Sri Lanka has a new prime minister but there is controversy over the choice. There is criticism that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa continues to use his presidential powers in an arbitrary manner in a continuation of practices that have led to the present crisis. In facing the unprecedented economic and political crisis that grips the country, and widespread public protests, President Rajapaksa pledged to set up an interim government in consultation with party leaders in parliament. However, he did not do so but appointed UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe as Prime Minister much to the consternation of all opposition political parties and thereby ended efforts of other parliamentarians to form a national unity government.
The government’s decision to temporarily default on sovereign debt repayments, akin to a declaration of bankruptcy, will deal another major blow to the country’s economy and credibility. It comes at a time when mass protests are spontaneously taking place in all parts of the country on account of the economic hardships that the people are being put through. The resignation of the cabinet nearly two weeks ago and the failure to appoint a new one is indicative of government paralysis which is injurious to the country.
The declaration of a state of emergency by the president in the context of the ongoing public protests against the government cannot be the answer to the ongoing campaign of public protests against the government. These are a culmination of over many months of extreme economic hardship that have resulted in power cuts of up to 13 hours per day, steep increases in prices of essential commodities and shortages that have resulted in long queues on the roads.
Sharp increases in prices of basic commodities, accompanied by shortages, have severely impacted upon the standard of living of the general population and even prompted the government to call out the army to maintain social peace where queues have formed, as at petrol stations. The All Party Conference (APC) presided over by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has taken place in this context of an unprecedented economic crisis in the country.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has issued a directive that the police should not use the Prevention of Terrorism Act as a shortcut to dispense with investigations under the criminal procedures code and to use it only if there are clear links to terrorism. This presidential directive comes at a time when the government’s proposed amendments to the PTA have been criticized as being inadequate by UN Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet in her report on Sri Lanka, by international human rights organisations and challenged in the Supreme Court by national organisations.
Freedom of speech and expression is a constitutionally protected right. The Foreign Ministry statement contradicting the views expressed by the Chairperson of the Neelan Tiruchelvam Trust, Ambika Satkunanathan, brings up issues of the limits of legitimate public criticism of government policies and actions. We do not agree with its content and tone or with the personal targeting of Ms Sathkunananthan.
FURTHER AMENDMENT OR REPEAL OF PTA IS NECESSARY
The Prevention of Terrorism Act was introduced to the Sri Lankan legal system as a temporary law to deal with a growing armed insurrection. The PTA is being amended today in a time of peace and circumstances very different from when it was first introduced.
The government is commencing a major reconciliation drive in the north of the country this week with the launch of its “Adhikaranabhimani” programme. According to the Ministry of Justice which is coordinating this work it is meant to “ameliorated access to justice for people of the Northern Province.” Several government institutions including those set up under the reconciliation process of the previous government will be conducting two-day mobile clinics. The participating institutions include the Legal Aid Commission, Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, Office for Reparations, Office on Missing Persons, Department of Debt Conciliation Board and the Vocational Training Authority to mention some of them.
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.