By Jehan Perera –
None too soon, President Ranil Wickremesinghe appears to be putting the brakes on the government’s policy of repression in dealing with public protests. His decision to initially sign the Gazette notification declaring key areas of Colombo to be High Security Zones was roundly criticized by human rights organisations including the government’s own Human Rights Commission. The business sector also complained that this decision, which appears to have been made by the security establishment, would be injurious to business. Revoking the High Security Zones made practical sense in view of the dubious legal basis of the declaration. The High Security Zones were to be set up under the Official Secrets Act which has hardly anything in common with the purpose of the new regulations.
The High Security Zone concept, which was practiced in the North and East of the country during the time of war, would have made it difficult for vehicles to even park on the roads without first obtaining special permission. There were also legal cases filed in the Supreme Court alleging violation of constitutional rights. The president would also have been aware of the resolution on Sri Lanka that is about to be presented for a vote at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. As many as 26 countries have agreed to co-sponsor the resolution, of which 10 are current members of the UNHRC. Sri Lanka is finding itself isolated in terms of human rights in the eyes of the international community which can have costly consequences in terms of reducing the international sympathy and support that the country needs at this time.
The president’s early resort to the security forces to clamp down on the protest movement came as a surprise as his prior track record would have suggested a more nuanced approach to dealing with public agitation. As a follow up to the revocation of the High Security Zones, the president needs to consider revamping government policy on addressing the protest movement. So far the government approach has focused on suppressing the protest movement, on the justification that it will destabilize the economy through strike actions and by chaos on the streets. However, in Sri Lanka’s democratic system a policy of repression is unlikely to be workable. A government that is reluctant to go to the polls must not use the security forces as its prop. The president’s withdrawal of the High Security Zones in Colombo may be understood as an acknowledgement of this reality.
There is general acknowledgement that the president is the most suitable for the task of negotiating with, and making the political case, for more international aid to come to Sri Lanka. During his recent visits to foreign countries he met with top world leaders and would have made his mark. However, it is also important that the president should make his mark on the Sri Lankan people. He needs to win the trust of the people who did not vote for him. Having consolidated himself following his election by parliament to be president, he needs to take a more pro-active role in addressing the roots of the protest movement and not simply quashing its manifestations. There is a need to inform the people what the government will be doing to directly address the terrible impact of the economic crisis on the poorer sections of the population.
There is a widespread sense that those arrested for being members of the protest movement ought not to be subjected to the heavy hand of the law. At the present time, both in Geneva and in Sri Lanka, government spokespersons are denying the severity of the problems that exists. Successive governments denied the excesses that occurred during the war period, both in Geneva and at home. In Sri Lanka the majority of the population were prepared to go along with the denials of war time excesses due to the nature of the ethnic conflict that pitted the ethnic communities against one another. However, a policy of denying the impact of the economic crisis on the poor will not be able to garner similar support from any community in Sri Lanka and will end up pitting the majority of people against the government, just as happened during the height of the Aragalaya.
A declaration of an amnesty for all those accused and arrested for being part of the protest movement would be an act of follow-up statesmanship considering the controversy these arrests are causing both internationally and nationally with the human rights groups and the general public. The ongoing arrests of some who have been part of the protest movement have been justified on the basis that they engaged in violence or supported it. Others are accused of having burnt down the houses of government ministers, including the president’s own ancestral house which contained his family library and valuable works of art. Some have been arrested without being charged before the courts.
Magnanimity, empathy and fairness are very powerful in binding the community together. This is an opportunity for the president to show his empathy with all those others who down the years have lost their own homes to violence, during the two JVP insurrections and during the long period of the ethnic war. The government plans to compensate its members who lost their houses. It needs to also compensate those who lost their lives due to government failure, the most recent being those who died standing in long lines, or when their substandard gas cylinders exploded.
At present, the government is denying the veracity of studies done by international organisations, including UN organisations, on the extent of the malnutrition and stunting that affects children. They are also denying the veracity of claims of corruption in the procurement of fuel and other large contracts, even in the midst of economic crisis. It is also doing little to ameliorate these problems. The government points to the restoration of reasonable supplies of petrol, diesel, cooking gas and electricity which can create an impression of normalcy, but only for those who can afford the much higher prices at which these commodities are available. The government’s denials of the unequal distribution of the burden will ring hollow with the masses of people, whose support is needed if the government is to govern in a stable political environment.
Instead of denying the existence of problems, the government needs to accept their existence and take measures to address them. This applies to both the problems within the country and that are being discussed internationally. It needs to recognize that its denials have got no traction in Geneva, which is why Sri Lanka has had to face nine resolutions, each one getting more difficult to respond to. The resolution that will be voted on in the UN Human Rights Council later this week will call for greater support for the UN’s evidence gathering mechanism that has already been set up and to provide more support to those countries that pursue universal jurisprudence for crimes committed by Sri Lankan political and military leaders anywhere in the world.
The government needs to use every opportunity it can to seek the support of the international community. With the draft resolution now presented, the eyes of the international community are upon Sri Lanka. While it is too late to change the draft resolution, which will be soon voted on, the government can still seek to restore goodwill among those that are pursuing the resolution on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva. An amnesty for those who participated in the protest movement could send a positive signal that the government is willing to heed the concerns of the international community regarding human rights and democratic freedoms. The possibility of amnesty to be part of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in which there is acknowledgment of past violations, expression of regret and accountability for them can also be explored.