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.

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.

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:

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.