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 Disappearances, 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.
I decided however, having discussed the matter with our very efficient Consultant at the Ministry, Nishan Muthukrishna (who has done much work on the Action Plan and the UPR Report, though unfortunately he has not been given an appointment commensurate with his skills since it is still not clear whether there is a Ministry with a clear mandate on Human Rights), that our Ministry should take over, and we persuaded Jayampathy and his colleagues to produce a draft.
They were all busy people, but they obliged and we had what seemed to me an excellent draft ready by the end of 2009. I wanted it put on the website then for discussion, but since we were also pursuing the Action Plan, the Minister was advised by others in the Ministry that we should go slow on this, given that we were into election season, yet another phenomenon that seems unending.
Unfortunately after the election there was no longer a Ministry dedicated to Human Rights. I was told the Foreign Ministry would handle this, but that did not work, and its Secretary indeed told me frankly some months later, when I complained, that they were not equipped to deal with Human Rights in Sri Lanka – which is the vital part, as I hope Jayampathy made clear in his lecture. What I was sad to discover later was that they had not even tried, and indeed even responses to interlocutors in Geneva had not been regular and thorough.
One of the more startling examples of how things fall through the cracks we constantly create occurred when I tried to move on the very first item in the Action Plan, which included reviewing ‘the Report of the Committee appointed to draft a Bill of Rights’. The responsible agency was the Ministry of Justice, but when they reported to us they said they had not sent the Report. There were no longer copies with the Human Rights Unit which had moved from the Ministry of External Affairs to the Ministry of Plantation Industries, and it seemed the Report had been forgotten there. Fortunately I found a copy on my computer and sent it to the Ministry of Justice. Sensibly, the Ministry and Jayampathy had also been in contact, and he too had sent them a copy.
I hope then that the Review will be completed and handed over swiftly to the Cabinet. I myself see little to change in the draft, but I have no doubt there will be some modifications. But even a modified version will I think be enormously useful in ensuring better protection for the Rights that are not systematically covered by the 1978 Constitution.
It would be good however if there were public consultations on this, as we enjoyed in formulating the Action Plan, and which contributed so much to the LLRC Report, which has now also got an excellent Action Plan to go with it. For this purpose it would be useful if the draft were translated into Sinhala and Tamil and put up on relevant websites. I gather that the Human Rights website of the Ministry of Plantation Industries is now almost ready to take off, and perhaps the English version of the draft Bill of Rights could go up straight away, to promote discussion, and expedite action to carry out the first practical item in the Action Plan. Approved as this has been now by Cabinet, and fulfilling an original pledge in the Mahinda Chintanaya, it will be a tremendous achievement and the start I hope of a series of constitutional reforms to empower people at all levels.
By; Prof Rajiva Wijesinha