The National Peace Council (NPC)

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A high level delegation of EU officials was in Sri Lanka last week to have meetings with a cross section of society prior to engaging in discussions with their counterparts in the Sri Lankan government. When they met with civil society representatives they said that this was the first joint meeting on issues of human rights with the government and saw this as a positive breakthrough. They also said that they had come to see what had been delivered by the government in terms of the promises it had made. The media release that they issued after a joint EU-Sri Lanka Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights concluded its first meeting in Colombo on 21 January 2016 stated that they expected the full implementation of the UN Human Rights Council resolution as a priority.

During the visit of the EU delegation to Sri Lanka, Sri Lanka's Deputy Foreign Minister Dr. Harsha de Silva said he was confident that Sri Lanka will regain the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences plus (GSP+) facility during this year. The EU, citing Sri Lanka's failure to meet human rights conventions relevant for benefits under the scheme, in August 2010, suspended the GSP+ tariff concession for Sri Lanka that provided tax free access to European markets for the country's products, especially for garment exports which was Sri Lanka's second largest foreign exchange earner next to worker remittances. This illustrates the holistic dimension of the UN Human Rights Council resolution. It is not only about accountability and war crimes. It is also a matter of employment and the development of the economy.



The participation of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, former President Chandrika Kumaratunga and visiting British Minister Hugo Swire at the Thai Pongal celebration in Jaffna is an indication of the special attention that is being given to the northern polity by the government. The top leaders of the government have been making frequent visits to the north in a way that is unprecedented. During the years of the war it was dangerous for government leaders to visit the north as they were vulnerable to being attacked by the LTTE and other militant groups. But even prior to the war there was reluctance on the part of leaders of government to visit the north. Neville Jayaweera, in his memoirs of his time as a civil servant who dealt with the north five decades ago, writes about the petty manner in which the government leaders of those years turned down opportunities to visit the north. In contrast, President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe are frequent travelers to the north.

However, in his speech in Jaffna on the occasion of Thai Pongal, and with the Prime Minister and British Minister in attendance, Chief Minister of the Northern Province, C V Wigneswaran was extremely critical in his assessments, claiming the presence of 150,000 soldiers as particularly detrimental to the restoration of normalcy. He spoke of the failure to free more land held by the military and the failure to abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act. He also blamed the government of interfering in the work of the Northern Provincial Council and complained over letters being sent to him from State institutions written in the Sinhala language. The slow progress made in terms of restoring normalcy to the lives of those large numbers of people living in the north and east who are war-affected has elicited sharp and strident criticism from a wide arrange of politicians and civil society activists.



The government set the stage for the drafting of a new constitution when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe presented a resolution to Parliament on January 9 that would convene it as a constitutional assembly. The timing was symbolically important as this was the date that marked the commencement of President Maithripala Sirisena’s second year in office. President Sirisena was also in Parliament to make a special address to Parliament. The president’s commitment to stripping himself of the extraordinary powers of the presidency from the very beginning of his first term is without parallel in modern history. Within five months of his presidential election victory he ensured the passage of the 19th Amendment which, as a first step, reduced the powers of the presidency which he would henceforth wield. Now with the convening of parliament as a constitutional assembly he is paving the way for the total abolition of the office he holds.

It is significant that the government did not press for a vote on the resolution that sets up parliament to be a constitutional assembly. Instead it heeded the views expressed by those in the opposition who wished to make amendments to the resolution presented by the prime minister. Constitutional reforms of the past were driven by governments that excluded those who were from the opposition, either purposely or because the opposition refused to cooperate. The past constitutional reforms were partisan exercises by the ruling party, both to impose their visions of the future as well as to gain petty advantages even while claiming they were engaging in reform in the national interest. However, this time around the government is trying to make the constitutional reform process to be a consensual one. Most areas of reform are indeed ones on which there is a great deal of national consensus.



The government has been responsive to public pressure in multifold ways. It amended the budget in 16 different areas due to protests by trade unions and affected groups even though the budget deficit grew by more billions. It is investigating a case of abduction by one of its members. It has been responsive to concerns expressed by civil society about the absence of participation in both the constitutional reform and transitional justice processes. Prime Minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe has appointed a 24-member committee from political and civil society to obtain views on constitutional reforms from the public. This Committee will seek oral and written submissions from the public and a report will handed to a Cabinet Sub Committee on Constitutional Reforms. In addition Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has appointed an 11 member committee to discuss and provide input on issues pertaining to the Geneva process.

It is important in a democracy that the people believe their government is prepared to both listen to them and change its decisions accordingly. On the other hand, the government has to balance the national interest as against the interests of specific groups, and to look at short term in relation to long term interests both for itself and the country. Embedded in both the constitutional reform process and the transitional justice process are potentially explosive issues which can be exploited by extreme nationalists and opposition parties for political gain. Even at present the issues highlighted in the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council that Sri Lanka co-sponsored in Geneva, which relate also to truth seeking, reparations and institutional reforms, are being distorted as being solely about war crimes and taking war heroes to The Hague for trial by international tribunals.



The dawn of the New Year will see Parliament convening as a parliamentary committee of the whole to start the process of constitutional reform.  This will be only the second time since the last constitution was made in 1978 that there will be a dedicated effort at constitutional reform.  The previous occasion was in 2000 when former President Chandrika Kumaratunga presented a constitutional bill to Parliament which was literally burnt by the opposition. The promise to amend the constitution was made by government leaders at both the last presidential and general elections that took place in January and August of this year.  Their main pledge was to abolish the executive presidency and to change the electoral system from one based on proportional representation to a mixed system of proportional representation and first-past-the-post voting in which parliamentary seats would be apportioned in proportion to the total number of votes obtained by each of the political parties.



The election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January this year and the formation of a new government led to an immediate improvement of Sri Lanka’s relations with the western world. This relationship had become increasingly strained during the period of the last government and was getting progressively worsened. However this improvement in relations cannot be taken for granted if it is to yield concrete benefits to the country. One example has been the attempt to get back the the European Union’s GSP Plus tariff benefits that enables Sri Lankan exports to enter the European markets at lower rates of tax which gives them a cost advantage over other countries. Mere goodwill is not enough to meet the standardized EU criteria. There are several targets that the country has to meet if it is to obtain the tariff benefits that it lost five years ago. The criteria that the previous government failed in achieving related to human rights and post war reconciliation.

The government has recently announced that it will set up a Secretariat for Reconciliation that will coordinate the different government agencies that have been earmarked for this purpose. When there are multiple agencies that are dedicated to the same broad objectives, there is likely to be overlap between their activities and even rivalries on the ground, unless they are coordinated. Therefore it has been proposed that the new secretariat will develop a plan on proposed new institutions such as the Office on Missing Persons and the Truth, Reconciliation and Prevention of Conflicts Commission. These were identified by the government in the days prior to the last session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in September. The Secretariat will be responsible for the coordination of other requirements related to strengthening the rule of law, human rights and administrative and judicial reforms as well.



The role that civil society played in the change of government that occurred in January at the presidential elections, and which was reaffirmed at the general elections of August, was celebrated at two events held last week. One was on World Anti Corruption Day which fell on December 9. This event was actively supported by the newly independent Commission against Bribery and Corruption, and especially by its Director General, which has a giant task before it given the extent to which corrupt practices took place in the past, and whose legacy cannot be immediately terminated. The other was International Human Rights Day which fell on December 10. Both of these events drew large numbers of civic activists from all parts of the country. They also attended by government leaders, including President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The role of civil society has been a controversial one, and was under serious threat during the period of the former Rajapaksa government. Those who wish to undermine the legitimacy of civil society describe those who act on its behalf as NGOs. The term NGO crow was in common use by government leaders and has become part of the ordinary language of those who do not agree with the political stands and work done by sections of civil society. The term connotes the alleged characteristic of NGOs to live off any problem in society utilizing foreign funds and engaging in anti national activities. This interpretation was particularly strong within the former government which projected itself to be the sole representative of the national interest.



The passage of the second reading of the budget by a 2/3 majority in Parliament is an indication that the National Unity Government led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe continues to be strong. Although the SLFP component of the government headed by President Sirisena is divided, with a majority of the members not voting in favour of the budget, a sufficient number of them voted in favour of it giving the government a comfortable majority that exceeded 2/3 of those present and voting. The government was also able to obtain the support of the ethnic and religious minority parties to bolster its majority. This will boost the confidence of the government when it comes to the question of constitutional reform which it has flagged as its priority after the passage of the budget.

A second notable feature of the budget debate was the accommodative attitude of the government leadership to the concerns of those who felt that their interests had either been insufficiently considered or been adversely affected by the budget proposals. Both President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe proposed and accepted last minute changes to the budget. The government had sought to raise revenues and to reduce expenditures to bridge the budget deficit. But both of these requirements would have been disadvantageous to some sections of the population. Therefore instead of standing firm as required by the imperatives of economic rationality, the government has sought to buy time for itself by exploring the option of a very large loan from the IMF that would help to bridge the budget deficit.



The last week of November has generally been a difficult time in Sri Lanka for the past two or more decades. During the long period of war, the LTTE used to commemorate its fallen cadre with Martyrs’ Day ceremonies on November 26-27. There was a combination in varying degrees of events meant to mobilize and sustain support for their cause. There were march pasts by LTTE cadre, including the Black Tiger suicide squads. There were also memorial services at the LTTE cemeteries. There were also heightened attacks on enemy targets intended to reaffirm the military prowess of the LTTE and strike fear in the larger society.

After the military defeat of the LTTE in 2009 these public events came to a stop. The former government prevented LTTE supporters or even the general public from holding any sort of commemoration on that day. Attempts by university students to hold memorial events by lighting candles or holding meetings were prevented and any attempt to do so was thwarted by raids by security forces who would arrest those participating in such events. Even memorial services by religious clergy in places of worship were not permitted as these were seen to be supportive of the LTTE. However, the new government has adopted a more flexible approach. This was seen in the commemoration this year of the May 19 anniversary of the end of the war.



It was the post-presidential election period that began in January this year that saw dramatic changes in the polity. The fear of government backed death squads and mob violence was totally eradicated to the relief of political dissidents and ethnic minorities who had been under threat. These positive changes at the ground level were accompanied by the major political reform of the 19th Amendment which divested the presidency of much of its arbitrary power and strengthened the system of checks and balances. However, in the aftermath of the general election in August a sense of stagnancy in government became pronounced. For the past three months in particular there had been a sense of drift in the government. The main slogans centering on good governance that had propelled it to victory at two successive elections held in January and August appeared to be in abeyance.

In addition, in the past few weeks the polity became focused on infighting between members of the government on issues of corruption and conflict of interest. There was no change in the country that could capture the popular imagination except for the government’s co-sponsoring of the resolution of the UN Human Rights Council. On the one hand this eased the tensions that Sri Lanka had with the Western countries and paved the way for its return to their economic fold. But this agreement was a double edged sword as it was also attacked by the political opposition as being a betrayal of those who had fought against the LTTE. The visit of US Ambassador the UN, Samantha Power, to Sri Lanka at this time when the world is focused on what is happening in the Islamic countries and Europe is an indication that Sri Lanka is being given a special status and may even obtain extraordinary US support as a result. Ambassador Power is known as a close confidante of US President Barack Obama.



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