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Foot-dragging on appointing new DGHS cause concern amidst fresh Covid flare-up

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BY SURESH PERERA

The vacuum created by the inordinate delay in appointing a new Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) — the highest technical position in the government health service –- has caused grave concern among medical circles, particularly at a time a fresh wave of the deadly Covid-19 virus has erupted with more than one thousand positive cases identified so far in a garment factory cluster in the Gampaha district.

Since the then DGHS, Dr. Anil Jasinghe, was moved out in a surprise development in mid August this year, the top position has continued to remain vacant for almost two months.

However, applications were recently called from prospective candidates with an October 16, 2020 deadline – a process that will take at least another month from the given date for shortlisting candidates, interviews, selections and follow-up paper work for Cabinet approval, health officials said.

Dr. Jasinghe, a respected consultant specialist cum senior medical administrator, who played a pivotal role in curbing the initial coronavirus outbreak in March this year, was shifted abruptly to the Environment Ministry as its secretary, a move that was described as being “kicked upstairs” to head an institution, where his medical experience and expertise were totally irrelevant.

As a Cabinet sanctioned appointment, the DGHS is the competent authority in enforcing a plethora of crucial health-related laws, including the Quarantine Act, Food and Drugs Act, Tobacco Act and Transplant Act.

Under the circumstances, a non functioning full-time DGHS or an acting appointment, which has not received Cabinet approval, could impede the full and proper enforcement of relevant laws pertaining to public health and safety especially at a critical time when quarantine regulations are being rigidly enforced, the officials asserted.

The appointment of a relatively junior medical administration in an “acting capacity” on the basis of a temporary “working arrangement” initiated by a health sector panjandrum has raised eyebrows because he cannot enforce the specific regulations as the competent authority without Cabinet giving the nod to his purported “acting appointment”, they said.

In terms of the medical services minute gazetted in 2014, the position of DGHS can be held only by a medical administrator of Deputy Director-General of Health Services grade. Under the marking scheme, three shortlisted candidates will face an interview and, thereafter, their names will be placed before Cabinet by the subject Minister in charge, who will make a recommendation for approval.

However, over the past 20 years, the medical services minute has been amended at least thrice with the selection procedure changed, the officials claimed.

With the exit of Dr. Jasinghe, who served as DGHS from 2017-2020, the senior-most medical administrator in line now is Dr. Amal Harsha de Silva, one of the most qualified consultant specialists in Sri Lanka.

However, with the powers-that-be having a big say in the appointment to the top administrative slot in the government health segment, as seen in many cases in the past, the possibility of Dr. de Silva being given what he deserves appears to hang in the balance, medical officials claimed.

Indications are that he may be edged out notwithstanding his academic achievements, seniority and competence as the most-senior medical administrator, they opined. “Tail- waggers should not be given precedence over conscientious professionals who have proven their worth”.

Prior to Dr. Jasinghe, senior medical administrators who served as DGHS were dental surgeon Dr. Jayasundara Bandara (2016-2017), additional secretary Dr. Palitha Maheepala (2012- 2016), Dr. Ajith Mendis (2008-2012), Dr. Athula Kahandaliyanage (2003-2008) and consultant gastro urinary surgeon Dr. A. M. L. Beligaswatte (2000-2003).

Meanwhile, the Government Medical Officers’ Forum (GMOF) said that Sri Lanka did tremendously well to contain the community spread of Covid-19. However, it is regrettable the DGHS position in the health sector still remains vacant especially at a critical juncture when the country is again facing a grave coronavirus threat.

“All these years, it was under the leadership of the DGHS that our country was able to overcome the threat of pandemics. Dr. Anil Jasinghe did a marvelous job until he was suddenly moved to a ministry alien to him”, GMOF media secretary, Dr. Niroshana Premaratne said in a statement.

At a time Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented health crisis, the public expected the next-in-line to be appointed DGHS immediately. But, two months have gone by with no appointment still in sight despite the country plunging again into the throes of a severe Covid-19 crisis, the trade union stressed.

“At first, we welcomed the appointment of retired Major General, Dr. Sanjeewa Munasinghe as secretary to the Health Ministry in May this year because it is medical administrators who have largely guided the health sector to greater heights over the decades. As witnessed in the past, particularly during 2015-2020, civil administrators as health secretaries fell short of the expected performance”, the GMOF noted.

The incumbent health secretary is a big disappointment as even senior officials, including DDGs and directors, cannot access him. Unlike earlier, when senior staff could walk directly into the secretary’s office to sort out issues, they have to now kick their heels for hours outside his door. With an indifferent and inaccessible secretary coupled with the absence of a permanent DGHS has turned the whole health sector topsy-turvy, the statement asserted.

“This callous attitude of the health secretary doesn’t portend well for the forward movement of the country’s health sector in general and public safety and welfare in particular”, the GMOF complained.

“We believe that a conspiracy led to the ousting of Dr. Anil Jasinghe because, as a competent medical professional, he led from the front, called a spade a spade and did what needed to be done without ‘boru shows’ and dramas”, the GMOF noted.

If the then DGHS was moved out for a genuine reason, the health secretary should have lined up the next senior-most medical administrator to step in immediately taking into consideration the grave situation the country is now facing, the statement continued.

As a Cabinet approved appointment, the DGHS is vested with powers to enforce around 100 health-related Acts. However, for the past two months, neither a permanent nor an acting appointment has been made by Cabinet. What was done instead was the health secretary, who is not the appointing authority in the first place, making a temporary appointment to ‘oversee duties’, the statement further said.

“The Covid-19 pandemic is a deadly situation in the world. What Sri Lanka needs at this point of time is not a puppet as DGHS, but a clever and competent medical administrator who can guide the nation in its hour of need. An autocratic style of management is not the answer to the grave crisis at hand”, it added.

It is clear that there is resistance to appoint the most deserving senior DDG as the next DGHS. The country cannot afford to pay for the sins of an insensitive official best described as a “square peg in a round hole”, who lord over the unfolding scenario within the comfort of his ivory tower, the statement noted.

The GMOF said it was pathetic to see how the Health Ministry forced doctors to go on transfers at a time the country was on alert for the pandemic. This was done at the insistence of a certain trade union. In addition, the Ministry, in contravention of all norms, conducted a program at a cost of Rs. 4 million for those awaiting internships, while the trade union was allowed to charge Rs. 4,000 from each of the 1,500 participants, who were still not even employed.

Repeated attempts by The Sunday Island to contact the health secretary for comment since last Tuesday were unsuccessful as his mobile phone went unanswered.

“How can you get through to him when even those under the same roof cannot access him?”, a health sector official laughed.

“As an option, you can try your luck by coming over here and waiting outside his door for a couple of hours”, he suggested.



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Govt. MP Wijeyadasa strikes discordant note on Port City Bill

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… alleges bid to turn Port City into Chinese territory

Over 12 petitioners move SC against proposed law

By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe PC, yesterday (15) alleged that the proposed Bill, titled ‘Colombo Port City Economic Commission,’ would transform the reclaimed land, adjacent to the Galle Face Green into a Chinese territory.

Addressing the media at the Abhayarama temple, under the auspices of Ven Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, the former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), Rajapakshe, warned of dire consequences if the government went ahead with what he termed the despicable project.

Sixteen parties had filed action against the Bill. Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda thera was among the petitioners.

The ruling party had placed the Bill on the Order Paper on April 8, just 15 calendar days after the publication of the Bill in the Gazette. In terms of the Constitution a citizen intending to challenge the constitutionality of a Bill had to do so within one week from the Bill being placed in the Order Paper of Parliament, Dr. Rajapakse said.

Among those who moved the SC were the General-Secretary of the UNP and the Chairman of the UNP. The Attorney-General has been named a respondent in the petition. The BASL, too, moved SC against the Attorney General. Three civil society activists, Oshala Herath, Dr. Ajantha Perera and Jeran Jegatheesan also filed action.

Lawmaker Rajapakse explained how the proposed Bill, if enacted, could allow independent status to USD 1.4 bn Colombo Port City. Former Justice Minister alleged that the Colombo Port City project was far worse than the selling of the strategic Hambantota port to the Chinese by the previous administration.

The Colombo District MP said the Parliament wouldn’t have financial control over the Colombo Port City Project whereas its independent status would legally empower those managing the project to finalise agreements with external parties

Referring to the previous administration, the former UNPer alleged that China had bribed members of Parliament. MP Rajapakse questioned the rationale behind China providing computers to all members of Parliament and officials as well as jaunts to China.

Rajapakse said that Sri Lanka shouldn’t give in to Chinese strategies aimed at bringing Sri Lanka under its control. The former minister explained the threat posed by the growing Chinese presence including the Colombo Port City, a terminal in the Colombo harbour and at the Hambantota port.

 

 

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Sooka pushing UK for punitive action against Army Commander

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An outfit, led by Yasmin Sooka, a member of the UNSG Panel of Experts’ (PoE), has urged the UK to take punitive measures against the Commander of the Army, General Shavendra Silva, who is also the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

The Army headquarters told The Island that the matter had been brought to the notice of the relevant authorities. It said that it was all part of the ongoing well-funded campaign against the Sri Lankan military.

Issuing a statement from Johannesburg, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) said it had compiled a 50-page dossier which it has submitted to the Sanctions Department of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on General Shavendra Silva. The Submission argues why Silva, who is Sri Lanka’s current Army Commander, should be designated under the United Kingdom’s Global Human Rights (GHR) Sanctions Regime established on 6 July 2020.

“We have an extensive archive of evidence on the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka, meticulously collected by international prosecutors and lawyers. The testimony of victims and witnesses – many now in the UK – was vital in informing this Submission, and making the linkages to Shavendra Silva and those under his command,” said the organisation’s executive director, Yasmin Sooka.

The ITJP Submission details Shavendra Silva’s role in the perpetration of alleged gross human rights violations including of the right to life when he was 58 Division Commander during the final phase of the civil war in 2009 in the north of Sri Lanka. It draws on searing eyewitness testimony from Tamils who survived the government shelling and bombing of hospitals and food queues in the so called No Fire Zones, many of whom now reside in the UK as refugees. The Submission also looks at Silva’s alleged involvement in torture and sexual violence, including rape, which is a priority area of the UK Government’s foreign policy.

“The US State Department designated Shavendra Silva in 2020 for his alleged role in the violations at the end of the war but the remit of the UK sanctions regime works is broader and includes his role in the shelling of hospitals and other protected civilian sites during the military offensive. This is important in terms of recognising the full extent of the violations, as well as supporting the US action,” commented Ms. Sooka. “UK designation would be another significant step forward in terms of accountability and would be in line with the recent UN Human Rights Council Resolution passed in Geneva for which Britain was the penholder,” she added.

Political will in applying the UK’s new sanctions regime to Sri Lanka was apparent in a recent parliamentary debate which saw 11 British parliamentarians ask why the UK government had not applied sanctions against Sri Lankan military figures, including Shavendra Silva, who was named six times in this context.”

 

 

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‘UNHRC missive exposes UK duplicity in grave accountability matters’

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Wartime Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama says that the leader of Sri Lanka Core Group at the Geneva–based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the United Kingdom’s policy of double standards has been challenged by no less a person than UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

Bogollagama said that the Bachelet warning couldn’t have been issued at a better time as the UK stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka over accountability issues. The former FM was responding to Bachelet’s declaration on April 12 that the proposed new Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, in its current form, would undermine key human rights obligations that the UK has committed itself to respect.

The UK is a member of the UNHRC. Bogollagama pointed out that Bachelet had called for amendments to the proposed Bill to ensure that it didn’t protect British personnel deployed overseas for acts of torture and other serious international crimes.

The Bill is now reaching its final stages in the legislative process, and will shortly be debated again by the House of Lords, the UK’s upper chamber, where amendments may still be made.

In the run-up to the Geneva vote on a resolution spearheaded by the UK on March 23, SLPP Chairman and former External Affairs Minister Prof G.L. Peiris questioned the rationale in British actions. Prof Peiris asked how the UK sought protection for its armed forces deployed outside their territory whereas it sought punitive measures against Sri Lanka for fighting terrorism in its own land.

Bogollagama said that British double standards should be examined taking into consideration the UK’s current membership in the UNHRC as well its role as the leader of Sri Lanka Core Group. The Core Group members include Germany and Canada.

Bogollagama who served as the Foreign Minister during the fourth phase of the war (2007-2010) alleged that the UK adopted an extremely hostile position primarily because of domestic political reasons. Wikileaks disclosed the true extent of Tamil Diaspora influence on the British political establishment, Bogollagama said. So much so, the UK allowed the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to announce its formation in the House of Commons in early 2010, the former Minister said. Would the UK accept Geneva advice as regards the proposed Bill, Bogollagama asked, those who voted for the resolution moved against Sri Lanka and abstained to realise that the UK’s stand in respect of Colombo was political.

The UK succeeded the US as Sri Lanka Core Chair in 2018 after the latter quit the Geneva body in a huff calling it a cesspool of political bias.

The purpose of the controversial British Bill is stated as being “to provide greater certainty for Service personnel and veterans in relation to claims and potential prosecution for historical events that occurred in the complex environment of armed conflict overseas.” British Forces played significant roles in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bill seeks to achieve this, in particular, by introducing new preconditions for the prosecution of alleged offences covered by the Bill.

“As currently drafted, the Bill would make it substantially less likely that UK service members on overseas operations would be held accountable for serious human rights violations amounting to international crimes,” the UNHRC statement dated April 12 quoted Bachelet as having said.

It stated that in its present form, the proposed legislation raises substantial questions about the UK’s future compliance with its international obligations, particularly under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions. These include obligations to prevent, investigate and prosecute acts such as torture and unlawful killing, and make no distinction as to when the offences were committed.

Responding to another query, Bogollagama said that Bachelet’s statement exposed the British hypocrisy. While demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lankan military on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations, the British deprived Geneva of wartime dispatches (January-May 2009) from its High Commission in Colombo in a bid to facilitate the campaign against Sri Lanka, former minister Bogollagama said.

The British exposed their hostile intentions when London turned down Sri Lanka’s request to hand over those dispatches to Geneva, the ex-lawmaker said, urging the government to continuously highlight the need for examination of all available evidence by the proposed new Geneva inquiry unit appointed at a cost of USD 2.8 mn.

Bachelet’s request to the UK was interesting, Bogollagama said. The former minister was referring to Bachelet’s appeal: “I urge UK legislators in both Houses of Parliament, and the Government, to take these concerns fully into account when reviewing the Bill, and to ensure that the law of the United Kingdom remains entirely unambiguous with regard to accountability for international crimes perpetrated by individuals, no matter when, where or by whom they are committed.”

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