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Some of the issues I have raised in recent columns in this series came up in a different form in a presentation made by Indrajith Coomaraswamy during one of the discussions the Liberal Party has been conducting on Reform. Though initially we had thought of concentrating on Constitutional Reform, it soon became clear that that alone was not enough, and questions of change had to be looked at holistically.
Given Sri Lanka’s current status, as a Developing Country that has got over the hump of under-development (the only Under-developing country that was still under-developing, as the Economist I think once sharply put it), it is obvious that economic issues are of particular concern. We were fortunate therefore to get four speakers who dealt, in short and succinct presentations that were amongst the best I have heard, on political economics, and the issues we now face.
All of them should be widely disseminated, but in particular what Indrajith Coomaraswamy said should be studied by all decision makers. Pointing out that we were now in a better position than ever in the last half century to go forward, he pointed out the severe institutional constraints we face.
Though the National Human Rights Action Plan is now available in all three languages on the web (at http://hractionplan.gov.lk/), we still have a long way to go in getting information across about progress. The reports that have been received have not been uploaded, which is essential if ownership of the plan is to be extended to the public – which is essential for a National Plan.
This is not the fault of the officials in charge. Though I have drawn comparisons with the LLRC Action Plan, the monitoring report of which is available on www.priu.gov.lk, that Task Force has all the resources of the Presidential Secretariat at its disposal. With a capable Additional Secretary in charge of collating reports, and bright youngsters familiar with web technology at his service, he has now been able to provide clear information of what the many Ministries involved have achieved. Some of the Ministries which had failed to report when I checked previously have now sent in their accounts, and the Plan currently seems well serviced.
Far different is the situation at the Ministry of Plantation Industries, which is supposed to coordinate work on the Human Rights Action Plan. The Minister is supposed to chair the Inter-Ministerial Committee that is tasked with implementing the Plan, and he has set up a Task Force to expedite this, but neither body has power or even influence to ensure that things move quickly. Though the government agencies involved have all been extremely positive at the meetings that have been held, we still do not have effective means of coordination, and the classic government approach to action means that there is no sense of urgency.
My worries about where America is leading us were increased by a recent visit to Tunisia, which I found fascinating. I also found it extremely sad, because tourism has suffered tremendously, since the Arab Spring, which it will be remembered began in Tunisia just 2 ½ years back.
What happened in Tunisia seemed to me welcome, because the regime there had undoubtedly been a dictatorship. Ben Ali, the President who was finally got rid of after over 20 years, had in fact abolished the Presidency for Life when he took over from Bourguiba, the hero of independence. Bourguiba had become President for Life, and then got increasingly incapable so he had to be deposed.
But though Ben Ali restored elections, he ensured that he was always re-elected, and himself grew increasingly out of touch with reality. And, unlike Bourguiba, who had affirmed valuable ideals at the time of independence – including a determination to release women from the restrictions traditions imposed on them, a litmus test I feel as to whether a society is progressing – Ben Ali seems to have been interested largely in benefits for himself and his family.
This did not mean that Tunisia did not develop. It has an excellent road system, and agricultural productivity is high, in the areas that can be cultivated. It also developed a thriving tourist industry, given the excellent amenities on its extensive coastline, and the fact that it is a relatively small country with easy access to the main tourist areas. Sadly, as is generally the case with the type of package tourists such countries attract, there was not so much concern with the fantastic range of historical buildings the country possesses, but these too were readily accessible to keen visitors.
The impending visit of UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, can be seen as a great opportunity for the government to improve policies and practices as to Human Rights in this country. I can only hope that this opportunity will be taken, and that she will not instead be seen as a threat.
Unfortunately, some indiscretions early in her career have coloured our perceptions of her. Most notably, back in 2009, when the Council was discussing Sri Lanka at a Special Session initiated by the British – and sadly, it now seems from Wikileaks, supported by the Americans, even though at the time we thought the Americans still had the balanced approach to us they had evinced during our eradication of terror – Navi Pillay made a statement designed to put us in the dock.
She may well have believed what she said at the time, but even worse was her continuing condemnation after the Special Session had passed a resolution essentially endorsing the Sri Lankan position. At the next ordinary session she made a statement that seemed to challenge the Resolution passed by the Council. She was roundly rebuked for this by the Indian representative at Geneva, and I am happy to say that after that she did not do anything that could be considered improper.
My own concerns, both with regard to aspects of Reconcilation that are not being addressed adequately, and also in terms of my responsibilities as Convenor of the Task Force to expedite implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan, were more with Protection issues. I therefore concentrated initially on these in the consultations, with Ministries and officials from the North, that the UN has kindly facilitated.
However I recognize that the vast majority of people in the North are much more concerned with livelihood issues. It is vital therefore that the initial nexus between government and the people, namely the Grama Niladhari, concentrate also on development, construing that term in the broader sense.
The Grama Niladhari then should have regular discussions with the people for whom he is responsible, so as to find out their pressing needs, and then put these forward to the relevant authorities. In the North I am regularly asked about roads and transport, about electricity and water supply, about irrigation and the marketing and storage of produce. The more perceptive members of Rural Development Societies also raise issues of credit and better training.
After a hiatus of some months, during which we had been working through the Government Task Force on the specific areas of Women and Children and Lands, we had the first meeting this year of the forum inclusive of Non-Governmental Organizations which has been trying to help with implementation of the Human Rights Action Plan.
We have throughout had helpful contributions from the Government Analyst’s Department, who had explained problems they faced. One was claims that they had not submitted reports when in fact they had done so, and another was that, after they had travelled to distant locations, they were told that the prosecution was not ready and had requested a postponement. We had therefore suggested at a meeting of the Task Force that the Secretary to the Ministry of Justice institute regular meetings, at which government agencies responsible for cases could coordinate work.
The Secretary had initiated such meetings, though not as often as I would have liked, and we were told this time round that they continued and had been helpful. Unfortunately she was not in a position to ensure a positive response from the Judiciary, and indeed she had been ignored when she had written to the Chief Justice suggesting a committee to look into sentencing policy and coordinate action in this regard in line with government policy of reducing the number of those remanded.
One of the defining features of politics over the last thirty years has been the staggering of elections so that the ruling party could benefit. The process has always obtained under a Westminster style constitution, which I believe is one of its drawbacks, but consistent abuse of the process occurred only after the 1978 Constitution and its creation of two power centres, both of them equipped with executive power, unlike in other Presidential constitutions.
Since Ministers in Parliament exercise Executive power in addition to the President, if elections are held to the two institutions separately, there will always be one institution with power that can be used to influence elections. Jayewardene made it clear that such influence was to be exercised ruthlessly, when he amended his constitution to allow the President to call an early Presidential election. This was in addition to the Westminster practice of allowing early Parliamentary elections. Knowing that he was relatively popular, and having taken the precaution of knocking out his main opponent by taking away her Civic Rights, he held a Presidential election in 1982, 1 ½ years before he needed to.
But that in fact was not enough for him, because even though he could now use his Presidential powers for the Parliamentary election that was to follow, he knew he would certainly not get anything like the majority he had enjoyed under the First Past the Post system under which the 1977 Parliament had been elected. So he resorted to a Referendum, which he also fiddled outrageously, throwing the principal opposition protagonist into jail and then later banning the JVP so as to get over the legal challenge they had mounted.
I was interviewed recently by Ceylon Today with regard to the forthcoming visit of Navenethem Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Some of what I said had to be edited out for reasons of space but, though the paper did a good job, I thought that some of what they had to omit was worth reproducing.
One of the sadder aspects of Tissa Jayatilaka’s celebration of American values and conduct with regard to Sri Lanka is his suppression of the change that took place in American policy with the change of government at the beginning of 2009. While many of us thought that, in the interests of the world as well as the majority of the American citizenry, a change would be good, we knew that things would be worse for Sri Lanka if the Republicans were defeated.
We were relieved, given the manner in which the diaspora with its ties to the LTTE had cultivated Hilary Clinton, that Obama was the Democrat candidate, but we still knew things would be tough. When Obama then appointed Hilary as his Secretary of State, we had to prepare for a very different approach. Unfortunately no one in the Foreign Ministry seemed to either understand or care.
I am astonished though to find Tissa too of such a myopic mindset, and asserting that the United States along with India ‘supported us to the hilt from 2002 onwards in our battle against the LTTE’. He has obviously not read Wikileaks, which makes it clear that in 2009 the US attitude had changed, and they were fully behind the European resolution against us.