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Governtment of Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Rights Watch 79 - The messiness of Multiple Ministries

( Created date: 19-Feb-2013 )

I received recently a letter from the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, pointing out that her Ministry had been allocated responsibility for several elements in the National Human Rights Action Plan which were not within their purview. She was quite right, and there are other elements too with regard to which the Inter-Ministerial Task Force will have to request Cabinet to make the appropriate adjustments.
One or two of the points raised arose from the fact that sometimes many Ministries have to share responsibility for action. Thus recently I attended a discussion chaired by the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs regarding the replacement for the Child and Young Person’s Ordinance. This had been prepared by the Ministry of Justice, but the draft was to go to Cabinet through a joint Cabinet Paper, given the seminal role required of the Children’s Ministry in implementing the new law. 
Unfortunately, while the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice is happy to develop active coordination mechanisms with other ministries, this does not always happen. I remember for instance the difficulties we had with establishing a framework for Rehabilitation and Reintegration of former Combatants, when the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights was responsible for coordination of humanitarian assistance. Because, even with the end of the war in sight, there was no sense of urgency about this, we took the lead with the support of the International Labour Organization in developing a framework, and produced what should have been the basis for action.
But unfortunately the mandate for rehabilitation lay then with the Ministry of Justice, and cooperation was not forthcoming. Even when a dedicated Commissioner General of Rehabilitation was appointed in the form of an army officer – previously the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, who had far too much to do anyway, had occupied that position too – he still reported to the Minister of Justice, and so could not formally adopt the document we had produced, even though he did a great deal that was recommended there.
But because the Policy Document was not formally adopted, there remained a lacuna with regard to reintegration, and we still suffer from a lack of clear responsibility in that regard. It is widely assumed that the Rehabilitation Bureau is responsible for that element too, but that is not the case officially. Though interventions to support reintegration can be promoted in terms of the rehabilitation mandate, these cannot be systematic, and this leads to problems.
In particular, the absence of a formal reintegration mandate means that the Commissioner General cannot really push with regard to psycho-social support, which is obviously vital when former combatants have gone back home and need to get back to life in a local community. An earlier Commissioner General had formulated an excellent programme in this regard, but IOM which had initially been keen had been unable to fund the project, and one can hardly blame them given that it is not clear whose responsibility reintegration is.
I had meanwhile been trying to get the Ministry of Health to take on the task but the Secretary, who understands the problems and has pledged to move swiftly on the matter, is not sure whether that Ministry that should take on the task. I can think of none better, given the professional expertise to be found there, but I would be quite happy if someone else took over, and was able to coordinate all concerned stakeholders. But I can see a situation developing in which, because it seems to be everyone’s responsibility, no one will pursue the matter coherently.   
Meanwhile, despite a new Ministry having been created for Rehabilitation and Prison Reforms, the mandate in this regard remains with the Ministry of Justice in the Human Rights Action Plan. Though in discussion the Prisons Ministry has been active and helpful, and the Commissioner and his staff have been able to show remarkable progress, the confusion about formal responsibility leads to a lack of precision in the reports we get.
The same situation obtains with regard to the Attorney General’s Department, which the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice has pointed out no longer comes under that Ministry. It is directly under the Presidential Secretariat, but that means we do not have an administrator who can be held accountable for failures to move swiftly on the actions demanded of the Department. Though different members of the Department attend meetings on different elements in the Plan, and most have been helpful when they attend, sometimes no one comes and we have no idea who should be held accountable. And this also means that getting understanding of the overall vision the Department pursues is impossible.
The simplest answer to all this confusion is to follow the example of the first country in recent political history to establish an Executive Presidency. Under a Westminster system there might be need to multiply Ministries because, when one needs political support, the simplest way to obtain this is by incorporating those whose support one needs in the existing power structure. However, under an Executive Presidency this is unnecessary, and political structures should be such as to allow the President to work effectively – and to minimize confusion when there is a change of administration. 
This is facilitated by having a fixed number of ministries, with clearly defined responsibilities. Departments should be statutorily under particular Ministries, so  laws referring to Ministerial discretion need not involve strange phrases such as ‘the Ministry of the Minister in charge of the subject of …’ (a locution that has had to be used in recent draft legislation).
Ideally Ministers should be appointed from outside Parliament. If however it is believed that the capacity to appoint unlimited numbers to Executive office should be continued with, the answer is to allow for the appointment of deputies, either inside or outside Parliament. The point is to make sure that actual responsibility is clear and consistent. 


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