|SCOPP Chief responds to questions posed by FLICT|
|Friday, 12 December 2008|
08 December 2008 At the Partner Day arranged by partners of the Facilitating Local Initiatives for Conflict Transformation (FLICT) project of German Technical Cooperation, a number of questions were put to the Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat regarding the Peace Process as well as mechanisms whereby Non-Governmental Organizations could contribute to Peace. The dialogue was connected with discussions the Peace Secretariat had had with FLICT about how it could most efficaciously fulfil its mandate.
Since the session was over-running and the Secretary General had to leave for another engagement, he agreed to answer any further questions in writing. Though these were voluminous, since they raised important and interesting points, the following answers were supplied and are now made more widely available.
1. Is there a mechanism implemented by the Peace Secretariat to increase awareness of the role of civil society?
It depends what is meant by whose awareness is targeted. Obviously it is not our business to make the wider public aware of the Civil Society role. It is our business, insofar as it affects the work of government, to convince members of Civil Society that their role necessitates working in partnership with government rather than confrontationally. We cannot of course preach, but we do try to engage with Civil Society when they come our way, and as with FLICT, which depends to some extent on government involvement, we have tried to develop suitable parameters.
It is necessary for NGOs to make clear that their aim is to work for the benefit of our people, which must involve cooperation with an elected government. This does not mean unthinking acquiescence in government policies, but it does mean accepting that interaction with government must be based on accepting its primary role as the accountable choice of the people. Unfortunately a few NGOs have taken it upon themselves to assume that they belong to a higher order of things, some even talking of holding a balance between government and – destructively in the present context – terrorist forces. This has created a bad impression, and it is vital to affirm that NGOs are transparent and accountable in what they do, and conform to policies laid down by the duly elected government. Within such parameters of course we would encourage freedom of action, but this must be done through discussion and formal agreements, not arbitrarily.
3. Why doesn’t the government come up with a durable solution which is acceptable for the Tamil community for the national problem? Is the APRC a barrier to this?The government is doing its best, but you must remember that much time was wasted in assuming that any solution had to be acceptable to the LTTE. Though it became clear over the years that nothing would be acceptable to the LTTE except its own authoritarian state, it was only this year that the government was able to make it clear that negotiations with democratic pluralistic Tamil forces would take priority. Sadly some elements, foreign as well as local, keep talking about the need to negotiate with the LTTE, which makes it more difficult to work to a conclusive solution through the APRC.
4. What sort of interventions have been made by the National Human Rights Commission in relating to the recent disappearances, killings etc?
That should be addressed to the NHRC, but I believe it responds to all complaints and conducts inquiries. It should be noted that the appeals of the NHRC for assistance to increase its effectiveness, and particularly the work of its regional offices, was stymied by a confrontational approach supported by some international personnel who wanted to in effect replace it with an office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. They behaved irresponsibly in this regard, in effect suppressing a UN sponsored report that suggested strengthening the NHRC, and not using funding given by foreign sources to provide UN Volunteers to NHRC Regional Offices. However, the new UN High Commissioner has accepted the government position that there can be no question now of an office in Colombo, and is kindly cooperating in helping us to improve the Human Rights situation in other ways. One of these is assistance to the NHRC.
5. Does government follow an ethical mechanism to monitor the work of non-governmental organizations? If yes, what it is?
There was little consistent monitoring of NGOs, perhaps because in the rush of NGOs that came in, after the tsunami, and perhaps just before when the CFA seemed to offer much hope, much was accepted in good faith. Some of this was justified, but there have been problems, and the government is now trying to develop suitable mechanisms. The responsibility for implementation will lie with individual line Ministries, but I must say I have been horrified, in the investigations I have undertaken, about the absence of consultation with government over any projects, and clear agreements, even though the terms under which NGOs operate demand these.
6. The statements made by state media (such as ITN) pertaining to NGOs are incorrect and unethical. Do these happen without the consent of the government?
I am not sure what you mean by incorrect or unethical. I think that in Sri Lanka a lot of news is based on hearsay and unchecked opinion, and I have no doubt government channels are similar to private channels in this regard. I do not think there is any tradition of trying to control even government channels by ensuring clearing of what is presented by officials pushing some sort of official government line – that sort of control is not the way this government behaves.
7. Is it fair, for NGOs to be forced to work according to incumbent government policies? Where the space for peace is since government supports the war and a military solution?
These are two separate questions –
a. NGOs have to work in terms of the polices of any elected government in any country, though of course this means just a broad framework, and more refraining from doing what is contrary to government policy rather than actually implementing details that government wants. You cannot have a situation where unaccountable forces work in accordance with their own policies.
b. The government is committed to eradicating terrorism, and in the absence of any evidence that the LTTE will abandon terrorism otherwise, it has to pursue an armed struggle. This is the solution for the terrorist problem, the government has never swerved from the position that there is a political problem that requires a political solution. This distinction is muddied both by the LTTE, which has always confused politics and violence, and by those who, whether naively or otherwise, think a terrorist outfit must, regardless of whether it abandons terrorism or not, be part of a negotiated political solution.
8. As you mentioned, is there a structure or space for NGOs to work in order to implement state policies?
Of course, and we welcome cooperation from NGOs in developing their own initiatives within that space.
That is a difficult question, and I think a number of measures need to be tried, including a greater sense of accountability and responsibility amongst public servants, a Right to Information Act so that officials – and functionaries in the private sector – recognize that everything should be public unless there is good reason for it not to be (rather than the other way around), a recognition in the public that rights should go with responsibilities, clearsightedness about eliminating the feeling that one exception does not matter so that we all worry officials for small special favours that then add up – and of course strict adherence to the Rule of Law, involving much better training and education for public servants and those who act as public watchdogs.
10. There is a culture of earning without work in Sri Lanka. How do we change this attitude and eradicate corruption?
By developing a culture of rewarding actual work, being serious about regular assessments of staff, promoting on merit rather than long service, and requiring public awareness of the objectives of public institutions and measurements of success. Reading reports and following up on them is essential – for instance all schools should publish their results over a five year period, but educational administrators should then follow up on any shortcomings, ensure promotions for teachers who get good results, censure those who are not helping their pupils, especially those who are absent more than they should be.
11. What are the elements in government transparency which should be disclosed and shouldn’t?
As mentioned above, everything should be open to the public unless there is good reason – which should be recorded in writing – for something to be confidential. It should also be a matter of course that outcomes are publicized even without people asking – for instance universities and hospitals could publish a monthly record of all expenditure with records of benefits. This would also help to make clear the positive things that are being achieved through government spending.
12. Is government’s position always correct? There are different approaches to fulfill the real democratic values in the country. The problem is if government attempt to always push its agenda without considering the long term interests of the country. What do you think about this?
Obviously no government can say that its positions are all correct, but an elected government has the right to work according to its beliefs which of course it thinks are correct and in the long term interests of the country. Clearly consultation is important, but unfortunately many oppositional forces in this country – I am talking not only of politicians – are confrontational and destructive, so consultation is not always helpful. At the same time it would help if there were much more awareness of what democratic values mean – unfortunately our education system tends to encourage rote learning, whereas we should move towards looking at different viewpoints and judging in accordance with evidence and rational argument. I think much more teaching of critical thinking in schools and other educational institutions is vital if we are to move forward.
13. Can local NGOs carry out a programme to make state agencies aware of their work?
Obviously they can and should, and I hope FLICT makes a start in institutionalizing this sort of approach.
14. The government neither appreciates the work of local NOGs nor makes the public aware of the work they do. Is there a programme to enhance the coordination between the government and NGOs?
Again, I don’t think that is correct, because certainly many people in government are very appreciative of some of the work that is done, and the efforts of many in the NGO sector. But institutionalizing this, moving forward with productive NGOs whilst minimizing the waste and destruction of NGOs with different agendas, is something that the NGO sector also would do well to promote.
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