In the meantime, the government is trying to manage the economy including the long postponed decision of whether to go to the IMF or risk economic collapse. The government’s team to Geneva consists of Prof GL Peiris, now Foreign Minister and previously university professor, vice chancellor and author of textbooks on law that continue to be valued even today, decades later. Accompanying Prof Peiris to Geneva is Justice Minister Ali Sabry who has demonstrated prowess in administration, having previously been a practicing lawyer, who is now leading the process of reforming over 80 laws in the country that have been stagnant from British colonial times with the support of teams of practicing lawyers and academics.
The other important member of the government team going to Geneva is Foreign Secretary and former Naval officer, Admiral Jayanath Colombage who transformed into a professor of international relations. It was he who took the initiative to reach out to that section of Sri Lankan civil society that was perceived as being hostile to the government. In the aftermath of the threat from the European Parliament to deny the country the GSP Plus export benefit, he commenced a dialogue that was soon expanded to include senior government ministers, including the Finance Minister, Internal Security Minister and the President. This resulted in a considerable change in perception on both sides and a reduction in the mutual enemy image.
One of the most important outcomes of the meetings initiated with civil society has been the shifting of the NGO Secretariat from the Defence Ministry to the Foreign Ministry, which takes away the possible emphasis of the notion that civil society is a threat to national security. After this shift the NGO Secretariat is no longer adopting the pugnacious stance towards peacebuilding and reconciliation that it previously did. Another positive outcome of the meetings between the civil society group and government ministers has been the release of several persons detained for long periods of time under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has since then facilitated the further releases of detainees on bail applications.
The report of the UN Human Rights Commissioner, which has now been made publicly available has a large number of observations regarding shortcomings, failures and violations in both past and current periods that the government has failed to address. Along with this there is also acknowledgement that the government has made some progress in addressing some of these issues. It would have been better if civil society recommendations with regard the Prevention of Terrorism Act had been taken on board by the government. It may then not have had to face the criticism that its amendments are superficial, so much so that the country’s Human Rights Commission has made a call that is unprecedented for a state institution for the PTA’s total repeal. There is a likelihood that the UN Human Rights Council will give more time to the Sri Lankan government to address the issues outlined. Such a process-oriented approach would also influence observers such as the EU which is contemplating whether to discontinue the GSP Plus benefit to postpone its decision.
It is reasonable to believe that in a context in which the international community’s attention is riveted on the Ukraine war, the issue of past and present human rights violations in Sri Lanka will not be as compelling as it might have been. When human rights are being violated on a large scale in Europe itself due to the miscalculations on the part of different members of the international community, and the blatant refusal to heed appeals on the part of the Russian leadership, the statements and approach of the Sri Lankan delegation will come across as reasonable in the face of the grossness of the situation in Ukraine. The Sri Lankan approach is likely to be one that is responsive to international concerns, at least in attitude and words which is immediately visible.
The likely outcome of the UNHRC session in Geneva this month will be a further period of time being given to the Sri Lankan government to deliver on its commitments, even while the monitoring mechanism set up by the UN Human Rights Commissioner is also provided with more financial support to continue with its monitoring. Among the issues being monitored is that of the harassment and surveillance of civil society organisations. The space for civil society has always been a threatened one regardless of the government in power, which invariably resents the criticisms and alternative views put forward and campaigned for by civil society groups. Civil society groups such as the CSO-NGO Collective which commenced its educational programme in the Anuradhapura district can seek to use this opportunity to ensure that the rights of civil society are entrenched in the law of the land, and particularly in the constitution.
Consultations with civil society organisations at the district level, such as at Anuradhapura last week, show that civil society space is being circumscribed due to actions by state actors. Civic groups, whether in the North, East or south complain of constant surveillance by security forces and intelligence agencies of the state. These surveillance and questioning may not seem so intimidating to south-based organisations, but they are intimidating to civil society groups in the North and East as they are viewed with more suspicion as being potential security threats than their counterparts in the south. On the other hand, civil society groups in the south feel that the government administrators and politicians are sometimes prejudiced against them as they perceive them to be critics of the government.
By definition civil society space is the space that is not occupied by the government and the private (profit making) sector. The entry of the government into civil society space to control and regulate them is harmful to the rights to freedom of association and expression that is at the heart of democracy. Unfortunately, an increasing number of international agencies that claim to be supporting the protection of civil society, have been pressured to permit government members to sit on their decision making bodies with regard to their support to civil society. This is leading to situations where international support to civil society is being determined by the government members of those committees which erodes the very civil society space that these international agencies say they wish to strengthen.
There remains a threat to civil society space that lies in the not-so-distant future. The NGO Secretariat has been giving leadership to formulating a new NGO control law in which the chief architects are strong ethnic nationalists and those who are critics of civil society. The development of this legislation is taking place without transparency and in secrecy. The cabinet of ministers approved a draft law to be sent to the Legal Draftsman, but obtaining this document has proven to be impossible. Not even requests to government ministries filed under the Right to Information Act have been successful at unearthing this document. This particular time, when the government is attempting to convince the international community that it is sincere about its commitments to democratic freedoms and to human rights, is the best time to ensure that the new NGO law, if it comes, assures the independence of civil society rather than seeks government control over it.