A Bill of Rights

The country has recently reported the second highest growth figures following Independence. In this time of change and swift development however it is also important to ensure that all our people, particularly the less fortunate are protected.

The President, in the manifesto on which he was initially elected, spoke of the need for a Bill of Rights. This is the more important in that it will also make clear the range of Human Rights with which a country should be concerned.

The discourse now on Rights focuses on those who try to use it to attack the State. A clear and comprehensive Bill of Rights will make it clear that Sri Lanka has over the years done a much better job than most countries in ensuring access for its entire people to all the Rights laid out in the United Nations protocols on the subject. Way back in the forties, incisive input from different countries ensured that the UN Manifesto recognized the importance also of economic and social rights, and Sri Lanka has done extraordinarily well in these respects, in spite of limited economic development in the past.

President Rajapaksa’s government commissioned a draft of a Bill of Rights almost as soon as it came into office in 2005. Given other priorities, work on this was slow, but with a new Secretary at the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights in 2008, when it seemed clear that terrorism would finally be overcome in Sri Lanka, the process was fast forwarded. This went hand in hand with preparation of the National Human Rights Action Plan, which was pledged at the Universal Periodic Review which Sri Lanka underwent in 2008. The consolidation of work taking place at the Ministry had already identified areas in which reforms were desirable, and this had already led to preliminary measures being suggested, notably with regard to police training and changes in sentencing policy.

All this and more should be fast forwarded, with the Action Plan now in the process of being finalized. Those of us from the citizenry who made submissions in drafting this need now to register other areas which are ignored. The Action Plan, and the Bill of Rights which should follow, should also concentrate on the majority of people amongst us who need assistance and strengthening to survive with their dignity intact, as free individuals in a caring society.

We have seen recently that women are prosecuted and left without identity papers, so that they are consigned to protracted incarceration; we have seen the mentally ill abandoned by their families and kept in permanent custody under vagrancy laws as well is in the National Institute of Mental Health; we have seen women separated from children while in custody, children denied maintenance through corrupt practices, children sent for protective care forgotten by the law in Courts, legal and administrative reforms that were recommended for the protection of children lying forgotten, judges use remand as an option where  the consequences need attention, actions of a handful of professionals, including law enforcement officers and particularly lawyers, that constitute grave crimes against citizens in Courts.

At the same time we need to record and build on our successes, for instance the staggering amount of resources committed by the State and successive governments to support Samurdhi beneficiaries, recognizing their right not just to life, but to a life of dignity; and the exemplary manner in which ex-LTTE cadre have been treated and prepared for reinsertion in society. Surely, while that must have priority, we must ensure similar positive measures for so many other youngsters now being remanded for trivial offences or simply on suspicion, and thereby condemned to a life of crime.

We need to move to a holistic view of Human Rights, and for this a wide-ranging Bill of Rights, as envisaged by the President, is desirable.

In this context, we need to think not only of Western models, but look rather at something like the South African Bill of Rights, which affirms ‘the democratic values of human dignity, equality and freedom’.

This writer favours, apart from the conventional considerations,  the recognition of environmental rights which secure ecologically sustainable development and use of natural resources while promoting economic and social development; explicit rights for women; social equality and rights against the actions of private persons; the right to choose one’s trade, occupation or profession; the progressive realization of the right to have access to adequate housing; Child Rights of protection from maltreatment, neglect, abuse or degradation and the provision of state aided legal representation; the right to administrative action that is lawful with respect for due process.

Sri Lanka is poised for take off now, to give its citizens the prosperity they deserve after so many years of suffering, when different groups emphasized what they felt strongly about, and did not accept that we could all benefit from mutual cooperation, provided there was both mutual respect and a commitment to improving opportunities for all without deprivation of others. This needs to be enunciated in a manner that indicates too the responsibilities we all have to each other, and to the nation. In such a context it would be useful if the President’s vision were laid down clearly, through the Bill of Rights he proposed, to make clear what our society will provide for its members, what our citizens should render to society.

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