Strengthening institutions and organizational capacity 1 - Parliamentary responsibilities and the need to enforce them
May 17, 2013
Having written a hundred and more articles on Human Rights, I thought it time now to turn to another subject where the Sri Lankan state could do better. As I found with regard to many areas in which Rights could be strengthened and protected more effectively, problems arise more from incompetence and carelessness rather than deliberate wrongdoing.
In order to improve things, it seems to me vital that we ensure greater discipline and efficiency in all organs of government, and in particular the administration. I am not sure that writing about it will improve things, because I am sure that others too are aware of shortcomings and wish to improve things, it is simply that the will and energy are lacking. Sometimes then it seems much easier to just let things be.
But often one does come across situations in which ignorance or a lack of clarity are the reasons for systemic failure, and I hope that at least in these areas some reforms can be swiftly put in place by those in charge. Often the failure to hold officials accountable for their shortcomings contributes to further shortcomings, until in time the officials do not even realize that they have failed to do their duty.
An obvious example of this came up in Parliament recently. Since, if we wish to strengthen our institutions and ensure that they function more effectively, the best place to start is the supposed fountainhead of all authority, the Legislature, it seems then a good idea to start with this.
One of the problems with Parliament was highlighted recently when it turned out that Bills to be discussed and approved in Parliament had not been distributed in time. The Chief Government Whip was reported as having said that a legal officer should be appointed to overlook the legal affairs of Parliament, while the Speaker declared that ‘he would not have hesitated to take punitive action against ministry officials responsible for the delay in presenting complete copies of 21 financial bills to Parliament had he been vested with powers to do so’.
These statements are indicative of the administrative culture we now suffer from. It seems to me that appointment of a separate legal officer would be a retrogade step because it indicates that the Secretary General of Parliament is not able to fulfil his duties effectively. The Secretary General of Parliament, and his assistants, are lawyers, and they are supposed to be the Legal Advisors to the Speaker. Unfortunately, in part because of the political culture that was developed after 1977, appropriate advice has not always been given, and sometimes it has been ignored when given.
One case that springs to mind, and should be recorded, occurred when the Member for Kalawana was unseated on a election petition. A bye-election had to be held, but meanwhile, in yet another of J R Jayewardene’s machinations, the original member had vacated his seat by being away without leave. He had then been reappointed to the vacancy under the constitutional provision Jayewardene had introduced to abolish bye-elections. The Speaker, ignoring the advice of the then Secretary General, ruled that Mr Pilapitiya, as the man was called, sat in Parliament by virtue of that appointment, and therefore the court ruling that he was unseated had no validity.
The need to plan cohesively and through public involvement
May 15, 2013
Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi - Part 2
In welcoming the initiative of the armed forces to get involved in communication, and in what might be termed Public Diplomacy, I noted how the failure to have planned coherently is apparent in the manner in which Development has been targeted in the North. Infrastructure has been created apace, and certainly we have done much to put in place the tools through which livelihoods can take off. But we have not worked systematically on the training that should also be provided to ensure maximum usage of the opportunities that are available. Thus, though we knew from the start that there would be much construction, no schemes were put in place in much of the Wanni to start vocational training for the purpose.
I still recall some months back having a discussion with a bright young man from the Ministry of Economic Development in Mannar, and pointing out that such training should have been thought of. He agreed, but it was obvious he did not think it was his responsibility to have thought of such things. He may have been correct, but it should have been someone’s responsibility. It is precisely because that sort of holistic thinking is lacking in our much fragmented public service that I believe the forces have a role to play in promoting it.
Similarly, we have no systematic records of what has been achieved, and in particular the input of government and of local agencies into the process of rebuilding. We produce lots of glossy booklets, but we fail to produce clear pictures of actual outcomes. I am reminded then of what happened with regard to preparations for the displaced, when we had elaborate plans, which were clearly impractical. In fact they were used by our critics to say that we wanted wonderful facilities so that we could keep the displaced incarcerated for long periods. Much time then was spent arguing over the plans, and little was done, and it was only because of the enormous energies of General Chandrasiri, who was put in charge of the process a short time before the conflict ended, that Manik Farm was got ready in time to provide at least basic shelter to so many. I still recall him getting down to yet more work at dusk, when everyone else was packing up for the day, and the international community claimed it was not allowed to stay out so late. That to my mind was yet another example of the forces having to step in to salvage an operation that civilians – including experienced international aid workers, though the responsibility I should add was more ours - could, and should, have planned better.
Another simple example, and perhaps even more appropriate in the current context, were the measures we took to avoid flooding when the monsoon threatened. UNHCR had a Shelter Consultant, who cost over $10,000 a month, but he had absolutely no idea of conditions here. When there were sudden rains and some damage, he kept bleating, at a meeting we had in Vavuniya, that Manik Farm was a terrible fire hazard. Initially I thought he was just stupid, but later I realized that he had an political agenda, and what he wanted was for Manik Farm to be closed down and the displaced all sent back immediately to their original places of residence.
The need to communicate coherently in Sri Lanka and abroad
May 13, 2013
Based on a talk given at the SF training centre in Kilinochchi - Part 1
A few weeks back I was asked to speak at a workshop arranged by the Kilinochchi Special Forces Commander on ‘Information Operations and Civil Affairs’. It seemed an excellent initiative, and the concept paper sketched out several areas civilian administrators should also have thought of. Sadly they don’t, so it was left to the forces to think about
Communicating immediately and consistently with the community
Establishing and nurturing good relations with the media
Reinforcing support relationships with others
Describing and updating progress on the post-conflict peacebuilding effort
Gaining and maintaining a reputation as a trusted source of reliable information for the effected population
Implementing an information strategy that enhances operational credibility and effectiveness
I was deeply impressed by all this, for I have long argued that the remarkable achievements of this government are being nullified by its failure to put forward clearly its remarkable successes. I have also noted that the civilian branches that have, nationally and internationally, the responsibility of setting the record straight have failed miserably. That is why I feel strongly that it is time some of the efficiency which characterized the operations of the military through the conflict period, and beyond, were conveyed to those who have let down the country so badly.
When I talk of this government, I should make a distinction between achievements before the last General Election, and what happened afterwards. There is no doubt that, before government got a large majority in Parliament, its actions were much more effective.
It had two very simple goals in mind, and to these ends it devoted all its energies. First was the destruction of terrorism, and this it achieved through the careful planning and energetic activities of its forces. The second was to involve all stakeholders in the operation by ensuring that information reached everyone, and that disinformation was promptly corrected.
Using the armed forces productively and sensitively
May 12, 2013
Having written for nine months about children, I thought of moving to another topic that seems to me equally important in the current context. It is also possibly of greater topical interest. And though I believe the care of children is of crucial significance, and that we must do better in this regard to promote development as well as equity in this country, I think the better deployment of the armed forces would also help us immeasurably to achieve these goals.
I say this because we are faced with a terrible crisis of administration in this country. I have been exploring elsewhere, and will continue to do so, how we can make our administration more responsive as well as more effective, but I think we also need for this purpose to look at best practices that can be replicated. In Sri Lanka we find that only amongst the armed forces.
Former Foreign Secretary Palikakkara, in talking at a recent Liberal Party seminar on political reform, mentioned – perhaps in defence of the recent obvious incompetence of his former Ministry - that if foreign policy is ailing, it’s no different to decay in governance generally. I think this is correct, and that all branches of the government suffer from inadequate training and insufficient attention to thinking and planning skills – as well as our failure to demand that reports be written and monitoring of activities be systematic.
I recently found – or had thrust in my place - two obvious examples of our failures with regard to training and planning. One of the new graduate trainees in the North said that government was wasting their time while not giving them enough to do, which another said they had not received adequate training, and were not properly briefed about what they should do.
The Care of Children 36 - The need for comprehensive care
May 11, 2013
Having written a column on the Care of Children for nine months now, I feel it is time to move on. This is not because the topic of the problems children face has been exhausted. On the contrary, these problems should generate ongoing debate of a serious and constructive nature. I doubt however that this will happen, given our capacity to forget problems after maximum emotion has been milked from them.
But the recent crises, from abuse in children’s homes and the execution of a girl sent to work abroad when she was a minor, to the leaking of Ordinary Level Exam papers and the sad case of a child arrested for allegedly stealing coconuts to find money for her school, will I hope stay for some time in the public mind. In particular I trust it is understood now that the education system we have in place, developed by Kannangara to ensure opportunities for all children, serves now to oppress children rather than liberate their creativity.
The reason I wish to move on however, is to examine in depth, if the Editor will permit me, the crisis of governance that has affected us, which contributes to the plight of children as well as much else. We have over the years destroyed our administrative system as well as our administrators, by multiplying both entities and tasks without working out coherent systems.
Sri Lanka Rights Watch 102 - Civil Rights and sincerity
May 07, 2013
First pulished - Daily News 25 March 2013
In the last column in this series, I will look at the Civil Rights Movement, which was founded in 1971. In discussing its contribution to Rights, and the manner in which Rights can be most productively promoted, I will also talk about one of its founding members, Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, whose 86th birthday it would have been today.
Like his father, Cyril Wickremesinghe, who was the first Ceylonese Government Agent, he was a radical in his commitment to social equity. At least, I like to think this was his father’s essential approach, though he was also a pillar of the establishment, a great friend of D S Senanayake and D R Wijewardene, whose eldest daughter married his eldest son. But, like DS, much of his working life was spent providing better opportunities to the peasantry, through the opening up of agricultural lands in the North Central Province.
Lakshman, as Bishop of Kurunegala, worked in what was seen as the rural diocese of the Church of Ceylon, and followed in the footsteps of another great visionary, Bishop Lakdasa de Mel. Both of them, unlike some of their elite brethren in Colombo, worked closely with the Buddhist clergy.
This included the politically radical clergy, and the founders of CRM included five monks as well as four Christian priests, including Leo Nanayakkara, the Catholic Bishop of Kandy. The founder Chairman was Prof Sarachchandra, whose sympathies, like those of Bishop Lakshman, were with the SLFP, but who also felt that the reaction to the 1971 insurgency had been too harsh.
Sri Lanka Rights Watch 101 - Registering the contributions of courageous Tamils
May 03, 2013
First published Daily News 22 March 2013
I was deeply touched last week, at the Reconciliation Committee meeting in Manthai East, when Father James Pathinather expressed appreciation of a position I had put forward, and said that it had required courage. I also felt very humble, for nothing I had done could come close to the courage he himself had displayed, in April 2009, when he tried to protect LTTE combatants who had sought shelter in the Valayanamadam Church.
He had been attacked for his pains by the Tigers. After he was gravely injured, and evacuated from the War Zone in one of the regular rescue missions we facilitated for the ICRC, the LTTE drove off those who had sought to escape from them by taking shelter in the Church. Many of those forced again into combat are doubtless among the few thousands who then disappeared.
The courage of those like Father James, who sought to stand up to the LTTE when it was at its most ruthless, should be celebrated by the Sri Lankan State. But we have completely ignored these heroes, who had an even tougher time than our soldiers who had to fight virtually with one hand tied behind their backs, given the use the LTTE was making of the human shields it had dragooned into Mullivaikkal. Those soldiers had at least the comfort of comradeship, whereas those who stood up against the LTTE inside the No-Fire Zone were isolated, and subject to enormous pressures as well as brutality of the sort Father James experienced.
Sri Lanka Rights Watch 100 - The Institute of Human Rights and its concern for the neglected
May 01, 2013
Amongst the agencies that I have worked with over the last year to encourage movement on the National Human Rights Action Plan, the most important from outside the government sector has been the Institute of Human Rights. They have been the most regular in attendance of the groups that come together in the informal consultative mechanism I set up together with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee responsible for implementation of the Plan. Ironically, given the absence of a Ministry with direct responsibility for Human Rights, sometimes I feel the informal committee we have does more work.
The Institute of Human Rights has done yeoman service in ensuring attention to those victims of human rights violations who fall through the net. The unfortunate obsession with War Crimes spun out by those determined to attack the Sri Lankan State sometimes takes away from the real issues we face. These relate not so much to the victims, direct and indirect of terrorism, which we have now overcome (unless the motives of the less innocent of the War Crimes brigade triumph), but to the naturally vulnerable, who are not of concern to the vast majority of their fellow human beings.
The most appalling example of these are the Women and Children swallowed up through the punitive system we inherited from the British for those considered socially inferior. The British have long moved on from the Victorian systems of incarceration Dickens so graphically condemned, but we still have a Vagrants Ordinance, and government claims that it will be amended have fallen prey to the lethargy of officials with regard to anything they are not compelled or personally motivated to pursue actively. Worse, they seem unashamed of the callousness with which it is implemented.
Sri Lanka Rights Watch 99 - Promoting successful initiatives
Apr 30, 2013
I plan to conclude this series on March 25th, since by then I would have written over a hundred columns on the subject. Besides, I see March 25th as a special day, because it is the birthday of Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe, one of the founders of the Civil Rights Movement in the seventies.
I will write about him for that date, but meanwhile I would like to spend the next couple of weeks reflecting on the achievements of those who have made some sort of a difference to the promotion of Rights in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately I don’t think people like me who engage in advocacy, such as through this column, have achieved very much. When they do so, it is by engaging the attention of those who have responsibilities for executive action and who take their responsibilities seriously.
That responsibility does not necessarily have to lie with government. There are several agencies that have formal responsibilities that can also take initiatives. Chief amongst them in Sri Lanka is the Human Rights Commission, which has certainly shown itself willing, but which at present does not have enough capacity to push through the reforms it understands are needed. Unfortunately it is not moving swiftly enough on proposing the reforms to its own powers and structures, as envisaged by the National Human Rights Action Plan, which the Cabinet has approved.
Sri Lanka Rights Watch 98 - Dealing with general allegations of war crimes
Apr 29, 2013
Some weeks back I was sent, by a friend in England, a book entitled ‘The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media’. It was by someone called Lila Rajiva, but doubtless that was not the only reason to assume it would interest me.
I took some time to start on the book but, once I did so, it had to be finished. Published in 2005, it is a graphic and convincing account of the manner in which the Americans ignored all moral restraint in the war against terrorism they were engaged in.
That part was convincing, and simply fleshed out what one knows anyway, that countries in pursuing their own interests will stop at nothing. What was more startling was the suggestion that the wholesale prevalence of this absolutist mindset also represented a takeover of the ruling political dispensation by a culture of chicanery that strikes at the heart of supposedly predominant American values.
At the core of this transformation is the corporate supremacy represented most obviously by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the takeover of much supposedly military activity by private contractors and special agents, who move with seamless dexterity from one world to another. Exemplifying this, and indicative of what C S Lewis would have described as a Hideous Strength which finds its own partisans dispensable, is the strange story of Nicholas Berg, the shadowy contractor whose beheading served to deflect the story of torture at Abu Ghraib, and in some minds excuse the institutionalized torture that was taking place there.
The book should be essential reading for those concerned not just with human rights, but with human civilization, as I continue to hope Navanethem Pillay is. However I suspect that she is too much under the thumb of those who fund her office, which is why, though there are stabs at dealing with wider issues, the main thrusts of her criticisms are directed at those weaker than herself. I suppose it would be absurd to expect anything more, in a unipolar world, with the media so purposeful in destroying anything that might suggest an alternative narrative.