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Anyone who knows anything about political theory has heard of the doctrine of the Separation of Powers. This means that those who perform the active function of government, the executors or doers, should be distinct from those who lay down the framework on which action is taken, the legislators. That framework is created not only through laws, but also through the budget, the allocation of resources for the Executive. Because of this latter responsibility, the Legislature also acts as the monitor of Executive action, through oversight mechanisms.
Hardly anyone thinks that this doctrine of Separation is a bad thing. Obviously those who act should not also be the judges of their own actions. However we tend in this country to ignore the fact that the doctrine does not operate at all here. The simple fact is that all members of the Executive, apart from the President, are also members of the Legislature. The proportion of legislators who belong to the Executive, and see this as their primary function and responsibility, has grown and grown over the years. Since 1977 the proportion has been well over half of the majority faction in Parliament, indeed in the 1977 Parliament it was well over half Parliament as a whole.
Earlier this year I was asked by Parliamentary officials to contribute to a journal that the Research division of Parliament proposed to publish. It was to deal with Policy Issues in the Post-Conflict Era. Articles were supposed to be of around 2000 words in length, which made sense since I assume they wish to accommodate as many Members of Parliament as possible. I felt obliged then to try to put something down, though clearly one would not be able to cover as much ground as one would like to within such limits.
Being spurred to think about such matters, and to write, was however salutary, and it struck me then that perhaps this could be a topic for a series of articles to follow on the literature series I had contributed to the ‘Island’. I don’t know whether the role of Parliament in terms of seeking good governance would be a generally popular topic, but I thought it worth trying to put down some ideas in a comprehensive manner. For the next few weeks therefore, as an interlude before some other literary topics, I plan to discuss what a Parliament should be, and why we have not succeeded in getting from our legislature the service the country needs.
1.In the last few months you have raised many questions regarding the finances of NGOs. However you didn’t seem to get satisfactory answers to these questions. What is the recent behind this, specially since the UPFA government has been alleging about NGO activity for years?
The general slowness of our bureaucracy, and the absence of clear responsibility for what goes on. For instance, in one case I was told the question could not be answered since it related to four Ministries. Dr Sudharshani Fernandopulle got a similar answer for another very illuminating question. I would have thought that the principal Ministry involved could have looked for the answers, but I think our bureaucracy is not used to functioning like that, and takes the easy way out.
Thanks for your query about the recent Amnesty report, and also the press release. The latter shows Sam Zarifi, one of the new sensationalistic breed of Amnesty officials, exaggerating as usual. The report does raise issues that also concern government and, while I was Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, we worked on an Action Plan that tries to address these. This is near adoption now, and meanwhile we are also trying to address long standing problems such as too ready use of remand mechanisms by magistrates under archaic laws (such as the Vagrants Ordinance) which have lasted from British times.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency (though obviously overused by the Government that, without elections, ruled from 1977 to 1988, which perhaps led to an increase in terrorist activity) was essential in dealing with the type of terrorism from which we suffered appallingly for decades. As Western governments appreciate, though sometimes we feel you need to be less brutal about things like secret renditions, prophylactic regulations are essential in any society under threat from terror. We managed over the last five years first to ensure a reduction in terrorist attacks, and finally got rid of the Tiger leadership in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately we know there are efforts to revive the movement, and we need to be careful.
Bearing that in mind however, we have managed to release many of those taken into custody, including about half the former cadres who confessed, after basic rehabilitation. The number of those taken earlier into detention is much less now – not the thousands Zarifi claims, as indeed the release itself makes clear – but the numbers are reducing rapidly, as investigations are concluded.
It is kind of Mr Zarifi to recognise the right and duty of the Sri Lankan government to protect its citizens from violence by armed groups, but frankly those of us who are accountable to our people understand about all this better than hired hands. I am sorry that, as I pointed out recently, Amnesty seems to have changed from the days when Human Rights were not so fashionable and lucrative an exercise. I should end by saying the last resident head of the officer Amnesty Office in Sri Lanka rang me up yesterday to congratulate me on recent statements, and I wish Amnesty still had people like that instead of people with political agendas. Some of what they saw chimes in with what we have also been saying in Sri Lanka, and I wish they would stick to values rather than drama.
Ultimately, I suspect, the farrago about alleged Sri Lankan War Crimes will continue to reverberate or will fade away depending on whether the American government decides to encourage it or not. Unfortunately it is difficult to predict what will happen, precisely because American foreign policy is not just confusing, but also very confused. There are obviously realists in significant positions in Washington, but there are also vague idealists, who are susceptible to all sorts of pressures. Some of them indeed come from commercial advocacy backgrounds and, since they may well have to go back to them, will need to maintain and indeed strengthen their credentials amongst organizations committed to strident activism.
We can understand why some sections of the diaspora are so intent on persecuting us with regard to war crimes. While dealing firmly with their allegations, we should forgive them and see how they can be convinced that the situation has changed since the times when they left Sri Lanka in understandable bitterness.
We can also understand why some sections of the political opposition, including their fellow travelers in the politically motivated advocacy sector, push the same agenda. Their rationales, and the benefits they obtain through this agenda, should be checked on and placed before the public, to ensure the transparency and accountability they honour in the breach.
I was delighted when Nirgunan Tiruchelvam, grandson of the Senator and son of Neelan, gave me a copy of ‘Senator Tiruchelvam’s Legacy: Selected Speeches of and Tributes to Senator Murugeysan Tiruchelvam QC’. Having read it, I explored further and found an illuminating article written when the book was published in 2007 by my old schoolfriend D B S Jeyaraj, whom I knew as the slim young Sabapathy way back in the sixties. I was astonished, nearly two decades later, to find that the enormous Mr Jeyaraj, from whose newspaper columns there was so much to learn, was the same person.
Jeyaraj began his article, which celebrated the centenary in 2007 of Tiruchelvam’s birth, with an account of his first sight of the Senator, in 1970, a couple of years after he had resigned from the position of Minister of Local Government in Dudley Senanayake’s Cabinet. Sabapathy had vanished from S Thomas’, his family having relocated, as the article puts it, to Jaffna in that year. The occasion was an invitation to the Senator from V N Navaratnam, former MP for Chavakachcheri, whom coincidentally I wrote about last month on the 20th anniversary of his death in Canada, to be Chief Guest at the opening of the reconstructed Central Bus Stand at Chavakachcheri.
In February last year I had to resign from my jobs, and I found myself with little to do. I was a candidate for Parliament, but it was on the National List and, being from the Liberal Party, I was obviously not seen as especially useful for the hustings.
I did do a number of interviews for television, and a few for radio and the press. I had also begun to write several articles, including a series on the Presidential Election and another on the Reconciliation process. But print is an ephemeral media and, given the selectivity with which people purchased or read newspapers, I knew that much of what I wrote would reach only a limited audience.
What I lacked was a website, which I had got used to when I headed the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process (www.peaceinsrilanka.org in its continuing manifestation). SCOPP had closed down however, in July 2009. The Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights did have a website, which I had resuscitated, but that had to deal with a range of issues. It was not appropriate for the discursive and analytical pieces that had helped with putting across information to correct attempts to derail the Peace Process, nor could it cover descriptions of efforts to promote reconciliation.
The following was sent in response to queries from the ‘Island’ regarding a recent report of the payoff to Irene Khan, when she left Amnesty International
Thanks for the query, and also for characterizing me as ‘one of the few critics of sordid NGO/INGO ops’. I appreciate that since there are lots of critics in Sri Lanka, and I suppose what you mean is that I am one of the few who distinguishes between the appalling things a few NGOs did, and the generally good intentions of the majority. It is for this reason that I have kept trying to get government to go more closely into details, what funds are received and for what purpose, how projects are coordinated with government and how their results are monitored. Recently I was delighted that one of my dedicated parliamentary colleagues, Dr Sudharshani Fernandopulle, also asked relevant questions, though she too did not receive fully satisfactory answers.
If we check on these carefully, ensure accounts are filed with relevant authorities (Directorate of Companies or NGO Secretariat or whatever), reports are submitted and read and discussed, and tax paid, we can also develop more productive relationships with hard-working capable NGOs. Unfortunately our government structures are as loose about accountability as most of their critics.
As the last writer in this series, I chose T E Lawrence, who was born in the 19th century and died well before the Second World War. Yet his legacy is perhaps more significant today in practical terms than that of any of the others I wrote about. Like many of them, he was involved in intelligence work during war, but this was in the First War, when there was more scope for individual initiatives. In his case these initiatives led to active involvement in the Arab revolt against the Turks, which resulted in a complete redrawing of the map of the Middle East.
He is thus famous more for what he did than what he wrote, and indeed two others in this series wrote about him, Robert Graves a biography and Terence Rattigan a screenplay that was sadly never turned into film.
It also seemed desirable to include something in the nature of historical writing, and The Seven Pillars of Wisdom , Lawrence’s account of his contribution to the Arab revolt, is a fascinating account of the region and its peoples, and how they transformed themselves into a nation after centuries of quiescence. Sadly the final result was a number of nations, of which only one was independent, and the story of a historical awakening is also the story of political sidelining. Though Lawrence himself did not analyse the political implications of what occurred, his disappointment with the outcome was clear. The story of his life afterwards is one of increasing disillusionment, and his efforts to lose himself suggest a soul at odds with the Establishment he served so well in his youth.