rights Action Plan which were not within their purview. She was quite right, and there are other elements too with regard to which the Inter-Ministerial Task Force will have to request Cabinet to make the appropriate adjustments.
One or two of the points raised arose from the fact that sometimes many Ministries have to share responsibility for action. Thus recently I attended a discussion chaired by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs regarding the replacement for the Child and Young Person’s Ordinance. This had been prepared by the Ministry of Justice, but the draft was to go to Cabinet through a joint Cabinet Paper, given the seminal role required of the Children’s Ministry in implementing the new law. 
Unfortunately, while the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice is happy to develop active coordination mechanisms with other ministries, this does not always happen. I remember for instance the difficulties we had with establishing a framework for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of former Combatants, when the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights was responsible for coordination of humanitarian assistance. Because, even with the end of the war in sight, there was no sense of urgency about this, we took the lead with the support of the International Labour Organization in developing a framework, and produced what should have been the basis for action.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 80 – The diffidence of the Legislature regarding the Judiciary - 24 Feb 2013

When I was asked recently, in fulfillment of my work on the Human Rights Action Plan, to assist the Ministries of Justice and of Child Development and Women’s Affairs to finalize the draft of an act to replace the Children and Young Person’s Ordinance, I was struck by the absurdity of a phrase which did not seem to worry anyone else at the consultation.
It related to proceedings conducted before a Children’s Magistrate’s Court (which the law sought to establish), and laid down that ‘The Chief Justice and any three Judges of the Supreme Court nominated by the Chief Justice may frame rules regulating the procedure to be followed’ in such proceedings. Leaving aside the question of the Chief Justice selecting any three judges, where I believe there should be greater precision to prevent arbitrary choices, the clause seemed to me wholly wrong headed in making such rules optional. 
I was given what seemed to me two mutually contradictory answers when I made the objection. One was that the word ‘may’ in such contexts was generally held to create an obligation to act. The other was that, if there were a ‘must’ and action was not taken, then the law could not come into effect. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 81 – Principles for Educational Progress - 25 Feb 2013

At a regional consultation last month on educational assistance, I was immensely struck by the assertion of one participant that programmes should aim at ‘making the classroom more joyful’. Sadly, that is not seen by many educational administrators or trainers as important. The result is that teachers do not focus on this sufficiently, even though doing this would also help to make teaching an enjoyable vocation for practitioners, and not just a job.
I was the more conscious of this for recently I read a critique of a description I had written some time back of members of the Hela school who had made learning at S. Thomas’ such a joy. Arisen Ahubudu for Sinhala, and his great friends Mr Coperahewa and Jinadasa for Art and Science respectively, had hugely enjoyed their work, and we had hugely enjoyed both their teaching and the performances in which they engaged. In the process we had also learned a lot. Perhaps I had not made this clear, but I had the impression that the critique was based on the assumption, not uncommon in Sri Lanka, that I had been rude in describing the additional input of these memorable masters. 
The absence of such teachers in many schools, or the failure to encourage them to use their social gifts effectively, is perhaps what leads to a situation in which ‘school-based education is often perceived as irrelevant’, as the position paper for the consultation put it. Of course there are other factors, such as the tuition culture which seems almost sanctified now, and the fact that many teachers in schools give tuition and expect their own pupils to attend their classes. But underlying this is the assumption that education is a top down process, and not a partnership, in which teachers and students work together towards a common goal.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 82 – Why hypocrisy about war crimes weakens the argument for Human Rights - 27 Feb 2013

Having spent a week over the New Year in Laos and Cambodia, exploring ancient Khmer temples and gazing at spectacular waterfalls, I thought it would be difficult to return to the mundane realities of Human Rights in Sri Lanka. However some of what I saw and was told relates to one of the problems we are going through, and sheds some light on the polarization that is taking place.

I refer to the question of War Crimes, which still bemuses me. The charge was led in 2009 by the British, for what seemed primarily electoral considerations, while now it is the Americans who have come to the fore. When everyone else welcomed the LLRC report, their demand for more indicated that they wanted their pound of flesh, though I have no doubt they are in some confusion themelves about whether it has to be cut from breast or thigh, with or without blood.

Unfortunately given the games they played with Sarath Fonseka, claimed by a senior American diplomat to an Indian friend to have been a secret weapon to extract concessions from the Rajapaksa government, their seriousness must be in doubt. Certainly this particular criticism of Sri Lanka seems the height of hypocrisy, after what I saw and heard of what the Americans had done in Laos and Cambodia. They would only command credibility in this regard if they hauled Henry Kissinger up before the Courts, and I regret that no one has tried to do this in the decades that have passed since his vicious period in power.

A little boy who insisted on following us at the Temple Complex in Sombhur kept pointing out craters caused by American bombs, and also showed us a temple that had been flattened. And in Laos we were constantly reminded, travelling in the Bolaven Highlands, of the secret war that had been conducted in the American effort to eradicate not only the Ho Chi Minh trail, but all those who contributed to the supply chain. I was reminded too of the coup that had brought Lon Nol to power, and its similarity to what the CIA had done in Chile, where Salvador Allende was murdered and Pinochet propelled into power. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 83 - Improving effectiveness through coordination - 2 March 2013

The first Consultative Committee to meet in Parliament this year was the Education Committee, and it went on for over two hours. This was heartening, because it suggested a high level of interest amongst Members of Parliament. However it was also sad that much time was spent discussing specific problems, such as the transfer of Principals and Officials, and individual admissions to schools, since these take away from what should be the main purpose of Consultative Committees, namely policies and general principles, leading where necessary to legislation.
There is of course need for Members of Parliament to raise such issues, and the Minister made some valuable suggestions in this regard. He proposed to have consultations with regard to particular areas, and I hope he will do this in small groups, since it makes no sense for officials and parliamentarians from all over to waste time listening to parochial problems.
Interestingly, Parliament has I think taken a step in the right direction in decreeing that not more than 25 officials come to meetings of Consultative Committees. Though it was pointed out that this was inadequate, given the range of officials needed to discuss Education, it would make far more sense for meetings intended to discuss details of educational administration in particular districts to take place at the Ministry, with only officials and parliamentarians from the district or the province. Four or five meetings in each of the two weeks per month during which Parliament meets would cover the whole country, with opportunity to go into detail without time being wasted by the generality.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 84 - Structures to deal with disappearances - 3 Mar 2013

Going through the figures released by the Census Department, I was struck again by the contrast between data based on investigation and wild claims based on general statements and suppositions. The most recent example of this occurs in the book by Frances Harrison which is rapidly becoming the new Bible of critics of Sri Lanka, following on the Darusman Report and the book by Gordon Weiss. Interestingly the Petrie Report does not seem on the way to iconic status, perhaps because its selective attacks on UN officials, with no regard for truth, was too much for any establishment to stomach. 
I cannot but reiterate enough however that the perpetuation of much of this hype is our own fault. Whereas we should have engaged straight away, as possible, in systematic investigation of the fate of all Sri Lankan citizens, we allowed several years to lapse before setting in motion any mechanisms at all. And now that we have the census data, we have done nothing about it that will facilitate refutation in the public domain of the claims of Harrison and her ilk.
This is the more astonishing in that we have long known how statistics can be regurgitated to haunt us. The legacy of the disappearances during the second JVP insurrection continues to dominate the records about Sri Lanka maintained by the Working Group on Disappearances. Sadly there was no systematic effort to convey the findings of the several Commissions set up in President Kumaratunga’s time to the WGD. Though at intervals the Foreign Ministry tried, together with the Attorney General’s Department, to work on this later, those efforts too were sporadic. And though we did our best when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights, leading for the first time in ages to positive comments on our engagement in WGD reports, that too was abandoned when the Ministry was shut down. Responses to communiqués ceased, leading to the harsh criticism that has resurfaced in recent WGD pronouncements. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 85 - Carrying out Plans in the Nation Building process - 5 Mar 2013

I was privileged last week to contribute to the first Seminar conducted by the Officer Career Development Centre at Buttala. The subject was Post-Conflict Nation Building and the role of the Security Forces, and we had two days of interesting presentations with much opportunity for discussion. The questions put by the officers who participated were stimulating, and the general approach made clear the impact of the training, in thinking as well as practical action, that the armed forces have developed over the last couple of decades.
Five of the twelve speakers were civilians, including one academic apart from myself. There were two presentations by members of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, indicating the importance the forces attach to that body, even if there is less attention than there should be elsewhere to implementation of its recommendations. The one person I did not know was one of the new Secretaries, of whom I had a favourable impression given the excellence of the two with whom I had previously interacted.
This one was in the same mould, and produced a well constructed speech on harmonizing the efforts of Government Machinery and the Security Forces in Nation Building. He made a convincingly argued distinction between State Building and Nation Building, and noted the great achievements thus far with regard to the former, including infrastructure development as well as resettlement and rehabilitation.
He did not presume to say much on Nation Building, since that was not an area for which he was primarily responsible, but he noted the guidelines set for this in two Action Plans Cabinet had approved. One was the Human Rights Action Plan and the other, obviously and given priority, was the LLRC Action Plan

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 86 - Dealing with the High Commissioner for Human Rights - 11 Mar 2013

The latest pronouncement of the UN High Commissioner does not bode well for Sri Lanka. The immediate reason for this is the impeachment of the Chief Justice, but if reports in the papers a couple of weeks back are inaccurate, she has been simmering for some time. 
It was reported that she had sent a letter suggesting visits by what are termed Special Procedures, but the response she had received had ignored this and simply suggested that she visit us soon. We knew at the last meeting of the Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the National Human Rights Action Plan that there had been a letter, but what was being done was not made clear.
This seemed a bit hard on Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe who has been the ministerial envoy to the Human Rights Council for well over half a decade now. It would obviously make sense to keep him in the loop, and indeed consult him about our official position but, as I have noted before, coordination is not something common in Sri Lanka. 
This is particularly hard on him now, because he has lost his principal ally in recent years in dealing with problems in Geneva. Mohan Pieris began to join us in Geneva in Dayan Jayatilleka’s time even before he became Attorney General, and continued to attend every session since then, including when Mahinda Samarasinghe was not deployed. He was obviously a crucial player when he was Attorney General, and perhaps even more so afterwards, when he chaired the Inter-Ministerial Committee to implement the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC, and now that he has been in virtual charge together with the President’s Secretary of the LLRC Action Plan. However as Chief Justice he will probably not be able to be on the delegation, which will be tough on Minister Samarasinghe.
It is even more important therefore that he be consulted about policies and decisions. If the newspaper report is anything to go by, one stumbling block seems to have been our refusal to invite holders of Special Mandates. This is something that has not happened in the last few years, which is a pity, because we got nothing but positive co-operation from such Representatives as visited us in the nearly two years I was Secretary to the Ministry.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 87 – Facilitating Coordination in the Courts - 14 March 2013

After a hiatus of some months, during which we had been working through the Government Task Force on the specific areas of Women and Children and Lands, we had the first meeting this year of the forum inclusive of Non-Governmental Organizations which has been trying to help with implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan.
We have throughout had helpful contributions from the Government Analyst’s Department, who had explained problems they faced. One was claims that they had not submitted reports when in fact they had done so, and another was that, after they had travelled to distant locations, they were told that the prosecution was not ready and had requested a postponement. We had therefore suggested at a meeting of the Task Force that the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice institute regular meetings, at which government agencies responsible for cases could coordinate work. 
The Secretary had initiated such meetings, though not as often as I would have liked, and we were told this time round that they continued and had been helpful. Unfortunately she was not in a position to ensure a positive response from the Judiciary, and indeed she had been ignored when she had written to the Chief Justice suggesting a committee to look into sentencing policy and coordinate action in this regard in line with government policy of reducing the number of those remanded. 
I hope now that the new Chief Justice will take action on such matters, given his understanding of the problems inasmuch as he was involved in the Task Force and indeed in having the Plan itself approved by Cabinet in the days when he was Attorney General. But meanwhile we were confronted with yet another problem, which I also hope he and other agencies will deal with.
This is the fact that many reports sent by the Government Analyst seem to disappear. They are sent by registered post but, when a representative goes to court, they are often told that the report is not available. When we asked whether this was a common occurrence, the answer was that this happened in about 50% of cases. At our earlier meetings we had thought such lapses were because of carelessness, but the impression given now was that these losses were deliberate.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 88 – Action and Information - 17 March 2013

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.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 89 - Overcoming inadequacies without inflicting them on others - 24 March 2013

One of the most depressing features of government is the readiness with which transfers are used to solve problems. At the Education Consultative Committee in Parliament, some of my colleagues pointed out what seemed to them grave faults in Principals or Zonal Directors of Education, and recommended that they should be transferred at once. They were startled when I said that would be wrong, but then acknowledged that, if the officials concerned were unsatisfactory, it would be destructive to transfer them to other responsibilities where they would also prove unsatisfactory. 
Last week the same thing happened at a Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation Committee meeting, when strong objections were made to a particular Grama Niladhari. Again, the community representatives who made the charges – with no inhibitions about naming their subject – seemed surprised when I said that was inappropriate, but agreed with my point that their complaints should be investigated. The man should then be reprimanded if the charges were established, and subsequently dismissed if he did not improve.
Now however transfers are used whenever there is a problem – or even when there isn’t, as with the recent Ministry of Education decision to transfer everyone who has served in a particular school for over a particular period. The way in which this has been implemented means that the original aim, to provide teachers to rural schools that have had vacancies, has been completely subverted – rural schools have lost the teachers they had, which those supposed to replace them from towns have by and large refused to move.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 90 – Police structures and professionalism - 1 April 2013

The Indian journalist Sathiyamoorthy, one of the sharpest – and also I think most sympathetic - commentators on the Sri Lankan scene, wrote recently on questions in connection with the army and the police in the North. With regard to the latter, he seems to be of the view that the police should not come under the Ministry of Defence, which is not an argument I accept. 
My main reason for this is the very simple belief – on the basis of a principle known as Occam’s Razor – that one should not create entities unnecessarily. Unfortunately Occam’s Razor is unknown in Sri Lanka, where we multiply entities endlessly, as with Ministries and layers of government.  In affirming the need to keep the police under the Ministry of Defence I believe we should also extend the principle more widely, but that is another question, and requires more thought and strength of mind than is usually applied in this country.
Sathiyamoorthy thinks a division between the police and the Ministry of Defence would help ‘in recapturing the imagination of the police as a civilian force, easily approachable by and comforting to the civilian population. Not just the Tamil minorities, but even the Sinhala population in the run-up to the JVP insurgencies had felt alientated from and by the police, for possibly no fault of theirs’.
That last phrase is characteristic, because this is a balanced writer. However experience on the ground – which sadly I think only I possess as someone who has been visiting the North regularly over the last four years for free discussions with the citizenry in small groups – would have shown him that the police are now considered eminently approachable. This is a contrast from the situation not even two years ago, when several people were wary of the re-establishment of the police as the main source of security.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 91 - Coordination of LLRC Actions - 7 April 2013

As I have noted before, the thoughtful new Secretary to the Ministry of Resettlement remarked, at a seminar at the Officer Career Development Centre in Buttala, that Nation Building needed much more attention, to complement the State Building that is proceeding relatively well. His Ministry, along with the Bureau of the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation and the Presidential Task Force for the North and the Ministry of Economic Development, have amply allayed the fears expressed in 2009, that were claimed to be the reason for the Resolution brought against us in Geneva.

The displaced who were at Manik Farm have been resettled, and the former combatants have been released after rehabilitation. This has been done under much better conditions and more swiftly than elsewhere in the world. Economic activity is at a higher level in the Wanni than ever before, helped along by remarkable infrastructural development. That extends to schools and hospitals and other basic requirements, which are available now at a higher standard than ever before in the area.
But there are still problems, and the mutual satisfaction and trust that Reconciliation requires are still inadequate. To remedy this there is need of concerted action, and the Secretary, who has obviously studied and understood the problem, noted that fulfilment of both the LLRC and the Human Rights Action Plans would go a long way towards Building a Nation.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 92 – Banging heads on brick walls - 8 April 2013

I was pleased, if astonished, to see a complimentary reference to my writings in a newspaper. I was reaching the conclusion that no one read any more, or bothered about Human Rights issues except to make political points, so this was heartening. Admittedly a positive reference by one of the editors who publishes my writings is not evidence that they might make a difference, but it may help.
The reference was the more welcome, because this week there is yet another reminder that, as Anne Ranasinghe put it, ‘nothing remains but to mourn’. Nearly two years ago I asked a question in Parliament about women who suffer because of the Vagrants’ Act, and it has not as yet been answered, even though it has been placed on the order paper over half a dozen times. Each time the Minister asks for more time.
A few months ago I was heartened, because I was told there was a flurry of activity in the Ministry of Justice, since they had been told they must supply the answer. But that came to nothing, and on that occasion too the matter was put off.  

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 93 – The Resonance of Richard de Zoysa’s death - 9 April 2013

Published 22 Feb 2013 - Daily News

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.
Thinking back on those events, one realizes how the grossness of the LTTE was even greater, and the response of the State less extreme. In both instances however the State had a responsibility to prevent abuse on the part of its own agents, and to deal firmly with calculated and premeditated abuse, while also limiting extreme reactions in cases of provocation. 
In 1989 however the armed forces had not received the concerted training in International Humanitarian Law that has been a feature of the last two decades in Sri Lanka. They were still in the Keany-Meany mindset, after training in the old brutal British methods of repression which one hopes, perhaps optimistically, the British are less complacent about now. Some of the abuses then were systematic, which is why it was important to have a thorough inquiry after the government changed. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 94 – Promoting Language Rights as well as the Right to Development - 13  April 2013

Daily News 25 Feb 2013

After some depression about not achieving very much with regard to either Reconciliation, or the Human Rights Action Plan, I was heartened by several factors last week. In the four Divisional Secretariat meetings I attended in the Wanni, it was clear that things were improving all the time. Several problems were brought to my attention, but these were largely practical problems, similar to those prevalent in other parts of the country. The impact of inclement weather on agriculture, the need for better roads for rural connectivity, and for better electricity connections, shortages of teachers for essential subjects, are national problems, not consequences of the conflict.
Of course much more needs to be done for the people of the Wanni, given what they suffered, and for the first time I felt sad that I cannot contribute more to education, since the Ministry as it now stands is incapable of increasing teacher supply or ensuring better distribution. But, with regard to the other matters, there is much appreciation of progress with regard to roads and electricity, and also understanding that government paved the way through its support for agriculture for abundant harvests in the last few years, even though this year floods have caused problems. 
I should note here the appreciation amongst officials and community organizations of the Japanese Peace Project, which has done much for small scale irrigation works in the last few years. A meeting at the Japanese Embassy later in the week confirmed my view of the intelligence and sympathy of their approach. Equally the Indian Housing Project has generated much confidence that things are getting better, though government must do more to publicize both that and the other large scale housing support provided by the military and other agencies, in particular the Swiss, who also work relatively quietly. 
Last week saw yet another example of the slow erosion of systems that makes justice so alien a concept for our people. In Parliament we received yet another Bill cointaining amendments to a previous Bill. It will be taken up only later, so I was not surprised that the original Bill was not available, since anyone interested could look it up in the interim in the Parliament Library. But once again I found that the notes at the side of the document, which are supposed to sum up the content of each clause, simply noted that the clauses were amendments to previous clauses.
The summing up, I should note, had been included at the beginning of the Bill. This does not happen always, so one should be thankful that this time at least anyone looking at the Bill could find out at a glance what was happening where. But I fail to understand why a custom designed for convenience, to allow anyone looking at the Bill to see immediately the impact of each clause, is now ignored. The only place where it still prevails is in the last two clauses of the Bill, where a note on the side tells us exactly what is in the Bill itself. One notable piece of information thus highlighted is that, where versions of the Bill in different languages are different, the Sinhala text shall prevail.
The Secretary General of Parliament understood why I thought this absurd, but I fear that most of my colleagues who were at the Justice Ministry Consultative Committee meeting at which I brought up the matter were bored, and seemed to think I was making a fuss about nothing. Consultative Committees are not supposed to be about this sort of thing, but should rather be concerned with whether the Courts in one’s electorate function well, which often translates into whether an adequate Courthouse has been built. Principles of legislation are not seen as interesting or important.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 96 - Answering allegations intelligently - 21 March 2013

As pressures mount in Geneva, my bemusement increases at our failure to answer systematically the many charges made against us. I had long pointed out that the criticisms made were by and large untenable, but there were certain incidents which required to be investigated further. This view, based on close observation from the vantage point of the Peace Secretariat where I had set in place mechanisms to monitor allegations and check on them, was confirmed by the LLRC Report. That highlighted the need to check on the treatment of surrendees while affirming that indiscriminate attacks on civilians etc were absurd and tendentious charges.
To dismiss those charges however requires logical argument based on evidence. This approach is sometimes not acceptable, as I realized when I was roundly attacked for having declared way back in June 2009 that there had been civilian casualties. The then Attorney General asked me why I had said this, to which my answer was that it was true. I could however understand his assertion that people would try to make use of my answer, and I sympathize with those who feel they might succumb to leading questions and therefore stay silent. But the way of dealing with such matters is to point out the nonsensical nature of such stratagems – as I did with Stephen Sackur on ‘Hard Talk’ when he asked whether I was admitting there were civilian casualties – rather than hiding one’s head in the sand, ostrich-like, and pretending one knew nothing, or even worse, denying reality. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 97 – Ensuring conformity to National Language Policies - 24 April 2013

I make no apologies for returning yet again to the question of language rights. As I noted after my last visit to the North, for a series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings, this remains one of the principal bones of contention in the Jaffna District. But it need not be, because the principles we should all be acting on are now clear, following the inclusion of Tamil as an official language in the constitutional reforms of 1987, and the fleshing out of those principles in the last couple of decades.
First, under President Kumaratunga, there were more inclusive language learning policies in schools in the nineties and then, most importantly, under this government, Minister D E W Gunasekara introduced language norms for public servants. I was not sure how well this was working so, at the previous meeting of the Parliamentary Consultative Committee on National Languages, I asked for a report on pass rates. We got this at the February meeting – or rather I did, and I had to point out that questions I raised were asked for the general benefit, not my own, so information should be shared with all my colleagues on the Committee. 
I can see this might seem a waste of paper, since almost never do more than a quarter of the 31 members meant to be on the Committee attend, and many of those who do are concerned only with individual problems; but the principle was affirmed, and the Minister will now ensure that information is shared with at least all those who do attend. This is important, for this is something we should all be concerned with, as legislators and contributors to national policy. 
Language problems have the potential to cause great resentment, and if we do not solve these, on behalf of all our deprived citizens, not only Tamils trapped in monolingualism who are the recipients of official documents produced by Sinhalese trapped in corresponding monolingualism, we will again be confronted by violence as well as corrosive hostility. But, sadly, the very simple measures required to remedy things are ignored, or rather, they simply do not occur to people who see no reason to think, and produce ideas, as part of their political responsibilities.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 98 – Dealing with general allegations of war crimes - 29 April 2013

Some weeks back I was sent, by a friend in England, a book entitled ‘The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media’. It was by someone called Lila Rajiva, but doubtless that was not the only reason to assume it would interest me.
I took some time to start on the book but, once I did so, it had to be finished. Published in 2005, it is a graphic and convincing account of the manner in which the Americans ignored all moral restraint in the war against terrorism they were engaged in.
That part was convincing, and simply fleshed out what one knows anyway, that countries in pursuing their own interests will stop at nothing. What was more startling was the suggestion that the wholesale prevalence of this absolutist mindset also represented a takeover of the ruling political dispensation by a culture of chicanery that strikes at the heart of supposedly predominant American values. 
At the core of this transformation is the corporate supremacy represented most obviously by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the takeover of much supposedly military activity by private contractors and special agents, who move with seamless dexterity from one world to another. Exemplifying this, and indicative of what C S Lewis would have described as a Hideous Strength which finds its own partisans dispensable, is the strange story of Nicholas Berg, the shadowy contractor whose beheading served to deflect the story of torture at Abu Ghraib, and in some minds excuse the institutionalized torture that was taking place there. 
The book should be essential reading for those concerned not just with human rights, but with human civilization, as I continue to hope Navanethem Pillay is. However I suspect that she is too much under the thumb of those who fund her office, which is why, though there are stabs at dealing with wider issues, the main thrusts of her criticisms are directed at those weaker than herself. I suppose it would be absurd to expect anything more, in a unipolar world, with the media so purposeful in destroying anything that might suggest an alternative narrative. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 99 – Promoting successful initiatives - 30 April 2013

First Published Daily News 15 March 2013
I plan to conclude this series on March 25th, since by then I would have written over a hundred columns on the subject. Besides, I see March 25th as a special day, because it is the birthday of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement in the seventies.
I will write about him for that date, but meanwhile I would like to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the achievements of those who have made some sort of a difference to the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I don’t think people like me who engage in advocacy, such as through this column, have achieved very much. When they do so, it is by engaging the attention of those who have responsibilities for executive action and who take their responsibilities seriously.
That responsibility does not necessarily have to lie with government. There are several agencies that have formal responsibilities that can also take initiatives. Chief amongst them in Sri Lanka is the Human Rights Commission, which has certainly shown itself willing, but which at present does not have enough capacity to push through the reforms it understands are needed. Unfortunately it is not moving swiftly enough on proposing the reforms to its own powers and structures, as envisaged by the National Human Rights Action Plan, which the Cabinet has approved.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 100 – The Institute of Human Rights and its concern for the neglected - 1 May 2013

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.

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 101 – Registering the contributions of courageous Tamils - 3 May 2013

First published Daily News 22 March 2013

I was deeply touched last week, at the Reconciliation Committee meeting in Manthai East, when Father James Pathinather expressed appreciation of a position I had put forward, and said that it had required courage. I also felt very humble, for nothing I had done could come close to the courage he himself had displayed, in April 2009, when he tried to protect LTTE combatants who had sought shelter in the Valayanamadam Church. 
He had been attacked for his pains by the Tigers. After he was gravely injured, and evacuated from the War Zone in one of the regular rescue missions we facilitated for the ICRC, the LTTE drove off those who had sought to escape from them by taking shelter in the Church. Many of those forced again into combat are doubtless among the few thousands who then disappeared. 
The courage of those like Father James, who sought to stand up to the LTTE when it was at its most ruthless, should be celebrated by the Sri Lankan State. But we have completely ignored these heroes, who had an even tougher time than our soldiers who had to fight virtually with one hand tied behind their backs, given the use the LTTE was making of the human shields it had dragooned into Mullivaikkal. Those soldiers had at least the comfort of comradeship, whereas those who stood up against the LTTE inside the No-Fire Zone were isolated, and subject to enormous pressures as well as brutality of the sort Father James experienced. 

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 102 – Civil Rights and sincerity - 7 May 2013

First pulished - Daily News 25 March 2013

In the last column in this series, I will look at the Civil Rights Movement, which was founded in 1971. In discussing its contribution to Rights, and the manner in which Rights can be most productively promoted, I will also talk about one of its founding members, Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, whose 86th birthday it would have been today.
Like his father, Cyril Wickremesinghe, who was the first Ceylonese Government Agent, he was a radical in his commitment to social equity. At least, I like to think this was his father’s essential approach, though he was also a pillar of the establishment, a great friend of D S Senanayake and D R Wijewardene, whose eldest daughter married his eldest son. But, like DS, much of his working life was spent providing better opportunities to the peasantry, through the opening up of agricultural lands in the North Central Province. 
Bishop Lakshman WickremesingheLakshman, as Bishop of Kurunegala, worked in what was seen as the rural diocese of the Church of Ceylon, and followed in the footsteps of another great visionary, Bishop Lakdasa de Mel. Both of them, unlike some of their elite brethren in Colombo, worked closely with the Buddhist clergy.
This included the politically radical clergy, and the founders of CRM included five monks as well as four Christian priests, including Leo Nanayakkara, the Catholic Bishop of Kandy. The founder Chairman was Prof Sarachchandra, whose sympathies, like those of Bishop Lakshman, were with the SLFP, but who also felt that the reaction to the 1971 insurgency had been too harsh.


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