Educating, empowering and involving Youth

untitledText of a presentation at the World Conference on Youth – 8 May 2014

I am grateful to Aide et Action for this opportunity to speak to you, and even more grateful that they have engaged in a process of international consultation to highlight issues crucial for the well-being of youth. The document they have put together provides a clear and concise account of how the areas initially touched upon in the Colombo Declaration can be fleshed out meaningfully.

Underlying the suggestions are a few basic principles that need continuous emphasis. Inclusivity and involvement, information and awareness, empowerment and equal access, all require greater attention from governments.

To achieve this, I think it is necessary to pursue comprehensive reform with regard to mindsets. Reform is of course central to the agenda of Liberalism, which is the creed I uphold, but I think in this context we should also use another word, which has often been twinned with Liberalism.  I refer to the term Radicalism, which means essentially the idea of getting to the core of things and uprooting whatever is not conducive to progress. It is because Liberalism has often been misunderstood, and thought to stand for only free market policies, that in many areas Liberals associate themselves with Radicals, as in an institution of great energy and commitment, the International Federation of Liberal and Radical Youth. This juxtaposition was sometimes necessary to emphasize the Liberal commitment to inclusive progress.

Liberals do indeed believe in free markets, but they also realize, unlike capitalists and conservatives, that markets are not free unless measures are in place to reduce inequalities, to enhance opportunities and to control power, whether it be political, economic, social or physical. The creation of a level playing field may be an impossible dream, but that does not reduce the imperative to pursue this.

This dream, this ideal, lies at the heart of the Colombo declaration, and the additions Aide et Action have suggested on the basis of their consultations in four continents and 16 countries. The details of the consultation make clear how AEA is well qualified to undertake such a task, given the remarkable work it has engaged in all over the world.

I have seen this system of aid in action in just two countries, India and Sri Lanka, but the confidence of their students, and the initiatives they undertake, make it clear that this is an organization that puts its principles into practice. It is for this reason that, over the last couple of years, I have used much of my decentralized budget to set up Vocational Training Centres in the North to be run by Aide et Action. I should add that I was keen that these be set up in schools, to emphasize the link between academic and vocational education, something that the consultations have stressed is necessary. I am happy to say that the initial snooty approach of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education to Vocational Training is now changing – though not fast enough for my liking – and I received active cooperation from the authorities, both earlier and now, more recently, from the new Provincial administration.

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The need for a national campaign to reduce the size of the Cabinet

Perhaps the most exciting positive political development in the last few months was the Constitutional Amendment proposed by the Hon Vasantha Senanayake MP, to limit the Cabinet to 30 members. This was an important part of the suggestions he made to the Parliamentary Select Committee, after discussion with a group of young people. Given that it is not likely the PSC will come to anything positive soon, he thought he needed to act to promote at least one of the reforms this country so sorely needs.

It is to be hoped that all political interests in the country will rally round this initiative. In the past the minority parties have tended to stick to what they see as their own concerns only. But this neglect of measures that will affect the nation as a whole is counter-productive. In the first place it allows the extremists who will not recognize existing minority concerns to claim that the minorities are not interested in the country as a whole, which means they are still obsessed with the idea of a separate state. This of course is an absurd idea, given how many members of minority groups live in the rest of the country. But sometimes the behavior of in particular the TNA creates the impression that they are simply not interested in reforms that will benefit the country as a whole.

In the case of the Senanayake initiative, they should also realize that a much smaller cabinet would immensely benefit minorities too. As it is, the thinking elements in the Cabinet are dwarfed by those with majoritarian instincts who can shout louder than the rest. But in a Cabinet of at most 30, minorities would constitute at least 20% of the whole. They would also have as colleagues a number of efficient and capable individuals, whereas now Cabinet decisions are made by a massive host, which obviously cannot go into details in discussion.

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Towards Reconciliation

Rajiva Wijesinha

Adviser on Reconciliation to HE the President


Four years after the conclusion of conflict, Sri Lanka still has a long way to go to achieve Reconciliation. This is unfortunate, given the enormous efforts made by government to improve facilities for the people most affected by war. But it is not surprising that, as indicated by the results of the last election held in the Northern Province, we have failed to win hearts and minds.

That would not have been difficult had a concerted effort been made. But this requires planning, and unfortunately planning is not something Sri Lanka has been good at. For over three decades now, we have tended to respond to events or rather to crises. The one exception was the care with which, in the period after 2005, we approached the conflict, with all branches of government working together and care taken to ensure the dissemination of clear and convincing information. Following the conclusion of the conflict however all that broke down, and propaganda, often based on parochial electoral considerations, took over, with little attempt at intelligent analysis of ground realities.

Thus we seemed to believe that reconstruction alone would suffice, and reconstruction that placed a premium on cement rather than people. This is on par with the worst delusions of capitalism as elevated into a political philosophy, the assumption that prosperity will trickle down. But this does not work, and Sri Lanka may in the end have to pay heavily for the failure to conceptualize with sensitivity of those who took on responsibility only for construction and not for consultation, who concentrated only on resettlement and not rather on restoration.

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The Bill of Rights

The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

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.

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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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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