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
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
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
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