The manner in which inquiries are conducted by the Human Rights Commission (HRC) of Sri Lanka and particularly about the functioning of the Kandy Area Office including the conduct of the coordinator of that office, Mr. Sumanasekara, have been a source of concern for the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) for quite some time. The revelations made by Mr. Shelton Ranarajah, a former member of the Panel of the Mediation/Conciliation Board of the HRC, shockingly confirms some of the major defects of the Commission’s functioning.
While Mr. Ranarajah’s allegations relate to the time of the HRC’s earlier chairperson, Faiz Mustapha, the question remains whether the new commissioners appointed last year have taken sufficient action to erase the scars of the institution’s despicable past. We urge the HRC, an organization created under local and international pressure to improve human rights protection in Sri Lanka, to pay heed to the comments of a former inquirer who has taken the trouble to point out some serious defects in its work.
Mr. Ranarajah, an Attorney-at-Law since 1950, a member of parliament for some years and former deputy minister, retired from politics after 1988 and was appointed as a member of the Panel of the Mediation/Conciliation Board of the HRC in January 2001. In an interview on 22 October 2004, Mr. Ranarajah spoke out against the manner in which his recommendations as an inquirer were completely ignored both by the coordinator of the HRC in Kandy and the HRC in Colombo.
Mr. Ranarajah worked for the Mediation/Conciliation Board for 7 to 8 months, during which time he inquired into more than a hundred complaints, mostly of police assault and torture. Although he was offered money for conducting the inquiries, he did not accept any payment and worked entirely voluntarily, even traveling in his own car. However, he found that the recommendations he was making at the end of the inquiries were not being implemented either at the Kandy Area Office or by the office of HRC in Colombo. When he asked the coordinator at the Kandy Area Office, Mr. Sumarasekara, about his recommendations, this officer kept silent. When Mr. Ranarajah wrote to the Colombo office of the HRC, he also received no reply. In frustration he resigned.
Mr. Ranarajah said that there were some very serious cases. “One case was from Panadura. It was a very serious case in which a boy was taken into police custody and assaulted mercilessly, so much so that he sustained fractures and other serious injuries. I recommended that the Inspector (of Police) pay him compensation. I wrote this in my report but the HRC did nothing to implement my recommendations.”
Mr. Ranarajah explained that the work of making inquiries belongs to the HRC and the HRC had delegated that power to the Mediation/Conciliation Board, of which he was a member. There were other members, for example, Professor Arjuna Aluwihara of Peredeniya University and Dr. Aponso. Such persons were delegated with the power to make inquiries; when complaints were made to the Area Office, they were referred to the Panel and it was the Panel that had the duty to conduct inquiries and make recommendations. The coordinator of the Kandy Area Office did not have the power to make inquiries. It was the HRC’s duty to ensure that the recommendations were then implemented. If they were not adhered to, the HRC could take the matter up with the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka.
When Mr. Ranarajah was questioned about the case of Chamila Bandara, where the Kandy Area Coordinator not only conducted inquiries but also wrote a false report, he answered that it was the duty of the HRC to take action against such behavior. He further mentioned that he had noticed reluctance on the part of the Kandy Area Coordinator to take up matters against the police. However, Mr. Ranarajah placed the burden of responsibility in such matters on the HRC itself. Furthermore, the HRC’s Chairperson at the time, Faiz Mustapha, took part in activities that reveal a conflict of interests: Mr. Mustapha appeared as a private lawyer in human rights violations cases while being at the same time the Chairman of the HRC. “It is the duty of the state to appoint independent minded people to the HRC and not politicians and their stooges. After all, how many human rights violations are committed by politicians?” said Mr. Ranarajah.
Another issue pointed out by Mr. Ranarajah was the reluctance on the part of the HRC to visit complainants, many of whom do not live in Colombo. “It is important for the inquiry officers to visit the complainants and pursue the complaints of human rights violations, not wait for the victims to undertake long journeys to Colombo,” he said. After their inquiries and recommendations, if the recommendations are not implemented, the officers should initiate actions before the Supreme Court, to ensure that the victims obtain justice.
[The full text of the interview is available at www.srilankahr.net]