Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Population

POLITICS-SRI LANKA: Scepticism Greets Human Rights Plan

Feizal Samath

COLOMBO, Mar 22 2010 (IPS) - Pressured by the west and international groups over its human right record, the Sri Lankan government is close to finalising a roadmap on safeguarding civil and political liberties.

But the plan has drawn scepticism from human rights activists, who say that this South Asian country has a serious credibility issue in enforcing such a mechanism.

“This will be another document that will be merely on paper and intended to appease the international community and show that Sri Lanka has conformed to U.N. conventions on civil and political rights,” says an activist, who declined to be named,

Non-government organisations (NGOs) say that while they were involved in initial discussions over the formulation of a National Plan on Human Rights, they were excluded in the crafting of the draft plan and are unaware of its contents.

“NGOs were enthusiastic in these discussions and many showed interest despite some cynicism because the government has a credibility issue,” says Jehan Perera, executive director of the National Peace Council (NPC). “The challenge to the government is to make sure these rules are implemented and not merely on paper to fulfill, maybe, a need for funding from the west.”

Earlier last week, Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe told reporters here that the National Plan of Action for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights would be announced soon and presented to the international community. But he did not give details, saying only, “This action plan would show our commitment and our determination to minimise, prevent, or even eradicate torture and disappearances.”

Rajeeva Wijesinha, former secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, also says a draft plan was prepared last November and is being finalised by a committee headed by Attorney General Mohan Peiris. “This is part of an effort which began two years ago with a pledge to the international community to draft a Human Rights Plan on civil and political rights,” says Wijesinha, who resigned from his position a few weeks ago to run in April’s parliamentary poll as a ruling party candidate.

He says the plan now covers a whole range of rights issues including women and children, labour, and Sri Lankan migrant workers.

Since last year, Sri Lanka has been hit by allegations of human rights abuses, particularly those said to have taken place during the last stages of fighting between government troops and Tamils rebels in early 2009, as well as the targeting of human rights activists and journalists.

More than two dozen journalists have fled abroad, fearing repercussions over their reporting. Some rights activists have been named in a ‘hit list’ allegedly prepared by Sri Lankan intelligence agencies.

The government has repeatedly denied these allegations, even as it refused entry last year to European Union (EU) investigators in a probe into Sri Lanka’s implementation of U.N. conventions on human and labour rights.

In the absence of submissions by the government, the investigators concluded that Sri Lanka has failed to conform to U.N. conventions on human rights and labour standards. It recommended that the country not be eligible for a new round of duty-free imports into Europe.

Last month, the EU said Sri Lanka will cease to receive these concessions beginning this August unless there is a firm commitment given to implement these conventions.

Last week, a government delegation, including the Attorney General, met EU officials in Brussels to plead for the restoration of the concessions and assured that the new human rights framework would be announced soon.

The latest furore in this human rights debate is U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s decision to appoint a special panel to advise him on the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, a move that Colombo says is unnecessary.

But at the same time, the government has accused unnamed human rights groups of overstepping their boundaries and being involved in political activities. The government’s NGO Secretariat has sent out letters to some NGOs in the last few weeks, asking them to submit details of their bank accounts.

“This is an illegal request. Only the Central Bank can make such a request,” says one NGO worker whose organisation received such a letter. “Some officials at the secretariat are also believed to have threatened to cancel the visas of expatriate workers if these bank details are not submitted,” he says.

For sure, this was long after NGOs ceased participation in the forming of the rights plan.

Wijesinha himself says that “there was a lot of consultation with civil society and NGOs for several months”, with several committees formed in the run-up to the draft plan.

One NGO worker remarks, though, that most of the government officials who chaired these committees were bureaucrats who were not conversant with rights issues. Comments the worker: “There was a doubt as to the effectiveness of these committees. Nevertheless, NGOs who took part were keen to make representations.”

Some consultants who took part in the making of the human rights plan, however, confirm that the plan now covers many areas.

Says retired United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) official Hiranthi Wijemanna, who is a government consultant on children’s issues: “In terms of children, we have done reasonably well in reducing infant mortality and providing education to all as a right, and also on nutrition. But there may be a need to ensure quality services which this plan will tackle.”

Wijemanna, who was on one of committees that looked at children’s concerns, also says that protection is covered by the plan. She notes, “It’s not merely integrating child combatants (child soldiers recruited by the rebels), but also children who lost one parent or both parents in the conflict and are now housed in state institutions.”

Wijemanna adds that the government next month will set up a special Children’s Court in Colombo to try juvenile cases, which are now handled by the normal courts.

The plan will also have a segment on protecting Sri Lanka’s more than a million citizens – most of them women – who work overseas, according to Sunil Siresena, secretary to the Ministry of Foreign Employment Promotion, and Welfare. He adds: “If migrants register themselves with the government and subscribe to the state-sponsored insurance policy before going abroad, we would provide them protection.”

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