The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is the world’s standard bearer on civil and political rights. It was incorporated into Sri Lankan law in a manner that has permitted successive governments to misuse it. The arrest and detention of comedian Natasha Edirisooriya under the ICCPR Act has become another unfortunate example of the misuse of a law meant to protect human rights by the government. Previous targets have included poets and novelists who have addressed social and political controversies.
The country will be commemorating the 14th anniversary of the end of the war that dragged on for nearly three decades on May 18. The war which ended bloodily on the battlefield continues to exert its baleful influence over the life of the people. Tens of thousands of families will mourn the loss of their loved ones while thousands of others will be hoping that their missing loved ones will reappear soon. Typically, the government has organized events to mark the war victory on May 19, which is reflective of majority sentiment in the country.
The hartal that took place in the North and East earlier in the week was barely noticed in the rest of the country even though it led to the shutdown of public and commercial life in that part of the country. The hartal was called by a collective of political parties and civil society groups to protest against both the proposed Anti-Terrorism legislation (ATA) and religious and cultural discrimination that is taking place in the North and East. The ATA has met with strong criticism and condemnation from a wide cross section of national level political parties and organisations, including trade unions and the Bar Association. The protest in the North and East is evidence of the nationwide rejection of the government’s proposed legislation. It is indicative of the commonality of the underlying concerns of the people irrespective of region, ethnicity or religion.
Four years have passed since the fateful Easter in 2019 which plunged the entire country into shock and terror. The synchronized attack by a team of 10 suicide bombers took the lives of 272 persons and injured another 500 or more in a total of six simultaneous attacks- on three churches and three luxury hotels. The victims included entire families, parents with their children and also foreign citizens who had come to spend their Easter in Sri Lanka. The country virtually shut down for two months during which time people were living on rumours and afraid to venture into crowded areas. There was no logic in the attack in which one minority religious group targeted another minority religious group with whom there had been no prior local history of conflict.
The government has decided to delay presenting its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to parliament. The National Peace Council welcomes this decision and urges the government to reconsider its presentation as it would impact negatively on the democratic space and rights available to political parties, trade unions and civic activists. In any legal reform, the fundamental rights and protection of citizens need to be guaranteed. After all, the power of the people is shared with the government for their benefit as per the constitution. The ATA fails to achieve both these objectives. The draft ATA presented by the government has several features that are worse than the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) it is intended to replace.
There have been media reports of a ministerial delegation visiting South Africa to undertake a study of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and the reconciliation process that took place in that country over two decades ago. The South African reconciliation process, and its Truth and Reconciliation Commission in particular, have gained worldwide recognition for being a pioneer in dealing with human rights violations and war crimes that took place in the course of the struggle against Apartheid.
Uncertainty over the postponement of local government elections continues to grow. Recent statements by government leaders and debates in parliament show them openly expressing the view that elections at this time would not be conducive to either economic growth or advantageous to them, and so ought not to be held. This follows the postponement of local government elections scheduled for March 9 due to the failure of the government treasury to release the required funds for the elections. It is important that government departments should cooperate with the Election Commission when it has declared elections as mandated by the Constitution.
Government leaders have taken the consistent position that the country requires stability if there is to be economic recovery. In his Independence Day speech and during the course of his presidential address to parliament, President Ranil Wickremesinghe gave special attention to the need to strengthen the national reconciliation process to resolve the country’s national problem. The president has reaffirmed this commitment both in the north of the country and before national and international audiences. He has taken public stands on these issues and spelt out his position in a manner other national political leaders are yet to do clearly and without ambiguity on the matter of the 13th Amendment with an understanding and level of courage that is exemplary.
The importance of accountability in governance has become manifest both nationally and internationally in the Supreme Court decision with regard to the Easter bombing and the Canadian government’s sanctions for human rights violations respectively. The Supreme Court has determined that former president Maithripala Sirisena and four senior members of the security hierarchy are liable for negligence in their responsibilities which led to loss of life and limb to more than five hundred innocent persons. This is a landmark decision in a context in which impunity and lack of accountability has been marked in the public life of the country.
The restoration of the Constitutional Council has been the most positive feature of the 21st Amendment to the constitution which repealed the 20th Amendment that over-concentrated power in the executive presidency. The constitutional council is meant to be a politically bipartisan institution that has members of the government and opposition together with politically non-partisan members of civil society. The positive expectation is that the constitutional council will contribute to the strengthening of the state and its agencies to act in the best interests of the country.