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.
The manual was inspired by the Handbook which senior police officials told us had been a bible for all members of the force in their youth. This used to be given out to any new recruits, but the idea had been forgotten as the force expanded and its duties increased. The senior officials told us that this was a pity, for having such a Handbook had helped beginners to understand the parameters within which they needed to function.
We had decided then that such a Handbook should be produced, and in fact the officers at the Police Training School, a very dedicated group, had begun work on this. They also agreed that a shortened version should be made available, at cost price, to the public, so that the public too would be aware of both the powers and the responsibilities of the police. Unfortunately that plan also fell into abeyance with the spate of elections that followed the conclusion of the war, and the structural changes that did away with a dedicated agency for Human Rights.
I hope very much therefore that this idea can be revived. It would be an ideal basis on which to develop links between police and the community which it is widely agreed is essential to promote protection mechanisms, in particular for the vulnerable. In this regard it would be useful if clear directives were given to all stations that they should ensure that at least a couple of police personnel are allocated to each Grama Niladhari Division, and visit on a regular basis.
The concept is now in theory in operation, but clear guidelines have not been laid down. Thus, while in some areas, as I found in the North, there are very close ties between civil society and police officials, elsewhere these do not exist.
It would be useful then to lay down guidelines to ensure that the personnel dedicated to each GN Division visit the place on a daily basis and develop close links with the Grama Niladhari as well as leaders of civil society in the area, such as educationists and medical personnel and major employers. They should have weekly meetings to consider the needs of the especially vulnerable, such as single women, single parent families, the disabled and the isolated elderly.
Another area of concern should be students, with assessments of ongoing risks, with regard to possible drug abuse as well as unwanted pregnancies, which we must recognize is an increasing problem nationwide. Methods of dealing with these problems should be devised by the community, with suitable input from social service agencies as well as trained counselors.
Whilst the principal responsibility for such consultations should lie with the community, it is also desirable that, given the importance of protection issues, the police as a body be involved. This brings me to the third factor that we need if Human Rights are to be effectively promoted, namely regular reporting to identify problems and ensure that they are addressed.
In the context of community needs, it would make sense for the Grama Niladhari, together with the dedicated police officials and a group of local elders to maintain vulnerability indices, so that possible victims of abuse are kept on the radar. This should not mean intrusive interference, but registering concern and providing support if needed can be done tactfully through community awareness.
This is not the only element that should figure in the weekly brief report, for there are other areas of concern too, involving other Rights (speaking loosely the Economic and Social and Cultural Rights that are as important in the present context). But a simple directive to maintain such records and share them with authorities who might contribute to protection and improvement should be encouraged.
By: Prof Rajiva Wijesinha