By Namini Wijedasa
The government will study the Prevention of Terrorism Act to identify “possible inconsistencies” with internationally recognized human rights norms and amend the law accordingly within two years, says a document to be launched in January.
The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights, an advance copy of which was obtained by LAKBIMAnEWS, also pledges to adopt legislation within one year to ensure the right to information, to decriminalize medical termination of pregnancies in case of incest, rape and major congenital abnormalities within five years, and to ensure equal rights for non-marital children within one year.
But some civil society representatives who contributed towards drafting the five-year action plan say the final version is greatly watered down from what they endorsed. “The first draft, which is the only one we said we would take responsibility for, has been substantially modified,” said one, requesting anonymity. “I think what was left out is very revealing.”
The document, which will be presented at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions in March at Geneva, Switzerland, is divided into eight parts: civil and political rights, economic, social and cultural rights, prevention of torture, rights of women, labour rights, rights of migrant workers, rights of children and rights of internally displaced persons. It says each section was drafted by committees that included government officials, academics and civil society representatives among others.
Rohan Edrisinha, a law lecturer who was a member of the drafting committee on civil and political rights, said: “We were assured it would be made very clear that we were only responsible for the first draft. This was promised to us at a joint meeting of the standing and drafting committees that was chaired by deputy solicitor general Shavindra Fernando in the absence of the attorney general.”
He said that after the committees submitted the first drafts they were neither involved with nor privy to the final version which was further revised by cabinet before going to print. It will now be presented in Geneva when Sri Lanka’s human rights record comes up for examination under the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) mechanism of the UNHRC.
The UPR process allows all countries to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situations during the period under review. Sri Lanka was last taken up in May 2008 when it pledged to develop a national action plan to improve human rights in the country.
Cabinet has approved for Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe, a driving force behind the project, to monitor implementation of the action plan. President Mahinda Rajapaksa has insisted that local funds–and not donor contributions–be used for all activities under the plan. This is possibly to avoid “bargaining” or “coercion” by donors who would like to see stronger action.
Among the proposals excluded from the final document is an undertaking to amend the Constitution to protect all persons without discrimination of any kind. This includes “persons possessing opinions of non-political nature, persons from diverse national and social origin, persons falling into different economic statuses, persons possessing diverse sexual orientations, those having political affiliations, inhabitants from different geographical origins within the country, persons with disabilities, different ages and diverse marital status.”
Also left out is a commitment to amend the Constitution and the Judicature Act to provide for a single harmonized age of retirement of 65 for all judicial officers and an undertaking to bring about vast legal change that would greatly strengthen the Human Rights Commission. Left out, too, is a pledge to redraft the Prevention of Organized Crimes Bill to effectively deal with organized crime while respecting international human rights norms and standards.
Right to Information — committed
Under the action plan, the government has committed to adopting legislation to ensure the right to information. It has also agreed to review the Official Secrets Act, circulars and the Establishments Code, make recommendations and implement them with a view to guaranteeing public access to information. But it has dropped a promise to amend Chapter 3 of the Constitution to “include a Constitutional definition of the right to information, subject to appropriate restrictions as recognized by applicable international human rights law.”
The action plan has abandoned a pledge to amend the Penal Code to exclude the application of penal sanctions to homosexual conduct engaged between consenting adults at non-public locations. It has also dropped another to amend Chapter 4 of the Constitution to “very specifically reflect absolute parity of status between the two official languages being Sinhala and Tamil.”
Nevertheless, the action plan does include many important commitments which, if implemented, would contribute towards reversing a negative human rights trend in Sri Lanka. It also specifies that the aim was to include priority areas and not all areas for action, as the plan is time-bound it could not realistically cover every issue that may need to be addressed.
Here are some of the commitments included in the plan (see story alongside please):
—Amend Standing Orders of Parliament so as to require the secretary general of parliament to mandatorily place all bills on the parliament website and provide a mechanism for public comment.
—Consider extending the period granted for challenging a bill in the Supreme Court.
—Conduct awareness programmes for the public on underlying policy of proposed draft legislation and proposed bills, save urgent bills.
—Amend the Criminal Procedure Code to provide for magistrates to conduct inquests into all deaths alleged to have been committed by the police or the security forces;
—Amend the Police Orders and Military Directives to provide for strict vicarious liability leading towards stern disciplinary action against officers-in-charge of police stations and similar military organizational groupings with regard to deaths of persons in the custody of subordinate officers and personnel, other than in respect of deaths classified as ‘justifiable homicides’ by the magistrate who conducted the relevant inquest and the attorney general.
—Amend the Penal Code to create a substantive criminal offence with regard to the causing of disappearances.
—Amend Prisons Regulations to ensure that accused persons and convicted persons are housed separately.
—Appoint a multidisciplinary committee to ascertain need, and if deemed necessary, draft legislation governing the regulation of internet use and associated activity.
—Amend the presidential, general, provincial and local government elections acts with corresponding amendments to the Assets and Liabilities Declarations Law so as to stipulate the submission of an assets and liabilities declaration as a prerequisite to the submission of nominations and the resubmission at the end of the term as a precondition for re-election.
—Amend regulations to require annual assets declarations with the application of criminal sanctions for violation.
—Enact whistleblower and witness protection legislation.
—Amend Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka Act to provide for punitive measures to be taken by government agencies against officers found by the HRCSL to be guilty of acts of torture.
—Introduce statutory provisions to ensure 30 per cent minimum representation of women in parliament, provincial councils and local authorities.
—Age of criminal responsibility is too low. Therefore, determine appropriate age through a consultative process and amend law.
—Ensure registration of all children’s homes in each province, renewable every three years based on an appraisal including measurable indicators on wellbeing of children, condition of facilities, etc. Establish monitoring units that will conduct periodic spot or surprise visit to children’s homes in all provinces.
—Make all public buildings accessible to people with disabilities. courtesy: LakbimaNews