President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has appointed a presidential task force to take forward the concept one country, one law that proved to be an effective slogan at the election campaign that won him the presidency in 2019. Of course, those were different times. At that time the country was still trying to recover from the shock and demoralisation of the Easter bombing that had taken place six months before. The Muslim community came under special scrutiny as the suicide bombers had been Muslim. The concept of one country, one law came across as a powerful unifying theme to the majority of the population who felt that ethnic and religious minorities had created enclaves, both in territory and in law, which undermined the unity of the country.
Even as the country appears to be getting embroiled in more and more conflict internally, where dialogue has broken down or not taken place at all, there has been the appearance of success internationally. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa will be leading a delegation this week to Scotland to attend the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). Both the president, at the UN General Assembly in New York, and Foreign Minister Prof G L Peiris at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva seem to have made positive impacts on their audiences and especially amongst the diplomatic community with speeches that gave importance to national reconciliation based on dialogue and international norms.
There are statements emanating from the government that it is planning to conduct provincial council elections in the early part of next year. It is reported that cash-strapped though it is, the government will be providing parliamentarians who are in charge of district development with Rs 100 million each to engage in development activities in their electorates. In addition, former members of provincial councils and local government authority members will also be entitled to substantial monetary resources to do likewise. If these large sums of money are made available to politicians to spend prior to the election, they could contribute to the thinking that the government is investing in development for better times ahead despite the hardships of the present. But the cost of this gamble which will include printing money could be high, so there must be other motivations.
Challenges such as the three month long teachers’ strike, the organic fertilizer crisis and the unconscionable case of prisoner intimidation remain to be resolved. But since returning from the United States where he addressed the UN General Assembly, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has expressed his views on matters concerning the country with pledges to enact a new constitution and to provide for electoral change. These are changes that have not been possible to implement for the past several years, if not decades, with any measure of success. The president made these pledges at the anniversary celebrations of the Sri Lanka Army whose contributions in the past during the war, and also in the past two years in dealing with the Covid pandemic, he extolled.
There are multiple signs that the country is in a major crisis that is most visibly manifesting itself in the economic downturn but also in the moral sphere, law and order and international relations. The reopening of the country after the 40 day lockdown saw lines of people forming outside of local milk production outlets in their attempt to purchase milk food for their families. There were accompanying media reports of a shipload of milk powder being diverted to another country’s port due to the inability of the Sri Lankan importer to obtain the foreign exchange necessary to pay for the containers they had ordered. It is not only that imported goods are unavailable, their prices have also shot up. Social media has shared visuals taken from the early 1970s when queues formed in Sri Lanka for rice and basic staples during the time of the world food crisis. It happened due to external forces on that occasion, which cannot be applied at this time. It happened, therefore it can happen again.
The significance of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s speech at the UN General Assembly in New York last week was his use of the time allocated to him to provide an outline of the government’s policies towards the challenges besetting the country. The president covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included measures to contain the Covid pandemic, the economic crisis, environmental degradation and violence. In the final section of his speech, the president went into some depth regarding the government’s approach to national reconciliation. However, the response within the country has been muted and for good reason. Those who voted for the government on an entirely different platform, which emphasized ethnic majority nationalism and anti-international sentiments, seem at a loss.
The drama over Prisons Minister Lohan Ratwatte could not have come at a worse time for the government. But it can also be the turning point. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa is due to address the UN General Assembly in New York this week. The attention of the international human rights community has been focused on Sri Lanka during the past week due to the recently concluded sessions of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Sri Lanka was a country of interest due to its checkered human rights track record, especially in relation to the war, and subject to a special address by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet. Next week will see an EU delegation visiting Sri Lanka to assess the human rights situation in relation to the GSP Plus tariff privilege that the country obtained again in 2017 having lost it for seven years in 2010.
The 48th session of the UN Human Rights Council that started this week in Geneva will not be having any new UN resolutions with regard to Sri Lanka. This session will only see the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet make her report. But that report can set the direction for what will follow, with an EU assessment of the GSP Plus tariff privilege set for November. Sri Lanka is one of a handful of countries singled out for special attention as a follow up to the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka passed in March this year. This was not the scenario anticipated by the government last year in March when it withdrew from UNHRC Resolution 30/1 that was co-sponsored by its predecessor in October 2015. Despite the withdrawal, Sri Lanka has fallen into an unfavorable spotlight due to the new UNHRC Resolution 46/1 which was passed earlier this year over its objections by means of a vote.
The presidential proclamation declaring a state of emergency did not immediately provoke a negative reaction. In his proclamation, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that he was of the opinion this was necessary to ensure public security and maintenance of supplies and services essential to the life of the community in view of the prevailing emergency situation in Sri Lanka in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The media has been showing images of hoarded sugar stocks being unearthed and taken away by the security forces to be distributed to the public. But those who hoarded the sugar or any other item were not arrested and the government has apparently paid for their goods. These could have been done without declaration of emergency. It is unclear whether the power of the government with its 2/3 majority was inadequate to handle this crisis without the emergency.
The government’s readiness to restart the reconciliation process and to engage with civil society organisations involved in it has been subject to both appreciation and scepticism. Those from civil society who have been involved have felt positively about the recent meetings they had with government leaders including President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The president’s unexpected tweet that he would work with the UN to achieve lasting peace and reconciliation by implementing necessary institutional reforms came as a surprise as they were out of sync with the stances previously articulated by the government. Both the presidential and general elections that brought the government to power emphasized the enemies within and without rather than reconciliation.