- Monday, 21 July 2014
The government’s decision to invite three eminent international legal experts on human rights and war crimes to advise its Commission of Inquiry into Missing Persons was unexpected. It caught even senior cabinet ministers by surprise. The government had been steadfast in denying that serious human rights violations and war crimes took place from the commencement of such allegations more than five years ago. So far all inquiries conducted by the government have reaffirmed the government’s position that no such offenses took place. But as those have been a case of the military investigating the military and exonerating the military, the inquiries have not been internationally credible. The appointment of the independent UN investigative team to probe into these matters following the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council in March of this year appears to have jolted the government to reconsider its past position.
It is noteworthy that the UNHRC resolution of March 2014 had two operative parts to it. The first was to call for an investigation into the past by the Sri Lankan government that met with international standards. The second was to call for the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner to commence an independent investigation if the Sri Lankan government failed to carry out such an investigation itself. The appointment of the experts and expanding of the mandate of the Commission comes after the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights launched its own investigation on the war and appointed three experts, also of the highest international calibre and credibility, to oversee the probe. Now by appointing its own three member advisory panel, the government seems to be striving to operationalise the first part of the UNHRC resolution with the hope of diminishing the need for the implementation of the second part.
- Monday, 14 July 2014
The ambiguously worded directive from the government’s NGO Secretariat responsible for monitoring non-governmental organizations, and which calls on NGOs to operate within their mandate, has led to strong criticism from a range of actors. These include the main opposition party, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka and the international community. The circular issued by the NGO Secretariat that was posted to more than 1400 NGOs throughout the country stated that “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.” This statement has led to the apprehension that NGOs as a sector, and as a whole, are being prohibited from conducting press conferences, training journalists and issuing press releases.
The circular put out by the NGO Secretariat is ambiguously worded. There are two ways in which it can be interpreted, and the common view taken by the NGOs and detractors of the government is that the government meant it for the worst. They have all been very critical of the government and voiced their condemnation of this attempt to restrict the freedom of expression and association of civil society groups. The Bar Association said the NGO Secretariat had violated the fundamental principles that governed a free and democratic society guaranteed by the constitution and it was completely militating against the rule of law principles of the country. “We observe that this attempt is nothing but yet another effort to silence the alternative public opinion of the society through inculcating fear psychosis among the section of the society enhancing the autocratic writ to a fearful height."
- Saturday, 12 July 2014
GOVERNMENT NEEDS TO WITHDRAW NGO CIRCULAR
The NGO Secretariat of the government which is placed under the Ministry of Defence has issued a circular to all NGOs directing them to act within their mandate. The circular states “It has been revealed that certain Non Governmental Organisations conduct press conferences, workshops, trainings for journalists and press releases which is beyond their mandate. We reiterate that Non Governmental Organisations should prevent from such unauthorized activities with immediate effect.”
The National Peace Council is very concerned about this directive. According to our knowledge there is no law under which an NGO can be prosecuted for going beyond its mandate. Any action beyond an organisation’s mandate merely renders such action ultra vires and not valid in law unless the Memorandum of Association is amended which is a domestic procedure of the NGO. So NGOs wonder whether this directive is to intimidate them, create uncertainty, and silence dissent and exposure of the truth. If an NGO violates the criminal law or other statutory law it can be prosecuted under the existing laws.
As an organization we work within our mandate. It is important for the government to clarify its position without ambiguity as these types of circulars would bring misunderstandings and tensions between civil society and the government. This one violates the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association that is guaranteed under the Constitution and contravenes the several international covenants that Sri Lanka has signed. If Sri Lanka is to be respected as a democracy, the government needs to recognize that majority rule, or having a majority in Parliament, does not foreclose other opinions that exist in the society at large.
Those who govern a country need to hear the opinions of the people and not have it filtered for them by those who are around them and have a vested interest in keeping things the way they are. This requires a free flow of information, which is what NGOs provide as they work directly with the people at all levels of society and gather information which they analyse and disseminate. Therefore we ask the government to withdraw this circular and take action under the existing laws where an NGO violates them.
- Monday, 07 July 2014
Addressing members of the national advisory committee to the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration, Minister Vasudeva Nanayakkara gave substance to the conviction of those who believe in the prospects for peaceful coexistence and harmony within Sri Lanka’s multi ethnic and multi religious society. He said that a majority of MPs of the government were opposed o the actions of the extremist groups that had engaged in anti-Muslim activities. The position of those MPs reflected the broad sentiments of their electorates. Minister Nanayakkara himself has been at the forefront of the government urging that strong action be taken to deter hate speech and extremist violence.
In this context the denial by Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa that he had a relationship with the BBS who stand accused of being the instigators of the violence is reflective of the widespread revulsion, both locally and internationally, over the spike in anti-Muslim violence that was seen in Aluthgama last month. This denial of any connection or involvement with the BBS is a welcome disassociation even if it comes late. The Defence spokesperson also refuted the allegation that the Defense Secretary, who is counted as among the most powerful in the country, has any special relationship with the BBS. He clarified that the Defense Secretary’s attendance at a public ceremony at which the BBS was also present, and which has generated much controversy, had nothing to do with any association with it.