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.
I will return later to the question of torture, but today I will look at the question of judicial delays. This is addressed specifically in I think only one section of the plan, where the question of ‘Delay in administering justice’ is answered with laying on the Ministry of Justice the obligation to identify reforms to deliver justice more efficiently and effectively, to provide resources to ensure speedy justice and to introduce training programmes to improve capacity and create attitudinal change.
Previous consultations had made clear how important the issue was, since abuses with regard to women and children for instance arose sometimes simply because of failure to deal swiftly with cases, so that remand could continue for years with no effort by any of those in authority to expedite action. One horror story we were told was of a delay in a report by the Government Analyst which had led to someone being kept in custody for fourteen years.
That issue having been raised publicly, it transpired that in fact the Analyst had sent in the report promptly but it had been misplaced and no one had bothered to follow up or seek a fresh report. I still cannot quite believe that such carelessness had led to someone being incarcerated for so long, but the others who were at the consultation, whose experience of our judicial system is greater than mine, did not seem surprised.
We did have this time a representative from the Government Analyst’s Department who was extremely helpful in pointing out the problems they faced, while acknowledging that a large backlog had indeed built up, when a thoughtless system of encouraging early retirement had led to the Department being denuded, along with a subsequent failure to fill up cadre positions. That problem has now been rectified, and the backlog is being cleared.
He did however mention two recent incidents that indicate the strain placed on the Department. In one case, an official had travelled to Batticaloa, only to be told that the production the Department had supplied to the Court was not available. In another case, an official had travelled to Kalmunai, having been assured by the State Counsel that the case would be taken up, only to be told that the Defence had not been informed, so a postponement was granted. In both cases it seems necessary to ask for explanations as to who was responsible for such a colossal waste of public time and money, and I hope this will be done. It is possible that no one is culpable, but such matters must be investigated and those responsible must ensure that they are not repeated.
One suggestion made to increase efficiency was that the relevant Government Departments should have a weekly meeting at which the expectations each had of the other could be laid out in a schedule. Those concerned would include the Attorney General’s Department, the Police and the Government Analyst’s Department, with coordination by the Ministry of Justice. There would be no excuse then for the State having to get up in Court and ask for a postponement on the grounds that the AG’s opinion was not ready, or the Police did not have the required Productions available, or the Analyst’s Report was not available. They could also ensure that supporting documentation was not lacking, as when for instance there was no Coroner’s Report to accompany the Analyst’s Report.
Such coordination would be a simple matter, and would prevent situations in which one body blamed another in general terms. If for some reason there was an unavoidable delay in providing the necessary input, then notice could be given in advance so that postponement of a case would not lead to abuse of the public or of public resources. And maintaining a schedule of expectations would also help to some extent at least to expedite action.
By; Prof Rajiva Wijesinha