- Monday, 23 February 2015
There is a popular perception that the new government’s performance so far shows that it is not a strong government. This would lead people to hedge their bets, as they are unsure how long the government will continue under its present leadership. The business community in particular requires stability to make investments in the future. They need to know that government policy would be stable and there will not be sudden reversals which can be very costly to them. The perception that the government is not strong is partly due to the fact that it is a coalition government in which the dominant party, the UNP, does not even enjoy a majority in Parliament. But the larger part of the reason for the perception of a weak government is that the government is not taking strong action against its opponents.
The unexpected defeat of former president Mahinda Rajapaksa at the presidential election led to high expectations amongst those who voted against him that the new government, and its anti-corruption crusaders, would soon put things right. During the election campaign they accused former members of the government of being terribly corrupt, of engaging in the trade of narcotics and the sale of illegal spirits to manufacture alcohol, among others, and of padding up contracts to build infrastructure, with massive kickbacks to themselves. However, the actions of the new government up to now have not justified these popular expectations.
More than six weeks after the change of government those accused of wrongdoing in the former government remain free of formal charges. They are also free to organize political rallies and find money to bus the crowd in from all parts of the country. The long arm of the law has not caught them, and as a result there are stories being spread that some of those in the former government are maintaining corrupt links with those in the present government. But this can be explained. The reason is that the new government pledged to bring in good governance, and key to this is to follow established procedures and the rule of law.
The government would be wary of taking precipitate action that they cannot sustain in a court of law. It is common experience that cases of fraud taken to court in ordinary circumstances will take months to start and years to conclude. This would be more so in cases where files have been destroyed, evidence tampered with and the wrongdoers are prominent in public life. In addition in situations such as the present one, in which the former government members are accused of spiriting out their ill gotten gains to foreign climes, the expertise to probe such crimes is also lacking in the country. An example of precipitate action that was counter-productive was the police raid on one of the former president’s home backfired against the government when nothing incriminating was discovered.
- Monday, 16 February 2015
TRUTH AND RECONCILIATION PROCESS CALLS FOR AMNESTY
The issue of what happened in the last phase of the war, and accountability for human rights violations and war crimes that are alleged to have been committed, has dogged Sri Lanka’s internal and external reconciliation process. The National Peace Council welcomes the new government’s readiness to tackle these problems. The government is proposing a two-pronged approach to dealing with the issue of war crimes and the ongoing UN inquiry into it. First, it is considering a domestic criminal trial process with the objective of prosecuting those who were allegedly involved in human rights violations, in the Sri Lankan courts, if there is evidence. Second, it is considering a reconciliation process similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But unlike the South African version, the government has stated that its variant will not be for the purpose of amnesty but rather to facilitate the healing and reconciliation process of the victims.
The National Peace Council is of the view that if the TRC has no provision in it for amnesty, the perpetrator is unlikely to confess to the truth. This will reduce the prospect for healing. Therefore, we propose that the TRC should be given the power to grant amnesty where the accused accepts his guilt and agrees to make amends. The underlying rationale of a TRC is that knowledge of the truth of what happened will enable society to reconcile and move forward. It is very difficult to find the truth of what happened in a time of war. Due to the difficulty of obtaining evidence that meets the standard of criminal law, it is only if those who have knowledge of the wrong, or who were the perpetrators, confess that the truth will emerge. It is the prospect of receiving amnesty that will give any wrongdoer or perpetrator the incentive to confess to the truth. In South Africa those who confessed to the truth were given amnesty by the TRC. But not all who came before the TRC received amnesty. Out of over 7000 persons who applied for amnesty little over 1000 were granted amnesty.
It is now relatively common to see amnesties linked in some fashion to accountability processes designed to encourage former combatants to offer truth in return for non-prosecution or to participate in restorative or informal justice mechanisms. Conditional amnesties may also be used to prevent further violations by requiring beneficiaries to surrender, disarm and reintegrate, and to refrain from further violence. Such amnesties may retain the possibility of prosecution for those who fail to adhere to the conditions. In such contexts, amnesty is not offered to grant impunity to perpetrators, rather it is used strategically to achieve other objectives, such as truth, reconciliation and peace. The intentions and genuine efforts of those involved are also an important factor in assessing the legitimacy of various forms of amnesty. So too is evidence of more general national and international support for whatever truth and reconciliation process is embarked on.
- Monday, 16 February 2015
The government appears to be making a greater effort than previous ones to be inclusive in its approach to governance. This inclusive orientation is a heritage of the election campaign that saw the ouster of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. It was the rallying round of virtually the entire opposition, and a section of the ruling party itself, around a common candidate that could withstand the power and resources of the Rajapaksa government. Although these political parties had different political ideologies and ethnic affiliations, they were able to pool their combined strength to win the election by a narrow margin. One of the promises of their election platform was to hold general elections after implementing their 100 day plan. This has kept the alliance together.
Perhaps it is the positive feeling of working together that motivated Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to affirm that he hoped to form a government of the entire parliament rather than govern the country through a single party or coalition of parties. There is a precedent for this model of government in the Donoughmore constitution of 1931 during the British colonial period. The salient feature of this constitution was the assignment of every legislator to a committee, which was headed by a minister. The minister and the legislators assigned to that committee decided on government policy together. The process of decision making was slow but it obtained the participation of all.
Sri Lanka has paid a heavy price since is independence for its failure to ensure that all sections of the polity feel a sense of participation in the governance of the country. This failure led to the alienation of the ethnic minorities, in particular the Tamils, from governance of the country as a whole. The two republican constitutions of 1972 and 1978 which were home-grown failed to ensure that governmental decisions would be taken by the ethnic minorities together with the ethnic majority. It was for this reason that the mainstream Tamil political leaders boycotted the Independence Day celebrations of successive governments from 1972 onwards. These celebrations this year were unique in obtaining the participation of the leaders of the TNA which is the main Tamil political party.
- Monday, 09 February 2015
In the immediate aftermath of the change of government and government policy following the presidential election there has been a flurry of visits to Sri Lanka by representatives of foreign governments. The representatives of the foreign governments who are presently visiting Sri Lanka come with a broad mandate to get acquainted with the new situation and to assess the prospects for sustained change. Sri Lanka has several unique factors that give it an importance that is disproportionate to its size. Its strategic location in the Indian Ocean and its large and active Diaspora in many countries would be two of the issues that cater to the self-interest of those countries. There are also more altruistic explanations too.
The peaceful transition from an increasingly authoritarian government that appeared to be entrenched in power to a multi-party government in which there is cohabitation between a president and prime minister who come from rival parties has few if any precedents. The new government’s willingness to engage in dialogue with the international community is another positive change of direction. The constructive engagement of the present time in contrast to the approach of the former government whose lack of engagement with the international community was based on an emphasis on Sri Lanka’s national sovereignty. In their eyes, engagement accompanied by change was equated as giving in to international pressure. The former government feared that any accommodation on issues of human rights would open the door to an international probe on war crimes.