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A Publication
on The Status of
Adivasi Populations
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Sri Lanka: Deterioration Of The Legal Intellect: (3) Descent Into The Selling Of Children

By Basil Fernando

13 April, 2015

Read Part I

Read Part II

Last week, several news reports revealed the story of an 8-year-old child (reported as a 10-years-old by some media houses) from Ambathenna, Katugastota. The mother made the initial report about her missing child to the Katugastota police. Initially, the police ignored the complaint and did nothing to begin searching for the child. It was only after a tip-off from a woman who witnessed the sale of the child that the police intervened. According to the reports, the police officers that arrived at the scene were able to recover the Rs. 50,000 used to buy the child.

Further, according to reports, the child is the third one in the family that has four children. The father of the child is said to be disabled and bedridden for a long period of time and the mother has been unable to cater to the needs of the children.

The man who bought the child, and his sister, have been arrested as suspects and later have been released on bail. According to one report, the mother is also suspected as being involved in the sale of her child and has also been arrested. She has not been granted bailed as no one has come forward to stand as surety for her release.

Four years ago, in March 2010, another story made sensational news. That was when a mother of five children threw her youngest child into the Kalu Ganga (River), as she was unable to provide for the child. Before doing this, she had attempted to get her children admitted to an orphanage so that at least there they could find some food to eat, but even that attempt had failed. It was only after this pathetic story of the mother throwing her youngest child into the river received nationwide news coverage that the four elder children were admitted to an orphanage.

Now we have this story about a child being sold in the manner commodities are being sold. The manner in which this story has been reported did not suggest any shock on the part of the various authorities – such as police authorities and childcare authorities – or even among the reporters themselves. No one seems to have noticed the heinousness of this crime and the level of moral degeneration that this country has reached for it to have become possible that one neighbour would conspire to sell a child of another neighbour’s family and to make profit out of it. It appears that the Magistrate himself has not treated the matter with due importance and has simply allowed bail to the two culprits.

This author first encountered a child sale when a human rights organisation in Cambodia brought a male child who was about five-years-old to the United Nation’s Human Rights Centre’s office in Cambodia in the early 1990s. Some persons from the human rights organisation, having heard of a child sale, pretended to be buyers and offered a higher price than the other buyers, with a view to rescuing the child. The child was brought to the UN Human Rights Centre’s office in order to facilitate the possibility of finding a secure place for the child to be taken care of.

Hearing this news of a child sale shocked me, as I had never heard of any such thing before. In the environment in which I grew up, everyone in the neighbourhood considered their neighbour’s children as their own. When we made further inquiries about this child sale in Cambodia, we learned that it was a well-known affair in that country. Under Pol Pot’s regime (1975-1979), the entire country was devastated and over 1/7th of the population died, either due to political prosecution or due to starvation. Among those who suffered most were the children taken away from the parents when they were just infants; according to Pol Pot’s ideology, children acquired reactionary habits if they were allowed to live with their parents. To nurture them in revolutionary habits, the children were taken away from their parents. Though Pol Pot’s regime collapsed after four years, the terrible consequences of those catastrophic years were still manifesting in the early 1990s when the United Nations intervened with the agreement of all political factions in Cambodia in order to seek a political settlement by way of an election conducted under the supervision of the United Nation’s Transitional Authority for Cambodia(UNTAC). Child sales were a part of the legacy of those terrible times.

Now, this child sale at Katugastota, conducted so casually, shows that even such acts are not being considered morally disgusting and socially outrageous. The country’s legal system has become so dysfunctional that even an issue such as a child sale, does not lead to a ringing of alarm bells. Despite communication facilities being so enhanced and advanced in the country, there are no programmes or procedures established within the policing system to deal with a situation involving a missing child or a child sale.

Recall that the Kalu Ganga incident, when the destitute mother threw her child into the River, was soon forgotten. Even that incident did not lead to any political or a popular discourse on the ways to deal with such desperate situations. In comparison, however, the Katugastota child sale has not even received as much public notice as the Kalu Ganga tragedy.

When a legal system becomes so pathetically paralysed that the law enforcement authorities lose capacity to react with empathy even on issues such as child sales, it is a clear indication of a society that has lost any humane sensibility.

What sense does it make to talk about “yahapalanaya” (good governance) in a social environment like that which exists in Sri Lanka today? When even the basic capacity for child-care ceases to be the concern of the State, how could it proclaim to be pursuing good governance?

W. J. Basil Fernando is a Sri Lankan jurist, author, poet and human rights activist. Having been a lawyer engaged with human rights issues, he had to flee Sri Lanka decades ago. After that he became a legal adviser to Vietnamese refugees in a UNHCR-sponsored project in Hong Kong before joining the United Nations Transitional Authority (UNTAC) in 1992 as a senior human rights officer for Cambodia. He also served, later, as the Chief of Legal Assistance to Cambodia of the UN Centre of Human Rights (now the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights office). He is associated with Asian Human Rights Commission and Asian Legal Resource centre, based in Hong Kong since 1994. He was executive director of the organization for almost two decades.







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