The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights has considered the combined second, third and fourth periodic report of Sri Lanka on how that country is implementing the provisions of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Shavindra Fernando, Deputy Solicitor-General
Introducing the report, Shavindra Fernando, Deputy Solicitor-General of Sri Lanka, said that Sri Lanka was at a crossroads, having emerged from a 30-year protracted armed conflict, defeating the menace of terrorism that stood in the way for too long in achieving greater prosperity for all Sri Lankans.
Despite the conflict, Sri Lanka had consistently made great strides for continued improvement in the fields of health, education and socio-economic development, which ranked higher than in many other developing countries. As of today, the total number of internally displaced persons in the country had dropped to 18,380 when compared with almost 300,000 at the end of the conflict in May of last year. These numbers clearly demonstrated the unwavering commitment made by the Government to resettle these people and to assist them in bringing back normalcy to their lives. An accelerated de-mining programme was also in place, in collaboration with a number of international humanitarian agencies, to facilitate the return of the remaining internally displaced persons.
During the questions raised by Committee Experts, many comments were made on the insufficient length of the report. At only 28 pages, the report was not comprehensive enough for the Committee to fully consider. More statistics and figures were needed, including a detailed list of sources. There were also a number of questions on the independence of the judiciary. It appeared that there were arbitrary judicial decisions, which oftentimes protected the higher ranks of the military. It was inherently corrupt that in Sri Lanka, the Chief Justice, members of the Supreme Court and even judges in the Appeal Courts were appointed directly by the President. Among other issues that were touched upon were the establishment of the Human Rights Commission; housing rights; marital law differences between religions; gender discrimination in the workforce; the rehabilitation and resettlement of internally displaced persons; unemployment and the working conditions of migrant laborers.
In concluding remarks, Mr. Fernando thanked the Experts for the excellent manner in which they had conducted the dialogue. The issues that were raised made the dialogue truly interactive and the discussion was beneficial. The delegation had taken note of the Committee’s concerns and any outstanding issues would be taken up in due course. In addition, the National Action Plan would be informed of the issues and concerns raised over the last few sessions. Considering the comments that were made about the report’s length and the fact that the previous report was submitted in 1998, it could be helpful if Sri Lanka came before the Committee before the regular time, perhaps in three years time.
In concluding remarks, Jaime Marchan Romero, Committee Chairperson, said that all countries faced different challenges and appreciated the comments made by the delegation and their openness and commitment to addressing their shortcomings. The Committee was aware of the burden of preparing reports but this was the only way that the international community could fully monitor and be kept updated about the progress and problems facing individual nations. The methods of work of the Committee had not really changed but 100 to 150 pages was fairly standard in terms of length of the report. It was equally important to go through the report article by article as this was how they were treated during the review. Finally, the Committee thanked the delegation for their active cooperation and wished it the best of luck going forward.
The Sri Lankan delegation also included representatives from the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations in Geneva, the Ministry of Labour Relations and Productivity Promotion, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan Attorney-General’s Department.
The next meeting of the Committee will be at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, 10 November, when it will begin its consideration of the combined fourth and fifth periodic report of the Netherlands (E/C.12/NLD/4-5) and the fourth report of the Netherlands Antilles (E/C.12/NLD/4/Add.1). The Committee is scheduled to consider the reports over three meetings, concluding on Thursday, 11 November at 1 p.m.
Report of Sri Lanka
The combined second, third and fourth periodic report of Sri Lanka (E/C.12/LKA/2-4) states that important economic and social measures had been sustained in Sri Lanka, ensuring a high quality of life for all its citizens. These included the availability of basic food items, health services, educational facilities, housing and other essentials. Special programmes such as the Samurdhi Movement had enhanced the quality of life of all Sri Lankans, even those who had been in less advantageous circumstances.
State policies had also helped to reduce income disparities between different economic sectors and among different social groups in the country. The realization of the rights embodied in the Covenant had been facilitated in Sri Lanka by a multiparty democratic system. Since independence in 1948, successive Governments had followed a consistent policy of promoting social welfare among the population. The nature of the benefits had been analyzed and quantified and were reflected in consistent improvements in key indicators such as under-five mortality rate, maternal mortality, higher life expectancy at birth for both men and women, high levels of literacy, and school enrolment etc.
For nearly 25 years, Sri Lanka had been compelled to combat terrorism unleashed by a separatist terrorist organization – the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The LTTE had been designated as a terrorist organization by many United Nations Member States including the 27 countries of the European Union, India, the United States and Canada and was considered to be one of the most ruthless terrorist organizations in the world. The LTTE had been fighting for a separate state in the northern and eastern parts of the country. In July 2007 the Government eliminated the presence of this terrorist group from the entirety of the Eastern Province and was now taking steps to harmonize the economic, social and political life of people who had lived in the conflict zone for over two decades. These efforts included the reestablishment of civil administration, short-term and long-term economic development activities and infrastructure development to sustain economic progress.
Political structures at the local level were being reinvigorated in order to safeguard and advance the democratic rights of people living in these former conflict areas. The report also took into account the grave concern expressed by the Committee about displaced persons due to the armed conflict. The internally displaced in Sri Lanka was the result of the conflict as well as the unprecedented tsunami disaster of December 2004.
The 2004 tsunami had claimed 35,322 lives, displaced over 500,000 persons and damaged or destroyed 114,000 homes. It resulted in over 150,000 persons losing their livelihood. As such, the Government of Sri Lanka had a clear resettlement plan for the Internally Displaced Persons and an official Resettlement Authority had been established by Act No. 9 in 2007.
The report also addressed a number of key issues, including anti-discrimination mechanisms in the area of employment with regard to women and minority groups, minimum age of marriage, the national Citizenship Act and the implementation of laws with respect to children. On the issue of child rights, the report stated that Sri Lanka had taken several measures to combat the problem of exploitation and the abuse of children. The Government had established the National Child Protection Authority in 1998 as a response to growing concerns regarding the escalation of child abuse cases and in recognition of the need to provide a central authority to deal with the problem.
Included in the functions of the Authority was the duty to advise the Government in the formulation of a national policy on the prevention of child abuse and the protection and treatment of children who were victims of such abuse. Moreover, the Department of Labour was the Government body dealing with all matters pertaining to child labour.
The Department of Labour had also taken measures to strengthen the enforcement of the Employment of Women, Young Persons, and Children’s Act by making the officers of the Probation and Child Care Services as authorized officers under that Act. A separate division called the Women and Children’s Affairs Division had been set up in the Department of Labour to deal with all issues pertaining to the employment of women and children. The division functions as the focal point of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour of the ILO.
Presentation of Report
SHAVINDRA FERNANDO, Deputy Solicitor-General of Sri Lanka, introducing the report of Sri Lanka, said that Sri Lanka was at a crossroads, having emerged from a 30-year protracted armed conflict, defeating the menace of terrorism that stood in the way for too long in achieving greater prosperity for all Sri Lankans. Despite the conflict, Sri Lanka had consistently made great strides for continued improvement in the fields of health, education and socio-economic development, which ranked higher than many other developing countries.
As of today, the total number of internally displaced persons in the country had dropped to 18,380 when compared with almost 300,000 at the end of the conflict in May of last year. These numbers clearly demonstrated the unwavering commitment made by the Government to resettle these people and to assist them in bringing back normalcy to their lives. An accelerated de-mining programme was also in place, in collaboration with a number of international humanitarian agencies, to facilitate the return of the remaining internally displaced persons.
With the end of the conflict, Mr. Fernando said that the Government had withdrawn nearly 70 per cent of the legislative provisions related to anti-terrorism. Among those repealed were the emergency provisions pertaining to freedom of expression. In addition, there was a relaxation of provisions pertaining to publications and printing, distribution and possession of literature. All of these measures were established to protect journalists, human rights defenders and civil society at large.
In terms of rehabilitation, the Government had rehabilitated all of the 667 former child combatants and reunited them with their families. Significantly, this process was premised on these child combatants being identified as victims and not as offenders. This rehabilitation process involved psychological and social counseling, spiritual guidance and social rehabilitation, special education classes and vocational training.
Furthermore, the Government had also rehabilitated 5,221 ex-combatants and reintegrated them into society. As of November 2010, 6,475 ex-combatants who still remained in Protective Accommodation and Rehabilitation Centers were undergoing vocational training under the Government’s rehabilitation programme.
In August 2010, the Government established an independent Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, marking an important landmark for Sri Lanka as it returned to peace and stability. This Commission was part of a wider package of measures taken by the Government to further accelerate the process of peace and reconciliation and to create the conditions for a stable and prosperous future. With emphasis on restorative justice, this Commission was focused on determining responsibility regarding past events related to the conflict.
Mr. Fernando then moved on to a description of the Sri Lankan economy, which continued to experience steady growth in spite of the unprecedented natural disaster caused by the tsunami in December 2004 and the internal conflict, which ended in May of last year. This had demonstrated the resilience of the country’s economy not only to these internal factors but also to external shocks such as the global financial crisis, food and oil crises, etc.
With a GDP of 42 billion US dollars, Sri Lanka was a small, vulnerable and open economy significantly dependent on foreign trade. Over the last three decades, the Sri Lankan economy had transformed from the status of a primary product exporting economy to a manufacturing product exporting economy. In fact, annual GDP growth for the current year was expected to average above seven per cent.
The gender dimension had always been an important consideration in shaping Sri Lanka’s national economic and trade policies for the empowerment of women, especially for improvements in the livelihood of rural women. According to the Global Gender Gap report 2010, Sri Lanka was ranked in the sixteenth position, way above some developed countries. The report also stated that Sri Lanka was distinctive for being the only South Asian country in the top twenty for the fourth consecutive year.
In terms of infrastructure development, eighty-five percent of Sri Lankans had access to safe drinking water and eighty-six percent of the households had electricity. In addition, the telecommunications sector registered a significant growth in 2009. The number of mobile connections was increased by 25.9 percent, which amounted to 13.9 million mobile phones out of a population of 20 million people. This, along with other positive economic measures implemented by the Government, indicated that the country was well on track to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2015.
Questions by Experts on Articles One to Five of the Covenant
Addressing issues linked to articles one to five of the Covenant, an Expert said that while Sri Lanka was expected to average above seven percent growth in GDP, what plans did it have to reinvest some of this growth into infrastructure development. One Expert complained of the length of the report. At only 28 pages, the report was not sufficiently comprehensive for the Committee to fully consider. One Expert asked to what extent Sri Lanka was benefiting from foreign aid and assistance as an impoverished island State?
One question was raised regarding the issue of Sharia law and marriage. It seemed that in Sri Lanka it was not necessary to obtain consent from the Muslim bride nor was there a minimum age of marriage. One Expert asked why these aspects of the law had been preserved given that even in some Muslim countries, a minimum age and consent from the bride had been enshrined in their Sharia law. Given the very stark differences in marriage law between different religions and ethnicities, did the delegation not agree that there was a certain degree of legal discrimination?
On the issue of independence of the judiciary, it appeared that there were arbitrary judicial decisions, which oftentimes protected the higher ranks of the military. In this regard, some members of the military benefited from judicial immunity. The Committee Against Torture, for example, stated that justice was a rare commodity in Sri Lanka and one Expert requested an update on the situation of justice and impunity and measures taken to both monitor and better train members of the judicial system. It was inherently corrupt that in Sri Lanka, the Chief Justice, members of the Supreme Court and even judges in the Appeal Courts were appointed directly by the President. This was not an independent, transparent and balanced system of appointment. Another Expert asked the delegation to elaborate on the current status of bribery and corruption in Sri Lanka and also to provide some examples of Sri Lankan case law where corruption had been punished by law.
In the efforts to scale down emergency provisions, one Expert asked if the Government would consider implementing a Right to Information Act. On the issue of resettlement of internally displaced persons, under what conditions were these groups resettled? It was not sufficient to merely send internally displaced persons to their former homelands and Governments needed to ensure a full and sustainable rehabilitation and reintegration. Following the tsunami and the armed conflict, how many homes were destroyed and rebuilt?
While it was commendable that Sri Lanka had established a Human Rights Commission, it was not functional at this stage and Experts wondered when were they planning to revive it and appoint Human Rights Commissioners.
Further information was also requested from the delegation on whether the Government was still committed to preparing a Human Rights Charter in line with international human rights law and conventions. One of the Committee Experts also mentioned the dangers faced by human rights defenders. The non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch had reported several attacks against human rights defenders in Sri Lanka and it was asked whether further information could be provided on whether these attacks took place as well as measures taken to protect this vulnerable group.
On the issue of Article One, an Expert said there were a number of alarming reports of discrimination and human rights abuses against certain marginalized groups. There continued to be discrimination against Muslim communities, Tamils and other ethnic minorities, which remained of great concern to the Committee.
One Expert pointed out that this report should not be seen as an obligation but as an opportunity to review one’s own progress and the remaining challenges in the field of economic, social and cultural rights. In this regard, one Expert asked to what extent the population of Sri Lankans knew about this report and whether or not civil society groups, non-governmental organizations and human rights defenders were consulted in the preparation of the report.
The Special Rapporteur on Sri Lanka had said that there needed to be an independent inquiry on war crimes committed during the conflict and several Experts wanted to know if that was being worked on. Another Expert asked for more information on the state of internally displaced persons who had been returning to their homes. On this issue, further information was requested on the reintegration process. Had these internally displaced persons found work upon their return, had the children returned to schools and had their homes been rebuilt?
Economically speaking, the report stated that the Sri Lankan stock exchange was currently one of the best in the world. However, the Committee was not a financial institution and as such this information was not really of real interest to a human rights committee. If anything, a strong stock exchange was frequently the cause of economic liberalization, which often came at the expense of protecting domestic human rights and social development. Along these lines, another Expert asked how Sri Lanka’s trade policies conformed to human rights standards. Moreover, while economic growth was both positive and noteworthy, what real impact did this have on the enjoyment of human rights by national citizens?
A number of Experts complained about the lack of detail and substance in the periodic report. Statements such as “fishing nets were given to fishermen” were simply too general and not useful for the review in front of the Committee. More statistics and figures were needed, including a detailed list of sources. Another Expert also expressed sincere disappointment that the questions posed to the delegation were longer than the responses. One example was the question asked by the Committee on the state of Indians of Tamil origin living in Sri Lanka. Aside from the response on providing national identity cards in some cases, it would have been helpful to have a more detailed overview on the situation of Indian Tamils living in Sri Lanka, including accurate figures. To this end, it was truly difficult to have a constructive dialogue on the basis of such a short and unsubstantial periodic report.
Response by Delegation
Answering those questions and others, the delegation apologized for the shortcomings of the report. Certainly, the fact that 12 years had transpired since the last report had made the task more difficult. The delegation took note of the numerous criticisms and assured the Committee that their answers would be more informative and comprehensive.
The delegation addressed questions regarding the National Human Rights Commission. At the time the Commission came into being, the appointment of the Commissioners was to be done by the President. Around 2007, certain legal issues came to the fore regarding which Parliamentary parties were considered minorities and which groups could make appointment suggestions. It was decided that the Parliamentary Commission would make these suggestions, rather than the President, and this would take place in the very near future. The reason for these complicated changes was that the National Human Rights Commission was an independent body and deserved to be fully independent from the current Government in Sri Lanka.
In answer to one Expert, the delegation said the breach of certain economic, social and cultural rights could be tried in a national court. However, these rights are not fully judiciable. A person could not go to a court and say that they did not have a home and that their human right to housing had been abused. However, if someone was forcefully or arbitrarily removed from their home and discriminated against in the right to housing, then that could be considered by a court of law. Any provision with regard to discrimination, whether in the private or public sector, could be brought to the attention of a district court. To this end, a number of cases had come before national courts to redress human rights abuses.
The judiciary, the legislative and the executive were all free and independent and a system of checks and balances existed to ensure that these bodies remained independent. As a proof of independence, a Parliamentary Council had replaced the Constitutional Council, which was accountable to the Parliament and members appointed by the Parliament. In response to another question on the National Action Plan, the Sri Lankan delegation reiterated the importance of human rights, which were enshrined and protected in this particular action plan.
On the issue of marriage law, the Government had chosen to not directly get involved in the decisions made by certain cultural and religious practices. The Sri Lankan Government respected a number of cultural laws and Article 16 of the Constitution enforced the protection of cultural norms and religious-based legal structures. Under national Sri Lankan law, if a woman conceived a child under the age of sixteen then the male partner could be tried for statutory rape. However, the state prosecutor or courts had the freedom to decide whether or not to prosecute following the review of the context of the case itself. Oftentimes, the male would marry the pregnant woman making any legal trial unnecessary.
The Sri Lankan Supreme Court often dealt with fundamental human rights, such as non-discrimination based on gender, the right to join trade unions and so on and so forth. The right to water was implicitly protected in Sri Lanka’s Constitution and the Supreme Court had been used to protect the rights of certain communities to access to water, which in some cases had been threatened by private companies or large infrastructure developments.
On the issue of national security, the nation’s high security zones had been largely withdrawn and in the next few weeks they would either be completely dismantled or maintained in a few key risk areas. Needless to say, after 30 years of conflict and instability, the Government had an obligation to uphold security and protect its citizens.
Questions by Experts on Articles Six to Nine of the Covenant
One Expert asked for further details on unemployment and the percentage of women and minority groups who were unemployed. On the issue of forced labour, what could the delegation say about compulsory work that had been implemented during the period of emergency during last year’s conflict and what measures had been taken to change this?
The principle of Article 7 rested on the fundamental tenet of equal pay for equal work. However, was there any national legislation that protected this concept of equal pay for equal work? In addition, the figures of minimum wage varied dramatically from one source to another and one Expert asked if the delegation could provide some insight on this. Tea workers were particularly hard hit and were paid daily rather than on a monthly basis. One Expert provided an example of a group of tea workers that had been refused a salary of 500 rupees a day, even though that was below market rate.
Finally, one Expert asked for further details on the working conditions of migrant laborers, who were more often than not women, and any legislative safeguards that had been implemented to protect them.
Response by Delegation
Responding to the issue of internally displaced persons and their resettlement, the delegation said that there were few cases where internally displaced persons were returned too quickly. The Government of Sri Lanka had been assisting, with the help of foreign aid groups, in the reconstruction of homes and the provision of basic infrastructure, which included water and sanitation facilities. On the issue of rehabilitation and livelihood creation, 2.9 billion rupees were being invested from the period of 2010-2012 into a programme of rehabilitation, which included the improvement of economic infrastructure. In 2009, the Government of Sri Lanka had spent three hundred and ten billion rupees in infrastructure development and would continue to do so going forward.
It was hoped that the remaining internally displaced persons would be returned before the end of year. There still remained some 98,000 Muslims who were displaced during the ethnic cleansing of the LTTE. These communities had moved to the North West of the country and many had established new lives and would not be forced to return to their former homelands if they preferred to stay in their new homes.
The Human Rights Commission was governed by the Sri Lankan Government, which had the primary responsibility to provide an adequate budget for its functioning. The principal role of the Human Rights Commission would be to act on directives given to it by the Supreme Court. The Commission would investigate and advise the Supreme Court but the Supreme Court would ultimately retain its power and would make legal decisions based on the recommendations of the Commission.
With regard to education, schooling from Grade 1 was paid for by the State. Recruitment into primary schools stood around 95 per cent. The ratio of boys to girls in primary schools recently reached almost 99 per cent. On the issue of public health, in a recent Government directive, it was decided that hospitals would soon run 24 hours a day and provide free health care to all. Statistically, maternal mortality was at 43 per 100,000 births, while infant mortality rates were registered at 11.3 per 100,000 births.
In response to the questions raised on the rate of unemployment, it particularly affected young people. Male unemployment had dropped one per cent from around five to four per cent from 1999 to 2009. By contrast, the female rate of unemployment went from approximately 13 per cent in 1999 to 8.6 per cent in 2009.
There was another question about whether there was a law enforcing equal pay for equal work. The main determination of wages was regulated in the public sector and in the private sector there was an enforced minimum wage and periodic Government inspections to ensure that there were no incidents of salary discrimination between men and women. The situation was not perfect but the Government was making efforts to ensure gender equality in the workforce. Minimum wage was established by sector. There were 43 different work sectors and the Government, in direct consultation with employers and trade unions, established minimum wages. In specific reference to the question on tea plantation workers, their wages were based on collective agreements made by the employers and the workers.
On the issue of domestic workers of Sri Lankan origin working abroad, the Government had established insurance schemes to repatriate domestic workers. Moreover, these domestic workers were expected to receive proper training before their departure.
In many OECD countries, the trade union density was declining. This was also the case in Sri Lanka where unionization was very much based on the work sector. In tea plantations, unionization was close to 90 per cent but it was very low in the Government sectors.
On the subject of sustainable development, the delegation said that the existence of the National Action Plan on Sustainable Development was a testament to Sri Lanka’s commitment to sustainable development. This National Action Plan was established in 2008 by almost all of the Government’s Ministries. Some of the principles of this Plan were clean air for all, protection of the coastline and ecological diversity, the establishment of green cities, responsible waste disposal, and the elimination of dumps, etc.
Sri Lanka was a common law country and was based very closely on the legal model of the United Kingdom. Sri Lanka was now considering the Freedom of Information Act, which was recently established in the United Kingdom.
With regards to Sri Lanka’s indigenous communities, they were very much integrated in Sri Lankan society. Their traditional lands had not been entrenched in any significant way but, if ever they came under threat, these indigenous communities could seek justice and redress from the national courts.
Finally, on the issue of the Citizenship Act, no complaints of discrimination had been brought to the Supreme Court. There were some complaints that the Act was outdated, as it was established soon after independence in 1945. However, there had not been a need to revise the Act and ample mechanisms existed to bring any relevant complaints to the national courts.
One Expert asked about the Women’s Rights Act, which had been reviewed and changed. What was the progress on this particular Act and what efforts were being made to institutionalize women’s rights?
The proportion of Sri Lanka’s population that was elderly was higher than in any other South Asian nation and one Expert asked what social measures were being implemented to protect this group?
Turning to Sri Lanka’s youth, it seemed that high school students were the hardest hit by unemployment. One Expert therefore asked what programmes were being implemented to encourage employment amongst this age group, as well as encourage adolescents to remain in school and be further educated.
What efforts were being made to protect persons with disabilities, both in the private and public sectors? Did the Government have any programmes aimed at helping persons with disabilities find work and encouraging employers to provide working environments that were favorable to disabled persons?
While there was some Government emphasis on workplace safety and security, one Expert noted that there were only 400 labour inspectors for the entire country. How effective were these inspectors in monitoring the situation of worker safety and security?
On the issue of trade unions, what measures had been established to protect workers from their employers after they had lodged a formal complaint.
One Expert raised the problem of the under-representation of minority groups in the public sector, for example Tamils of Indian origin and Muslims. In this regard, what efforts were being made by the Government to address this issue and to promote a better ethnic balance in public sector jobs?
It was also indicated that the situation of female domestic migrant workers was under control but one Expert was not convinced and suspected that there was a discrepancy between theory and practice on this issue. The Expert asked the delegation to elaborate on what Sri Lanka had done to protect domestic workers abroad, especially those who were victims of domestic abuse and violence.
Response by Delegation
In terms of social security schemes, in the public sector the Government had established pension schemes that benefited some 1.2 million public sector employees. A number of private companies also had their own pension schemes and trust funds, which were covered entirely by the employer. Furthermore, workers in the formal sector were entitled to severance packages if let go.
On the question of social protection a feasibility study had been carried out by the International Labour Office on how to conduct a sustainable social protection plan. The main pillars of this social protection initiative were to provide essential health care for all, assistance to the unemployed and the poor and social welfare to the disabled and elderly. As a proof of its resolve in this area, the delegation added that one of the eight Committees of the National Action Plan was focused exclusively on economic, social and cultural rights.
In terms of persons with disabilities, the Government Cabinet was committed to helping persons with disabilities find employment, with the aim of having at least three percent of all jobs reserved for disabled persons, both in the public and private sectors. A job fair had been organized by the Government with the focus on helping disabled persons to find suitable employment. On the issue of workplace safety, the Government was increasing the amount of labour officers to address the issue made by one of the Experts.
The issue of trade unions was an important one for Sri Lanka and it had ratified ILO Convention 135. Sri Lanka had taken measures to encourage unionization but it could not force employees to join. The victimization of trade unionists was illegal and there was a national law to protect against unfair labour practices. Employers could face prosecution for unfair labour practices if they were shown to have intimidated or discriminated against a trade unionist.
Minimum wages have been increased by an average of 20 per cent in Sri Lanka in 2010. Some industries were not in a position to raise wages to the same extent based primarily on the specific conditions of the industry, many of which could not sustain such sudden and drastic increases in wages.
On the issue of the under-representation of minority groups in the public sector, the delegation refuted the allegation that there were discriminatory practices against Muslims and minority groups. The delegate who answered this question was himself a Muslim and had not witnessed any discrimination in his public sector career. Nevertheless, there were numerous mechanisms that could be used to address any issues of worker discrimination or inequity. Furthermore, since 1983, because of the armed conflict, many Sri Lankan minorities working in the public sector had emigrated from Sri Lanka, particularly Indian Tamils, many of whom returned to India.
The delegation stated that it could not prevent employment migration. Not long ago, there was a proposed Government initiative to stop women with children under five from seeking employment abroad. However, this initiative faced significant opposition inside the country.
One Expert commended the Government for working closely with the ILO and asked if there was a time frame for this social protection initiative.
In another question, one Expert highlighted that there were no specific sexual harassment laws and, as such, what measures were being taken to protect women from sexual harassment in the workplace?
Another Expert spoke out to clarify the point on the under-representation of minorities in public service. The low representation of minorities should not be confused with discrimination. In that regard, the earlier question did not imply that there was discrimination.
Response by Delegation
The delegation acknowledged that the question was focused on representation and not discrimination. Statistically, the private sector was more attractive and that was perhaps one reason why there were more members of minority groups working in the private sector.
On the issue of sexual harassment, in 1995 Sri Lanka amended its penal law and enhanced the penalties for those who were charged with sexual harassment in a position of power, for example a boss or teacher. The applicant could also go to the labour tribunal to seek redress for sexual harassment. Moreover, the labour office had a code of conduct and an official procedure that it promoted to its employees in order to prevent cases of sexual harassment before they occurred and to educate possible victims of their rights.
Questions by Experts on Articles Ten to Twelve
On the issue of health care provision, an Expert asked if a comprehensive health plan had been established for victims of the war, in order to address some of the psychological and physical trauma experienced by many during the conflict?
One Expert said that there had been a renewed outbreak of dengue fever in 2009-2010. Apparently, there were several solutions such as using other bacteria to kill the dengue bacteria and also to find ways to prevent stagnant water, where the dengue bacteria thrived. What measures were being taken to fight this disease?
On the issue of generic medication, what was the Government’s position on providing generic drugs to its civilians and what tangible efforts were being made to make generic medication available to the public?
Concerning article eleven, one Expert noted the claims made by the Government that poverty had been significantly reduced. While this was commendable, the Expert asked for further information and figures. Did Sri Lanka’s poverty reduction strategies include measures to tackle the regional disparity in poverty? From some reports, it appeared that the poverty rate was four times higher in the tea plantation sector than the national average and so one expert wanted to know what was being done to redress this problem?
Given that 30 per cent of Indian origin Tamils suffered from poverty, what poverty alleviation initiatives were being implemented to target this group in particular, and other impoverished minority groups? One Committee Expert said there was a Ministry devoted to Tamils of Indian origin, which was unfortunately shut down because of budgetary constraints. Given the impressive growth of the Sri Lankan economy, why was this Ministry shut down?
Another Committee Expert requested further information about the compensation schemes for internally displaced persons, many of whom had had their homes and livelihoods destroyed.
Regarding housing, there were about 77,000 families living in informal squatter settlements in Colombo alone. What was being done to help these slum dwellers and to protect them from forced eviction? Evictions should only be conducted with respect to the rule of law and proper compensation but there were reports that many slum dwellers were forcibly removed in order to develop the lands they were living on, without adequate redress. In just one example, in July 2008, over 300 families were forcibly removed from a slum in Colombo.
On the issue of homelessness, there were no exact figures on the number of homeless persons and it would be useful to receive clarification on the exact number of homeless persons, its root causes and solutions that were being explored by the Government.
Figures showed that thousands of children were fully employed in Sri Lanka, whether in the agricultural sector, domestic households or even sex work. Of this number, over fifty percent of child workers were under the age of fifteen. Given this situation, what was the Government doing to address this issue, including domestic child labour laws and efforts being made to promote education and programmes to rehabilitate child workers.
When it came to the right to food, the average costs per family seemed staggering. In rural areas, food expenditures averaged just over 40 per cent of household income. Given this trend, was the Government subsidizing food around the country? The Expert was also curious to know what the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) position was on subsidizing food, given that the IMF played an important role in foreign aid.
One Expert complained that there was not enough information on the effects of migration on families. In this regard, what percentage of the GDP was generated by migrant workers abroad and how much of this percentage was reinvested into Sri Lankan society?
Following the devastating effects of the tsunami, what measures had the Government taken in terms of disaster preparedness? If another natural disaster was to hit the country, was Sri Lanka prepared and did it have a post-disaster structure in place to quickly and adequately deal with the aftermath?
One Expert asked a question on marital rape and expressed disappointment that the report requested that the Committee remain culturally sensitive to the inherent difficulties in criminalizing marital rape. This was inexcusable and the Expert asked for further explanation on the perpetuation of marital rape.
Response by Delegation
Answering the question on marital rape, the delegation said that there were cultural sensitivities. If the couple was married, it was currently difficult to be tried for rape. Efforts were being made to change such laws but it could not be done overnight. The Government certainly did not promote marital rape and legal amendments had been implemented on the issue of domestic violence. That said, social and cultural traditions had a bright side as well. In Sri Lanka, for example, the elderly were often taken care of by their children.
On the issue of paternity leave, raised by one of the Experts, the State sector had taken this on board and the Government would try to encourage the private sector to follow suit.
On the right to health, in the camps for internally displaced persons, Sri Lanka provided health care workers and nutritional supplements were provided with help from some key UN agencies, especially for women and children. Furthermore, mobile dental units and radiology facilities were provided in all camps for internally displaced persons.
On the issue of internally displaced persons, the delegation stated that internally displaced persons from zone four had been returned to their homes, bringing the official figure of remaining internally displaced persons down from 18,000 to 17,183.
On the issue to health, health indicators in Sri Lanka remained around the highest amongst developing countries. Training in mental health and psychiatry was of utmost importance to the Sri Lankan Government and it was continuing to invest resources in this regard.
Regarding dengue fever, the Health Ministry established a task force to deal with the outbreak and the two areas worst hit were targeted with drugs. Measures had been taken by the Ministry to educate citizens on the risks and how to better protect themselves from the disease.
Sri Lanka’s national drug policies were established in 2005 to provide quality and affordable medication to all Sri Lankans. On the issue of generic drugs, the State pharmaceutical companies should give priority to generic medications in the Government’s mission to provide quality health care to all. Moreover, doctors in Sri Lanka’s hospitals were encouraged to prescribe generic versions of all medicines, if they were available and of equal effectiveness.
To conclude on the topic of health, the Government had dealt comprehensively with the provision of health care in camps for internally displaced persons and had sufficiently addressed the recent outbreak of dengue fever.
On disaster risk reduction and disaster management, Sri Lanka had learned a great deal from the tsunami and had implemented a forward-looking strategy. A ten-year roadmap at the national level was underway and regional partnerships were also being established to better prepare for another serious natural disaster.
The delegation also addressed the question of slum dwellers and the claims of forced removals. The Government strategy when demolishing slums was to relocate the persons into Government housings in better quality and more spacious accommodation. In cases where Government housing was not ready, the slum dwellers would be given sufficient funds for rent during the interim period. Continuing on the right to housing, the State was legally pledged to provide an adequate standard of living to all Sri Lankans and their families, including the right to housing, clothing and health care.
Maternity and paternity laws differed between the public and private sectors and the Government was working closely with private employers and trade unions to promote better maternity and paternity benefits.
With respect to the high level of unemployment amongst educated youth, the basic reason was the higher aspirations of the educated youth and the lack of employment opportunities. The Government was addressing this issue by providing career guidance as well as vocational training.
In terms of remittances, the delegation mentioned that statistics were publicly available. In 2005, $1.9 billion came from foreign remittances and this figure had increased significantly by 2009 to $3.3 billion.
On disability issues, 25 special schools had been set up to provide specialized training for children with disabilities. In addition, an autism school had been established and the Government had implemented special teacher training programmes.
The State had taken note of child labour and had strengthened legal measures and administrative steps to protect children. In all police stations, a women and children’s desk had been established and the security forces were given specific training on how to deal with cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence. Furthermore, public awareness programmes had been created and promoted around the nation, both in the media and in schools, on sexual violations against children. The State had prioritized this area and was doing a great deal to protect children from such crimes. In this regard, significant efforts had been taken to strengthen the legal and punitive measures that were taken against the perpetrators.
One Expert had a comment on the issue of cultural sensitivity and marital rape. Culture should have nothing to do marital rape and harming another human being could not be culturally excusable. Although it may be socially complex, the State had an immediate obligation to eradicate domestic violence. Furthermore, were the victims of sexual violence really in a position to bring the perpetrators to justice? While there were claims that legal redress was made available to the victims, these were often very vulnerable and frightened persons. One Expert asked the delegation to provide examples of national case law in which aggressors had been taken to justice for sexual abuse.
Several Experts asked the delegation to elaborate on the technical and financial assistance it was receiving from foreign agencies. While it was clear that there was a strong presence of humanitarian aid agencies in the aftermath of the tsunami, to what extent was the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) able to access camps for internally displaced persons in the north and what level of cooperation did the Government currently have in rehabilitating and resettling internally displaced persons?
Following on the theme of health care, what share of the health care budget was allocated to sexual and reproductive health and educational initiatives in this regard? Furthermore, what data was available on abortion and related maternal mortality?
The Land Development Ordinance, which dated from 1935, was grossly discriminatory and needed to be repealed as it was far from being compliant with human rights. It perpetuated the male dominance of land rights and needed to be urgently addressed and repealed.
Responses by Delegation
The delegation began by saying that it had taken note of all the comments from the Experts. The delegation was trying to present its case in full transparency and candour. When the delegation said that there were cultural sensitivities, it did not excuse or validate this position but explained some of the challenges in effectuating change. Sri Lanka’s marital laws were based directly on laws from the United Kingdom. Up until very recently, even in the United Kingdom marital rape was not punishable by law and Sri Lanka was reviewing the law.
The penal code permitted abortions to take place only if the delivery was going to cause a risk to life of the mother. Efforts were being made to loosen restrictions on abortion but this received opposition from Parliament and society. The Health Ministry was working on this issue and considering other grounds under which abortion would be considered legal, such as rape or incest.
Concerning the question on the Land Development Ordinance, the delegation said that it was being considered for reform and the Ordinance clearly flowed from the patriarchal roots of the country.
The Domestic Violence Act enabled victims and witnesses to benefit from protection. There were no impediments that prevented a victim from filing a complaint. If the perpetrator was a woman’s husband, the law enforcement agents had the duty to protect the woman. While the delegation did not have any case law to provide as examples, a number of victims had received redress in the past.
On the question of the involvement of the UNHCR in resettling internally displaced persons, the delegation confirmed that UNHCR needed to provide the Government of Sri Lanka with a certificate of approval before they were allowed to send the internally displaced persons home. So, in that regard, there was definitely involvement from the United Nations.
Questions by Experts on Articles Thirteen to Fifteen
Turning to articles thirteen to fifteen of the Covenant, Committee Experts asked the delegation to describe in greater detail the current education situation in the country and the longer-term situation.
Given the thinly written report, it was indeed difficult to discern the actual progress made in the education sector. Only four paragraphs were devoted to education in the core report and the statistics provided did not go beyond 2006. Under these circumstances, several Experts said that it was almost impossible to have a constructive dialogue on the subject of education.
One Expert brought up the very stark problem of dropouts amongst younger children. UNICEF reported a 21 per cent dropout rate before the nine years of compulsory education, likely because of child employment. Had the Government established apprenticeship programmes to train dropouts? Or conversely, was the Government considering ways in which to keep more students in school for longer periods of time?
The quality of the education system was also difficult to discern. What were the conditions under which students were being educated? How many students were there in a classroom and what figures were there regarding educational materials, including access to books, computers, etc? And also, what kind of temporary educational facilities were provided for children in camps for internally displaced persons?
There was a tendency to recruit poorly qualified teachers and school managers. The salaries were very low in Sri Lanka and teachers earned significantly less than their counterparts in India, Bangladesh and Thailand. With this in mind, what was the Government doing to correct this imbalance and increase teacher salaries?
Half of the households were under the impression that teachers were poorly qualified and even teachers themselves stated that the profession was no longer viewed in the same positive light by society. Given the dramatic lack of qualified teachers, what steps were being taken by the Government to promote teaching as a profession, particularly in rural and remote areas where the lack of qualified teachers was most acute?
According to some reports, a number of complaints regarding discriminatory teacher recruitments had been presented to the Ministry of Health but it appeared that they were not appropriately dealt with. Did the delegation have any further information on such cases?
Finally, on the issue of GDP allocation, it seemed that Sri Lanka earmarked a much smaller proportion of its national GDP to education than did its neighboring countries. One Expert was curious to know why this was the case.
On the issue of culture, one Expert asked what the Government was doing to ensure the right to culture and steps it had taken to safeguard the rights of all Sri Lankans to participate in cultural life, especially in the nation’s most remote and marginalized areas.
Responses by Delegation
In its responses to the Committee, the delegation said that cultural rights were truly important in Sri Lanka. There were four main cultures in the country and all cultures were given equal respect and promotion. The multicultural fabric of Sri Lankan society meant that this was a very important issue for the Government. Each student, irrespective of the community in which they lived, was exposed to and educated in the nation’s different cultures.
Primary education amongst Sri Lankan education was near universal and dropout rates were very low amongst primary school children. In addition to free education, the State also provided a midday meal, free books and uniforms. Education was entirely free, even including at the university level, and the delegation was surprised by some of the figures provided by the Experts.
In terms of education in camps for internally displaced persons, within a few months teachers were located and all school children in these camps benefited from teaching facilities. Also, catch-up educational programmes for children whose education had suffered directly because of the conflict were being conducted, in consultation and with help from UNICEF.
With regard to dropouts, the delegation had figures that contradicted those provided by the Eexpert that quoted a statistic from UNICEF. The dropout rate was significantly lower and it was probable that the figure was simply outdated. Additionally, the Ministry of Education had put in several measures to regulate compulsory basic education and to ensure that all students attended school for the compulsory nine years.
Many strategies were being put forth by the State to address the problem of teacher shortages. Government-funded teacher training courses had resulted in approximately 9,000 new teachers in recent years.
The delegation said that there had been allegations of corruption in certain schools with limited space but this was being dealt with. On the question of the availability of school supplies and the prevalence of computers and Internet access, the Government was making important progress in the field and nearly the entire country was connected.
One of the Committee Experts asked for a clarification on whether or not there existed segregated schools based on religion or ethnicity.
Another Expert reiterated the question on dropouts, which may have been reduced in recent years but it would be useful to know exactly how it had been reduced.
The question of Internet access was not simply about installing wireless access zones in some areas or a computer for a large classroom of students. In this regard, what kind of training and education on Internet use was provided, particularly in the more remote areas of the country?
Responses by Delegation
With regard to access to Internet, the delegation said that they did not have figures on hand but would get back to the Expert in a few days time with more information. What the delegation could say was that an e-Government programme had been established nationwide but the exact figures were not available.
In response to the question on segregated schooling, there was no policy of segregation on either religious or ethnic grounds. However, in certain areas, there could be schools that taught only the Tamil language because of the particular demographics of that region. Nevertheless, national curricula ensured that religious education touched on all religions of the world.
SHAVINDRA FERNANDO, Deputy Solicitor-General of Sri Lanka, in concluding remarks, thanked the Experts for the excellent manner in which they had conducted the dialogue. The issues that were raised made the dialogue truly interactive and the discussion was beneficial. The delegation had taken note of the Committee’s concerns and any outstanding issues would be taken up in due course.
In addition, the National Action Plan would be informed of the issues and concerns raised over the last few sessions. Considering the comments that were made about the report’s length and the fact that the previous report was submitted in 1998, it could be helpful if Sri Lanka came before the Committee before the regular time, perhaps in three years time.
JAIME MARCHAN ROMERO, Committee Chairperson, in concluding remarks, said that all countries faced different challenges and appreciated the comments made by the delegation and their openness and commitment to addressing their shortcomings. The Committee was aware of the burden of preparing reports but this was the only way that the international community could fully monitor and be kept updated about the progress and problems facing individual nations.
The methods of work of the Committee had not really changed but 100 to 150 pages was fairly standard in terms of length of a report. It was equally important to go through the report article by article as this was how they were treated during the review. Finally, the Committee thanked the delegation for their active cooperation and wished Sri Lanka the best of luck going forward
UN PRESS RELEASE