In the run up to local government elections, the Joint Opposition has called for the withdrawal of Sri Lanka from the commitments it made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015 in Geneva. On that occasion it co-signed a resolution on post-war reconciliation to which it had contributed and which was approved unanimously by the Council. This opposition demand has also come at a time when Sri Lanka has demonstrated its positive relationship with the international community on two occasions this month before the United Nations. The first was the Universal Periodic Review of the UN system in Geneva, where the government’s report on its adherence to human rights norms was scrutinized in detail by over one hundred countries out of which 88 countries also made their specific observations. The government delegation was led by Dr Harsha de Silva, deputy minister of national policies and economic affairs. The government delegation included those who had been part of the process of gathering information from a number of sources. These included consultations with civil society which were organized by civil society groups themselves.
The government took decisive action to put the lid on escalating inter ethnic violence between Sinhalese and Muslims in Gintota over the weekend which led to damage to a large number of homes, businesses and buildings estimated to be close to a hundred. The government actions included sending in police battalions, the police paramilitary Special Task Force and anti-riot squad and the military and a visit to the area by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. As a result a conflagration on the scale of the Aluthgama riots of 2014 in the neighboring Kalutara district did not materialize. It might have, if the government had not acted sooner and showed publicly that it had no sympathy with those who attacked others. The arrest of 19 trouble makers, many of whom had come from outside, and the declaration of a curfew, ensured that the violence was suppressed. However, the Muslim community which had to bear the brunt of the violence continues to live in a state of unease.
Sri Lanka’s international image has taken a hard hit following the report of continuing torture in the country. The Associated Press has carried a news story that gives a detailed and graphic account of horrendous torture practices in Sri Lanka that allegedly continue to this day. This story has been carried by newspapers and media outlets throughout the world, including the New York Times, which is a prestigious international publication. All the victims in the story are Tamil and the reason why most of them appear to have been tortured is because they were believed to have connections with the LTTE. About 50 asylum seekers in Western countries claim they were subjected particularly vicious acts of torture. These included men who were raped on multiple occasions and even having sticks with barbed wire inserted into them.
The seriousness with which the report of the Steering Committee on constitutional reforms has been discussed and debated in parliament is an indication that the reform process will continue. The government has decided to allocate another full day to debate the Steering committee report of the Constitutional Assembly as almost all parties in parliament have requested more time for their members to speak on it. This will be the fifth day of the debate on the constitution making process. Initially three days were allocated for the debate but an additional day was granted last week while the final day of debate will be Wednesday. Speaker Karu Jayasuriya who is in charge of allocation of time for the debate said that there had been keen interest among members of all political parties to express their views during this debate, and a number of MPs requested him to allocate sufficient time to them for this purpose.
UN special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, recently expressed his strong disappointment at the failure of the government to implement the commitments it made more than two years ago in Geneva to the UN Human Rights Council. On that momentous occasion in October 2015 the government succeeded in reversing the deterioration in relations between Sri Lanka and the international community which had been threatening to isolate, and economically further undermine, the previous government headed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. There was a looming threat of further international sanctions to follow upon the European Union’s withdrawal of the GSP Plus tariff concession that had led to the closure of large numbers of garment factories which led to a severe blow to the national economy.
The strident opposition to the government’s constitutional reform process highlights the regrettable fact that the country’s ethnic divide continues to be serious. The opposition is claiming that the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report is a formula to divide the country to accommodate sections of the international community. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa has urged the government to abandon what he described as ‘the destructive proposal’ for a new constitution. According to him, “It has been proposed that the Sinhala word ‘ekeeya’ be retained in the Sinhala version of the proposed new constitution, while the English word ‘unitary’ will be dropped from the English version together with the conceptual framework it denotes. Thus the local population will be under the impression that Sri Lanka still remains a unitary state, but in the eyes of the international community, we will be considered a country that has relinquished unitary status.”
The release of the Constitutional Assembly’s Steering Committee report on constitutional reform gave the hope that it would be the government’s priority in the coming months. This calculation was buttressed by the government’s repeated postponement of local government elections which became extended to the postponement of provincial council elections also. The problem facing the government is that any local election would pit the coalition partners against each other, possibly to the detriment of their alliance. This led to speculation that the government would go into a referendum on a new constitution on the basis that this would be the best way to reunify the government alliance. It was argued that a referendum would impel all parties that supported the candidacy of President Maithripala Sirisena at the presidential elections of 2015 to get together again as a unified force to win the referendum.
The government has proposed that the report of the steering committee on constitutional reform will be debated in parliament at the end of the month. A member of the Steering Committee spearheading the constitutional reform project, Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne said that the Constitutional assembly would take up proposals over a three-day period beginning October 30. Finalisation of the process would depend on the outcome of three day talks, Dr. Wickramaratne said, explaining measures proposed to further strengthen the unitary character of the country. He added that the proposals were also meant to ensure maximum possible devolution without undermining the unitary status of the constitution. Since its appointment by the constitutional assembly in April 2016 the steering committee has met on 73 occasions.
The relatively smooth manner in which the government succeeded in postponing the forthcoming provincial council elections, in the aftermath of its failure to pass the 20th Amendment, is an indicator of the weakness of the Joint Opposition. They were neither able to challenge the government in parliament nor mobilize public sentiment on the issue. It has been left to a retired chief justice to file his own individual action in the courts. The question is why the Joint Opposition, which has over 50 MPs in parliament who are pledging their commitment to the country, was unable or unwilling to mobilize public sentiment of the postponement of the elections.
The passage of the Provincial Council Election Amendment bill indicates that provincial council elections that were due by the end of this year will not take place any time soon. The original purpose of the amendment was to ensure that there should be at least 30 percent representation of women on party candidate lists. This was much acclaimed and no one publicly dissented or took the matter to courts. However, the salient feature of the new law after more amendment were made to it is to ensure that future elections to the provincial councils will be based on a mixed system of first-past-the-post and proportional representation. The government used the method of adding an amendment to an existing bill to circumvent any legal appeal to the courts as occurred in the case of the 20th Amendment to the constitution. The need to demarcate electorates for the first-past-the-post contests gives rise to the possibility of an extended time period for the new system to become operational.