The National Peace Council (NPC)

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The National Peace Council’s Submissions to the Constitutional Reform Committee

A 20 member Public Representations Committee (PRC) on Constitutional Reforms was appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to obtain proposals from the public for the proposed constitutional reforms. Committee members were nominated by political parties while some were appointed to represent civil society.

The Committee was mandated to seek oral and written submissions from the public on constitutional reforms. The process of public consultations began on January 18 and ended on March 15. It will now prepare a report based on the public submissions and propose recommendations to be considered by the Cabinet Sub Committee on Constitutional Reforms.

Any citizen or organization was free to make representations through the website, by email, post or fax. The PRC also held public sittings around the country.

The National Peace Council (NPC) works at the grassroots level to promote reconciliation and transitional justice with religious leaders, Community Based Organisations, Women’s organisations, Government officials and civil society leaders. NPC made three separate submissions to the PRC in February and March. One set of recommendations dealt with the devolution of power while another addressed the gender aspect and the third comprised general recommendations based on suggestions gathered from community leaders, religious leaders, women leaders and civil society leaders in the districts where NPC works.

Devolution
NPC believes that the reform process must not reproduce one of the main political causes of the ethnic conflict in the country in which a permanent Sinhalese majority in Parliament imposed its unilateral will on the ethnic minorities, depriving them of any say in the decision-making processes of the state. Therefore, NPC calls for the adoption of the principle of “sufficient consensus” in decision making, which means that decisions are taken on the basis that the main parties to the conflict agreed with the proposals that are on the table.

Power-sharing
The implementation and strengthening of the 13th Amendment would go a long way to ease the distrust between the communities and also allay the fears of the international community that the government is not serious about going down the path of reconciliation and addressing minority grievances. NPC is of the view that the 13th amendment should not be amended or altered to take away any more powers from the provincial councils.

13th Amendment
Provincial Councils are the second tier of government and being closer to the people than the central government, they would understand the needs and aspirations of the people better. Due to proximity and the constant gaze of the local people, the provincial politicians will be more easily held accountable by the people, who will also have the higher authority of the central government to appeal to in case of non-responsive and illegitimate behaviour on the part of the provincial administrators.

Police Powers
The power over the police function given to the Provincial Council is very limited. The central government will continue to exercise substantial control over the police function in the provinces. The provincial police will be under the authority of a DIG. There is a Provincial Police Commission, which will deal with appointments, promotion and discipline in the provincial police force. This means that the Chief Minister cannot interfere unnecessarily with the discretion and decision making power of the DIG, as we see today in the police that has failed to be a national institution enforcing the law and implementing the criminal justice system. A provincial police force is best equipped to serve the needs of the local communities in the provinces. The normal routine of investigating crimes and charging the suspects in court could be done more expeditiously with a provincial police force. We believe that there are adequate safeguards for the central government to act where there is a possible breakdown of public order.

Land Issue
The 13th Amendment provides for a National Land Commission drawn from both the central government and the Provincial Councils. These constitutional provisions need to be implemented. Land rights have been assigned in the Constitution and to the extent that the government is not abiding by the constitution, it is a violation. Under the 13th Amendment, the resource base of the provincial councils is very restricted and makes them totally dependent on the central government, which reduces their autonomy significantly. Providing the provincial councils with land powers will substantially improve their financial viability.

NPC notes that shortly after the end of the war in May 2009, the government promised to resettle the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons in their original places of residence. This necessarily implied that private land would be restored to their rightful owners. This was one of the recommendations in the government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).

Implementation of Language Laws
The issue of language was one that alienated the Tamil people to the greatest degree when the Sinhala language was imposed upon them as the official language in 1956. We commend the government for ensuring that the national anthem is sung in both languages and for carrying out an extensive scheme of educating people to speak in both official languages, in ensuring that there are Tamil speaking officers in all government departments, and in affixing name boards in all three national languages on all public buildings and roads. More resources need to be provided to this work, which is truly healing and nation-building.

Religious Freedom
The constitutional provision that the state shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, has led to various interpretations as to its meaning. In a plural state where there are religious minorities, it is not conducive for peaceful coexistence and national integration to have a state where the religious precepts of the majority religion are sought to be implemented by the state.

It was the United States that for the first time recognised the need for a secular state and insisted on a separation between the church and the state. Previously in Europe after the Reformation, there was persecution and violent conflict between the majority and minority in all the Christian countries of Europe. It was after the long drawn out 30 years war that ended with the Treaty of Westphalia, that the right of religious tolerance was accepted and the obligation was cast on the ruler to ensure such tolerance. In India, which is a predominantly Hindu country, the Constitution does not privilege any religion.

Civil Society Recommendations
NPC’s second submission to the PRC was given after consultations with civil society to ascertain what people think are the necessary constitutional reforms to build a just, harmonious and pluralistic society with strong institutions that would prevent conflict occurring in future.

These include:

  • The necessity to fully implement the 13th amendment so that the rights of the minorities would be ensured. Provincial Councils should be given police powers in keeping with the aspirations of the Tamil people, who wanted to manage their own affairs.
  • Since some of the Sinhala people did not fully understand the concept was devolution, it was suggested that religious leaders get involved in the explaining it to the public. If Sinhala people in the South accepted the concept of devolution for their own provinces, as they have, it was felt that the rest of the majority community could be brought around to devolving power to the provinces.
  • Most Tamil people were in favour of a Federal system of government over a unitary system while some Sinhalese feared that Federalism could lead to separation. It should be explained that Federalism was not Tamil Eelam but a form of government and that it was possible to have Federal values within a unitary state so people who live in the provinces can manage their affairs.
  • The Constitution should have provisions to safeguard the independence of institutions that were now very politicized.
  • With constitutional changes, first thing must be a change in the judiciary to allow Tamil people to get their rights. Sinhala people must know that Tamil people’s rights must be addressed. Judiciary must be independent.
  • A new Constitution must establish minority rights. The Constitution should have a provision to address demographic imbalances that are created artificially to affect the number of a certain ethnic minority in a certain area through resettlement, and which affects their representation in Parliament.
  • On the birth certificate a question is asked about your ethnicity. The important thing is to be Sri Lankan so this should be changed. Sri Lankan is the identity we have to stress. We need to move on from being identified as different ethnic groups to become part of the greater Sri Lankan citizenry/identity.
  • Article 126 of the Constitution needs to be amended to make it easier for people to access the courts to vindicate their fundamental rights.
  • The right to invoke courts where there is interference by the Executive with the independence of the Judiciary and a clause included in the Constitution that all orders must be given writing which must be kept of record by the writer and the recipient. Orders not given in writing should not be carried out if they are unethical or unfair in any way to any person.
  • Commissions and committees established or to be established should be required to work faster so that people did not lose faith in the system. At present there were no visible actions by the Police Commission so the Police continued to behave in ways that correspond to the past.
  • It was felt that the time period allocated was insufficient for obtaining a wide enough range of opinions. Only a few people came for the public consultations so there should be a way to encourage them to do so. It was recommended that this process should take place over at least one year.
  • Religious leaders, social media, media and social organisations should be empowered to support and participate in the transitional justice process. Someone who gives evidence to the Truth Commission that the government plans to set up must be protected. The methodology must be simple.
  • The Government should be seen to be more involved in the process of creating public awareness about the issues involved in constitutional reform as well as actively encouraging the public to take part.
  • As far as the process of people’s participation in the constitutional reform process goes, it was pointed out that ordinary people were excluded because they did not have access to email, text or fax and were unable or unwilling to attend public hearings.

NPC’s third submission was derived from the findings from consultations with over 700 women from nine districts across the island who have taken part in an effort to evolve a Women’s Manifesto on Healing.

  • Increase women’s participation at all levels of governance to address the issues of sexual abuse, domestic violence and gender based violence. This would also help ease problems of female headed households and plantation women.
  • Although the Constitution deems both Sinhala and Tamil as official languages, government institutions, public transport, police stations, schools and national hospitals in many districts do not effectively implement the language policy. Many government institutions and national hospitals do not have forms printed in both languages and in many cases translators are not available in police stations, causing difficulties and inconvenience to women when seeking their support or assistance. Therefore the language policy should be fully implemented around the country.
  • If action was taken to ensure land rights, it would eliminate many hardships and grave issues faced by women. Women also stated that insuring land rights would also create opportunity for IDPs to resettle on their own land.
  • The government must take effective measure to search for the truth and give justice to its people through truth commissions and other judicial mechanisms.

 

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