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Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights considers the report of Sri Lanka

GENEVA (9 June 2017) - The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights this afternoon concluded its consideration of the fifth periodic report of Sri Lanka on its implementation of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

Introducing the report, Ravinatha Aryasinha, Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, said that the formation of the National Unity Government in 2015, a watershed moment in the political history of the country, particularly in the post-conflict transition period, helped in building the foundation for policy stability that was required to secure and advance human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and to work towards national reconciliation and development.  Along with this key change in the political landscape of the country, there had also been profound positive developments in the area of economic, social and cultural rights, but those achievements must be seen in the context of a country that had faced protracted conflict which had ravaged its entire socio-economic and cultural fabric for over thirty years.  The consultations to draft a new Constitution started in April 2016, the National Human Rights Commission had been put in place and the National Human Rights Action Plan 2017-2021 was finalized.
 
In the discussion that followed, Committee Experts acknowledged with hope the end of the 30 years long conflict, the abolishment of the Emergency Regulations in August 2011, and the implementation of recommendations made in the framework of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation process.  Experts welcomed the ongoing constitutional reform and urged Sri Lanka to ensure that it defined the applicability of the Covenant in the domestic legislation.  It should also provide a legal framework and an institutional independence for the National Human Rights Commission which had been downgraded to “B” status in 2007 for failure to adhere to the Paris Principles.  The desperate situation of women in Sri Lanka, who were victims of legal and de facto discrimination and various forms of violence, was a source of great concern to the Committee.  Experts raised a range of other questions in the discussion, including the rights of migrant workers and their families, access to education for children with disabilities, refugee children and children from lower castes, and asked about steps taken to eliminate hate speech and incitement to hatred and intolerance, and promote inter-ethnic and inter-communal peace and reconciliation.
 
Zdzislaw Kedzia, Committee Vice-Chair and Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, in his concluding remarks urged Sri Lanka to use to the maximum the momentum on the constitutional reform to ensure the constitutional protection of economic, social and cultural rights.
 
In his closing statement, Mr. Aryasinha, said that Sri Lanka was mindful of the important moment offered by the constitutional reform also because it created a positive relationship between the Government and the civil society, including the National Human Rights Commission.
 
The delegation of Sri Lanka included representatives of the Commissioner General of Labour, Attorney General’s Department, National Committee on Women, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Permanent Mission of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva.
 
The Committee will next meet on Monday, 12 June at 10 a.m. to hear from civil society organizations from Pakistan, whose report it will consider on 12 and 13 June.
 
Report
 
The fifth periodic report of Sri Lanka can be accessed here: E/C.12/LKA/5.
 
Presentation of the Report
 
RAVINATHA ARYASINHA, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, introduced the report and said that, following the Presidential election in January 2015 and the Parliamentary Election in August 2015, the formation of the National Unity Government under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, had been a watershed moment in the political history of the country, particularly in the post-conflict transition period.  It had helped in building the foundation for policy stability that was required to secure and advance human rights, democracy and the rule of law, and to work towards national reconciliation and development.  Along with this key change in the political landscape of the country, there had also been profound positive developments in the area of economic, social and cultural rights.  Sri Lanka had become a party to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights thirty seven years earlier.  The Government had expressed its political commitment to ensure the non-recurrence of conflict and to further strengthen the enjoyment of human rights by all people.  However, what had been achieved over the last several years had to be seen in the context of a country that had faced protracted conflict which had ravaged its entire socio-economic and cultural fabric for over thirty years. 
 
Among the developments, there were the ongoing consultations to draft a new Constitution which had started in April 2016.  Likewise, a range of policies, administrative regulations, institutional mechanisms such as the National Human Rights Commission, had been put in place.  In addition, steps had been taken to create greater awareness on the importance of reviewing the policies and practices that might have a negative impact on enjoying equal rights.  The following concrete measures had been put in place since 2010:  the 19th Amendment to the Constitution in May 2015 had further strengthened the high-level appointment process and had set in place greater checks and balances and reduced powers of the Executive; the strengthening of the National Human Rights Commission; measures to implement the United Nations Convention against Corruption; the finalization of the National Human Rights Action Plan 2017-2021; the ratification of a number of international instruments; the approval of a National Plan for Women-Headed Households, a Policy Framework and a National Plan of Action to Address Sexual and Gender-Based Violence; the adoption of a directive requesting Government institutions to provide a minimum of 25 per cent investments for the economic development of rural women; and measures to protect the right of the Adivasi community, among others. 
 
Questions by the Committee Experts
 
ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Vice-Chair and Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, thanked the delegation for the wealth of information provided by the Government.  Stating that the Committee was familiar with the nature and scale of the internal conflict that had plagued the country for 26 years, he acknowledged with hope the end of the conflict, the abolishment of the Emergency Regulations in August 2011, as well as the implementation of recommendations made in the framework of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation process.
 
Despite the amendment to the Constitution, it still spoke about economic, social and cultural rights in the language of policy directives and not rights, Mr. Kedzia said and asked the delegation about the preparation of the new Constitution: at which stage the process was, when the new Constitution would be adopted  and whether the existing draft Bill of Fundamental Rights become a part of the new Constitution.
 
Would the postulated public interest litigation be available in relation to economic, social and cultural rights?  What was expected with regard to the formal status of the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights under the new Constitution, would it be directly applicable?  What were the plans for the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Covenant?
 
Regarding the National Human Rights Action Plan, what was the implementation mechanism adopted for the new plan (2017-21) and what did the short, medium and long-term goals mean in practice?
 
The National Human Rights Commission had been downgraded to “B” status in 2007 for failure to adhere to the Paris Principles - would the new Constitution provide a legal framework for the work of the Commission, including institutional and procedural guarantees of its independence, adequate definition of its power, and the provision of adequate human and financial capacities?
 
On wealth and poverty distribution, to what extent was the Samurdhi Social Protection Programme human rights based and how it addressed economic, social and cultural rights?
 
Regarding access to land resources, according to the information provided by the State Party, 75 per cent of the land occupied by the military had been returned.  The military seemed to be continuously involved in commercial activities not related to the defense of the country, which supposedly led to infringements on the rights of people, in particular those belonging to the indigenous and minority groups.  What were the plans regarding the completion of the return of the lands by the military to the legitimate owners and which steps would be taken to ensure the return of the military to its core constitutional functions?  What measures were adopted to protect activists working on labour and land issues and how effective were they?
 
Referring to the resources dedicated to the protection of economic, social and cultural rights, Mr. Kedzia asked the delegation to shed some light on the reports concerning budgetary cuts, and to explain whether the introduction of those cuts had considered the conditions for retrogressive austerity measures.  What measures were taken to ensure that the employees of the free trade zone could fully enjoy their economic and social rights?
 
Finally, regarding equality and non-discrimination, Mr. Kedzia asked whether there were any plans to adopt a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation which could address some basic issues, including the cast-based discrimination.  He also asked the delegation to provide more information regarding the implementation of the 2016 law establishing a 25 per cent quota for women in local government bodies.  What measures had been taken to counter patriarchal attitudes and stereotypes on the role of women in society?
 
Another Expert raised the concern about the desperate situation of women in Sri Lanka and asked about steps taken to address the various legal and de facto discrimination, including different forms of violence against women such as rape, domestic violence sexual harassment, female genital mutilation and sex bribery, which was demanded of women by government officials or anyone else in the power. 
 
The existing national machinery on women and the National Committee on Women did not seem to be dealing properly with those issues and with the suffering that women were experiencing.  The three year national plan for women heads of households had been recently approved, while a policy framework and the national plan of action to address sexual and gender-based violence to 2020 were in place; however, those programmes seemed fragmented and not well coordinated and did not seem to address the needs of different groups of women.
 
Referring to the recent review of Sri Lanka by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the recommendations then issued, the Expert asked about the progress made in the setting up of an independent National Commission for Women which would be mandated with receiving all kinds of complaints from women.  What was the strategy to strengthen the existing Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and its committee on women to deal with issues of discrimination?

An Expert stated that discrimination based on language was prohibited, and that in 1991 the country had adopted a legislation making the three languages, namely Sinhalese, Tamil and English, official languages.  What was the implementation status of this legislation?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
Chapters 3 and 4 of the Constitution specifically provided for the fundamental and language rights.  Public interest litigation was accepted in the legal structure and the Supreme Court was currently entertaining that type of litigation.  The current constitutional structure thus provided answers to deal with the issues raised. 
 
With regard to constitutional reform, the recommendations of the sub-committee on fundamental rights were being considered.
 
Recommendations were being reviewed regarding gender identity and sexual orientation as grounds for discrimination.
 
The implementation mechanism of the National Human Rights Action Plan was a high-level inter-ministerial mechanism which had been formulated together with civil society and the National Human Rights Commission.  Currently it was being translated into the vernacular languages. 
 
The Government was working on the anti-discriminatory laws, and the land development amendments were ongoing.
 
Sexual harassment committees had been established in the work place.
 
The language policy was being implemented and the delegation cited several instances to prove this.
 
The European Union had also commended the improvement of the situation in Sri Lanka in terms of human rights, including the independence of the National Human Rights Commission.
 
Follow-Up Questions
 
An Expert inquired about the thirty-year-old conflict and how its root causes would be addressed by the new Constitution?
 
Regarding the Covenant, the Expert remarked that the Committee and the delegation were not speaking the same language and invited Sri Lanka to look at the General Comment on the justiciability of the Covenant.  The way the Government had chosen was not candid, he said, as the Covenant had to either be incorporated in total or reflected faithfully in the laws.
 
Another Expert noted that the question on the establishment of an independent National Commission on Women had not been answered.
 
Another Expert reiterated his concern about the independence of the judiciary, referring to the recent visit of the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, who had noted the need to increase transparency of the judiciary and also noted the lack of Tamil judges.  There were only 330 judges for a country of 20 million people.  If the country did not strengthen the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, there would be no way forward.  What was the position of the Government to this effect and on implementing the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations?
 
An Expert asked what were the plans concerning the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
 
Another Expert noted that there was a mandatory requirement for career progression, and that officers had to learn the three languages in order to progress.  How many officers had been denied career progression, due to their inability to speak the Tamil language?
 
ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Vice-Chair and Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, on the justiciability of economic, social and cultural rights and the Covenant, said, if everything was perfect, why was there talk of the controversies of the status of those rights?
 
The National Human Rights Action Plan spoke of the constitutionalizing of the right to water and sanitation as a goal, but did not speak to trade union rights, the right to just and favourable conditions to work, and so forth.
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
The delegation said that Sri Lanka had ratified all International Labour Organisation Conventions and that the violations of trade union rights could be brought to the Department of Labour, which monitored the situation in the country.  The system was in place, although there were always incidents that could take place.
 
The most senior judge had been appointed soon after the President had assumed the power and he was of Tamil ethnicity.  Several judges on the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals were also Tamil.
 
Questions by the Committee Experts
 
In the next round of questions, an Expert asked whether the wages allowed a life in dignity and asked the delegation to provide specific data on the matter.
 
The delegation was also asked whether any data were available about the punishment of sexual harassment.
 
The Ministry of Social Employment had created the Rataviruwo Foundation to promote social and economic rights for migrant workers and their families.  Were the measures put in place by the Foundation effective, what were the challenges and the best results?  Did the State Party intend to amend the provisions which prohibited migrants to work?
 
What were the main challenges in the country in terms of the right to strike and to form trade unions?  Did the workers enjoy guarantees with regard to their rights and freedom of activity?  What were the main challenges in drawing up the social protection plans and social protection floor?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
It was true that the female participation in the labour force was 34 per cent.  A number of organisations had conducted studies on this issue, including the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation, which had resulted in recommendations to have a flexible labour laws in the country.  Currently, discussions were ongoing on what kind of flexibility to have, such as lifting the restrictions on women working after 10 p.m. in certain industries.  Another recommendation was to provide day care and credit facilities to for female start-ups.
 
Remarkable progress had been made on child labour.
 
In 2016, a minimum wage law had been enacted and no one was allowed to pay less than the minimum wage.  The Department of Labour was constantly monitoring the labour union rights in the country and had established areas to facilitate interaction with members of the trade union leaders.  If a worker was being mistreated or discriminated on the grounds of their accent, the unfair labour practice would be prosecuted effectively.
 
Regarding the social protection floor, there were seven schemes, including the civil service pension scheme, the employees fund, the employees trust fund, the farmers pension and social scheme, the fisherman’s pension scheme, and the self-employed pension and social insurance schemes.  Over the years, progress had been made, but results could not be seen over night.
 
In recent years employment figures had improved.
 
Questions by the Committee Experts
 
An Expert asked what standards were in place to ensure adequate standard of living and about steps taken to improve the lives of internally displaced persons.  What proposals were in place to enact the national land restitution policies, and did the Government have concrete plans to implement a reconciliation commission?  What time frame was expected for the return of the remaining internally displaced persons?
 
Allegedly, a high proportion of the population suffered from mental health diseases and post-traumatic stress disorder.
 
Sri Lanka had one of the highest food crises in the world, and the World Food Programme had noted that 5.2 million people were undernourished.  What was being done to tackle this problem?
 
Responses from the Delegation
 
The delegation said that it did not have the intention to ratify the Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights at the moment, but Sri Lanka would remain seized on the issue.
 
With regard to the refugees and asylum seekers, Sri Lanka was not yet a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.  However, the Government over the past several years had been progressively undertaking its international and treaty body obligations.  Sri Lanka was mindful of the general principles of the international law which guided the decision-making in the country.  In 2005, a Memorandum of Understanding had been signed with the United Nations Refugee Agency and the Government extended its support to its activities and mandate in Sri Lanka.  Sri Lanka hosted a modest number of asylum seekers and refugees: 609 asylum seekers and 784 refugees, and both categories had access to public services such as health and education.
 
As far as migrant workers were concerned, the basic legal guarantees for Sri Lankans who were migrating abroad were contained in the Constitution and in the acts and decisions of the national overseas employment agency.  Sri Lanka was the Chair of the Colombo Process, the regional consultative process of 13 Asian labour-sending countries, and recently important progress had been made in the range of benefits that migrants were entitled to.
 
The Penal Code amendment of 2016 had strengthened the provisions on combatting human trafficking and had introduced more stringent measures to control trafficking in human beings particularly women and children.  Sri Lanka was a party to the Palermo Protocol. 
 
Legal frameworks were important tools, said the delegation and added that in Sri Lanka those were complemented by policies to enhance ethical labour recruitment, including through the participation in the regional Abu Dhabi Dialogue and Platform which brought together Asian labour receiving and labour sending countries to discuss issues of common interest.  An interesting project in this context was a “skills passport” - it would enable workers to change employers and to have their skills verified and recognized, and would help them with employment and re-integration upon their return to Sri Lanka.
 
The Rataviruwo programme had been initiated to improve benefits of migrant workers and their families, particularly in the areas of housing and education of children, which where the main reasons for Sri Lankans to search employment abroad.  The objectives of migrant welfare was now being pursued through a programme called “Shramika Surekuma” (labour protection), under which over 1,000 development officers had been recruited to work closely with migrants and their families and better understand their situation.  To date, over 273,000 migrant files had been created, which identified the needs of the families, whether the children left behind had proper guardian care and to direct the families to the necessary services.
 
Sri Lanka and other countries participating in the Abu Dhabi Dialogue also discussed how they could support the Global Compact for orderly, safe and legal migration.
 
Responding to questions raised about child abuse, the delegation said that child protection was high on the Government’s agenda and that the elimination of neglect and abuse of children was an integral part of the family policy.  All incidents were investigated by the police and child protection authorities, which also addressed all complaints of child abuse and neglect.  In 2015, over 6,000 such complaints had been received.  Child protection officers were present at district and local levels and their task was also to combat sexual exploitation and abuse of children. 
 
The Ministry of Justice had carried out several programmes to increase awareness and train judges in combatting child abuse.  Child protection authorities conducted awareness raising on sexual exploitation of children in the hospitality industry.  There were two helplines in operation.
 
The national child protection policy 2017-2027 directed the multi-sectoral approach to this issue and contained guiding principles which must inform all child protection-related actions and interventions.  The policy would be implemented through five-years action plans to be prepared in collaboration with civil society organizations.
 
The Ministry of Justice had had put up a Cabinet Memorandum requesting proposed changes to the law to allow for termination of pregnancies resulting from rape, pregnancies in children under the age of 16 and in case of serious foetal malformations.
 
Until the year 2000, mental health services had been limited to psychiatric hospitals, and such centralized service provision had many limitations.  The approach had been shifted in 2000 to integrate mental health services into provincial and district health service provision.  Currently, there were over 200 outreach mental health clinics which enabled people with mental health problems to access the necessary services and still live in their communities.
 
Over 30 medical clinics had been conducted in all northern and eastern areas of the country, and the office for national reconciliation was engaged in a special project to provide psychological and metal health support to persons affected by the conflict.  In addition, there were projects run by international non-governmental organizations which targeted vulnerable categories, such as women affected by the armed conflict.
 
The Ministry of Health was in the process of developing a new mental health policy which would be aligned with the international standards and the Sustainable Development Goals, in collaboration with the World Health Organization.
 
The Government provided universal health services free of charge to all citizens without discrimination, and Sri Lanka was committed to continued strengthening of the public health system able to deliver quality health services to all.  It would dedicate four per cent of the gross domestic product to health by 2020.  Health service provision in Sri Lanka was a mix between public and private sector, but 90 per cent of patients continued to use public health services.
 
Concerning public expenditure for economic and social rights, Sri Lanka dedicated about ten per cent of its gross domestic product for such purposes through the provision of economic and social services.  Health and education expenditure had increased in 2016 in comparison to 2015.  Health and education budgets for 2017 indicated 7.5 per cent and 11.5 per cents increases over 2016 budgets, respectively.
 
Marital rape was not recognized by the law.  A task force had been appointed to address this lacuna and work towards the criminalization of marital rape in all contexts.
 
There were issues related to the recruitment of Tamil-speaking police officers.  Due to the 30-years old conflict in Sri Lanka, the education of large number of children in north and east of the country had been disrupted and many had not acquired the requirements for the entry into the police and other Government services.  The Government was able to recruit only 26 female Tamil speaking officers in 2016, while additional number of male Tamil speaking police officers had commenced their training in 2017.  In total, over 1,000 Tamil-speaking officers had been recruited to date, but the number was still insufficient to respond to the needs.  The Government was looking into alternative ways of recruiting Tamil-speaking police officers. 
 
Turning to strategies to reduce wasting and stunting among children, the delegation spoke of the introduction of the electronic nutrition monitoring system, therapeutic feeding programmes for malnourished children, strengthening school nutrition programmes, nutritional education and micronutrient supplementation.  Measures were being undertaken to also reduce undernutrition of pregnant and lactating mothers.  The national nutrition policy 2013-2016 had been carried out, and the review of its implementation and identification of gaps was leading the formulation of nutritional action plan 2017-2020 to significantly improve nutritional status of the people in the country, particularly children under the age of five.
 
Follow-up Questions
 
Committee Experts noted that migrant domestic workers were often subject of abuse in their countries of destination and asked about the reasons which drove so many Sri Lankans to seek employment abroad.  Was it because of poverty and large number of people living on less than US$ 2 per day?  On minimum wage, how was it aligned with articles 7 and 11 of the Covenant?
 
Experts praised Sri Lanka for how small-scale fishermen could benefit from global trade but was concerned that the Zero Hunger Policy, which put focus on locally grown food and small-scale food production, was in contradiction with the push to develop food production capacities for global markets.  How was this tension being resolved?
 
Sri Lanka had demonstrated a remarkable economic growth and a significant progress in reducing poverty, but the number of poor people still remained high and public spending for health and education still remained low.  This might be linked to the tax system in the country which was taxing the poor and contained many tax exemptions.  What concrete steps were being taken to put in place a progressive tax collection able to fund social spending? 
 
What was the role of the economic, social and cultural rights in the transitional justice process, and how the transitional justice contributed to  the economic, social and cultural rights?
 
The delegation was asked to explain the implementation of the minimum wage legislation particularly in the informal sector and what other measures were being taken to ensure that the workers in this sector could enjoy social security.  What plans were in place to develop a national social security policy and an action plan and ensure a universal social security coverage in the country?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
Responding to Experts’ follow up questions, the delegation said that there were four transitional justice mechanisms in Sri Lanka, including the Office on Missing Persons and a Reparations Office.  At least two of those mechanisms were relevant for the economic, social and cultural rights.  Drafting Committees had been appointed to draft legislation on the truth seeking mechanisms.  A Consultation Task Force and the reparations mechanisms had consulted widely with all stakeholders; the consultations recommended that the legislation addressed economic, social and cultural rights.
 
Approximately 24,000 acres of private land which had been occupied by the military had been released and some 6,000 acres were still to be released to their owners.
 
The delegation said that the Samurdhi department for poverty alleviation had been established in 2013 as the major poverty alleviation programme.  Currently, the poverty rate in Sri Lanka was 6.7 per cent and 1.4 million persons – majority of whom were women - were being assisted by the Samurdhi programme.
 
In 2016, Sri Lanka had adopted the minimum wage act which had helped the increase in the real wages in both private and informal sectors.  Increasing minimum wage was not enough if the purchasing power was not taken into account as well, said the delegation, adding that in Sri Lanka, the purchasing power was rather high.  In order to enhance earning capacity of informal sector workers, various micro-credit schemes were available.
 
There was a need to take action to improve social security system which covered around 60 to 70 per cent of those eligible and the Government was currently discussing the issue.
 
On improving government revenue to enhance fiscal space to allocate more expenditure for health and education, the delegation stressed there was a revenue based fiscal consolidation process being followed at present.  Fiscal reforms were aimed at mobilizing revenue, prioritizing expenditure and reducing budget deficit.  The delegation mentioned that revenue enhancing measures such as expanding the tax base, increasing tax rates, simplification of taxes and adoption of information and communication technology were being taken and those measures had already raised tax revenue in 2016.
 
While concessions had been given to large scale industries to enable them to link up with the global value chains, there were also programmes to increase access to finance for small and medium enterprises and farmers, the delegation said.
 
Responding to the question raised about Tamil-speaking judges, the delegation explained that there were judges who were conversant in Tamil in the Superior Court, one of whom was an ethnic Tamil, and also said that the Constitutional process was followed in all judicial appointments.
 
The land acquisition act was in force and it set out the transparent procedure that guided acquisition of land for public purposes while safeguarding the rights of the owners.
 
There were about 600 labour inspectors in Sri Lanka and action was being taken to fill about 100 posts what were still vacant.  There were 57 district and 11 provincial labour inspection offices and each labour inspector was obliged to conduct at least one inspection per month which meant that some 70,000 to 80,000 labour inspections were conducted every year.
 
Questions by the Committee Experts
 
In the last round of questions, a Committee Expert took up the issue of the public education budget and, noting that in 2016, it represented 3.7 per cent of the gross domestic product, welcomed the five-year plan to increase it to six per cent of the gross domestic product by 2020.  What were the main problems that the education budget aimed to address and how was the budget divided between the improvements of the school infrastructure and other measures aimed to increase the quality of education?
 
How would those funds in reality be used in the context of the capital carrying costs?  Could the delegation comment on the trend to shift the focus of the education from public to private and how the consequences of such trend in terms of reduced access to education would be mitigated, particularly for children from lower-income families?
 
The Committee was concerned about the lack of access to education for children with disabilities, noting that in 2012, some 34 per cent of children with disabilities aged five to 19 had not received any form of education.  Was this identified as an area of concern in Sri Lanka, what measures were being taken and what was the situation today in terms of access to education?
 
Children of refugees and asylum-seekers were reportedly denied access to free education if their parents were unable to pay.  Access to education was caste-dependent – what measures were being taken to tackle the issue and also to improve access of women to higher education particularly in engineering and science fields? 
 
Could the delegation inform the Committee about educational objectives, how they valued cultural diversity, and how they aimed to increase the understanding between different groups in the country?
 
The situation of the Vedda indigenous people was of concern, and the delegation was asked how many Veddas were in the country, how the principle of free self-identification was observed during national census exercises, and whether this principle was linked with the legal recognition.  What access did they have to their traditional lands on which the protection of their cultural identity depended? 
 
What measures were in place to prevent the extinction and revitalize indigenous languages and ensure their transmission to the next generations?  What was being done to ensure that schools had enough trained teachers to provide education in the three official languages?
 
Responses by the Delegation
 
In response to questions raised about hate speech and the official language policy, the delegation said that there was zero tolerance to all violations of the law including those addressed towards minorities.  The Government did not condone any manifestations of religious or other hatred or intolerance.  Hate speech and incitement to discrimination, hostility and violence was prohibited by the law. 
 
With the view to promote reconciliation among the different communities, the Government had set up the Ministry of the National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Language and the Office for the National Unity and Reconciliation.  Those institutions had launched initiatives and programmes to strengthen intercommunity dialogue and confidence building.  All police officers had been informed of the obligation to take action on all acts of hate speech and incitement to hatred or violence.
 
Education in Sri Lanka was state-funded and offered free of charge at all levels, including university, and the right to education was a constitutionally guaranteed right.  The education was under the aegis of both central and provincial governments. Necessary action was being taken for the implementation of the following proposals under the new education reforms: Empowering a New Education Act and increasing the public expenditure up to six per cent of the gross domestic product step by step for the educational sector.
 
As for the access to education, the delegation said that Sri Lanka maintained highest school enrolment and was closely cooperating with the United Nations Refugee Agency to facilitate the implementation of their mandate and provide access to refugee children
based on general principles of international law generally recognized by Sri Lanka despite Sri Lanka not being a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.  Access to school was not caste-restricted and Sri Lanka was on track of the Millennium Development Goal as far as school enrolment was concerned.
 
There were specific measures in the educational sector to address gender stereotypes. The Ministry of Education was intending to include gender in the curriculum, and policy guidelines for gender mainstreaming were in place. 
 
The curriculum underscored the importance of inter-ethnic and inter-community peace and harmony, while the Office for the National Unity and Reconciliation had initiated the inclusion of peace and reconciliation in the school curriculum and in teachers training.
 
The official statistics and numbers on the Vedda community were not available.  The majority were concentrated in few areas such as Dambana and Maduru Oya.  Their rights were safeguarded by the Constitution and the Government’s consistent policy on engagement and consultation with the Vedda community on a range of issues that affected them including livelihoods and land.  The Government was committed to ensure that the Vedda had uninterrupted access to their traditional lands.
 
As far as the rights of persons with disabilities were concerned, the delegation said that the increasing awareness on this issue had resulted in the ratification of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016.  Sri Lanka was currently in the process of enacting the enabling legislation to ensure the implementation of the Convention in the country.  The bill on the use of sign language was awaiting finalization.
 
The delegation agreed that the education levels and school attendance of children with disabilities were rather low compared with other children and said that the Government had recognized the need to ameliorate this situation.  There were 25 special schools for children with special needs including visually impaired children, deaf children and children with speaking disabilities, and children with autism. 
 
Children with disabilities or children of low-income parents with disabilities were entitled to educational allowance which aimed to ensure that they were sent to school – 281 children benefitted from this allowance in 2016.  There were special provisions to facilitate the enrolment of students with disabilities in various higher education studies.
 
Asked about the education of children of the sizable Muslim community, the delegation said that the public education system was accessible for any child in the country.  Muslim children could also attend the religious schools called madrasas, which were in line with the national educational curriculum.
 
Concluding Remarks
 
ZDZISLAW KEDZIA, Committee Vice-Chair and Rapporteur for Sri Lanka, thanked  the delegation for the highly constructive, frank and informative responses to many of the Committee’s questions, and for the thoughtful views on many issues.  The dialogue had helped the Experts to better understand challenges to the implementation of the Covenant in Sri Lanka.  The range of issues addressed in the dialogue was vast and the Rapporteur wished Sri Lanka all success in their attempts to protect economic, social and cultural rights and to use to the maximum the momentum on the constitutional reform to ensure the constitutional protection of those rights.  The emphasis placed on the legal dimensions in no way contradicted the importance of the various policy measures taken by Sri Lanka which were not only indispensable but deserved Committee’s appreciation and support.  Mr. Kedzia concluded by saying that the Committee felt reassured in many aspects and that its concluding observations would be drafted in the spirit of cooperation.
 
RAVINATHA ARYASINHA, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Sri Lanka to the United Nations Office at Geneva, thanked the Committee Experts and said that the review had been undertake in the spirit of true engagement, and it was in this spirit that Sri Lanka took all the comments that the Committee Experts made, some of them positive and others not so.  Sri Lanka was mindful that the constitutional reform was an important moment and that the momentum should not be lost.  It was also important because it created a positive relationship between the Government and the civil society, including the National Human Rights Commission.  Sri Lanka was deeply conscious that the discussion was not about statistics but about the people, and would dedicate due attention to the Committee’s concluding observations.
 
MARIA VIRGINIA BRASS GOMEZ, Committee Chairperson, thanked the delegation for the constructive dialogue and for their engagement.  The Committee was starting its follow-up procedure and would signal up to three issues to Sri Lanka, which would need to report back to the Committee within eighteen months.

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