The importance of strengthening independent institutions has been borne out by recent judgements of the superior courts. In a landmark judgement delivered last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of protecting the interests of wild animals over those who had illegitimately obtained them. The court quoting Lord Denning in an English case stated with approval that “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest. Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment. He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.” The need for such independence was highlighted in yet another case last week when former Governor Azath Salley was released by the High Court, after spending 8 months in remand prison and all charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.
The principle of one law, one country is upheld by the constitution of the country, which however makes an exception for personal laws. The government has announced its intention to amend the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act. This has given rise to the perception that the recently appointed Presidential Task Force and its mandate for one country one law is in pursuit of reform of personal laws and is actually a targeting of the minorities. However, the concept of one country one law is more profound and means that the country’s laws are applicable to each and every individual with equal force regardless of rank or position, ethnicity or religion.
The statements of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa at the UN General Assembly and more recently at the 72 anniversary of the Sri Lanka Army have indicated that the government is contemplating important policy changes. These have included references to the need to “address the issues that gave rise to terrorism” in the country. At the army anniversary the president also pledged to bring in a new constitution within the next year.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s address to the UN General Assembly was short, simple and dignified. The president covered the main issues that confront the world with his focus on Sri Lanka. These included the Covid pandemic, economic difficulties, environmental degradation and violence that are global problems and which his government, which received two democratic mandates, has had to face.
The level of impunity in the country has reached very serious proportions. The incident in which the Minister of Prison Management Lohan Ratwatte is alleged to have entered prison compounds and threatened Tamil prisoners with his gun and made them kneel down before him is an indictment of the state of the Rule of Law, the independence of institutions and the system of checks and balances in a democracy. So far the minister concerned has only resigned from his portfolio as Minister of Prison Management but not from his other ministerial portfolios.
Newly appointed Foreign Minister Prof GL Peiris gave a clear indication of the government’s intention to adopt a new approach to reconciliation when he met with several civil society members of the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus (SLCC). The minister stated to us the government’s intention of dealing with national issues in a collective manner and invited civil society to be a partner in this endeavor. He appreciated the wide outreach of the NGOs present and the expertise they had gathered from long years of community level work which could be utilized in the government’s dialogue with the international community. Director General of the NGO Secretariat Mr Raja Gunaratne was also present on the occasion.
The untimely demise of Mangala Samaraweera is a grievous cause of sorrow to those who knew him and a great loss to those who shared his belief in a country in which there are equal rights to all. The late minister passionately believed in a Sri Lanka that was united and belonged to all in equal measure irrespective of ethnicity, religion, caste or gender.
The Cabinet of Ministers has directed the Legal Draftsman to draft legislation that would replace the existing legislation that covers NGOs. The cabinet note on this issue points to the different laws that civil society organisations may register under and seeks to bring them all under a unified system of oversight. It also gives the background of the Easter terror attack as requiring the new legislation which would ensure financial transparency and accountability. The National Peace Council finds it very concerning as the government has so far had no discussion with NGOs such as ours on these matters, or shared or made public the draft legislation that the Legal Draftsman will work on. The draft legislation has the potential to impact upon civil society independence and role as part of the system of democracy.
A group of civil society members under the umbrella of the Sri Lankan Collective for Consensus met with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa together with Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, President’s Secretary Dr P B Jayasundara and Foreign Secretary, Admiral Professor Jayanath Colombage, at the Presidential Secretariat on August 3, 2021. The undersigned civil society members presented a memorandum that set out their hopes and concerns and welcomed the opportunity to engage with members of the government on topics of post-war reconciliation, minority rights, civil society space, and governance.
Several protests by different political parties and civil society groups on grievances facing different sectors of society have been broken up by the police. The latest was the breakup by police of a peaceful public protest by a civil society group including Joseph Stalin, head of the Ceylon Teachers Union. The protestors, including elderly women and religious clergy, were arrested by the police on grounds of violating Covid health guidelines. When the judge refused to send them to a distant COVID quarantine center, the police forcibly carried them off to be transported to an army camp in the North.