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.
Perhaps even more importantly, she knows about legislation that has been proposed, but has not seen the light of day, given the bureaucratic delays that have since occurred.
Fortunately she and the current Secretary to the Ministry, who also shares her institutional memory, should be able to take things forward. We have already asked the Law Commission for a schedule of what they have proposed, with an account of where anything lies pending, and we should therefore be able to ensure that simple neglect is no longer a cause of inaction, as it has so often been in the past.
During the meeting at the HRC, the delegates told me that there had been a newspaper article critical of them, which they thought I was responsible for, presumably as one of the few who knew about their presence.
This was not the case, but I was saddened afterwards to be told by the chairman of the HRC that a couple of them had been questioned on the way out. This too was unfortunate, but I believe the UN office which coordinated their visit was at fault in not having kept the Ministry of External Affairs informed, as it is meant to do. I had told the ministry immediately after I spoke to the UN Resident Coordinator, but it would be good if the traditions of the UN in its relations to member countries are observed scrupulously for the future.
This is the more important in that there was a time at which our efforts to promote the Human Rights Commission were stymied by forces in the Office of the High Commissioner in Geneva.
When I was at the Peace Secretariat, I found, at the height of complaints about the HRC from the same NGOs who are now making such a song and dance in Geneva about the inequities of the Sri Lankan government, a document commissioned by the UN in Colombo that indicated the complaints were not to be taken seriously and that the UN should assist the HRC.
Unfortunately this report had not been shared with relevant personnel in Geneva, though the former representative of the High Commissioner in Sri Lanka, an Australian called Rory Mungoven, knew about it and tried to excuse the fact that he had not acted on it in terms of his belief that the Commission was illegally constituted.
He added that he was not getting funds because of this, whereas the Swiss gentleman who was in charge of cooperation on rights matters at the time, who seemed to share my views about what was going on elsewhere, told me that they had provided funding that was not used.
Rory’s immediate successor, who was much more helpful, was swiftly transferred. Her successor, who had arranged the visit of the Asia Pacific people, and who now seems positive about the HRC, should make sure that she works together with governmental agencies too to ensure positive results. To adopt the position of some confrontational NGOs, that the HRC should be in opposition to government, would be a mistake.
While the HRC must be independent in terms of its decisions, it must work together with government, as the Action Plan so clearly lays out, to develop awareness and administrative and legislative changes. Its monitoring role, with regard to detainees for instance, can only be fulfilled satisfactorily in collaboration with responsible officials.
The present leadership of the HRC is aware of the challenges it faces, but has begun to move forward. Its personnel who have attended meetings of the Task Force, as well as of the informal consultations I arranged in the Reconciliation Office even before I was asked to convene the Task Force, have proved positive in their approach.
I hope then that this cooperative approach will be supported by the UN, and I am confident that those representatives of the Asia Pacific Center who were here will ensure progress for the future.
By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha