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The last series of Divisional Secretariat Reconciliation meetings in the North brought out even more clearly than before the failure of the various institutions of government to work with each other. At a previous consultation, which the UNDP had funded as part of an ongoing initiative to improve coordination, I had realized what might be termed the political problem in the areas in which development is most essential, namely the Divisions in which local government bodies are controlled by the Tamil National Alliance.

Some of their members, and in particular the community leaders they had appointed to lead their lists in many places, thus avoiding the general unpopularity of those who had been engaged on either side in the confrontational politics of the previous decades, were willing to engage. But they were not sure if this would be acceptable to their more political leaders, given that it is much easier to complain that to try to work. Conversely, government representatives were not sure whether active cooperation with elected leaders from an opposition party would lead to criticism from those who thought government should belong only to them.

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The unity of this country will be immeasurably enhanced by giving the regions a greater say in decisions made at the Centre – for even the proponents of maximum devolution grant that certain decisions, in particular those relating to national security issues, must be made at the Centre. That is why the Liberal Party has long advocated a Second Chamber, and that doubtless is why the President made that a feature of his manifesto.

Unfortunately implementation of the President’s manifesto has been left to politicians who exercise power by virtue to the current Constitution. This perhaps is the reason they have not moved on the President’s more imaginative proposals. The position of the Executive Head of the country will not be affected by the reforms this country so urgently needs, but Parliamentarians might think a Second Chamber would take away from their authority – though in fact, as the assessment of the role of Parliamentarians by a former Secretary General makes clear, they have no authority at all any more as Parliamentarians.

Given this lack of a role as far as legislation is concerned, it is not surprising that they spend an excessive amount of time and energy on constituency issues. This is well and good, but unfortunately, unless the MP is sensitive, this can take away from the role of local government. That in turn may explain why there has been no attempt to move also on another idea the President has advanced, which is to revive local government, in particular through the idea of Gramya Raj, village empowerment.

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The first Consultative Committee to meet in Parliament this year was the Education Committee, and it went on for over two hours. This was heartening, because it suggested a high level of interest amongst Members of Parliament. However it was also sad that much time was spent discussing specific problems, such as the transfer of Principals and Officials, and individual admissions to schools, since these take away from what should be the main purpose of Consultative Committees, namely policies and general principles, leading where necessary to legislation.

There is of course need for Members of Parliament to raise such issues, and the Minister made some valuable suggestions in this regard. He proposed to have consultations with regard to particular areas, and I hope he will do this in small groups, since it makes no sense for officials and parliamentarians from all over to waste time listening to parochial problems.

Interestingly, Parliament has I think taken a step in the right direction in decreeing that not more than 25 officials come to meetings of Consultative Committees. Though it was pointed out that this was inadequate, given the range of officials needed to discuss Education, it would make far more sense for meetings intended to discuss details of educational administration in particular districts to take place at the Ministry, with only officials and parliamentarians from the district or the province. Four or five meetings in each of the two weeks per month during which Parliament meets would cover the whole country, with opportunity to go into detail without time being wasted by the generality.

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In talking critically of those who now believe that we need to fall in line completely with the West, following the defeat in Geneva, I realize that there are those who think that I myself am a fervent proponent of a Western perspective. I would like to believe that they do not really think this, but use it as a stick to beat me with. However, given the way people trust their emotions rather than reason, it is quite possible they genuinely believe I too am in thrall to the West.

The reasons for this include my familiarity with Western philosophy, and particular Western political thought, as well as my facility with English and the fact that this makes it easy for me to get on well, whether I agree with them or not, with Western interlocutors. Ironically those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs which are committed to a purely Western agenda claim that I have in fact alienated the West. This is obviously not true, except for characters such as Paul Carter who tried to subvert our army officers into betraying their country. But people generally believe what they want to believe.

I suppose I should take comfort from being attacked on both sides as it were, but I have to accept that the criticism from the other side, misplaced as it is, can be quite damaging. Some of it springs from the confusion that prevails in Sri Lanka about Liberalism, which is generally confused with the Neo-Liberalism that dominated Western thinking when it finally triumphed in the Cold War. The privileging of market forces alone, without the provision of safety nets and welfare measures that enhance opportunities, is not Liberalism at all. Unfortunately, when excessive statism led to the Thatcherite reaction, the grand centre ground of British Liberal thinking was overwhelmed.

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Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.

This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.

How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »

ceylon today1. Is there a need for a completely new constitution or will reform of certain provisions in the existing constitution be sufficient?

A completely new constitution would be best, but since that could take time, there should be swift reform of the worst features of the current constitution.

2. “Ensure the independence of the judiciary whilst promoting transparency with regard to appointments” is what you have said regarding judicial appointments. This is a bit vague. Do you think the President of the Republic should have the ability to directly appoint Judges of the Supreme Court after seeking the recommendations of the Parliamentary Council which will invariably not oppose presidential nominations? This effectively means the President has direct control over Supreme Court appointments. Is this conducive or should this power be curbed in a potential new constitution?

There are three separate issues with regard to the Judiciary. The first is independence with regard to the decisions it makes, which must be absolute. As I put it in the series on Constitution Reform now on my blog, www.rajiva.wijesinha.wordpress.com, ‘there should be no interference, by individuals or any other branch of government, with regard to the content of the decisions it makes’.

The second is procedure, as to which the Judiciary must conform to laws, and make rules for itself where the law is silent. I have written at length about the inconsistencies in the way in which judges give out sentences, and how they fail to fulfill their basic obligations of checking on prisons etc.

The third is appointments, where usually on a Presidential system the President appoints. However this should be subject to controls. Requiring the consent of the legislature or a component of it would be good, but consultation also can be effective in preventing hasty or inappropriate appointments. Such consultation should be transparent, which the 18th Amendment permits, because it does not require the Parliamentary Council to maintain confidentiality.

In a Westminster style Constitution, where the Head of State makes appointments, but on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, there is usually no rejection of a recommendation, but the very fact of a second entity being involved makes the Prime Minister careful. So too, if the Parliamentary Council functioned now, the President would necessarily be careful about not putting forward names of those who might cause him embarrassment. Both Shirani Bandaranaike and Mohan Peiris could have fallen into this category, and in fairness to both of them, they should not be subject to rumours but their conduct should have been subject to transparent scrutiny. Read the rest of this entry »

Join us in calling on His Excellency The President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka to introduce a Constitutional Amendment to limit the size of the Cabinet to 20, with no more than 20 Cabinet Ministers and no more than 20 other Ministers of Junior Ministerial rank.

You can sign the petition by clicking here.

http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/his-excellency-mahinda-rajapaksa-the-president-of-sri-lanka-introduce-constitutional-amendment-limiting-cabinet-to-20-cabinet-ministers

Short link – http://chn.ge/YbSBgY

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First published – Daily News 24 Dec 2012

Last month I judged the semi-finals of the MTV Debating Competition. I don’t usually accept such invitations, given the time these engagements take, but the topic was whether the 13th Amendment should be abolished, and I thought I should get an idea of what young people were thinking.

To my surprise, both teams expressed the view that the 13th Amendment was a mess because it did not sufficiently empower people at the periphery. Those who did not want to abolish it granted that it needed amendment, to which the Proposition said that there was no point in amending it out of recognition, and that it made more sense to replace it altogether.

Of course the views expressed could not be taken as representative of the country as a whole, since the debate was in English, and it was two Colombo schools which were in the Semi=Final. But I remembered then the nationwide polls taken at the time I took over the Peace Secretariat in 2007, when the government had come to the realization that it had to deal with the Tigers militarily. Even polls taken by NGOs that had been in favour of the Peace Process initiated by the UNP government – as I had been, until I realized, very soon I should add, that this was not likely to lead to peace but to further confrontation and suffering as the Tigers used that period to build up their military strength – indicated that the vast majority of the people were in favour of getting rid of the Tigers. But they also advocated a peaceful political settlement with greater devolution.

I should add that the need for this is universally agreed, though as I have noted it is expressed as decentralization by many who urge getting rid of Provincial Councils as they now stand. My own view is that, if we go on discussing the matter in terms of Provincial Councils and emotive terms such as devolution and decentralization, we will lose sight of what is generally agreed, that we must develop mechanisms to ensure more power to the people, with greater accountability. Read the rest of this entry »

Having attended many meetings over the last year at Divisional Secretariats, I have realized that that is the best unit for ensuring knowledge of the day to day problems people face, and putting measures in place to address them. While Grama Niladhari Divisions allow for better local knowledge, these are too small for effective interventions, even with regard to local difficulties such as bad roads, deficiencies in utilities, inadequate health services, insufficient  resources for education and training.

The Divisional Secretariat can coordinate matters in such areas, whilst also ensuring technical expertise at appropriate levels to plan and implement development projects. It is vital however that consultative mechanisms be introduced to ensure that local concerns are brought to the attention of decision makers, with opportunities to make suggestions and question decisions.

In the meetings I attend, we have suggested two such meetings a week, one to look at development issues, the other to deal with protection, and support for the vulnerable, including in particular women and children. These meetings should be open to all stakeholders, and should include government representation, including the liaison officers for each GN area appointed by the Divisional Secretary and the Police. Read the rest of this entry »

Text of lecture at a workshop at the Kotelawala Defence University – January 20th 2013

In the first section of this talk I spoke about the confusion in Sri Lanka between the Executive and the Legislature. Flowing from a system in which expansion of the Executive is seen as the easiest way of ensuring a Parliamentary majority, we have overlapping Ministries. We have however failed to institutionalize systems of coordination, both within the executive branch and also within Parliament which is supposed to exercise oversight and contribute to policy formulation.

We have also failed to promote coordination of activities between the different levels of government, or between different branches at the same level. As it is, we have a very confusing Constitution that entrusts several responsibilities to Provincial administrations but then gives authority also to the Central government. This is because we have what is termed a Concurrent List, which is nothing but concurrent because in the event of disagreement the will of the Central government prevails; and dual responsibilities at provincial and local level. It is also because the Centre is given responsibility for National Policy on all subjects, but we have failed to conceptualize this clearly and to spell it out in legislation.

I have become more acutely aware of the problem in my role as Convenor of the Task Force meant to expedite implementation of the National Human Rights Action Plan. It is important to make policy changes in accordance with the plan, but ensuring acceptance of these and relevant action at all levels will not be easy. In particular, while we should not duplicate action, and should leave this to local agencies which are best equipped to cover all geographical areas, we must ensure monitoring, and that is best done through a Central agency to ensure uniformity. However our legal officials have still not entrenched a system of legislation that makes clear the primacy of National Policy and the obligation of the Central government to ensure its implementation, while leaving implementation to other levels of government. I should add that they have also completely failed to ensure conformity with the 13th amendment in much legislation that has entered the statute books in the last two decades, while this has also been ignored in various administrative decisions taken by Central government.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the Province, while it should remain the unit that exercises responsibility for both regulations with regard to devolved subjects and for executive action in those areas, is too large for the consultation and accountability that make devolution meaningful. We should therefore be building up local government institutions, but at present these are not given sufficient authority, while they suffer staff shortages that prevent effective action in many vital areas.

To illustrate the confusion we suffer from, let me consider the care of children, which I have been much concerned with recently. Fortunately we now have a Secretary at the Ministry who can conceptualize coherently, and who understands the problems and is also capable of developing systems of coordination which will enhance the services on offer. But whether he can cut through the accumulation of entities in the field is a question.
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The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 ( sinhala & tamil) as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

I wrote a couple of weeks back about the Participatory Budgeting initiative that is currently being conducted in selected local government bodies, after hearing about it at the South Asia Economic Summit in Islamabad. It seemed most timely, because sadly we have no formal system of training those elected to local government bodies so that they can plan for their areas and implement projects effectively. As a result, one of the most important Rights for countries such as ours, the Right to Development, will be ignored, for that requires active participation by citizens in decision making as well as transparency and accountability.

Some of those elected to office do of course manage to serve their people well, but given the electoral system we have had for decades now, and the very different skills required to succeed through this, we must recognize that capacity has to be built up. Having spent much time recently in Divisional Secretariats, and seen how distant people feel from planning and administration, I was delighted that an initiative to promote participation, and consultation and accountability, had been undertaken, and with what seems to have been remarkable success in many areas in which it had been piloted.

Following on that, I was surprised and pleased to find yet another initiative in this regard, namely a project conducted by the Marga Institute entitled “Building Media and Civil Society Capacities for Budget Transparency.” It has been conducted in Batticaloa, with the full cooperation of the Mayoress and the Municipal Council. Though it was understandable that media and civil society representatives felt that there was inadequate consultation and transparency, a highlight of the initial survey was the view of senior officials, 92% of whom ‘agreed that participation of the citizens in the preparation of the MC budget would enable them to take care of their needs more effectively.  The reasons given were:

  • As the revenue comes from the citizens their participation is necessary.

  • If the expenditure is decided in consultation with the citizens they will pay their taxes regularly.

  • Certain projects can be implemented without expenditure through the participation of the people with free labour.’

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Rajiva Wijesinha

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