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My comments on the ridiculous expansion of the Cabinet were carried in the Leader today, expressively edited by the sensible Camela Nathaniel. Ironically they were juxtaposed with those of Nirmal Ranjith Dewasiri, who was initially responsible for the unwarranted interference by the Prime Minister in my work which led to my resignation. But I don’t suppose he can understand his role in ensuring that the only voice able to challenge the hardline UNP leadership on its own terms was removed.

Will Jumbo Cabinet Be Another Nail In Government Coffin?

by Camelia Nathaniel
The government’s move to increase the number of cabinet ministers has come under fire from many quarters. On April six, President Maithripala Sirisena appointed a new state minister and two deputy ministers, increasing the total number of ministers and deputy ministers to 92.  Badulla District United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MP Lakshman Seneviratne was appointed State Minister of Science, Technology and Research while UPFA Galle District MP Manusha Nanayakkara and UNP Kalutara District MP Palitha Thewarapperuma were appointed as deputy ministers.

At a press briefing held in Colombo last week, JVP General Secretary Tilvin Silva said they were totally against the latest appointments. The former regime, Silva said, had maintained a cabinet exceeding 100 members and it was pathetic to see the present government too following the same bad policies. Silva said there was no scientific or logical basis for appointing these ministers. Citing the example of MP Thewarapperuma who represents the Kalutara district in the south, Silva said there was no logical reason for appointing him to develop the Wayamba Province. According to Silva the only reason these appointments were made was to strengthen the President’s power.

President Maithripala Sirisena is facing a split in the Sri Lanka Freedom Party, and according to Silva he is trying to assert his power in the party by doling out ministerial appointments.

Already the coalition national government of Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has faced criticism and there is some suspicion that the coalition may be in trouble. The UNP rode on the back of Maithripala and vice versa and now Maithripala may be worried, it is surmised, that the UNP is trying to take over. The UNP on the other hand is trying to strengthen its position in the coalition by holding onto the key positions in the government. Although the two main parties decided to come together in a bid to save the country from the tyrannical Rajapaksa regime, these same two parties are now engaged in a power struggle to establish supremacy over each other. Generally a single, more powerful party can shape the policies of the coalition disproportionately. Advocates of proportional representation suggest that a coalition government leads to more consensus-based politics, in that a government comprising differing parties (often based on different ideologies) would need to concur in regard to governmental policy. Another stated advantage is that a coalition government better reflects the popular opinion of the electorate within a country.

Prone to disharmony

However those who disapprove of coalition governments believe that such governments have a tendency to be fractious and prone to disharmony. This is because coalitions would necessarily include different parties with differing beliefs and who, therefore, may not always agree on the correct path for governmental policy.

Commenting on the current status of the national government of Sri Lanka and its waning promises, veteran politician and writer Professor Rajiva Wijesinha said it was sad that the number of ministers was increasing apace, because that destroyed the idea of governance, let alone good governance.

Pledges Ignored

“The President’s manifesto pledged that ‘the number, composition and nature of the Cabinet of Ministers would be determined on a scientific basis’ but as I noticed last year, I was about the only person interested in the manifesto,” Wijesinha said.

The short manifesto pledged a Cabinet of 25 which was ignored too, the number increasing dramatically when SLFP members who had not supported the President were brought in – none of the senior leadership, though, which has contributed to the continuing suspicions of and about the President.

Then, when the 19th amendment was brought, though the idea of statutory limits was introduced, there was a proviso that, in the event of a National Government, the number could be increased. That was destructive, because it implied that a National Government was essentially about jobs for the boys, he added.

According to Professor Wijesinha, when the 19th Amendment was put to the house, some of those now in the Joint Opposition objected to the special clause about possible expansion in the case of a National Government after the next election, but their remedy was to make that exception valid in perpetuity. “I proposed dropping the exception, but that amendment was not taken up, and there was no effort to define the term National Government.” Read the rest of this entry »

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qrcode.31050227By giving parties the right to expel members from Parliament, Jayewardene destroyed an important principle of parliamentary democracy—the independence of members of parliament. The main justification of parliament is that it acts as a check on the executive. In the British system members of the ruling party generally support the government, but they are free to criticise and question it. Turning them into mere lobby fodder, programmed to support the government under any circumstances, makes them redundant.

In Sri Lanka, as time passed, MPs realised that they could invoke the authority of the Supreme Court against arbitrary expulsions. But such a move set them in a position of hostility against the party. This usually meant they had to cross over to the opposition if they wanted to assert their independence even on a single issue. So Sri Lanka has been deprived of one of the great benefits of the parliamentary system, which in other countries allows members who think on similar political lines to maintain basic loyalty to their party while criticizing anything they find aberrant. In Sri Lanka, on the contrary, any dissent leads to oppositioning. So it is rare to find members willing to express different opinions, which happens usually  only if sufficiently large numbers could be brought together for a change of government. But since most parliamentarians are not likely to change loyalties on appeals of conscience alone, financial incentives and promises of future office would have to be used to lure them. Instances of this approach have occurred recently, leading at the end of 2001 to a premature election.

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qrcode.30268994In these last few articles on the tragedy that befell our hopes for comprehensive reform, I thought I should spell out how exactly Ranil Wickremesinghe and those working to his agenda hijacked the process. Their purpose, far from broadbasing power and ensuring a range of different authorities, was to concentrate power in the hands of what one of them lovingly described early on as an Executive Prime Minister.

Thus they took upon themselves alone the drafting of the 19th Amendment, without open discussion as had been pledged through the National Advisory Council. And so the discussion paper that came out in early March, circulated only to a select few, declared that

33A (2) The President shall, except in the case of the appointment of the Prime Minister or as otherwise required by the Constitution, act on the advice of the Prime Minister or of such other Minister as has been authorized by the Prime Minister to advise, the President with regard to any function assigned to that Minister

The rest of the draft was based on this proposition, with the Prime Minister being ‘the Head of the Cabinet of Ministers’.

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qrcode.30141748Former State Minister Prof Rajiva Wijesinha was among the first group of MPs to leave the government along with Maithripala Sirisena when the latter was brought forward as the Opposition’s ‘Common Candidate’ to face Mahinda Rajapaksa at the last presidential election. Though appointed as State Minister of Higher Education under President Sirisena’s government, Prof Wijesinha soon resigned from his portfolio and later chose to sit in the Opposition. In this interview with Udara Soysa, Prof Wijesinha expresses his thoughts on a wide-range of subjects, including the 19th Amendment, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the current political situation.

Q: How do you see the current political realities in the country?

I am deeply worried because the great promise of the Sirisena victory in the January Presidential election is being destroyed. He, and his supporters, pledged several reforms, but implementation of the program was entrusted to the Prime Minister who was only interested in transferring power to himself.

But there are some silver linings in this cloud. The effort to expand and entrench Prime Ministerial powers was defeated, and now the President seems to have made it clear that he wants other pledges also implemented. First electoral reform which is essential given the corrupting effects of the current system, ignored till the UPFA made clear it wanted this pledge also fulfilled. Second the Code of Conduct, forgotten until I started agitating, which led to Rajitha Senaratne reacting positively.

I can only hope that other promises too are kept, in particular strengthening Parliament through amending Standing Orders (which was supposed to be first in line) and also the Freedom of Information Act.

Q: Are you repenting your decision to defect from Rajapakse regime?

Not at all. That government had gone beyond its use by date. Important pledges in its 2010 manifesto were forgotten, as well as Plans that had been approved by Cabinet, on Human Rights and the LLRC. Corruption had increased, and a few individuals around the President were plundering the country and in the process destroying his image. We were thus in grave danger of having the great achievements of the first Rajapaksa government destroyed, not least too because of our self-destructive foreign policy. And the neglect of Reconciliation was also disastrous.

I think therefore that the election of someone who had participated in the achievements (without trying to sabotage them as the opposition had done) but wanted to build on them positively was a good thing. Sadly, in part because many who shared his views did not support him, the victory was hijacked by the Prime Minister who seems determined to destroy the positive achievements of President Rajapaksa.

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reform agenda 12The Liberal Party was the first to say, more than two decades ago, that the Presidency as constituted by J R Jayewardene had too much power. In particular we felt it was wrong for the President to have total discretion with regard to appointments to important positions responsible for making decisions that affected the country at large.

This was not a popular view, and it was only more than 20 years after the Presidency was introduced that the matter reached boiling point as it were. So in 2001, in the last throes of the government President Kumaratunga had set up a year earlier, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced. But though it was obviously better to have some check on the President, the form this took was confusing, and not in accordance with general political principles.

What it did was set up a body of appointees who had to approve the nominations of the President to individual positions. It also had the unparalleled power of choosing nominees to Commissions, which the President was expected to endorse. This was bizarre, for to confine an elected President in this way, turning him or her into a rubber stamp, is grossly inappropriate. It was not surprising then that President Kumaratunga flatly refused to appoint the Elections Commission that had been selected by the Constitutional Council.

I myself feel that the Parliamentary Council set up under the 18th Amendment was more in accordance with political practice internationally, though unfortunately it did not have veto power. Still, had the Council actually ever met, it could have fulfilled a public purpose in that it could have put in writing objections to nominees of the President. After all in a classic Westminster system, a Head of State who is not elected by the people will not turn down a nominee of an elected Prime Minister. But the Prime Minister is careful to select appropriate people, since a delay, or a simple suggestion that he reconsider, would immeasurably reduce the moral authority of the nominee. In recent years a polite but detailed account of why Mohan Pieris was inappropriate, with for instance the arguments so clearly presented by Nagananda Kodituwakku, would have made it difficult for President Rajapaksa to persist with the nomination. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29720651We have looked thus far at Parliament, the legislative branch of government, which is supposed to pass laws and also monitor the work of the executive. Then we looked at the executive, the active functioning branch of government, and considered the various duties it should perform,

Third we should consider the judicial branch of government, which was considered the only other one at the time the theory of the Separation of Powers was enunciated with regard to government, There are I believe other elements that the public also needs to ensure its security,  from society in general as well as an over powerful government. But there is no doubt that the judiciary is the most important restraint on those who would violate the rights and freedom of the people, and we should therefore look at it in some detail.

Types of law

As we have noted previously, one of the most important functions of government is ensuring the security of its people. When we think of security, it is defence that first springs to mind—the work of the security forces in dealing with external threats. But what is more important in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people is internal security, namely ensuring that law and order is maintained.

Basic concerns in this respect can be seen in the commandments issued by religions, even before codes of law were developed. All religions, for instance, prohibit murder and robbery. Even though such actions are perpetrated by some individuals against others, it is recognised that they have a bearing on society as a whole. Such actions are termed criminal acts, and dealing with them is seen in most societies as the direct responsibility of the government. Unless stern action public action is taken in such cases, the security of the entire society is threatened.

When a case is brought under criminal law then, it is the government that prepares the case and prosecutes the accused. Since these are serious issues, and punishment is severe, the guilt of the accused should be clearly established. It is necessary, therefore, in such cases that the prosecution proves its case beyond reasonable doubt to avoid punishment of the innocent. Otherwise, the accused is acquitted.

Other offences, though defined and dealt with by the law, are seen as affecting individuals alone. So cases such as disputes about land or contracts, or those involving personal relations such as divorce, come under what is termed civil law. In such cases, one person makes a complaint and someone else must respond. They are decided on what is termed a balance of probabilities since a decision has to be reached in favour of one side or the other and the plaintiff and the respondent have to be treated equally. So even a slight inclination to one side of the balance is sufficient for a ruling in favour of that side.

There is also a third type of law which has gained importance in recent years. This is constitutional law, which comes into play when the government is seen as violating the rules according to which it must govern. One aspect of this law is seen in operation when the government wishes to introduce new laws or change the constitution. The courts should decide whether such new laws or changes are in accordance with the existing law. Sometimes governments wish on their own to verify whether their proposed actions are legal. Citizens or groups of citizens can also petition the courts to seek clarification or present arguments alleging that particular bills are unconstitutional, and the government may respond to these petitions. Read the rest of this entry »

qrcode.29266949I make no apologies for coming back to the excellent paper prepared by Nagananda Kodituwakku about the measures needed to restore public confidence in the Justice system. Previously we looked at the systems that need to be put in place to ensure the swift dispensation of justice. Now I shall look at ways in which we can promote confidence in the personnel involved.

 

First of all Kodituwakku deals with the need to ensure integrity and independence in judges. This requires a

 

Transparent recruitment process to select judges to Superior Court System

He notes that now supreme court vacancies are filled at the pleasure of the President, which leads to a disregard for merit. We are well aware that this needs to be changed, and it is essential to have checks on the power of the President to make appointments at will. But we should not depend only on the predilections of others. It is necessary to have systems in place, guidelines that are clear and based on rational criteria, with a requirement that any appointing authority follow established guidelines in a transparent manner.

One point Kodituwakku raises, which had not occurred to me before, is that it is a mistake to fill most vacancies with officers from the Attorney General’s Department. He notes that in the United Kingdom from where we claim to have derived out traditions, ‘not a single judge to the Judiciary is appointed from the Crown Prosecution Service headed by the Attorney General of the UK.’ He suggest instead that ‘Priority should be given to eminent career judges over other applicants. Public officers serving in the AG’s Department and the members in the private bar should be afforded an equal opportunity to submit their application for vacancies. But no preferential treatment whatsoever shall be afforded to the lawyers serving in the Attorney General’s Department over the other applicants. This merit-based system shall be implemented to the appointments to the lower Courts as well.’

 

Another vital factor Kodituwakku notes is that there should be

No inducements with gratifications after retirement

The system of giving appointments after retirement should stop. This should not preclude work in the private sector, and short term assignments such as special inquiries should be possible. But judges must accept that they should not be appointed to any salaried position in government after retirement. As he puts it, the prevalent practice ‘conveys a wrong message that those who are inclined towards the executive would get a preferential treatment over others after their retirement. This naturally affects the independence of the Judiciary.’

In addition to his strictures on the judiciary, Kodituwakku also notes the need to restore public confidence in lawyers. He begins with the Attorney General’s Department, the lawyers who represent the public as a whole. They prosecute in criminal cases, and appear for government and government departments, which means they appear for the people. Read the rest of this entry »

Sneezy 5Tamara’s success in averting a resolution against us at the Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2011 was not however to be repeated the following year. She had no say in the massive delegation that was sent, and the strategy to be followed. Though by then I had met her and liked her, even though she had also called asking me to be present at the sessions in March, I refused when the President first asked me, and was able to cite another commitment. But I did suggest to the President that he send Jeevan and Javid Yusuf, who had been a long-standing member of the SLFP and had served as our ambassador in Saudi Arabia at one stage. They both went, and the former established a close friendship with Tamara.

When the President asked again I could not refuse. Jeevan told me that he had suggested taking the draft of the LLRC Action Plan to Geneva, but been told it was not ready. While I was in Geneva I asked Mohan whether I could look at the draft, but he told me it was confidential. I asked then if he would show it to me in his presence, whereupon he said that he was doing it with the Foreign Ministry, and I should ask the Foreign Minister. I did so, whereupon G L Peiris said, ‘What draft?’

I could only deduce that Gotabhaya had told them not to bother, and GL had assumed that this was the President’s view too. Mohan however undoubtedly knew the real situation, and therefore continued to deceive the President about progress while, as with the LLRC interim recommendations, ignoring his instructions. So three months after the LLRC had reported, we had evidently done nothing to take matters forward.

After the resolution was passed, the President entrusted formulation of a plan to his Secretary, who invited Mrs Wijayatilaka, who had been doing yeoman service on the Human Rights Action Plan Task Force that I convened, to assist. The President had also indicated that Civil Society representatives should be asked to contribute, and Jeevan and a couple of others were accordingly invited to one of the first meetings.

When Mohan came in and saw them, he walked out immediately. He had it seems objected, and though they stayed for that meeting, they were not invited for any others. When I asked Lalith Weeratunge about this, he told me that it had been decided the plan should be drafted only by government officials. Mohan it should be noted was not in fact an official, since he had retired by now as Attorney General, but I suppose his leading role was in terms of his most recent appointment, that of Legal Advisor to the Cabinet, clearly a consolation prize since he had not been made Chief Justice as he had hoped. But his authority was such that, contrary to the President’s instructions, Jeevan and the others were left out after that. Lalith assured me though that they would be invited to serve on the Task Force to implement the plan.

Within a couple of months Lalith’s committee had produced a draft which he showed me, saying that he would be putting it to Cabinet the next day. He anticipated no difficulty about having it adopted. I thought it pretty good, and recognized Mrs Wijayatilaka’s footprints all over it, in particular in the inclusion of Key Performance Indicators, a pet requirement of hers while at the Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation. I rang her then to congratulate her on her work, only to be told that she had no idea the draft they had been produced had been accepted and would be going to Cabinet. Read the rest of this entry »

download (8)I had a bizarre experience recently when I had to attend what is termed Standing Committee B of Parliament, which deals with legislation. This was in connection with the Vasantha Senanayake Foundation (Incorporation) Bill which I had sponsored. The experience was rendered worse by the Minutes which I received subsequently, which bore no relation to what had actually taken place.

I presume that there is some formula for reporting the meetings of these Standing Committees, but it was certainly inappropriate in this case, given that I had raised some matters which I had asked to be recorded. The Minutes state that I moved several amendments to the original draft of the Bill I had presented. This was not the case. What happened was that we were told the legal advisers had gone through the draft and suggested amendments. I accepted these, but I asked the basis on which they had been made.

It turned out then that the representative from the Legal Draughtsman’s Department who was supposed to liaise with Parliament regarding the Bill had no idea of the reasons. After much discussion one bright lawyer from the Attorney General’s Department said that the changes were probably because the Bill as it stood seemed to be in conflict with the Constitution.

I gathered then that for years the Attorney General had advised against many charitable works by Foundations on the grounds that the Constitution, following the introduction of the 13th Amendment that introduced Provincial Councils, declares that ‘No Bill in respect of any matter set out in the Provincial Council List shall become law unless such Bill has been referred by the President…. to every Provincial Council’.

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An important item on the legislative agenda over the last few years has been a change to the 1939 Children and Young Persons Ordinance. A few years back, when Milinda Moragoda was Minister of Justice, he had asked for reports in various areas where it seemed justice was not being served. Not all the committees appointed have reported as yet, and there seems to have been little concern to expedite these. However, the indefatigable Shirani Thilakawardhana headed the committee asked to report on children, and she did a typically thorough job.

Unfortunately in the silly way we sometimes function, it seemed to have been decided to do nothing till all the reports were in, and so the proposed amendments have not yet come to Parliament. However the new Secretary to the Ministry of Justice understood the urgency of going ahead, and got comments from various urgencies, and has sent now sent what should be a final draft to the Ministry of Child Development for taking forward.

The new draft is certainly an advance on what we had before, and if we cannot improve on it soon, we should go ahead with it anyway, simply to get rid of provisions for caning, and the generally punitive approach taken 70 years ago to children in need. However it would be best if we had some intense consultation and produced something better, since this would also help with introducing some general principles with legislation.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

October 2018
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