The Right to Information
One of the most important commitments of the National Human Rights
Action Plan, as agreed by Cabinet, is the adoption of legislation to
ensure the right to information. Not only is this an obligation to our
citizens, on whose behalf government acts, it is also practically
desirable. In this modern day and age, when disinformation can be
circulated so easily, and not necessarily out of malice, but through
carelessness and ignorance, it would be helpful for government to have
the facts readily available in clear and comprehensible form.
How useful this would be became even more clear to me when listening
to the falsehoods and incomplete information purveyed by those critical
of Sri Lanka at the recent discussion based on the Channel 4
documentaries that took place in London at the Frontline Club. Callum
McRae, who had made them, declared that over 11,000 former LTTE
combatants were still in custody, and could not be visited.
This is nonsense, for almost all combatants have been released, and
throughout their stay they were visited regularly by their relatives. I
did at one stage suggest to the Bureau of the Commissioner General of
Rehabilitation that they maintain a data base of all those still in
detention, with dates of visits, since I was told that none had not been
visited. I suppose that would have been too complicated, but some sort
of information sheet could have been prepared, and shared perhaps with
the Human Rights Commission, to make it clear that there was nothing to
Better public - Police communication needed
One point we suffered from, and which I believe was a mistake, was
that the ICRC was not permitted to visit. This decision sprang I believe
from the view that the ICRC had been exceeding its mandate.
Nevertheless, we should have made it clear that the ICRC had been
involved in the registration process of these youngsters until almost
the very end.
In wanting to assert our independence in this respect - which is not
necessary, for the ICRC functions with scrupulous respect for the
independence of those parties that have invited its assistance - we
ignored this fact, whereas Wikileaks indicates that the ICRC had told
the Americans in Geneva that 'ICRC has been visiting regularly 11,400
people arrested and interned in 10 camps as suspected LTTE fighters'.
I myself had thought that the ICRC visits to the former combatants
had stopped earlier, so I was pleasantly surprised when this particular
Wikileaks cable was brought to my notice. What I did know was that
throughout this period ICRC had had access to all those held in
detention at Boossa and elsewhere, including those former combatants who
had been thought hard-core, and who had therefore been transferred to
Boossa (though most of them were soon transferred back, when government
decided that more rehabilitation was preferable to any punitive action).
National Human Rights Commission
Much confusion was caused by the failure to make clear the
distinction between, on the one hand, those in rehabilitation and, on
the other, those who had been in detention before 2009 and to whose
numbers some of those in rehabilitation were added as noted above. With
regard to the former there was always total transparency - though
unfortunately as mentioned the ICRC was stopped from visiting them - and
they were in regular touch with relations who came constantly to visit
With regard to those in detention, though the ICRC did have
continuous access, and made arrangements for visits by relations, there
was less transparency, and lists of names were not available to the
This led to confusion, as when, before I joined the team negotiating
with the TNA, one of its members had promised to have the list available
at the Vavuniya Police Station.
This was a mistake, since there was no reason for such a list to be
sent there, and in time it was kept where it should have been, with the
National Human Rights Commission. Unfortunately the TNA was not informed
of the reasons for not sticking to the original commitment, which
understandably enough led to resentment, and grief for those relations
who had gone to the Police Station to seek information.
LTTE suicide bombing
One problem was the large numbers in custody. As Secretary of the
Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights, I would ask that these
either be released or charged, and though I could understand that, while
the conflict continued and the danger of LTTE suicide bombing was grave,
in fact soon after the war ended the President set up a committee which
I chaired to expedite action. In a few months, with full cooperation
from the Police, the Attorney General's Department and the Prisons, we
had reduced the number considerably, and the AG's Department was doing
its best to go through files rapidly.
Much of the criticism that government has had to undergo could have
been avoided had there been an obligation to make information readily
available. I hope therefore that this provision of the Action Plan is
something we move on soon.