The Laws’ and Other Delays

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.

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Developing psychosocial support systems

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.

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A helping hand for a life with dignity: 176 Resettled families Benefit from livelihood assistance

A helping hand for a life with dignity: 176 resettled families benefit from livelihood assistanceThe conflict in Sri Lanka displaced thousands of people in the northern districts. While affected civilians have returned or are returning to their villages in the devastated northern districts of Sri Lanka, they still have no or very limited resources to cope with the multifold challenges of day to day life. Key humanitarian requirements like reconstruction efforts are being addressed, but other smaller but unmet and urgent needs remain on the ground, which need to be addressed. Above all the returnees need support to restore their livelihoods and stabilize their income sources. To this end Switzerland recently provided small grants to 176 families to establish a livelihood of their own choice.With the expansion of the housing programme in 2011, SDC supported seventy fivehouses in the divisions of Kaithadi/Navatkuli and Thanankilappu in the Jaffna district. In order to follow a holistic approach to support returnees not only with permanent housing, SDC implemented a livelihood programme for the housing beneficiaries and vulnerable households in the project areas. Therefore 176 fully resettled families who were desperately in need of financial assistance to restore or begin an income generating activity were selected. 26 of these are women headed families and seven of them are single women. Each beneficiary received a cash grant of 50,000/- irrespective of their livelihood option. A majority of them were already engaged in some kind of income generating activities before the war broke out and thus the financial assistance was beneficial for them to develop their existing trade.

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Sinnakkuddy & Uthayakumar Kumuthini
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Vairavan Vilvarasa
“I am so happy we now have a proper house, and I am now able to earn some
money again to help my children complete their studies well”
                           – Shanmugarasa Pushparani, a 33 year old mother of four
Pushparani has three daughters and one son who are still in school. Her husband is a carpenter in Jaffna and she runs a small grocery shop from her home. Additionally she rears poultry and also prepares various snacks which she sells at her shop. Originally from Kaithadi Navatkuli, she and her family were displaced in 1999 and during the 12 years of displacement they lived with various relations. In 2011 they returned to their village but only to find that their house was completely destroyed, along with the small shop she used to run prior to displacement.After receiving housing and livelihood assistance from SDC they now have a permanent shelter as well as a regular income source. With the cash grant of Rs. 50,000 she re-built her shop and stocked it well with goods and she also bought 25 chickens. Pushparani runs the only shop in the area and with public transport being minimal about 20 households in the vicinity solely depend on her shop for their grocery items. She manages the shop by herself and travels to the closest town Chavakachcheri town to purchase goods and brings it back by bus. Thus she is able to make a profit of around Rs. 200 a day from sales.  Soon she will also gain an additional income when the chickens start laying eggs.Hope
She looks to the future with hope. While being displaced she had earned some money by undertaking dressmaking orders. She would like to purchase a sewing machine and resume this as an additional source of income.

The beneficiaries selected livelihoods ranging from paddy cultivation, horticulture, backyard poultry, broiler rearing, goat rearing, cattle rearing, fishing, small shops, sewing machines, masonry items, carpentry items, cycle repair shops, ironsmith work and fancy shop items to joint purchasing of a two wheel tractor and leasing out a three wheeler. Everyone received Rs. 30,000/- as first payment and based on the progress, the second payment of Rs. 20,000/-. Except for one beneficiary all the others received the full payment.

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Luxmanan Logan
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Kathiran Shanmugam & Shanmugam Sabeskuma jointly bought a Trisha

“My children have a place to stay and better food to eat”
                                                            – Rasa Selvarani a 44 year old widowSelvarani lost her husband during the last stages of the conflict in 2009. She and her family ended up in the Menik Farm IDP camp for nine months and finally returned to their village in Kaithadi, Navatkuli, Jaffna in 2010 after being displaced for more than 10 years. She is a mother of eight, six girls and two boys. One of her daughters, an ex-rebel cadre was injured during the fighting and was later abandoned by her husband; released from a detention camp after rehabilitation she now lives with Selvarani. Another daughter is currently working as a deminer at Nagarkovil while one son is working as a mason. The youngest three are still schooling.Selvarani has only attended school up to 10 years of age (Grade 05), and currently her sole income is derived through poultry rearing. The family lost their house and property during the conflict and after their return Selvarani became a beneficiary for the SDC cash for housing programme.  With the help of her two elder sons she built a permanent house with 3 rooms, a kitchen and a living room. In addition to housing assistance, Selvarani also benefitted with financial support for her livelihood. With the cash grant of Rs. 50,000 she purchased 30 chickens. She now collects around 15 eggs a day and sells each egg for around Rs. 15.She says she is very happy with the substantial income she makes regularly. She has taken a loan of Rs. 200,000 to complete the house (in addition to SDC’s contribution) which she is able to pay back every month in installments, with some of her earnings. One of her daughters also received livelihood assistance from SDC and purchased 4 cows; she also contributes to the family expenses.

Networking with partners
SDC has been implementing and funding projects in the north for many years now and has a good relationship with partner agencies. On a request of the women folk of Thanankilappu, SDC partnered with PARC Inter Peoples’ Cooperation (PARCIC) Jaffna, to conduct a hygienic dry fish preparation workshop to 35 fishermen and women. The Thanankilappu area is not close to the deep sea but is situated adjacent to a lagoon and certain freshwater fish can be dried and preserved for selling at a better price. PARCIC staff had been trained on this method by a specialist from Japan and their staff conducted this work shop free of cost.

The intervention was carried out in close cooperation with the relevant government officials from theDepartments of Agriculture and Fisheries, in addition to coordinating with Divisional and village level officers to streamline activities. Farmer organizations and community centres in the villages were utilized to assist in distributing assistance packages and help monitor activities. A needs assessment which was conducted at the outset of the project helped to identify opportunities for linking communities with local markets to help strengthen livelihoods of the target group.

Transparency
Once the beneficiaries were selected, the names were pasted at five places in the village. Five days were allocated as a grievance period to address complaints from the local public. The final beneficiary lists were signed by the village officer and endorsed by the Divisional Secretary later on. These lists were circulated among the village households to ensure their beneficiary entitlement.  

Long term benefits
The main livelihood in this area is rain fed paddy cultivation which yields a crop only once a year and farmers thus receive one annual income. They used the cash grants to purchase seedlings, fertilizer and labour to prepare the ground for the crops. Though they have to wait for the harvest season to gain an income the beneficiaries expressed that the cash grants have enabled them to manage their affairs without depending on usurious money lenders.

Strengthening the Human Rights Commission and cooperation with other state agencies


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.

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Strengthening the Human Rights Commission

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.

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Probation Officials from South-West meet in the East

An experience sharing program for the Department of Probation and Child Care Services (DPCCS) officials and also for the Save the Children Staff recently was conducted in Trincomalee. The program witnessed enriched mutual understanding among government officials across the geographical and ethnic divide as they are from Southern, Western and Eastern Sri Lanka. The program was building bridges along with strengthening the relevant officials with technical knowledge on family reunification of children and prevention of family separation and also on Voluntary Children Homes Monitoring Team (VHMT) mechanism. Provincial Commissioners of Northern and Eastern Provincial DPCCS and Probation Officers In Charge (POICs), Senior Probation Officers and Probation Assistants of Western, Southern and Eastern provinces participated in this.

The Participants

The program consisted of a discussion session for DPCCS officials and a field visit to Ellekaithuraimugathuvaram – Verugal Village Child Rights Monitoring Committee (VCRMC) where DPCCS officers, Children Club members, VCRMC members and the Eastern province government officials such as Divisional Secretariat of Verugal -Trincomalee, Additional Director of Planning, teachers, acting Police OIC and Grama Niladhari were present.

In the discussion session the representatives from DPCCS from the three provinces elaborated their working procedure, progress and future plans separately. Comments, suggestions and appreciations were given and conveyed by the participants. Therefore it became a valuable opportunity for all provinces to review their mission with inputs in varied angles and also to understand different situations and issues fall on them, as these provincial DPCCS are working in different geographical and social backgrounds. The provincial DPCCS participants mentioned that the program strengthened their interrelation among DPCCS in these districts which will make them easily refer each other for their future work.

Moreover the participants received new experience on socialization process and different aspects, and methods practiced in strengthening the families for children’s wellbeing. Mr. Gamini Weerawickrama, Southern province Probation Commissioner highly appreciated the well developed plan built and implemented in Eastern province while, Mr. M. Mubarak, Eastern province DPCCS Commissioner added that he has received knowledge and new ideas from this program that can be applied in the future.  At the same time the Western and Southern province probation officials invited the Eastern province representative to Western and Southern provinces for more experience sharing which is proof for further peace building.

Mr. Gamini Weerawickrama, Southern province Probation Commissioner addressing the participant

The field visit to Ellekaithuraimugathuvaram – Verugal VCRMC became an ideal platform to share practical experience. Here, family reunification of children and prevention of family separation were deeply considered, as many participants tended to speak of their experience in detail. For instance  Mr. Ponampalam Thaneswaran, Divisional Secretariat of Verugal, Trincomalee pointed out what strategies taken by the community and the officials in prevention of child marriage and school dropout in the villages with high number of them. The president of “Abirami” Children Club in Ellekaithuraimugathuvaram – Verugal said “we improve the personality of the children by identifying their problems. In our meetings we try to find out solutions for the problems at our level and also we engage in extra curricula activities. We do awareness programmes on different child rights related issues and pay attention on domestic violence against children and school related problems”

Mr. Ponampalam Thaneswaran, Divisional Secretariat of Verugal addressing the participants

Many speakers of the event highly appreciated the visit of South-West staff to their village. In addition they mentioned that this village was even not known much in past, and this visit became an opportunity for them to revamp thier bond with South and West.

Save the Children has been in partnership with the Department of Probation and Child Care Services (DPCCS) in Child Protection System building, to contribute in capacity building for prevention and remedial support in child protection issues and case management for advocacy. The experience sharing visit was funded and facilitated by Save the Children under the USAID funded program “The New Beginnings for Children Affected by Conflict and Violence”

Written By: Madhubhashini Rathnayaka

Pic by: Verginiya Livingston

Promoting the Rights and the Welfare of Children

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.

Records of such matters should be maintained with probation offices as well as magistrates, with regular reports to the National Child Protection Authority. I have been impressed with the tremendous work done by that agency in recent months, and in particular the close attention paid to the North, with regular visits and inspections of homes. Recently I found a situation where a Magistrate had ordered the continuation of a home that had not been registered, where children were kept with no proper authorization. I am sure there are many such examples, and officials in the regions must work together with the police and the judiciary to prevent abuse or even slipshod approaches to formal requirements.

Because children’s homes are often in a mess, children are frequently remanded in jails without second thoughts. This is disastrous, because it generally dooms them to a life of hopelessness. The result is even greater problems for the state, in addition to increased expenditure. It would be far more sensible to embark now, as envisioned in the President’s budget speech, on a programme of radical reform that would give such youngsters training and hope for the future, through programmes of rehabilitation. The cost may seem more at this stage, but it would be economical in the long term. Supervision of such programmes could also be entrusted to the graduates the government often has to employ, to no productive end.

Other simpler measures that should be instituted include ensuring that Magistrates fulfil the responsibilities laid upon them to visit places of remand, prisons as well as children’s homes. Some do this regularly, which suggests that others are simply lethargic. If the Judicial Services Commission insisted, as I gather it used to do when Justice Priyantha Perera was a livewire there, that Magistrates should fulfil their duties, and that promotions would depend on both acting and reporting in a responsible fashion, I have no doubt the situation would improve. Even if visits were not as frequent as originally envisaged, when magistrates had more leisure, knowledge that such visits could occur at any time would keep those responsible for custody on their toes.

Magistrates should also require from probation officers regular reports on their work. The need for counseling and psycho-social support may not be easy for a magistrate to judge, but probation officers should be trained in such and should record their findings and their recommendations on a regular basis. Such monitoring will also prevent situations that are not infrequent, of children who are committed, often for protection rather than because they have themselves committed any offence, being forgotten. In this regard we have also suggested that specific timelines be given for reports that are needed. The Government Analyst sometimes delays reports which means unfair incarceration, and sometimes delays in the Attorney General’s Department dealing with files has the same outcome.

In addition to all these improvements that could be made to correctional procedures, I found however in recent discussions that there is also deep concern about a very different type of pressure that is now being brought to bear on children in general. This arises from the current educational system, which is dedicated to cramming of knowledge for examinations, rather than productive of rounded citizens.

Tackling the issue as a whole will require much cogitation, but one point that came up is the absence for most children of programmes of extra-curricular activity that contribute to socialization. I remember when I was in school there was a requirement that one should do either cadeting or scouting, but I suspect that would not go down well today with parents dedicated to tuition. The result is that children forego the opportunity to learn about working together and taking initiatives and responsibilities.

It would make sense then to restore the concept of the school being responsible for more than mere teaching. This would be easier if schools were permitted to revert to double session, to build up the sense of community that was a feature of education in the past. An interval for children to play actively,  opportunities to engage together in productive activities after school instead of rushing home to lunch and tuition, would help in strengthening the other capacities children need. And this might also help to reduce all the improper if not criminal activities that were brought to my attention when I was at Reconciliation Committees in the North. The concern in particular in Jaffna with the ills of the tuition industry brought home to me how seriously the people there took education, and we in turn should recognize the importance of their concerns in this regard.

By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

Developing Community Structures

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.

Elsewhere however I found, despite what seemed good will, systemic failures and an inability to provide services in Tamil. Though there are now many more Tamil police officers, bilinguals are rare, which means communication within the station, and interactions to ensure protection, are difficult. It would not be difficult to devise a programme to have enough people fluent in both languages in every police post to ensure active responses, but this has not been deemed a universal priority.

In addition, there is a lack of coordination in some places between the police and government officials concerned with protection issues. We have several of these, Child Protection Officers, Women Development Offices, Probation and Social Service Officers and Counsellors of all sorts, but there is no system to ensure that they meet together and divide up responsibilities area wide too. Obviously none of them can visit the whole area under their purview on a weekly basis, but it would not be too difficult to allocate one geographical area to each and provide for regular visits, with weekly meetings to pool information and plan necessary interventions.

This has now been suggested and promised, and also weekly meetings at Grama Niladhari level, together with a couple of police officers allocated to that area, the government official responsible for protection for the area, and leading members of civil society including school principals and health workers. In this regard I was deeply impressed by an initiative of the police officials in the Mullaitivu / Kilinochchi area to initiate a programme to train counselors. We do not have enough at present, given all the traumas that have been experienced, going hand in hand with the lifting of moral and social restrictions that is inevitable in conflict and post-conflict situations. I hope that these Counsellors, together with those trained by the Commissioner General for Rehabilitation, and those who now function in schools, will all work together to ensure total coverage, with guidance from the medical personnel responsible for psycho-social health in the area.

Those officials I found in general deeply committed, with innovative schemes to monitor progress in the more distant areas they have to cover. Basic health and nutrition have recovered remarkably in the last few years, and I think we need to showcase the manner in which the Ministry of Health, together with aid agencies, managed so soon after the war to bring mortality figures and nutrition levels to normal. But we also know that what is normal in rural Sri Lanka, nationwide, can be improved, and for this there must be constant awareness programmes, as well as support mechanisms where essential.

With regard to awareness and support for adolescents as well as adults, there is no substitute for community concern. Grama Niladharis have been asked to discuss possible vulnerabilities at weekly meetings, and work out ways of overcoming these. Where sex and drugs can lead to problems, what might be termed technical awareness programmes are essential, to make clear the risks that some behavior patterns might carry. But there is also need of awareness of potential risks in terms of one’s social peers, and youngsters must learn to recognize and deal with possible threats.

And perhaps most importantly, there is need of support groups, that can advise and provide a protection ring. This is most important for single parent households, including those with the male parent, for the girl children of such households are particularly vulnerable. The community must be trained to recognize and respond to such dangers, and also work out mechanisms for economic support, for economic deprivation also enhances vulnerability.

In this regard, Grama Niladharis have been asked to prepare schedules of assistance that is available, since we sometimes find that some areas have excessive support from several agencies whilst others are neglected. Government has still not worked out a way to encourage a more equitable division of resources. In that regard what I might term the perennial problem of states is also a shortcoming of the NGO sector, which is why better consultation is essential to ensure protection as well as equity.

By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

The problem about suspended sentences for rape

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.

The current problem arises from the fact that the Courts made rape statutory when it involved intercourse with girls under 18, and also introduced a minimum sentence for rape of seven years. Unfortunately this meant that a man who had consensual sex with a girl of sixteen had, under the law, to be jailed for seven years, and a High Court judge in Anuradhapura decided that this was not fair – the couple had eloped and got married. The judge therefore gave the man a suspended sentence, with consent it seems from the Supreme Court.

That action seems to me to have been wrong. If the judge thought he could not give such a harsh sentence, he should have asked the Supreme Court to lay down guidelines which could have changed the law. The Court in turn should have made any exception it condoned subject to reform of the law. If Parliament failed to change the law then I’m afraid the judge, who must uphold the Law, has to rule in accordance with the Law, bearing in mind that there are many laws that are not fair but it is not up to individuals to decide which laws they will abide by in terms of their own perceptions of fairness.

That is one reason why we should have post-enactment judicial review, because obviously Parliament may pass laws that seem perfectly fair but which, in practice, seem unfair. Having said that, if Parliament decides to continue with the law (which it can do if the only problem is that the Law seems unfair, but obviously it must change the law if the ruling is that it is not constitutional), then judges must uphold the Law. Conversely, Parliament cannot allow the matter to slide out of lethargy or carelessness, but must give its attention to any queries raised by the Courts.

In the present instance, the Law Commission has in fact recommended a change, that will get over the particular unfairness of a mandatory sentence being imposed in the case of an offence characterized as statutory, which does not allow for consideration of intention or actual violation. I have no idea what form this recommendation takes, but that is part of the problem, that the deliberations of the Law Commission, which I believe have been quite forward looking in recent years, are then consigned to files with limited circulation, and never seen again. The blame here lies on the Ministry which has failed to act on the recommendation, even while obviously knowing, as the article puts it, that in 114 of 129 reported cases, perpetrators of statutory rape have received only ‘a suspended sentence which included a paltry compensation fine’.

This is outrageous. Remedial legislation should be brought in immediately, and I believe the Supreme Court should also review all these cases and ensure that reasonable punishment is given. For our part, we have asked the Law Commission to draw up schedules of all its recommendations, with a report on what their current status is. We believe the Ministry of Justice, to which the Law Commission reports, should ensure that anyone requested to comment on recommendations does so immediately, and that action is taken soon.

I believe that there are several sensible measures recommended by the Law Commission, which would help resolve many issues raised in the Human Rights Action Plan. Lethargy on the part of officials tasked with implementation should not be permitted, and we must develop a system of swift response. I believe this is vital in any administrative system, but it is even more urgent where Human Rights are concerned.

By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha

The Welfare of Prisoners

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.

In Para 19 he suggested a way of reducing the numbers of those in prison because they cannot pay fines. In Para 20 he talked about using the example of the highly successful rehabilitation of former LTTE combatants to reduce the number of prisons and instead establishing rehabilitation centres. He went further and spoke of turning the minds of prisoners to sports and vocational and skills development. Sadly, as with many of the brilliant ideas in the budget, we see no progress as yet towards these ideals. I suspect we will see none until we actually develop a more practical way of ensuring implementation through line Ministries of policies laid down by the Chief Executive, which will necessitate at least a few Ministers chosen from outside Parliament, as happens in other political dispensations that have a separately elected Chief Executive.

Meanwhile I will note some of the issues that were discussed, with notes as to how we could proceed –

Prisons are currently overcrowded by 400% with 100,000 unconvicted prisoners – magistrates should be advised to refuse to remand unless it is essential, and police should be advised to charge for offences that are bailable when possible.

Reports required from institutions such as the Government Analyst’s Department can take years, while the Attorney General’s Department also takes much time to decide on cases – such institutions must be advised to adhere to strict timelines, with mandatory explanations to the Human Rights Commission or an equivalent body in case of delays

 

 

Lack of implementation of present policy recommendations – The President’s budget speech has emphasized changes in the present method of remanding improving conditions for those sentenced. The Human Rights Action plan has good initiatives but is to be implemented. When efforts of introducing counseling sessions were implemented, the prison guards opposed this idea and, instead, increased the number of guards in various prisons. The guards did not want the presence of counselors to affect their control over the prisoners and influence the prison mentality of fear.

The prisons currently have a few thousand uniformed staff and fewer than 100 out of uniform – The cadre for Welfare Officers was reduced and instead more guards were appointed. This system must be changed, and graduates should be trained in Counselling and appointed as Welfare / Education officers. Instead of dumping unemployed graduates in Ministries where they have nothing to do, they should be appointed as Counsellors (and in other areas apart from prisons) with specific responsibilities and reporting schedules

No accurate record of the arrival and departure dates of those remanded and in prison – All prisons should be required to maintain records of those committed to their care, on a schedule that records the date of release or review. Magistrates should be made aware of this requirement, and should avoid committing without a specific date. They should also avoid postponing cases when this contributes to further incarceration without due reason.

No system in place to promote rehabilitation and reintegration of prisoners and remandees – Released prisoners could be assisted through loan opportunities with the collaboration of banks. A support system for rehabilitation which introduces vocational training and counseling for prisoners as well as a mid-way house once they have left prison will assist ex-prisoners to reconnect with society and prevent them from engaging in further criminal activity. Provision should be put in place for prisoners 3-6 months before they are released.

Lack of coordination between key stakeholders- Given the different institutions involved, it might be best for an independent institution without executive authority to coordinate reform of the system. The Human Rights Commission could perhaps have regular meetings of the Ministries involved as well as Police, the Attorney General’s Department and the Judicial Service Commission. This would have more authority than the current coordinating mechanism which is through UNDP. Though donors and advisers have a significant role to play, reform must be driven by those responsible for action, with an overarching body to oversee expectations.