By Jehan Perera –
The detailed action plan prepared by the government with regard to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and released last week has been done in a highly professional manner, and would be the envy of many a dysfunctional previous commission of inquiry. On the face of it, the government appears to have taken the LLRC commission report seriously as the Commissioners would have wished and the international community has already called for. There are 91 recommendations that the action plan takes cognizance of. Each of these recommendations is looked at in terms of specific activities they entail. The action plan also identifies the government agencies that will be responsible for implementing each of these activities within a specified time frame, most of them ranging from 6 to 24 months.
By making its response to the LLRC known in the form of an action plan, the government can be said to have finally clarified its position on the issue. Previously different members of the government spoke with different voices regarding the government’s attitude towards the LLRC. The government now can also be credited with coming up with an action plan that spells out in summary fashion what it intends to do and how to measure that progress. This opens the possibility of monitoring the government’s progress. On the other hand, the contents of the action plan still remain beyond the reach of the masses of the people as the 388 page LLRC report is still not translated into the Sinhala and Tamil languages despite the passage of over 8 months since the report was released in the English language. Neither has the LLRC action plan itself been prepared in a manner that is easily comprehensible by the general public.
In the version that has been put out at this time, the action plan does not have a narrative that explains its background and purpose and would make it more accessible to the popular understanding. It therefore comes across as a technical document in the form of a table with terminology that will not be familiar to most people. Terms such as “key performance indicators”, which forms a central feature of the action plan, are not in common usage within the generality of the Sri Lankan population. These are terms that are used especially by members of the international donor community who wish to assess the impact of the projects that they fund and also by those who seek to obtain their goodwill. This suggests that the action plan needs further evolution if it is to become a people-friendly document and one that is accessible to the people in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages.
The LLRC has won local and international acclaim for its efforts to look at the totality of Sri Lanka’s experience that led to terrorism and war. It came up with a total of 285 recommendations of which 135 may be called main recommendations as they have several sub-recommendations. It can be believed that the LLRC labored to bring forth a document that could serve as a blueprint for Sri Lanka’s renewal as a success story of post-war development, democracy and reconciliation. The question to answer is whether the action plan prepared by the government meets this same objective. More serious study is also required to ascertain whether the 91 recommendations taken up for commentary in the action plan leave out important substance contained in the 135 main recommendations to be found in the LLRC report.
A preliminary assessment of the action plan would indicate that the government intends to seamlessly harmonise the LLRC recommendations into the government’s ongoing programme and activities. By that same token there is no indication that the government seeks to make the LLRC report a point of departure with past and present political practices. There are many instances of the LLRC recommending the setting up of a new mechanism to deal with a specific set of problems. This might be due to its recognition that existing governmental mechanisms are inadequate to resolve those problems. But with the exception of appointing a Land Commission, the government has, by and large, not taken on the LLRC recommendation to set up new mechanisms.
An example where the LLRC recommendations have been circumvented by the action plan, is the matter of the appointment of a Special Commissioner of Investigations to look into alleged disappearances. Another example is the Independent Institution with a strong investigative arm to address the grievances of citizens. The government’s position in the action plan is that existing mechanisms will be used to take care of the problems. In the case of disappearances the government has proposed invoking the present procedures in the Code of Criminal Procedure. It was in recognition of the past failures that the LLRC presumably recommended the appointment of a Special Commissioner. The problem with the government’s approach is that this proper utilization of the Criminal Code has not happened in the past and this is unlikely to change in the future unless there is a radical departure from past practices.
The government has also used another method of avoiding implementation of the LLRC recommendations with regard to new mechanisms. This is by casting responsibility for deciding on them to the still-to-be-established Parliamentary Select Committee to look into constitutional issues. This strategy has been used to deal with the reforms proposed by the LLRC that would affect the government’s highly centralized hold on power. There are two recommendations made by the LLRC that are of critical importance to improving the checks and balances in governance. These are to establish a constitutional provision for judicial review of legislation. Another is the recommendation to de-link the Police department from the Ministry of Defence. Both of these are given to the still non-existent Parliamentary Select Committee to decide on. When the PSC will be established and whether the main opposition parties will be part of it is still anybody’s guess.
Those who look upon the LLRC report as a landmark document meant to transform the political culture of the country are likely to be disappointed by what they will find within the action plan of the government. Not only is there a repeated insistence that existing institutions are good enough for the job, there is no willingness to accept the need for improved institutional design of institutions. In particular the action plan dismisses the LLRC’s recommendations that independent commissions for the Police and Public Service need to be established. The action plan states that these independent commissions have indeed been established. Hardly anyone, except for the most partisan supporters of the government would say that any of the institutions appointed under the 18th Amendment to the Constitution are independently constituted ones, as they emanate solely from Presidential fiat.
What this preliminary assessment of the action plan reveals is that the government is less interested in meeting the challenges of political transformation within Sri Lanka than in meeting the challenge of the international community in Geneva. At the March 2012 session of the UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, the majority of countries passed a resolution calling on Sri Lanka to implement the recommendations of its LLRC. Armed with the action plan, the government may feel more confident that it can overcome its detractors from the international community at the forthcoming sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in November. The government is no doubt concerned that a reversal like the one that took place in Geneva in March of this year does not repeat itself.