Read the full report –SLB BF no 6 March 2013 MASKING INACTION
Sri Lanka’s National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (‘National Action Plan’) appeared at the end of 2011. The drafting process had begun in 2008, consequent to a commitment made by the Government of Sri Lanka in the first cycle of the Universal Periodic Review. The first draft of the National Action Plan was formulated in a process which included the representation of civil society representatives and was completed in 2009. However, the process floundered following the abolition of the Ministry of Human Rights in 2010. The subject of human rights was not formally assigned elsewhere within government. The progress of the National Action Plan was subsequently entrusted to the Attorney-General’s Department that produced the second draft, and organised further civil society consultations in 2010. However, some civil society representatives complained that the second draft was weaker than the first version, and had removed most of their contributions, revealing the cosmetic quality of non-governmental participation in the process. Thereafter, the momentum for the adoption of the National Action Plan slowed; and its fate appeared to be uncertain.
The government was preoccupied with crisis-management abroad, of its human rights record at home, and particularly, demands for international monitoring of human rights and investigation into alleged war crimes in the final phase of the war in 2009. Over the course of 2011, as efforts began to table a country-specific resolution at the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), the National Action Plan was finally presented to the Cabinet of Ministers that further amended the draft, shortly before the 18th regular session of the HRC in September. The sudden urgency was prompted by diplomatic exigencies to permit publicity of the NAP as evidence of the government’s commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights. However, the final text of the National Action Plan remained inaccessible and unknown within the country, until its release in December 2011, and was only made available more widely one year later.
The National Action Plan comprises two broad sets of issues grouped into Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights respectively; as well as six specialised areas: Prevention of Torture, Rights of Women, Protection of Labour Rights, Rights of Migrant Workers, Rights of Children, and the Rights of Internally Displaced Persons. Consistent with best practice, the National Action Plan does not stop with the identification of broad goals: there are dozens of individual issues isolated for attention – many reflect longstanding problems in the legal, administrative and criminal justice systems; key performance indicators are enumerated; as are time-frames for implementation; and key responsible agencies are named.
Considering the mounting political authoritarianism of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, and combined with the weakness of democratic movements, institutions and values, the adoption of the National Action Plan registers an advance.
Whereas influential discourses within state and society present human rights as alien and imposed from without, the ‘home-grown’ National Action Plan creates opportunities for domestic advocacy on human rights and is potentially a bridge-head for critical civil society engagement with the state.
The National Action Plan should be supported, and be swiftly implemented. In addition, there should be plural civil society representation in its ongoing monitoring and evaluation; complemented by periodic public consultations, and ongoing information-sharing on its progress.
In every other respect, there is limited reason for optimism. More than 12 months since its adoption, it is not possible to identify where progress has been achieved as a result of the National Action Plan. There is nothing to show, beyond coordination meetings of government agencies and internal reports that are not available to the public. None of its proposed activities, of three or six month duration have, to public knowledge, been completed – even after 12 months. In actuality, the NAP has made no appreciable difference to the culture of, and climate for, human rights promotion and protection in Sri Lanka.
No reading of the National Action Plan indicates that its authors have confronted the scale and severity of Sri Lanka’s human rights crisis. The right to life, the right not to be tortured, and the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, are violated with impunity. The Prevention of Terrorism Act continues to be used to repress non-violent actions. The centralisation of power in the office and the person of the President unveil the worthlessness of the legislature and the judiciary in checking abuse of authority and defending the rights of citizens. The militarisation of state and society has accelerated since the war ended. Post-war reconciliation is platitudinous for the Tamil victims and survivors of the war without truth and justice.
If there is no sober acknowledgement of the human rights crisis in the National Action Plan, there cannot be cause for hope that it will rise to, leave alone meet the challenges of human rights protection in Sri Lanka. If the Government of Sri Lanka cannot be trusted not to back-track on pledges and commitments in international forums, as well as in its own National Action Plan, then what reassurance is there of sufficient political will for the remaining promises to be honoured? If there is no transparency in its implementation, no regular consultation with the plurality of civil society, and no discrete allocation of institutional, human and financial resources for its progress, there cannot be any confidence in the progress or in the meaningful realisation of the goals of the National Action Plan.
Indeed, it is hard not to see the obvious. As of now, the National Action Plan’s importance to the Government of Sri Lanka is for international advocacy on its human rights record and as symbol of its acknowledgement of human rights obligations. There is nothing inherently dishonourable in these ends; provided it is accompanied by sincerity of purpose and substantive improvements in human rights at home. However, where the National Action Plan masks the inaction of the government in confronting abuses and violations by state actors; and is a tool for deflection of its domestic and international obligations, then all who profess concern for human rights should know a fig-leaf when they see it.