While my subject is the design of electromagnetic devices, I am also asked often to teach ethics for engineers which we must include in our treatment for degree accreditation. Last week Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya gave a fine interview with the Daily Mirror. He challenged the government for delaying local government elections. I think he set a fine example for all election administrators in leadership. It is therefore natural for me to muse on the Rule of Law and Ethics for Election Professionals.
Ethics for Election Professionals
It is my intention to explore the limits of ethical behavior for a member of an Election Commission. The usual model is for us to be faceless civil servants. This, I question. In this exploration, rather than ask if something is ethical, I will describe the state of politics in Sri Lanka and let you, the listener, ask yourself whether it is ethical for me to say what I will now say. I hope you will affirm my duty to say what I say.
It is conventional wisdom, as I have noted, that we election administrators keep away from politics. I have been told that I have no political rights as a Member of the Election Commission. I do not agree. By what instrument? In Sri Lanka we make much of our nominations for office by our Constitutional Council of ten persons as if to suggest that we have no politics behind us.
Rubbish, I say! These ten persons of the Constitutional Council include 7 politicians who, with the exception of the JVP nominee, belong to the government – and I count the Tamil National Alliance, the TNA, here among the six government MPs. Most worked against the outgoing regime in January 2015 or at least were sympathetic to regime change. We cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, be claimed to have been appointed by a neutral body.
I had been writing a weekly newspaper column and had to flee, after I reported the rigging of local government elections in Kayts in July 2011. A Minister of the then government moved the magistrate to issue an open warrant for my arrest. I returned in August 2015, and was tapped for the Election Commission while out on bail. The police had stalled for two years for time to investigate the former government’s charges. Two months ago the new magistrate threw out all charges saying he did not believe the police had any investigation going on. With that experience, I am not neutral. Indeed, I am partial. I believe with my all, that justice must be fiercely upheld. There can be no free elections without justice.
As for keeping away from politics, yes, party politics is not permissible for us because we are the arbiters in electoral dispute resolution. On the other hand, when a party engages in hate speech for example and we put a stop to it, it is expressing political views without engaging in party politics. A football referee who calls a foul is not being partial. His neutrality demands that he blow the whistle against a foul.
Moreover, in all matters of rights and ethics, there is a hierarchy. For example, the right to life of the UN’s CPR must, when in completion, trump the right to vacations with pay in the Convention on ESCR. Likewise, when policies of government threaten the life of a nation or a section of its people, the right to life must trump any need for, or the ethics of, political neutrality by Election Commissions.
So let me please express myself today. Let me say that as a member of the Election Commission, I will always uphold the mandate of the people. However, it does not mean that we make no moral judgements. As thinking persons, as moral persons, we act strictly on ethics considerations.
The Winds of Change from January 2015 were a watershed in Sri Lanka’s political history. Before that Tamils had been, according to UN reports, slaughtered in several tens of thousands. Muslims were attacked and Churches burnt. White vans plied our streets, disappearing opponents of the ruling regime. There were calls to eject us from the Commonwealth because of our violations of human rights; Canada boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in 2013. We were under the UN HRC’s microscope for human rights violations and genocide. Corruption was visible everywhere. There were 97 ministers out of 173 government MPs in a parliament of 225 MPs. It was a sign of our corruption as MPs in opposition were induced to join the government through a ministerial seat on the cabinet. Our GSP-Plus status for easy exports to Europe was revoked. The UN Human Rights Council was readying to charge Sri Lanka.
Then the dark stormy clouds over us lifted in January 2015. A new government was in place promising change. And change there was. White vans are no longer heard of. Tamil and Muslim parties became part of the ruling coalition. Tamil areas saw demilitarization. People no longer lived in fear. A constitutional change clipped the wings of the president limiting terms to two. Independent Commissions were created under the Nineteenth Amendment. These included our Election Commission. The size of the cabinet was limited to 30. A Tamil Chaired the Delimitation Commission. Tamils were suddenly proud to be Sri Lankan.
The two major parties of the Sinhalese people for the first time joined hands in effecting these changes. After a long time a major Tamil party, the TNA, was in partnership with the government. However, the TNA chose to sit in opposition despite the partnership. The reason was caution. Previous deals between the Sinhalese ruling party and the Tamils were reneged as the other major Sinhalese party claimed a sell-out. This time both parties were in power together as a national government. Neither party would, neither could, claim a sell-out by the other. So there was hope.
The Sputtering Engine
However, even when the government was new, there were indications of an intention to cheat. The Nineteenth Amendment limiting cabinet to 30 had an escape clause for forming national governments with the permission of parliament – a trivial requirement for any government with a majority. There were 47 cabinet ministers now.
Two years later, the engine is sputtering. The mandate to clean up has not been fulfilled. Private Tamil lands taken over by the army and promised to be returned, are very slow in being returned. Refugees away from home can never participate fully as candidates or electors. The President and the Prime Minister insist that Buddhism will continue in the new constitution as the foremost religion with state sponsorship. Generals who murdered Tamil civilians have been declared national heroes who will never be prosecuted. It is a free pass for anyone wishing to massacre Tamils. When a minority’s right to life is so challenged by policies of government as is happening in Sri Lanka now, for us to remain silent is suicide. For, people living in fear can never participate in elections.
Local Government Elections, overdue in some Tamil areas from at least 2013, are yet to be held.
The Tamil leader, Rajavarothayam Sampanthan, says in frustration that he is at the end of his tether. Generally, accusations that the government has no intention to fulfill promises of reconciliation and justice for victims of war crimes, are widely accepted by Tamils. Mr. Sampanthan himself – I think I assess correctly – is being widely blamed by Tamils for being taken for a ride again. God forbid! Tamils who voted overwhelmingly for this government, I doubt will be so trusting again. That forebodes ill for a united Sri Lanka.
(To be continued)