The United Nations Resident Co-ordinator in Sri Lanka Subinay Nandy spoke to the Daily Mirror on the future plans of the UN in Sri Lanka, the implications of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’ visit to Sri Lanka, and the mistrust and criticism leveled against the UN in Sri Lanka. Excerpts of the interview follow-watch the interview online.
Q.The UN has been in Sri Lanka for over 60 years. What would you say are some of the specific areas in which the UN has been able to make a significant impact? A. We have been driven by our mandate, to be a part of the progress of Sri Lanka’s journey. Sri Lanka is seen globally as a leader in achieving very high social development indicators, compared to countries of a similar per-capita income group—Sri Lanka has been ahead of the curve. If you look at last year’s Human Development Indicators, Sri Lanka has performed the best in South Asia.
Starting from the beginning of this year, we are operating under a new five-year programme – the United Nations Development Assistance Framework (UNDAF 2013-17). When you look at the ownership of the programme, we worked with the government to ensure that our work supports the government’s vision, because the UN’s work in any country must tally with the priorities of the host country.
We are also taking into consideration changes that have taken place since the end of the war. We think that the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report that came out at the end of 2011 is a milestone and a guideline document for the government.
The UNDAF framework captures four major areas of the UN’s work – inclusive growth and development, disparity reduction and equal access to quality social services, democratic governance, rights and social inclusion, and finally resilience and environmental sustainability. Across all these areas of work, we have two cross-cutting themes; firstly gender and secondly youth. On the theme of youth, we will be appointing a Youth Advisory Group to guide our work here.
Whilst the UN focused on addressing the humanitarian and early recovery needs in the North and East in its previous programme phase, the new phase focuses our attention on the whole country. Yes, there is attention given to these areas in terms of recovery and reconciliation, but at the same time programmes addressing access to justice and social integration are working countrywide—we work with the Ministry of Justice, Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs and Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms – these are some of the big blocks of complex work that we do.
Q.Government Ministers constantly talk about how Sri Lanka is a benchmark in achieving the MDGs but as you pointed out there are still areas where we need to focus, especially linked to regional disparities. With only two years to go for 2015, how realistic is it that we in Sri Lanka can achieve the MDGs? A. This is a tremendous challenge to us. Sri Lanka is well on track but there are two main areas where we are lagging behind; nutrition and women’s empowerment.
In the case of nutrition, it won’t be possible to meet all the targets by 2015, neither will it be possible to achieve this in women’s political representation—the gaps are huge and these things are not going to change by the 2015 deadline. But there is no need to lose heart, so long as there are focused programmes, they can be achieved in due course.
I am very impressed with the initiative that has been taken on nutrition through the establishment of a National Nutrition Council. Nutrition is not just about access to food, it is about access to the right food and eating healthily.
I think significant work is needed in the area of women’s political participation.
Q. There is a perception of the UN amongst the public that it is the retributive body, and often the work that you do at the grass-roots level is ignored. How difficult is it for UN workers to operate in the public, due to this negative perception? A The UN is often presented and seen from one lens and this is talked about when Sri Lanka is taken up at international fora. But I do want to say that in the past two and a half years that I have been here, we do spend a lot of time and energy in the country – including in the North and East, in grassroots level work.
I have been to schools, disaster management centres and hospitals in places like Badulla and also many other areas where the UN works. We are also setting up things like support programmes for economic empowerment and promotion of entrepreneurship in the South. We have a very strong working relationship with almost all line-ministries, but what some people hear is more about the other part of the UN’s role at international fora.
The UN country team has decided to engage much more with the public, and particularly with youth to tell what we do. We have started having regular meetings of “Meet The RC” where youth are able to ask us questions about the work that we are doing. We have also decided to hold a UN Day at the National Youth Services Council in Maharagama.
Q. The UN High Commissioner visited the country recently and visited a number of areas. How has that changed the UN’s work here in terms of its perception and also its agenda? A. Our operational work will not change dramatically, because we are already focusing a significant part of our support towards implementation of the LLRC recommendations, linked to the post-war situation. In recent weeks we have seen a number of programmes like the enforcement of law, access to justice and social integration programmes that have been approved by the government.
Q. Then the government has had a more positive approach to the work of the UN in the country since the visit of the High Commissioner? A. The government has been working very closely with the UN, we have a very strong partnership between our officers and the various line ministries. We are very proud of that relationship. When we developed our country strategy for the next 5 years, each of the agencies made their plans and they were approved by the government. The government is very much a part of the design and implementation of the UN’s work.
As UN agencies, while working in support of national priorities, we also have to ensure that we have the support of the global body. In the case of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights for example, she worked according to the areas that have been mandated to her office and offered technical support in these areas.
We have a senior advisor and staff representing the Office of the High Commissioner here. They work with the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission and are part of our larger team. We have a very robust partnership and we are all working together.
As noted above, our programmes will continue, but there are a few areas of technical support that are recommended in the High Commissioner’s oral submission, and we will have to discuss with the Government how we can jointly move forward in these areas.
Q.Will the technical support given by the High Commissioner’s office be filtered through the programmes that the government has already agreed to, or will they come as special and separate directives? A. Yes and no. Some programmes will be merged, like the support to the Human Rights Commission or support for drafting legislation. The UN system contributed to the drafting of the National Action Plan for Human Rights and some other important documents. Some things will be channelled through ongoing programmes, such as rule of law and governance. For example, land is an area where the access to justice programme includes technical support for resolving land disputes.
In some areas, however, certain advice and technical assistance may come from special procedures, a completely independent body of experts or working groups within the framework of the Human Rights Council.
Q. What do you think was achieved through the High Commissioner's visit to Sri Lanka? Is Sri Lanka any closer to resolving any alleged outstanding human rights issues? A. In my view the agenda has moved forward in terms of the issues that are being discussed. The visit was pending for two years and we are pleased that it took place. If the statement she made here is read in conjunction with the oral report, there is a very clear recognition of the areas where things have moved forward.
We go back to the communiqué that President Mahinda Rajapaksa and our Secretary General Ban Ki-moon released in May 2009. The High Commissioner’s report very clearly acknowledges the marked changes. The High Commissioner notes very clearly the progress in terms of reconstruction and resettlement. It is on the reconciliation part that she focused. As High Commissioner for Human Rights, on future works, she also looked at a wider picture, not just the North and East, and in this context the issues of the minorities became a priority that she raised.
If you look at her statements from the view of the LLRC Report, I don’t think the High Commissioner stated anything more than what was stated in the report. I think it is important that we all go back to the document that everyone agreed on, the LLRC Report which is not an external report.
The government conducted two enquiries: one about the army, and the High Commissioner stated very candidly that if a certain party is involved in an issue then it should not carry out its own inquiry. Therefore I think that the visit laid out issues that need more work.
Q. As we said before there is a certain mistrust of UN workers. When UN workers go out into the public and work with the people, do they report on any information that they gather in their day-to-day work? If they do see abuses, is it right for them to ignore them (since during the time of the war, it was one allegation against the UN, that they saw abuses taking place, but chose to turn a blind eye)? A. No, I think that is a complete misperception. Anything we do, at all levels, we have a national counterpart, any single thing we do. Many of our projects and programmes are housed within the government. Depending on what you see and what you report, if you do nutrition monitoring, you do nutrition monitoring. We don’t have human rights workers outside in the field, we have protection workers and that is a mandate, the protection of IDPs. And this is an established norm and there is an inter-agency standing committee, globally accepted and they have the guidelines provided.
We do monitor, for example we monitor the protection of IDPs and the global humanitarian law provides very elaborate guidelines for that. We provide reports and make them public. Sometimes these reports are not very well liked, but our job is not to say what one wants to hear, but to convey what has been found, from the work of the respective mandate holder.
So the point I am making is, there is no separate reporting, we have certain mandates, in some tough, complicated areas, we do provide information to our system but it is shared with the national partners.
Q.Do you find that the military presence in the North is a hindrance to your work there? A. When you talk of international humanitarian principles we are supposed to work with the civilian administration and we all acknowledge that Sri Lanka has a very well established civil service. However, we have captured from recent surveys carried out by our agencies that people do have concerns about the military presence in the North and we have been negotiating many of those things. At my level, we do have discussions with all concerned parties, but at a field level we try to ensure our workers work with the civil administration.
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