- Created on 01 September 2014
One of the many benefits of the end of the war is the ability of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims to mix with one another without the prospect of getting into trouble. During the time of war, such mixing was potentially problematic, as those who were Tamil could easily be suspected of having links with the LTTE. Therefore even those who were engaged in peace building were wary of bringing members of all ethnic communities together. There was also a second reason. This was the polarization that existed within the communities as they supported one side or the other. This was something that was far too volatile and controversial for anyone or any group to take up. So the issue of the war was, by and large, not discussed in multi-ethnic settings. It was safer to do so in mono-ethnic settings.
However, the end of the war has provided the opportunity for people from the different ethnic communities to come together and to discuss issues. There is less of a need to support one side or the other, as to seek ways to jointly address people’s minds to bringing reconciliation and a political solution which is a mutually shared goal. People at the community level are prepared and willing to engage in joint activities, whether it is discussing together or doing something concrete together, that will heal the wounds of the war. Discussing the causes of the war and how it was fought can still be polarizing. But the search for a solution can be undertaken jointly, as indeed it must, at both the community and national levels. In this context, it is unfortunate that civil society interactions to promote mutual understanding of each other’s sufferings and the way forward are being viewed by sections of the government with suspicion.
- Created on 25 August 2014
This is a very troubled period for civil society. The free space for activism that is outside of the government sphere has shrunk due to the policy of centralization adopted by the government. Institutions of the state that are meant to be relatively independent of the government have come under political control. This has had the effect of weakening the system of checks and balances that ensures good governance. It is not surprising that NGOs, which are part of that larger system of governance, and which focus on issues of governance and human rights should feel themselves to be under siege. The negative comments against NGOs by government leaders are part of a trend that seeks to make them a national security problem that requires a stronger governmental hand to control. Recently there have also been publication of regulations that seek to limit the space for NGOs to function, to interact with the media and to conduct their seminars and workshops.
The role of NGOs, which are a part of civil society, has now become a major national issue. There are media headlines and editorials on the allegedly anti national impact of their work. They are being condemned for working hand in glove with the international community to investigate the last phase of the war. The latest critique of them has come through the comment of Finance Secretary Dr P B Jayasundera. Usually it is his comments on the economy that are read and analysed to gain a better understanding of the country’s economy and future prospects. But delivering the keynote address at the opening session of the three day Defence Seminar 2014, which is an international conference organised by the Sri Lanka Army, held for the fourth consecutive year, he ventured beyond the economy to state that “the operation of NGOs in non regulated environments has become a threat to financial management, inclusive development and law and order itself.”
- Created on 18 August 2014
The government is financing more lobbying companies in the US to change the minds of the US leadership. It has been the United States that has been most strongly pushing for an international investigation into the conduct of the last phase of the war. But it is not going to be so easy as influencing the President of the United States through lobbying companies. For the government’s efforts to be successful it has to show progress in two areas that convinces the international community. First, it has to come up with a superior alternative to the UN investigation that is now underway. Second, it has to show that it is serious about practices of good governance that will support such an alternative mechanism. However, the government is having setbacks in both areas which is not a recipe for success, but is one for failure.
The government’s bid to strengthen the national commission appointed by the President to investigate missing persons has induced it to widen the mandate of that body very significantly. As a result the priorities of the commission ay have to shift away from dealing with the issue of missing persons to other complex issues of international humanitarian law and war crimes that were not part of its original mandate. The Chairman of the Commission on Missing Persons has made it clear that the Commission itself did not ask for the international advisors to the commission who have been appointed. In fact they have yet to meet formally, even though a month has elapsed since the first three members of the international advisory team were appointed.
- Created on 04 August 2014
Addressing the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, President Mahinda Rajapaksa explained to the country’s business leaders what his government had achieved in the past nine years. His government had eliminated the LTTE and created an environment in which business led development was possible. In addition, the government had invested massively in infrastructure. Government leaders frequently report on the rapid strides that the country is taking to achieve its development goals. They are able to show concrete evidence in the form of visible assets that include new expressways and many greatly improved roads, the newly opened Independence Square shopping arcade, and the new metropolis of Hambantota.
But there is a problem with the government’s development. This is its compartmentalization. Some sectors of society are prospering. They are rich, articulate and at the cutting edge of progress. But there are even larger sectors in the country, and of its people, that have been left out. This is a recipe for inequity and injustice, and for polarization and bitterness as its fruit. An example would be the hill country where the Tamils of recent Indian origin, also known as estate Tamils live. The towns populated by the estate Tamils are much like they always were. They look like fifty years ago. The gap between Hambantota and Hatton is even wider than the gap between Singapore and Sri Lanka.
- Created on 28 July 2014
The disruption of two media training programmes for Tamil journalists from the former war zones of the North in quick order makes it appear that they have become a target for suppression. In the space of less than six weeks there have been at least two attempts to prevent Tamil journalists from interacting with the larger civil society, to share their experiences and to benefit from the latest advances in methods of news investigation and dissemination. In this context the spokesman for the Free Media Movement has said, “A journalist needs to be trained so that they can do more for society. The government is stopping that from happening. What they want are journalists who will be their puppets.” He added that he had been threatened not to speak at the press conference convened to publicise the issue.
Six weeks ago, a workshop held in a hotel in Negombo on investigative reporting on the enforcement of the recommendations made by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which had been organized for the Northern Tamil journalists by Transparency International’s Sri Lanka Branch was disrupted by a mob who threatened the safety of the participants in violation of their rights to freedom of assembly and expression. The police had only been prepared to offer safe passage to the participants to leave the hotel when the workshop was prematurely stopped. But they were not prepared to ensure that the workshop continued with their protection. The right to free assembly and speech are protected in the Constitution and the police are obliged to protect these rights of the people, but this did not happen.
- Created on 25 July 2014
A delegation from the National Peace Council met the Parliamentary Select Committee established to make recommendations for a political solution to the ethnic problem, on the 6th July at 3 pm. The delegation had met the Committee on an earlier occasion and had been asked to make further submissions and clarify certain matters in the written submissions which follow:
The 13th Amendment was passed in 1987. It provided for devolution of power to Provincial Councils and the subjects and functions devolved to the Provincial Councils were set out in the List.—
Executive Power- The 13th Amendment Article 154C says. “Executive power extending to the matters with respect to which a Provincial Council has power to make statutes shall be exercised by the Governor of the Province for which that Provincial Council is established, either directly or through Ministers of the Board of Ministers, or through officers subordinate to him, in accordance with Article 154F.
154F.(1) There shall be a Board of Ministers with the Chief Minister at the head and not more than four other Ministers to aid and advise the Governor of a Province in the exercise of his functions. The Governor shall in the exercise of his functions act in accordance with such advice except in so far as he is by or under the Constitution required to exercise his functions or any of them in his discretion”.
So there is provision for the Governor to exercise his Executive powers only on the advice of the Chief Minister and the Provincial Council except where under the Constitution he is required to act in his discretion.
But the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987 has gone beyond the constitutional requirement and given the Governor wide powers to act in his discretion without consulting the Chief Minister. Under Art 15(2) the decisions of the Governor are also deemed to be the actions of the President.
But the Provincial Councils Act No 42 of 1987 departed from the principles under-lying the Constitutional Amendment.
All contracts entered to by the Governor in the exercise of his executive power are to be treated as contracts and executed in the name of the Provincial Council and any actions (legal) in relation to the exercise of such executive shall be brought by or against such Provincial Council( Art 16(1) and (2).
- Created on 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.
- Created on 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."
- Created on 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.
- Created on 30 June 2014
It cannot be coincidental that hardly two weeks after the UN Human Rights Commissioner named the team that would investigate past human rights violations in Sri Lanka, the South African reconciliation initiative is also moving forward again. There was a pause for a while, but once again there is an appearance of movement. A high powered South African delegation headed by its Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is expected to be in the country in the next few days. This was a visit that was expected to take place in June. But the visit was kept in the background, perhaps due to the protests raised against any South African or foreign mediation by nationalist coalition allies of the government. However, the appointment of the three experts to advice and guide the investigating team appears to have jolted the government to once again present the South African initiative as an alternative.
The main difference between the South African and UN initiatives is that they look at past with a different emphasis. The South African initiative is explicitly meant to promote reconciliation as its first priority. It combines an ascertaining of the truth about the past with the pursuit of political reform that is based on the lessons learnt from the past. On the other hand, the UN investigation has its main objective as being to ascertain the past so that those who have committed wrongs and serious crimes could be held accountable and brought to justice. The government’s concern is to protect those of its political and military leaderships who can face punishment by international tribunals. It is unacceptable to the government that those who led the war against the LTTE, which resulted in unexpected success, should be punished after having defeated the LTTE in battle.