|Agenda Item 64, Promotion and Protection of Human Rights at the United Nations General Assembly 63rd Session - Third Committee|
|Tuesday, 21 October 2008 13:19|
Statement by Honourable Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Disaster Management and Human Rights of Sri Lanka on Agenda Item 64, Promotion and Protection of Human Rights at the United Nations General Assembly 63rd Session - Third Committee
My delegation wishes to express its sincere thanks to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for her report to this committee. The interactive dialogue this morning with senior officials has also been useful. In this context we like to share information on ongoing progress in Sri Lanka, as well as challenges that we continue to encounter in our persistent efforts to promote and protect human rights, in accordance with our national imperatives and international obligations.
Mr Chairman, Sri Lanka has a strong and vibrant human rights protection system. It is a state party to the seven core-human rights treaties and is a signatory to the new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We are a state party to several other related international instruments in the field of International Humanitarian Law, including the four Geneva Conventions. Human rights provisions in our Constitution are justiceable through an independent judiciary firmly rooted in our long standing democratic and legal traditions. Our National Human Rights Commission was established more than a decade ago. My Ministry mandate is solely dedicated to the promotion and protection of human rights. It serves as the lead Govt. agency tasked with the promotion and co-ordination of activities connected with human rights with Govt. institutions, in cooperation with UN agencies and local and international NGO’s. These mechanisms are strengthened by a vibrant free media and the very active involvement of civil society.
Mr Chairman, our country has implemented effective policies over the years to ensure the economic, social and cultural rights of our people. Our system of free education has resulted in a literacy rate on par with developed countries. National health policies have ensured comprehensive and free health care to the entire population. This is reflected in our high life expectancy for men and women, and low infant mortality rates. Poverty alleviation, housing development, empowerment of women are other areas that have focused our attention. A national campaign for achieving the MDG's is also well underway and we are well ahead in reaching these targets. President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapaksa outlined this strategy to the UN General Assembly in the following terms:
“The Government’s objective is to enable the people to enjoy the benefits of the democratic processes and to speed the development activities in those areas where there is a heavy presence of terrorists. This would be similar to the fast tracking of economic development taking place in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, where former terrorists now function as democratically elected Provincial Councilors, and a former child soldier conscripted by the LTTE is now the elected Chief Minister, having abandoned terrorism and embracing democracy. Significantly, the restoration of democracy in the East of Sri Lanka was achieved in less than one year of it being freed.”
Of course long-term durable peace cannot be ensured without political measures aimed at addressing the problems that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. Our Government, under the stewardship of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has reiterated its commitment to finding a political solution to the practical problems of governance and development faced by our people.
Our Govt.'s commitment to ensure the civil and political rights of our people is guaranteed by the relevant provisions of Chapter III of our Constitution as well as in other Statutes, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act and other legislation in the fields of labour, social welfare etc. As a functioning democracy, uninterrupted holding of elections since independence has ensured the strengthening of our political institutions. The Govt. in its commitment to devolve power has committed itself to fully implement the provisions of the 13th amendment to the Constitution that established the Provincial Council system. The All Party Conference convened by our President is seeking to further devolve power through a consultative process with a view to addressing the grievances of all communities and in keeping with the Govt.’s firm commitment to addressing grievances through a political process.
Mr Chairman, Sri Lanka's efforts to promote and protect human rights are taking place under difficult and trying circumstances due to the continuing challenge posed by a terrorist group the LTTE, that operates in the northern province albeit in an increasingly confined area. This group continues to target innocent civilians, conscripts children, assassinates political leaders, engages in ethnic cleansing and other serious violations of human rights of our people. It is important therefore to take into consideration the Govt.’s efforts to ensure the rights of its citizens amidst these challenges including our enacting enabling legislation to fully implement obligations under the conventions relating to Human Rights and humanitarian law.
At the same time our Govt. has remained actively engaged with the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights which include joint efforts to identify, fund and implement mutually acceptable initiatives supportive of more effective human rights protection in Sri Lanka. The Govt. is also in continuous engagement with the UN system working in areas related to human rights and humanitarian assistance with the objective of further strengthening national capabilities and delivery mechanisms in the country. We have also continued to fulfill our reporting obligations to relevant treaty bodies and invited UN officials and Special procedures/mandate holders to visit Sri Lanka. Last year we welcomed the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs, Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Secretary General's Special Representative on IDP's .Our Govt. continues this policy of open and constructive engagement with the United Nations human rights bodies. We have also submitted regular reports in fulfillment of our report obligations under human rights covenants.
In May this year we submitted our national Human Rights Report for review under the Universal Periodic Review(UPR) mechanism to the Working Group established by the Human Rights Council for this purpose. The Report of the UPR is reflective of the open engagement by the Govt. with this process. This exemplifies further how we have opened ourselves to scrutiny of multiple international mechanisms on the basis of our belief that openness and accountability through international means can strengthen national efforts.
Mr Chairman, our National Human Rights Commission established as an independent institution by an Act of Parliament also plays a pivotal role in inquiring and investigating complaints relating to infringement of fundamental rights. The Commission has 10 regional offices to discharge its functions at district level. My Ministry is in consultation with the Commission with regard to ways and means of further strengthening these regional offices. In terms of our Commission of Inquiry Act, the President of Sri Lanka appointed a Commission to Investigate and inquire into alleged serious breaches of human rights. This Commission is currently conducting public inquiries following investigation by law enforcement authorities. The Govt. has also taken cognizance of certain impediments to the conduct of these public inquiries .In this regard Mr Chairman, we have recognized the need to draft legislation for the protection of victims of and witnesses of crime. A bill to this effect is currently before Parliament. The Govt. hopes that the passage of this bill will enhance public confidence in the law enforcement process and lead to greater participation in investigations and prosecutions by the general public. Pending the passage of this legislation we have established a witness and victim protection unit that has gained valuable practical experience in the methods, practices and range of issues that will potentially be dealt with by a future formal witness and victim protection agency.
Mr Chairman, as a country affected by terrorism it is our responsibility to also ensure the physical safety and security of all civilians and non-combatants, both civilian residents and IDP's as well as humanitarian & development workers. My Ministry chairs the Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance(CCHA)to ensure that all humanitarian efforts are facilitated and that difficulties if any are resolved through discussion. In this context we note the acknowledgement of our positive action in this area by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on IDP's in his report to this Committee.
The Government of Sri Lanka has, throughout the duration of the conflict, sent food, medicine, educational supplies and other essential items into the affected areas. This sustained commitment, over such a prolonged period is, perhaps unparalleled in similar situations elsewhere. As our President stated at the UN General Assembly:
“The Government of Sri Lanka continues this humanitarian policy even today although we know that the terrorists seize a good proportion of these humanitarian supplies. Our supplies are not confined to food; they extend to medicines, and all other essentials as well as schools and hospitals, with teachers, doctors, nurses, and all other essential staff. This is not all, the government also purchases the paddy and other foodstuffs produced in those areas. I do not think there is any country in the world where there is a government that provides such humanitarian assistance to terrorists that attack it. Our government considers the supply of humanitarian relief to its people as its prime responsibility.”
As a practical example, over the past three weeks, the Government has ensured the supply of approximately 2000 MT of food relief in addition to facilitating the transport of a regular supply of consumer goods to the so-called “uncleared areas”. We sincerely appreciate the complementary role played by the UN and several national and international non-governmental organizations in supporting the Government’s efforts in this regard.
The Consultative Committee on Humanitarian Assistance (CCHA) which I chair as the Minister for Human Rights, is a high level coordinating mechanism that brings together government and its international partners as well as civil society representation to discuss, initiate and implement policy on matters connected with humanitarian assistance. It is, perhaps, a unique model of a government-led cooperative and consultative body that is geared to addressing a range of challenges that arise in the context of countering a terrorist campaign waged by a group listed as a terrorist organization by around 30 democratic countries around the world. In connection with the protection and promotion of human rights, we have consultative mechanisms that bring together all actors from Government to consider and act upon issues brought to the Government’s attention. We also have established a forum where a advisory body comprising representatives of Sri Lanka’s very committed, vibrant and vocal civil society are able to put their concerns before key government actors who then respond to these issues and take follow-up action.
Mr Chairman, in keeping with the Vienna Declaration and Programme of Action and with the commitment given in the UPR Process, Sri Lanka has taken steps to draft a National Plan of Action for the promotion and protection of human rights. We are working closely with the UNDP and the senior advisor of the UN country team which represents the office of the High Commissioner for human rights in developing our Plan of Action .The most valuable aspect of the process of preparation is a comprehensive assessment of the strengths and weaknesses and gaps in our national human rights protection system that we plan to undertake. The Plan of Action will promote capacity building for national institutions. It will also seek to fulfill the objectives we shared with the Human Rights Council during our recent engagement in the UPR process.
In pursuance of my mandate to coordinate humanitarian activities and liaise with the Office of the High Commissioner and international human rights bodies, we have recently facilitated a very productive dialogue with UN Special Procedures and mechanisms in the field of human rights. Our recent engagement with the Special Rapporteur on Torture and the Secretary General’s Representative on the Human Rights of IDPs have already borne results and we look forward to continued dialogue and cooperation.
The incorporation into domestic law of the obligations under the Human Rights Treaties and Conventions by the enactment of national legislation in respect of these conventions has strengthened their legislative implementation over the past few years. Several administrative measures and the development of a national institutional framework for the protection and promotion of human rights have strengthened our capacity to implement these treaties on the ground. Sri Lanka is also a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the two Optional Protocols to the Rights of the Child Convention and the Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.
In conclusion, I wish to felicitate our friends from Africa who commemorate ‘Africa Human Rights Day’ which marks an important date in the promotion and protection of human rights in that Continent, and is the date on which the African Charter on Human and People Rights entered into force, 22 years ago. We in Asia draw inspiration from national legal systems as well as international and regional instruments in developing our human rights norms and jurisprudence. We are presently engaged in an effort to propose the adoption of an enlarged and enhanced constitutional ‘Bill of Rights’ with a view to strengthening the normative basis for human rights protection in our country. Whilst we look to redevelop a set of national standards relating to human rights in keeping with our social, legal and cultural heritage, we are also acutely aware of the advances and developments in other parts of the world.
In conclusion Mr Chairman, let me reiterate My Govt.’s commitment to continue with its policy of constructive engagement and cooperation with other Member States as well as with UN human rights bodies/institutions and the international community in addressing human rights issues.
I thank you for your kind attention.