By Jehan Perera –
The government has been under especial scrutiny on issues of human rights in relation to the post-war reconciliation process following its election in 2019 and subsequent withdrawal from the UN mandated reconciliation process epitomized by Resolution 30/1 of 2015 of the UN Human Rights Council that was co-sponsored by the previous government. The appointment of Prof G L Peiris last year as Foreign Minister with a mandate to deal with this issue has been a positive step to consolidate and build on efforts to convince the international community that the reconciliation process continues to be a priority. One of the few areas of positive development in an increasingly pessimistic scenario at the present time is with regard to the institutions established to promote the reconciliation process in the past few years.
The government’s bid to get the post-war reconciliation process back on track, and convince the UN and western governments of this, has followed on the EU parliamentary resolution in the middle of last year in which it threatened economic sanctions against Sri Lanka. In that resolution the EU parliament warned that the GSP Plus tariff privilege would be withdrawn as a last resort if specific human rights conditions were not met. It appears that the government is more willing to be responsive to human rights conditionalities than to economic ones, at least for visibility purposes. The refusal of the government to obtain debt relief financing from the IMF is attributed to its reluctance to accept economic conditionalities that are more susceptible to strict monitoring than human rights ones.
Some of the positive actions taken by the government in terms of human rights commitments made and institutions established, has been in making better appointments to those mechanisms. The reconstitution and appointment of new chairpersons to the Human Rights Commission and to the Office on Missing Persons, and new commissioners to them and to the Right to Information Commission have given a signal that the government is willing to strengthen the systems of checks and balances in terms of human rights. In addition, the shifting of the NGO Secretariat from under the aegis of the Defense Ministry to the Foreign Ministry has led to a more favorable attitude to reconciliation work that is taking place at the community level. However, as the continued incarceration of a few hundred persons under the Prevention of Terrorism Act and new arrests under it demonstrate, the repressive arm of the state continues to be the dominant one.
Another area in which reform is taking place is with regard to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The EU parliament’s resolution on Sri Lanka has given prominence to the need to bring Sri Lanka’s anti-terrorism legislation in line with international standards. Most EU countries themselves have strict anti-terror laws and have themselves been subjected to terrorist attack which has led to further tightening of their laws. Since its introduction in 1979 in Sri Lanka, the PTA has been criticized as a draconian law that gives the security forces and political and administrative authorities arbitrary powers of arrest and long term detention of suspects. Successive governments have utilized the draconian provisions of the PTA to incarcerate not only terrorist suspects but also their political opponents on trumped up charges of terrorism.
Among the main criticisms of the PTA is that the powers of arbitrary arrest and detention given to political and administrative authorities and to the security forces has impacted most severely on ethnic and religious minorities and also on political opponents of incumbent governments. They can, and have, been locked up for months and years without being charged or unable to obtain bail or any other judicial redress. The government is presently in the process of revising the PTA to bring it in line with international standards. In pursuit of this aim the ministerial subcommittee on reforming the PTA chaired by Foreign Minister Peiris has had discussions with the Bar Association and with civil society members. While these groups have been verbally briefed about the reforms being contemplated there is no concrete submissions that have been presented to them.
In an apparent gesture of goodwill and confidence building the government has been granting bail to a few of those charged under the PTA following its meetings with civil society members. They in turn have called on the ministerial subcommittee to ensure that some key elements should be incorporated into the revised legislation. These would include, firstly, defining the term “terrorism” so that it is not left open to subjective interpretations of political and administrative authorities and the security forces. Second, that the powers of arrest and detention should be confined to the Judiciary and extrajudicial powers as vested at present with political and administrative authorities and with the security forces need to be subject to judicial review. And third, that the legislation pertaining to the revised PTA needs to be vetted by the Supreme Court. Indeed this power of judicial review needs to be made applicable to all legislation even when passed by parliament with a 2/3 majority.
After taking on the position of Foreign Minister, Prof Peiris has been actively seeking to create space for civil society organisations to engage in reconciliation programmes of the government. He is working closely with the Minister of Justice, Hon. Ali Sabry who has facilitated meetings with the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation, the Office for Reparations and the Sustainable Development Goals Council which come under the Justice Ministry. There is the possibility of CSOs engaging in collaborative activities in the near future. The new chairperson of the OMP, Mahesh Katulanda, has indicated his intention to work with the UN and ICRC to reach a solution to the vexed and emotive problem of missing persons. He has also reached out to civil society organisations to provide capacity building with regard to the mandate that needs to be pursued.
The possibility of forward movement in the national reconciliation process is possibly the only silver lining in the gloomy situation that the country is in. The suicide of a man who tried to rob a supermarket and carry away some children’s perfumes and was accosted is an indication of the pressure that sections of the population are facing. In rural areas, the paddy fields are not the usual lush green due to fertilizer shortages. Many lower income families are cutting down on their food intake, particularly of vegetables and milk foods, as prices have risen sharply. On the other hand, if the national reconciliation process can be taken forward, the ethnic and religious communities are included, and the EU’s GSP Plus can be saved, a major cause for the further economic deterioration of the country can be prevented.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s recent pronouncements that he was born a Sinhala Buddhist, schooled as a Sinhala Buddhist, was voted to power by Sinhala Buddhists and will protect the Sinhala Buddhist civilization as his first priority can be interpreted to mean he is taking a partisan stance. It could even mean that the president is trying to divert attention away from the economic difficulties the country is experiencing and the corruption in it under the cloak of nationalism. This would erase the glimmer of hope that remains. The Sri Lankan state and its leadership need to stand for all its people and uphold their rights in equal measure. The only way forward is for the president to be the strong leader the country has never had and renounce the politics of religion and race, effectively outlaw them as Lee Kuan Yew did in Singapore, and to pursue politics based on economic development and good governance, with corruption also outlawed as in Singapore.