Manjula FERNANDO – Plantation Industries Minister and President’s Special Envoy on Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe expressed his views to the Sunday Observer on the possibility of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report being debated at the 19th UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in Geneva and the implementation of the National Action Plan on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.
Referring to the HR Action Plan, he said, “I must tell you frankly that we did not do this exercise to satisfy the international community. We did it because it was the right thing to do, in respect of committing ourselves to progressing further in terms of promotion and protection of human rights of all Sri Lankans, especially in the context of the post-conflict phase.”
About his expectations at the UNHRC, the Minister said, “I always expect the worst because there are some who don’t look at the progress. They pursue other parochial agenda. Some of them are driven by political agendas. However much we do in terms of achieving progress in the HR front, that would be meaningless to them. Those people would never acknowledge the genuine attempts made by the Government of Sri Lanka towards comprehensive reconciliation. But these are increasingly becoming less and less of a force”.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: The Government of Sri Lanka has decided to implement the National Human Rights Action Plan, already approved by the Cabinet of Ministers. This was a voluntary pledge given at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) meeting at the UNHRC in 2008. What are the key proposals in this document?
A: The UPR is a mechanism that was introduced at the UNHRC way back in 2008 to review countries by their peers who are part and parcel of the Human Rights Council mechanism and the UN mechanism. The objective was to provide an opportunity to engage in a constructive dialogue with the countries being reviewed and this takes place every four years.
Sri Lanka’s first cycle commenced in 2008 and the next review is scheduled to take place in October. In 2008, when we participated in the Sri Lanka UPR, with a delegation headed by me, we prepared a comprehensive report outlining what we have achieved, in terms of promotion and protection of Human Rights and what our challenges would be in the future; especially in the context of the (then) ongoing Humanitarian Operation, the threat of terrorism at that time and about being prepared for the post-conflict phase where we would have to deal with new challenges.
Our report spearheaded by the Human Rights Ministry and compiled by the participation of all other relevant ministries and State agencies at the time was actually a very comprehensive one.
I presented this report on behalf of Sri Lanka at the plenary sessions at the UNHRC. Subsequently, there was an opportunity for delegations to comment on our report, and at the same time to make recommendations on what needs to be done in terms of progressing even further.
The Sri Lankan UPR was in the backdrop of the ongoing conflict. There was quite a lot of interest shown, by not just the State delegations present, but also Non-Governmental Organisations. All the observations made were then considered by the Sri Lankan delegation. Those delegations that were usually critical of Sri Lanka on human rights aspects made statements to the effect that they were happy with the comprehensive report that we presented.
Quite apart from the voluntary pledges that we made, which included the preparation of the National Action Plan on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, the suggestions of the other delegations were also taken on board, because they too were in line with our thinking.
If you look at the National Action Plan, it has eight thematic areas including civil and political rights; social, economic and cultural rights; right of abstinence from torture; and women and children’s rights. We have come out with a time-bound action plan which would enable us to progress even further. The overall objective is to further enhance our commitment towards the protection of Human Rights of all Sri Lankans.
Q: Are there any key recommendations that you think would particularly be of interest to or be hailed by the international community?
A: I must tell you frankly that we did not do this exercise to satisfy the international community. We did it because it was the right thing to do, in respect of committing ourselves to progressing further for the promotion and protection of HR of all Sri Lankans, especially in the context of the post-conflict phase. Our objective was not to come out with a document which would be appealing to the international community. The objective was to very clearly show our commitment on the part of the Sri Lankan Government to take certain steps to ensure that our objectives are achieved on behalf of all Sri Lankans. Thus, we had to also consider what was practical and what was not. It was a five-year action plan.
Not everything can be achieved in a five-year span. We were very sincere in what we did. If we set out to purely satisfy critics of Sri Lanka, our job would have been a propaganda exercise. This was an effort for Sri Lanka by Sri Lankans. Since this was not a propaganda exercise, some may not be entirely happy with our report. We have shown a very sincere commitment on further enhancing the situation. It is a pragmatic approach.
When I go to Geneva in October, I intend to talk about how this will be put into action. In another four years, whoever is going to do the job on behalf of Sri Lanka at the UPR will have to show what they have actually done in terms of reaching these milestones. We have to consider this action plan in that context. This is not a document that is intended to sit on a shelf and gather dust. After the action plan is completed, we have to look into the remaining challenges and begin addressing them one by one.
Q: When will you be starting the implementation of the National Action Plan? What agencies will be directly involved?
A: A host of things have to be done immediately. I have received agreement from the Cabinet of Ministers for an Inter-Ministerial Coordinating Committee. This will be chaired by me as the Human Rights Special Envoy of the President. That will be the apex body coordinating and monitoring the implementation process.
Different Government ministries and agencies will be involved in this process. The Ministry of Defence, for instance, will have a number of areas to look after. They will have to start implementing those areas. The Justice Ministry, Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs, the Police, the Prison’s Department and the Foreign Employment Ministry which has a key role in relation to migrant workers, are some of them.
There are many ministries and State agencies who are tied to this as per their individual mandates. The committee that I will be chairing will regularly hold meetings and engage with those State institutions and review the progress.
We embarked on this at the outset in a very systematic manner and no institution would be able to back out now.
The whole process involved a comprehensive consultative phase. Until the document came out, all the stakeholders were involved at the sub-committee level and their concerns were accommodated. The priorities were re-arranged in line with their inputs.
Finally I presented the document to the Cabinet of Ministers to arrive at a consolidated position. It was not necessary for me to put it to the Cabinet. That showed the commitment of the Government.
Q: In the course of implementing this Action Plan, do you require changes to the existing laws?
A: There are certain legislative steps that will have to be taken. The relevant ministries will have to start taking legislative steps to fall in line with the Action Plan.
This is not going to be implemented by the committee that I head. The implementation will have to be done by different government ministries and agencies.
I will make sure that these ministries are coordinated comprehensively and monitored regularly to ensure that these milestones are achieved. There is no going back now.
Q: Could you elaborate on the role of this Inter-Ministerial Committee that will coordinate the implementation of the Action Plan?
A: I cannot give you all the details. I will chair the Committee. I would not think that anyone will question my commitment. It will also be a strategy to ensure that the diversity we have in our country, the multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual and multicultural community that is Sri Lanka would be protected and nurtured further; to feel that they are not being trampled upon and that we are one nation and one people.
Q: Do you think the recommendations in this report are realistic goals for a country trying to re-emerge from a bitter 30-year conflict?
A: Well, that is why we sought the approval of the entire Cabinet for the action plan. We did not set out to satisfy the international community. We wanted to do this because we felt that this would be a useful instrument to move towards winning the peace. We have won the war against terrorism and got over the instability.
Q: What impact will this have on the ongoing reconciliation process?
A: It will have a huge impact. That is what winning the peace is all about. We do not want to go back to the period of destabilisation that affected the economy and disunited the people of our country, which affected the image of the country and our democracy and rule of law. We have finished that era thanks to the leadership of President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
Q: The next UN Human Rights Council Sessions will begin in March. Will the Human Rights allegations start to haunt us once again in Geneva?
A: I always expect the worst because there are some who don’t look at the progress. They pursue other parochial agenda. Some of them are driven by political agendas.
However much we do in terms of achieving progress in the HR front, that would be meaningless to them. Those people would never acknowledge the genuine attempts made by the Government of Sri Lanka towards comprehensive reconciliation. But these are increasingly becoming less and less of a force.
Once we implement the action plan, along with the other efforts taking place under the direction of President Rajapaksa to achieve peace, I don’t see any major challenges that we would have to face. Nothing can go wrong as long as we show genuine progress at the ground level.
But I always prepare myself before Geneva and this time as well I have started this process. We have already initiated interaction with foreign governments on issues that may come up. I am confident that the positive developments that have taken place in Sri Lanka will start to pay dividends.
But I am not taking anything for granted. We are working very hard to improve the ground situation.
Q: Do you think there is a chance to debate the LLRC report at the upcoming 19th sessions of the UNHRC?
A: Well, it is not on the agenda, but there will be comments from those who take an interest on Sri Lanka. We will be open for interaction and to brief them on the strategy of the Government.
Q: Propaganda activities of LTTE fronts targeting Sri Lanka have become a recurrent phenomena at international fora. These became highly organised and calculated after the military defeat of the LTTE. Often these are picked up by some members of the international community to criticise Sri Lanka?
A: I think we are now in a much stronger position than we were in September, because most of the criticism then was based on the LLRC report not being made public and that this whole domestic process being eyewash. I think we have answered those critics today by presenting the full report in Parliament and placing it out in public domain.
We could have suppressed it citing various reasons. It has happened in some other countries. But on the contrary, within a very short period, the President decided that the full report should be tabled in Parliament. This was a very comprehensive report, much to the dissatisfaction of those who were waiting to target Sri Lanka. The Government has already briefed the people on the next step. The LLRC process is a good example for a lot of others.
Q: Despite the improvements in the Human Rights front, abductions still take place in the country. The most recent case was the disappearance of Lalith and Kugan in Jaffna. Do you think this is one of the biggest challenges the country has to overcome in the post-conflict phase?
A: The present situation is not even remotely comparable to what took place earlier. The situation has improved dramatically. But in any Democracy, there is an element of criminality and this should not be condoned. Societies in the West, who call themselves role models of democracy, are constantly battling with this kind of situation. It is incumbent on the Government to investigate the incidents, apprehend the culprits and deal with them according to the law.
Q: Does the HR Action Plan address these issues as well?
A: Yes. The action plan proposes means to deal severely with such incidents. In addition, if some of the recommendations in the LLRC are implemented, the country will be in a much better position. All this is done with a clear objective of achieving comprehensive reconciliation. But I must say, with all this in place, the ‘criminality element’ could never be wiped out 100 percent from the country. That is not a realistic goal.