In welcoming you all here today, and thanking the Government Agent for arranging this gathering, I should explain why the Ministry decided to celebrate Human Rights Day so specially in Vavuniya this year. Our work I should note is ongoing, with this month seeing the second draft of the National Action Plan on Human Rights, and the first draft of the Bill of Rights that we commissioned from a group of independent experts in accordance with the pledge in the Mahinda Chintanaya. However, we also have a practice of some sort of special event, and this year we thought we should do this nationwide.
My Minister is currently at a meeting of the Human Rights Commission in Kandy, while this afternoon he will present prizes to the students who took part in our debate between the Law Faculties of Colombo and Jaffna and the Open University. In addition, several local authorities, selected on the basis of successful projects they conducted over the year with regard to mainstreaming Human Rights into development activities, will be conducting awareness programmes for students and public officials.
However we thought Vavuniya particularly appropriate for a special event, given that this was the focus of much discussion on Human Rights during the year. Some of it was critical, and we believe that certainly there were problems, and there are still some that need to be resolved. That is why we are taking this opportunity to inaugurate Civil Military Liaison Committees under the Confidence Building and Stabilization Measures Project the Ministry conducts with assistance from the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. But we should also celebrate this occasion, because we feel that, by and large, despite tremendous difficulties, we have succeeded in upholding and indeed strengthening the Human Rights of all our citizenry in the course of this year.
In the first place, in getting rid of terrorism from these shores, we have done much to strengthen the right to life, perhaps the most important of Human Rights, even though it is not mentioned as such in our Constitution – a situation that the proposed Bill of Rights will correct. But we have also ensured, through bringing all our people into the mainstream, that we provide what are termed second generation rights for all our people.
For too long the discourse on Rights has been dominated by attention to Civil and Political Rights, which are of course vital, but which should not be given absolute precedence over Economic and Social and Cultural Rights. Indeed recent resolutions of the Human Rights Council, and indeed the approach of the current United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, who comes from a deprived background herself, emphasize the importance of these Rights too, and in particular the Right to Development. After all, when people are particularly vulnerable, they cannot exercise their Rights with confidence, and they certainly cannot also fulfil the responsibilities that are the essential counterpart of the Rights we affirm.
In that respect Sri Lanka has a comparatively good record, but we saw how it was traduced by terrorism, with limited education and health facilities in the regions controlled by terror in spite of the resources we continued to pour into them. Schools were neglected as children were dragooned into fighting units, malnutrition increased as the rations we sent up were forcibly taken for the cadres. Yet, despite the difficulties in the Welfare Centres we set up for the people who escaped, we managed to avoid epidemics, we have brought up nutrition standards, and we ensured basic education services much more quickly than has happened in any similar situation anywhere in the world.
And the same goes for other Rights too, where our resettlement programme, just as happened in the East, is proving to be one of the swiftest in any country that suffered so much from terrorism and conflict. It should be noted too that we did this in terms of our own time-table, in accordance with national needs and priorities. Despite attempts to precipitate injudicious resettlement, we made it clear that this would depend on successful demining, the provision of at least basic infrastructure, and careful screening to ensure insofar as is possible that terrorism will not be resurgent. We made a pledge that the bulk of resettlement would be accomplished by the end of the year and, even though we extended the deadline by a month to January, we are now on target to resettle practically everyone by then. And we did this through careful planning, with our public servants working on these programmes since June, which is why the process is now moving so quickly.
At the same time we kept in constant touch with the United Nations Special Representative on the Human Rights of the Displaced. He confirmed our view that security considerations could be taken into account in restricting movement in the camps, though he also pointed out that restrictions could not be absolute for extended periods. Accordingly we started a process of releases early on, though we could not work promptly on all the groups he identified as not being security risks. Sadly, we knew better what the potential threats were, given the ruthlessness of the LTTE in using the particularly vulnerable, the disabled for instance, and the pregnant, for their murderous activities.
However, after the conclusion of the screening process, helped indeed by large numbers handing themselves over when they realized that we meant no harm and were more concerned with rehabilitation, we were able to provide freedom of movement for all. The small numbers that have taken advantage of this, with the majority either staying on in the camps, or returning after visits outside, make it clear that the situation is not one of confinement, but rather one of providing essential services to the vulnerable.
That then must be the key to our activities over the coming year. We need to strengthen those who have been deprived for so long. We must do this systematically, through the development of community structures that will provide security whilst also encouraging programmes of personal development. We hope that the Civil Military Committees we inaugurate today will contribute to this process by providing a forum for discussion and planning.
Small scale projects that promote reintegration and livelihood opportunities for the vulnerable will be supported as best we can. We hope too that, through these committees, we can bring together agencies tasked with a protection mandate, the Police, the Ministry of Social Services, the Ministry of Women’s Development and Child Rights, Parent Teacher Associations in schools, to work together to not only provide remedies for abuses but also develop structures that will limit such abuses in the future. In this context we welcome the assertion by the Inspector General of Police that he will give priority to developing Women’s and Chldren’s desks in all stations in the North. Increasing recruitment of Tamil and Tamil speaking policemen is also a healthy development, given the urgency of ensuring fruitful communication with, and confidence amongst, those the police force serves.
As mentioned before, we can be proud of our Human Rights record thus far. Though there have been problems, and we are doing our best to address them, comparatively speaking our record is the best amongst countries that have had to deal with terrorist forces. Wild general complaints have been flung at us, but there are few examples of precise allegations, and with regard to Sex and Gender Based Violence there are no allegations against the forces who fought such a long and difficult war. On the contrary, their humanitarian commitment during this period has been astonishing, and it is a pity that this has not been recorded or recognized as it deserves to be, and as an example for others engaged in similar situations.
That record however must continue in the days ahead. We hope then that the cooperation we expect from all members of these Committees will lead to swift attention to problems, as well as measures to empower the vulnerable so that they will soon be able to work themselves on solutions to problems that may arise. The aim of all protection activity should be to enable people to protect themselves, as individuals and through the development of strong communities that are both concerned and proactive about all the Rights of all the people.