By Padmani Mendis –
The article by Austin Fernando called “Come September – Revisiting Geneva” brings to mind a meeting that a few of us had with him when he was Secretary to the President.
Sri Lanka had ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or CRPD on 08th February 2016. The Government had shown no interest in taking steps to have this implemented. Rumour was rife that a Cabinet reshuffle was on the cards. Taking this to be a possible pathway, I brought to the notice of your readership the issue of neglect of Disabled People’s Rights in an article titled “Disability, the Cabinet Reshuffle and Time for Change”. This was published in your esteemed journal on 18th May 2018.
Mr. Fernando was at the time Secretary to the President, a powerful position under President Sirisena. The late Mr. Amaradasa Gunawardene who was well known to Mr. Fernando was the Chairperson of the Sri Lanka Council for the Blind and working for the rights of disabled people. He came forward to secure an appointment for a representative group of us to meet and discuss with Mr. Fernando the urgent need to have the CRPD implemented in Sri Lanka.
Finally when he did get the appointment for the meeting the Cabinet reshuffle had been done, but changes were yet being made in responsibilities with subjects yet being moved around. We presented our case to Mr. Fernando. Since implementation of the UN Convention required a multiministerial, multisectoral strategy we requested Mr. Fernando that he intervene on our behalf with the President and have the subject of Disability Rights be brought under the President. This was recommended by the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights. We suggested the subject of Disability Welfare remain where it was with the Ministry of Social Welfare.
It did not take much argument for Mr. Fernando to understand our case. He agreed that this would be the required strategy to implement the UN Convention. Unfortunately though, he went on to say that he could not recommend it. He said objections by the ministers would be too disastrous if he went about shifting subjects. He was unable to help us.
The UN Convention is yet to be implemented in Sri Lanka. It is still a dream for our disabled people. The Bill to make the Convention was first drafted in 2004. Since then it has gone through revisions with each subsequent Minister that came along, with Secretaries too thrown into the bargain. All to maintain with that Ministry control over disabled people. This is how the Ministry of Social Welfare derives its financial allocations as well as its prestige. These it is not willing to give up.
The last I heard a month ago is that an Attorney at Law has been appointed to the National Secretariat for Disabled Persons. I am told that he is re-writing the Disability Rights Bill once again. The implementation of the law, which we believe should lie with a body under the President he intends making the responsibility of the Secretary to the Ministry of Social Welfare. It is the attorney’s view that the Minister is too busy a man to have time to improve the lot of disabled persons.
Disabled people are perhaps the most vulnerable and poorest in our Society. With the UN Convention the Country has promised the international community that it will uplift their situation.
Where have all the promises gone?
Where are we now?
*Dr. Padmani Mendis – Advisor on Disability