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Sunday, 05 June 2016





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Progressive Human Rights

A ‘transparent government’ through effective right to information laws will make up the list of the ultimate objectives of the second National Human Rights Action Plan currently in the making, says the former Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe.

“Giving life to the 19th Amendment reforms and strengthening action for the marginalized and dispossessed as well as meeting the expectations and obligations generated by the recent participation in newer human rights instruments are the new challenges to be addressed through this time bound process”, the Minister said. Samarasinghe, a senior member of the Inter-Ministerial Committee appointed by the Cabinet to consider all facts related to the drafting of the National Human Rights Action Plan, spoke to the Sunday Observer about the responsibilities of the new committee and the way forward.


Q: You have been appointed to the Inter-Ministerial committee that will consider all facts related to human rights to prepare the National Human Rights Action Plan for the period 2017-2021. Has the committee begun work?

A : The initial work is under way. We are fortunate that we have a ready-made formula to work on. The initial action plan (2012 - 2016) took some time, 3 years or so, to finalize. We started that process in the third quarter of 2008. We did a stock take of the needs, challenges and areas of focus. We looked at our international treaty commitments and the fulfillment of the commitments. We consulted the civil society, including some of our most severe critics, extensively. We had intra-governmental discussions. In the end we obtained the highest level endorsement – that of the Cabinet of Ministers.

Q : What is the mandate of the committee and is it a time bound task?

A : It is time-bound in the sense that we need to have it formulated, approved and ready for implementation by 2017.

The Committee’s mandate is to guide the process so that we achieve the targets. That said, the scenario is very different today. When we started work on the first Plan of Action, we were in the final year of the conflict against terrorism. They were challenging times to be talking about human rights-related reforms. This Committee does not have to face those challenges. Also, we have a framework which we had developed in consultation with the United Nations, on which to base the present initiative. I think, therefore, our aims are realistic.

Q: Since you headed the team which prepared the first National Action Plan in 2011, what are the new challenges compared to the previous one?

A : The new challenges are many: ensuring transparency through the Right to Information Bill giving life to the 19th Amendment reforms, strengthening action for the marginalized and dispossessed, meeting the expectations and obligations generated by recent participation in newer human rights instruments, are all new challenges to be addressed.

Q: Sri Lanka has been asked to put its human rights record straight before re-applying for the GSP Plus special duty concessions offered by the European Commission. Is it correct to say the new action plan will focus more on this area?

A : GSP Plus is not the main reason we want to improve our human rights record. Human Rights protection is for all people and is a sine qua non in modern democracy. We are doing this for the people of Sri Lanka, not only to gain preferential trade terms. If GSP Plus is a result that we achieve along the way, so much the better.

Q: Why is the international community still reluctant to accept that we are committed to address the outstanding HR issues within Sri Lanka. Or are they shifting the goal post on Sri Lanka?

A : I do not agree that the international community is reluctant. They will wait and see for tangible improvements. It is up to us to put the reforms in place. Everyone understands the challenges. A National Action Plan on paper or reforms in the Statute Book per se, do not mean improvement in the protection and promotion of human rights on the ground. That is what we have to demonstrate. I think the Government has made a start under the leadership of the President, Prime Minister and the Government. If we do not achieve what we said we want to achieve within a reasonable time-frame, they will not shift the goal-posts but will set the bar even higher. What we need is not a miraculous overnight turnaround but progressive improvement that we can show the world.

Q: Can there be more negative resolutions based on the visits by Special Rapporteurs on Torture and Independence of the Judiciary. Have we mended fences with the office of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner?

A: I do not think that one or two Rapporteurs’ reports can, by themselves, result in a new Resolution. However, the UN Human Rights Council does consider these reports in the context of prior resolutions and processes such as the Universal Periodic Review (Sri Lanka’s being due next year). A Resolution can be deemed “negative” only if it targets a country unfairly for political reasons extraneous to the protection of human rights. If we fail to engage and address the concerns expressed by Special Rapporteurs within the processes mandated by the UN human rights system, the Human Rights Council may take note of the failure. I am pleased that we are able to engage with the High Commissioner’s Office even more closely now.

Q: The President was invited recently to the G7 summit and was well received by the world leaders present. But, this goodwill is yet to translate into economic gains. The opposition claims this ‘show of goodwill’ is nothing but a mere show. Your comments ?

A : President Maithripala Sirisena was accorded the single honour of being invited to the gathering of an elite group of nations. What is important is what this high-level engagement means for the country and its future.

No one in the international community is willing to unthinkingly give us charity. International cooperation is dependent on us putting our own house in order. This is why the Government’s reform program is vital. Goodwill is not a mere show. It is a reflection of what we have achieved for ourselves.


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