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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2706

Human Rights Day Message – 10 December 2008

By Mahinda Samarasinghe MP - Minister of Disaster Management & Human Rights

Yesterday, 10 December, is Human Rights Day, it marks the 59th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) by the General Assembly of the United Nations in 1948. This Declaration is a living document that represents the standards and principles that all the world’s sovereign nations have embraced as “universal” – that is the common values of humanity. Many states have indeed incorporated some of these standards into their constitutions – the very foundations on which their country is built – Sri Lanka is no exception.

This year is particularly special as it will lead us to the 60th birthday of the UDHR. It is therefore important that from now until the 60th anniversary we focus on ensuring that all Sri Lankans are aware of their rights and corresponding duties; we must instil the value that the UDHR and the rights enshrined in it belong to us all – it is not the domain of the rich and the privileged but applies equally to us all regardless of ethnicity, religion, gender or geographical location. As Article 1 of the UDHR states, “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” As Sri Lankan’s we need to reaffirm the UDHR and claim it as our own.

Terrorist forces have wreaked havoc and fear on the people of Sri Lanka; they are determined to undermine our long tradition of democracy and our strong economic and social development. We face severe challenges in the current climate; challenges that few other countries have to contend with, let alone a developing county such as ours. Of course, I admit that there are many areas for improvement, and that a great deal more needs to be done before we can claim substantial gains in human rights.

Despite the difficulties we face and the urgent need to safeguard the rights of ordinary citizens to live safely and securely in the face of the unrelenting threat of terrorism, we must also ensure that minimum human rights guarantees exist for the vast majority of innocent and peace loving Sri Lankans without reference to ethnicity, language or creed. His Excellency the President has laid down specific guidelines to be observed in police and security forces operations especially with regard to arrest and detention.

My Ministry has taken steps to disseminate the Presidential Direction to educate the authorities and the people about the need to uphold human rights during deprivation of liberty of suspects.

We have also taken steps to ensure uniform and fair practices in the registration of householders and residents by the Police. Two committees under my chairmanship – the Inter-Ministerial Committee on Human Rights and the Advisory Body to the Minister of Human Rights – took up this matter and we are confident that registration requirements under the Emergency Regulations are applied universally and uniformly without discrimination based on factors such as ethnic background, language or religious belief.

Human rights gains and national priorities for 2008

Strengthening our national human rights protection framework

As well as raising awareness on human rights, we need to ensure the institutional protection of human rights by further strengthening our human rights institutions such as the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. The key to human rights protection and promotion is therefore increased awareness, highlighting that we are all the custodians of human rights, complemented by strong institutions that are not only independent but are perceived as such, and are responsive to the needs of all our people. Only a nationally owned, and therefore sustainable solution, to our human rights challenges will lead to real improvements in people’s lives and foster an environment that can bring peace to our island.

As Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, it is my aim to focus our attention on improving on our national human rights protection system during the course of 2008 – be it through strengthening our existing institutions, supporting the enactment of enabling legislation which will give greater effect to international treaties that Sri Lanka is party to, and endorsing initiatives to protect and promote human rights.

A Charter of Human Rights for Sri Lanka

As I have stated on numerous occasions, strengthening the human rights protection framework for the people of Sri Lanka is critical to achieving lasting and sustainable peace in Sri Lanka: People need to feel secure in the knowledge that their fundamental human rights are guaranteed and enforced and that adequate remedies are available to them. With this in mind, an initiative that my Ministry has supported, together with the Ministry of Constitutional Affairs and National Integration, is the drafting of a new Constitutional Charter of Human Rights. This is in accordance with the pledge made by His Excellency the President in the Mahinda Chintana. A new Charter of Human Rights will strengthen Sri Lanka’s human rights protection framework for example by protecting rights that the current chapter on fundamental rights fails to address – economic, social and cultural rights, and group and environmental rights. Moreover, issues such as language rights – as they currently stand in the Constitution are non-justifiable.

Guaranteeing the full spectrum of human rights will restore faith in Sri Lanka’s human rights protection machinery and allow Sri Lanka to better observe the various international human rights treaties we have ratified, through the supreme law of the land.

I believe the process around the drafting of the Charter is as important as the Charter itself. The process has to be “inclusive” – public consultation and participation is therefore a critical feature: it will bring together men and women from different ethnic groups and social backgrounds to discuss and agree on key components. Following wide consultation to be undertaken in the coming year, steps can be taken to incorporate the Charter into the Constitution via constitutional amendment.

The 17th Amendment to the Constitution and revitalization of the Constitutional Council

During the course of 2007, there has been much debate and discussion around the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. This Amendment requires for the formation of a Constitutional Council, which, by consensus, appoints suitable personalities to the various commissions in Sri Lanka. Due to the failure of the Constitutional Council to be validly constituted – as a result of lack of consensus between the smaller political parties – His Excellency the President took steps to appoint the Commissioners of the Human Rights Commission; this action has been endorsed by the Court of Appeal as being within his constitutional authority.

I agree that it is crucial for the Human Rights Commission to be independent – both in practice and indeed in perception. This is another strong reason why, I think that in 2008, we need to move on and take concrete steps to revitalize the Constitutional Council. A Parliamentary Select-Committee has been established, on a motion presented by me to Parliament, to make recommendations on revising the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, moreover, I have personally taken the step to set in motion an exercise aimed at strengthening the powers of the Human Rights Commission and addressing other shortcomings in the Human Rights Commission Act by way of a Parliamentary Select-Committee. This, along with a revised 17th Amendment, will result in a strong, independent and responsive institution that we can all benefit from.

Rule of law

In my human rights message last year, I reported on the process of setting up of a Commission of Inquiry to investigate, inquire into, and report to His Excellency the President on alleged serious violations of human rights. I am pleased to report that the Commission has been functioning for a year now, and recently the Warrant that established the Commission was extended for a further year by his Excellency President. The primary objective is to enable indictments and prosecutions against perpetrators of the crimes the Commission is mandated to investigate, and to recommend measures to prevent such incidents occurring in the future.

In order to ensure impartiality and transparency, and guarantee that all investigations are conducted following international standards, the work of the Commission of Inquiry has been observed by an International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), chaired by Justice P. N. Bhagwati. As the preliminary work of the Commission is now out of the way, the Government is of the firm conviction that during 2008, the Commission’s investigations will lead to indictments against perpetrators of the serious human rights violations mentioned in the Warrant by the appropriate national prosecuting authorities.

The Government has also approved draft legislation on the protection of witnesses and the payment of compensation to victims of crime – landmark legislation that will not only assist in the dispensation of justice and the bringing of offenders to book, but will also create an institutional and normative framework to provide for restitution for victims of crime. The Bill is expected to be taken up in Parliament early in the New Year.

Meeting our international obligations

On the international stage, Sri Lanka has been elected as a member of the Human Rights Council. Sri Lanka has the proud record of having fulfilled almost all the pledges made in May 2006 in support of our candidature. Our Permanent Representative to the United Nations in Geneva, as one of the Vice-Chairs of the Human Rights Council, and as the immediate past Chair of the Asian Regional Group in the Council has played a pivotal role in the Council’s achievements to date. Our commitment to fulfilling further pledges will continue in the coming year. In 2008 we will seek re-election to the Council by making concrete human rights pledges. It is in our interests to meet our international obligations. As His Excellency the President stated in an address at the 62nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly recently, “Human rights have to be protected and advanced for their own sake, not for political gain.”

Sri Lanka is party to seven core international human rights treaties and this year we also signed the International Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In 2008, we will embark on enacting necessary legislative and administrative measures to give full effect to the provisions of the Convention.

Sri Lanka has consistently maintained a policy of openness, cooperation and constructive engagement with all international human rights mechanisms. We have opened ourselves to scrutiny in the belief that openness and accountability can strengthen national efforts to promote and protect human rights. Accordingly, what we expect from international experts are solid recommendations that we can take on board in terms of further meeting our international obligations. To me this represents true “constructive engagement”.

Our openness is demonstrated by the extension of regular invitations to UN envoys to visit and report on the situation in Sri Lanka. During 2007, Sri Lanka received visits from Mr. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Sir John Holmes, the UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Humanitarian Coordinator, Mr Manfred Nowak, UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, and Madame Louise Arbour, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a few days time we will also receive a visit by the Secretary-General's Representative on the human rights of internally displaced persons, Mr Walter Kalin. We facilitated these visits granting unimpeded access, free movement and confidentiality of communications between Sri Lankan civil society and these distinguished visitors.

As Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I was the Government’s designated focal point in terms of receiving these international dignitaries and following up on the best way the Government of Sri Lanka can work with them and take on board their key recommendations. During a recent meeting with Madame Louise Arbour in Geneva, following on from her visit to Sri Lanka in October, I discussed a possible working arrangement between the Government of Sri Lanka and the High Commissioner’s Office.

As I told Madame Arbour during her visit to Sri Lanka, and have reiterated a number of times since, the establishment of an “office” of the High Commissioner is not an option for Sri Lanka, as we do not see a necessity for such an office at present. The Government has requested that the High Commissioner continue further discussions in the hope of reaching a mutually acceptable “working arrangement” – one that will reinforce our national priority of strengthening our existing human rights institutions, not replace them with a temporary structure that actually serves to undermine the credibility of these institutions. We have requested the High Commissioner to assist us with capacity building of our permanent national institutions and for technical cooperation initiatives that will help us to advance human rights protection in this country. I hope that in the coming year we will be able to enter into a working relationship that benefits all the people of Sri Lanka as well as the international community.

Disaster management

Due to the prevailing situation in the north and east of our country, some people were displaced from their homes and had lost their livelihoods and continue to live as internally displaced persons (IDPs). In my capacity as Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights, His Excellency the President has given me the mandate to assist in coordinating all matters relating to internally displaced persons (IDPs), I have personally been involved in coordinating assistance at the national level – both with Government as well as international and local humanitarian agencies. Such coherence is needed to ensure that humanitarian assistance reaches those most in need, duplication is avoided and that operations are conducted in an open and transparent manner – where security concerns are taken into consideration but do not result in a trade-off in terms of human rights. I am pleased to announce that the Government has been able to successfully resettle a larger quantum of “new” IDPs in Trincomalee and Batticaloa Districts. We are also taking definite steps to ensure that the situation of long-term IDPs does not go unaddressed.

I must reiterate that the Government appreciates the efforts of all genuine international organisations, as well as bilateral and multilateral agencies engaged in humanitarian assistance and development work in the country. Their efforts have greatly contributed to the welfare of the people of Sri Lanka.

In order to facilitate the protection of IDPs and ensure greater coordination, the Government has created two regular coordination mechanisms: the IDP Coordination Meeting that brings together a wide-range of stakeholders to facilitate and consult on policy decisions at the national and district level, and the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance – a high-level policy making forum consisting of key Government and international representatives. Members discuss access for humanitarian agencies for delivery of essential goods and services, security concerns on the ground and initiatives to ensure the protection of IDPs and conflict-affected communities. The CCHA enables international and Government partners to work together to consider and resolve key humanitarian issues.

I believe that the CCHA is a model of best practice that can be emulated in countries that face similar challenges to our own. Rather than merely looking abroad for the answers to our problems, the CCHA is a clear demonstration that nationally owned processes can work and that with effective systems in place governments, the UN and other international stakeholders can work together to rapidly respond to humanitarian and emergency situations.

Another initiative that the CCHA is fully committed to is the development of a mode of operations for actors involved in humanitarian and development work in Sri Lanka. I have created a committee consisting of Government, donor, UN and INGO stakeholders that has been tasked to develop a Mode of Operations to strengthen cooperation between, and amongst, all humanitarian and development actors – both government and non-government. The aim is to ensure transparency and accountability in the way that actors discharge their mandates. Assistance should benefit the most needy in Sri Lanka – and be based on the principles of good governance and human rights. I hope that the Mode of Operations will be finalized in early 2008 and then become fully operational.

Confidence building and stabilization measures for IDPs and conflict-affected communities

Based on guidelines developed last year to protect internally displaced persons in the north and east of our country, and a series of workshops held to consult all Government and non-government stakeholders, a consensus was reached on how to implement an action plan on confidence building and stabilization measures (CBSM) in the north and east. My Ministry, in partnership with UNHCR, is taking the lead in this area. The action plan on CBSM, although initially drafted with IDPs in mind, will, if fully supported, lead to the Government gaining the trust and confidence of all conflict-affected communities.

As my aim is to promote and protect human rights by making it a cross-cutting and integrated part of all activities, whether related to development, poverty alleviation, security, conflict resolution or peace-building, I think the CBSM measures are critical, particularly in the newly cleared areas in the east of our country. People there need to be supported and reassured of the government’s commitment to guarantee their safety and security, restore their livelihoods and infrastructure, and make sure that the return of displaced people to these areas is sustainable. We all have a huge stake in stabilizing the northern and eastern districts in order to gain the confidence of the people there.

Human rights protection and promotion in 2008

The Government is engaged in a number of initiatives to protect and promote the human rights of all our people, men, women and children – regardless of what religion they profess, ethnic group they belong to and wherever they may live in our island. This year in the lead up to the 60th anniversary of the UDHR, we must all personally pledge to respect the rights of all our fellow citizens. We must make it our goal to make ourselves aware of the rights enshrined in the UDHR and live by the universal values it affirms – only then will we really claim the UDHR as our own.

My Ministry subscribes to the notion that Sri Lankan society is multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multi-lingual and it is only through genuine respect for this diversity that unity among our peoples may be fostered, culminating in the forging of a truly Sri Lankan identity.

- Asian Tribune -

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