By Tush Wickramanayaka –
“History will judge us by the difference we make in the everyday lives of children” ~ Nelson Mandela
Three decades after ratifying the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), the treaty signed by the largest number of countries in the world, Sri Lanka’s rhetorical promises to protect and promote the rights of children is a crystal clear image of the history of the nation that has failed many generations. During the recent uprising ‘Aragalaya’, the citizens demanded “a better country for our children” but the slogan failed to insist on “better, unscarred children for our country”, contributing to the apathy of public representatives to deliver palpable, progressive changes to the lives of the most vulnerable members of society. We, the citizenry have evolved Sri Lanka to an appalling State of violation of human rights of the true beneficiaries of the future, our children.
The 42nd session of the fourth cycle of the UNHRC Universal Periodic Review (UPR) is scheduled from 23rd January 2023 to 3rd February 2023 with Sri Lanka under review from 1st to 3rd February 2023 in Geneva. Stop Child Cruelty Trust (SCC) was the only Civil Society Organization representing 5.2 million children of the paradise island at the UPR Pre-Sessions in December 2022. Whilst focusing on ending violence against children, including corporal punishment, SCC’s submission highlights six main areas of concern.
Context And Justification
From July 2020 to July 2022 sixteen children were physically/sexually abused or neglected and murdered; yet Government of Sri Lanka (GOSL) has done nothing effective to ensure the safety and welfare of 25% of population of citizens, approximate 5.2 million children. This is an unprecedented level of unnatural deaths of children in a country without armed conflict, famine, natural disaster or disease.
During the third UPR Working Group, Sri Lanka accepted recommendations calling for adoption of measures to continue its efforts for the protection of children, prohibit corporal punishment of all children in all settings, including at home and adopt special measures to ensure that persons in vulnerable situations, such as children have meaningful access to the justice system and other complaint procedure.
Failure To Implement National Human Rights Action Plans
At the conclusion of the third UPR review of Sri Lanka, High Commissioner for Human Rights welcomed Sri Lanka’s adoption of the National Human Rights Action Plan for 2017-2021 and encouraged Sri Lanka to achieve concrete results. In endorsing right of children, the High Commissioner recommended to put an end to corporal punishment in all settings and take measures to promote positive non-violent forms of discipline and end child labor. However, the emphasis to protect and promote the rights of children has been diminished in the National Action Plan.
Section 2.1 of The National Human Rights Action Plan 2011-2016 states specifically, “preventing and responding effectively to all children who have experienced neglect, abuse and exploitation” and Section 7.5 “elimination of corporal punishment in schools.”
Section 51.2 of The National Human Rights Action Plan 2017-2021 states non – specifically, “provide education free of mental and physical aggression” without any effective implementation to end corporal punishment or prevent all forms of abuse. As a consequence, severity of abuse has got worse with children being beaten to death.
Failure To End Corporal Punishment In Schools And Homes
On 29 April 2016 the Ministry of Education issued Circular Number 12/2016, ‘Maintaining Discipline in Schools’ recommending not to use corporal punishment in schools. However, in February 2018, following the landmark decision to convict a teacher for corporal punishment of a student in Kurunegala District the Ceylon Teachers Service Union, a powerful Trade Union conducted massive protests demanding to use physical punishment to discipline children. The President, Maithripala Sirisena whilst addressing a public rally in preparation for the Provincial Council Elections of 2018, endorsed corporal punishment reveling in his own childhood experiences. The Circular was removed from the Ministry of Education website. It is ineffective and blatantly ignored by teachers. Many students are brutally beaten by teachers frequently.
The number of cases reported annually to National Child Protection Authority shows that Cruelty to Children aka physical abuse is the most common form of child abuse from 2010 to 2021. Of the 3892 total number of cases reported in 2010, 905 cases were cruelty; in 2021 the numbers were 11,187 and 2741 respectively.
Failure To Protect Human Rights Of Children Attending International Schools
The Ministry of Education Circular No 12/2016, ‘Maintaining Discipline in Schools’, is valid only for Government schools. International Schools were first established in the country during the process of the liberalization of the economy in 1978 and were registered under the Board of Investment (BOI). Over 90% of students attending these schools, in some cases 100% of students are local citizens. In 2013 the BOI stopped registering schools and these education centers were registered as Businesses. NONE of the International Schools are regularized by the Ministry of Education. Hence, none of the Government circulars, including Circular No 12/2016 is valid for students attending International Schools. In 2019 the Minister of Education, Kariyawasam stated there were around 300 International schools with over 100,000 or more students. As there is no accurate monitoring process these figures are believed to be much higher.
Because the students attending International Schools are not subjected to the Government regulatory processes, children are exposed to corporal punishment and other forms of abuse. The discriminatory failure to protect all children equally was exposed in a landmark case of an eleven year old Sri Lankan girl student who was subjected to corporal punishment at Gateway College, Negombo in January 2018. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) initially accepted the complaint but dropped the case in April 2018, claiming that International Schools were not within their purview, leaving the victim without any recourse. When the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka did not grant leave to proceed with FR petition, the child victim filed a communication submitted for consideration under the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) before the UN Human Rights Committee in 2019. The communication was registered at UN Committee in 2020, Case reference No 3793/2020 and State party was due to submit its response by 21 March 2021. This case is believed to be the world’s first case filed by an eleven year old against corporal punishment at UN Committee.
Failure To Recognise The Child As A Rights Holder
On 26 March 2020, Gotabaya Rajapaksa granted a presidential pardon to Sergeant Sunil Rathnayaka, a former soldier, convicted and sentenced to death by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court for the murder of eight unarmed civilians, including four children in December 2000 in Marusavil, Jaffna. This was condemned by many Human Rights organizations globally, including Amnesty International.
In August 2020, President Rajapaksa abolished the Cabinet Level Ministry for Women and Children’s Affairs downgrading it to a State Ministry Level with severe restrictions of financial and resource allocation from the National Budget. SCC handed over two public petitions with over 5000 signatures each to Presidents Sirisena in 2018 and Rajapaksa in 2021. Another petition is currently active, ‘End Violence Against Children in Sri Lank’ to President Wickremasinghe.
‘Child Protection and Justice Bill’ is not concluded and Children and Young Persons Ordinance is not repealed as proposed. The ‘National Partnership to End Violence Against Children (NPEVAC)’ launched on 2nd June 2017 was halted almost immediately with no further action taken.
Failure To Implement The Juvenile Justice System
On 12 February 2021, Case No SC/FR/97/2017, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka gave a landmark decision to ban corporal punishment of children and recommended amendments to the Penal Code Section 341(i). “if a schoolmaster, in the reasonable exercise of his discretion as master, flogs one of his scholars does not use criminal force…” and Section 82 , “nothing which is done in good faith for the benefit of a person under twelve years of age, is an offense by reason of any harm …”. However, none of these have been repealed.
The average time duration to conclude a case of child abuse is 7-10 years, often the child victim has forgotten the evidence or exhausted to seek justice as a grown adult. It is estimated that there are over 20,000 cases of child abuse backlogged for a decade at the Attorney General’s Department and over 40,000 cases unresolved from 2010 to 2019 at National Child Protection Authority.
Failure Of The Police And Probation And Childcare Department To Protect Children
In a landmark verdict given by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka, Case No SC (FR) No 677/2012 in June 2019, A Senior Female Police Officer, Waruni Bogahawatta of Matara Police Station was found guilty of violation of fundamental rights by unlawfully taking a child into custody and detention. The SC recommended 20 point Guidelines that law enforcement authorities must adhere to. However, she was shockingly reinstated at Matara Police Station in her previous rank as OIC Women’s and Children’s Bureau within one year. This is a mockery of the highest level of the independent judiciary and absolute abuse of authoritative power to reinstate a marked police officer. It is a customary practice frequently observed in Government service.
Mass child abuse by officers of the Probation and Child Care Department has become malignant. Probation Officer, Pradeep was charged with assaulting three children at ‘Kanchadewa Home’, a Government home for disabled children in Southern Province in 2020. He was remanded, released on bail and given “punishment transfer” to ‘Halpathota Detention Home’ in Baddegama, Southern Province to work directly with children who are in care due to family circumstances. The children are not accused of crimes. On 10 February 2022, Pradeep was charged with eight cases of grievous sexual abuse, one case of sexual assault, and one case of assault; victims are all boys aged under 15 years. It is the largest mass child abuse case that has occurred in a State Institution in the history of the Probation Services/child care in Sri Lanka.
The victims of the above cases are continually harassed by the officers of Probation Department. A 15 year old O’L student/victim was prevented from attending school for six weeks. Later, the child was transferred to a Certified School aka Young Offender’s Unit for those accused of crimes via bizarre court order from Baddegama to Bandarawela, 215km away from his family, without informing legal guardians. He was forced to attend a skill development centre on site, without mainstream education; a complete violation of rights.
On 26 May 2022, Indika, a staff member of Halpathota Home caned another 14 year old victim. Indika was arrested and charged on assault and received “punishment transfer” to ‘Suraliya Home’ in Southern Province to work directly with vulnerable women with special needs who are above age 12 years, putting them at great risk.
The detailed submission and RECOMMENDATIONS made by SCC can be viewed here.
Each individual ‘Government Servant’ who is publicly funded to protect and promote the rights of children is responsible and accountable for the abysmal state of morality and absolute anarchy prevailing in the bankrupt wannabe wonder of Asia!
“A country that invests in its children is one that has a future; a better one”
*Dr Tush Wickramanayaka, Chairperson, Stop Child Cruelty Trust