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of the Constitutional Council has been the most positive feature of the 21st Amendment to the constitution which repealed the 20th Amendment that over-concentrated power in the executive presidency.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.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve the common dream of economic restoration. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorized protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The president also stated that there will no early general elections. Stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. Political stability cannot be created in a vacuum. Politicians are needed to express provincial and local level issues as well as national level issues in parliament.
The release of eight long term LTTE prisoners held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act by the government through a presidential pardon is a goodwill gesture that can contribute to the national reconciliation process. This presidential pardon needs to be commended as some of the prisoners have spent more than two decades in imprisonment. At least four previous governments have balked from doing this despite protests and pleadings from their families and national and international human rights organisations even from Geneva.
Once again Sri Lanka has received unfavourable exposure internationally when the UN Human Rights Council voted by 20 votes to 7 to pass resolution No 51/1 titled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka,” against the wishes of the government. Many of the countries that spearheaded and supported the resolution are those on whom we depend on to extricate us from the current financial and economic crisis the country has fallen into. Countries that voted for the resolution and those who abstained, such as India and Japan, essentially have the welfare of all Sri Lankans and the country to live up to its inherent resilience. We can only hope that the confrontational attitude taken by the government in Geneva will not affect their continued support for Sri Lanka.
The declaration of High Security Zones in Colombo and the requirement that police should be given prior notice of public protests are indicators that the government is giving priority to quelling public protests. These decisions bolster steps already taken to restrict the protest movement by targeted arrests of its leaders even by the Prevention of Terrorism Act, by seemingly arbitrary arrests of random participants in the protest movement and by strengthening laws that further restrict the right to protest.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s inaugural address to parliament set forth a vision of good governance and civility that would stand among the most outstanding in the world. His speech comes at a time when several leaders of the protest movement, and youth activists, have been arrested for having violated the law during the public protests that led to the resignations of the former president prime minister and cabinet of ministers of the country.
Sri Lanka has witnessed a political upheaval of a kind rarely seen in the world. An unarmed protest movement of the people, for the people and by the people forced the resignation of a president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers. This protest movement captured the imagination of the international community due to its size, effectiveness and non-violent nature. The success of the protest movement was due to its spontaneous and peaceful nature.
The swearing in of the new cabinet of ministers by the new president took place in the midst of chaos earlier in the day. Shortly past midnight the protest site that was instrumental in forcing a change of government and was peaceful at the dead of night was forcefully cleared by the military and police perhaps for that event. By this action the new government has risked alienating itself from significant sections of the local and international communities. The past 104 days in which the protest site was in existence saw tens of thousands of people visit it from all parts of the country and all walks of life to demonstrate their solidarity and take part in direct protest as and when they felt it warranted.
The focus of attention at the present time is the presidential election to take place in parliament following the confirmed resignation from office of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. This election is not a routine process but is an outcome of an unprecedented public uprising known as the Aragalaya which forced the resignations of the president, prime minister and cabinet of ministers and effectively nullified the electoral mandates obtained by them three years ago. After all it is the power of the people that is vested to the government by the constitution (Article 4).