By R. Sivachandran –
The restoration of GSP+ concessions by the EU is on the cards and some EU governments are having a discussion with civil society in Jaffna on 1 June, 2016 to see what we feel about it and whether the government has made sufficient progress in human rights to justify the restoration.
Coincidentally, June 1 is also Voters’ Day and the Election Commission is preparing the public through a march through Jaffna and street dramas to emphasize the theme “You do not Register, You cannot Vote.”Chinthanaikoodam, a Jaffna-based think-tank that I chair, has held multiple seminars to educate the public on the importance of voter registration. We will join the Commission in its registration drive on June 1. Registration also enhances representative government, preventing the number of Jaffna MPs, once at 11, from dropping from its present seven to six. We will emphasize that registering also has other advantages like preferential school admission.
By our endeavours helping the Election Commission we see ourselves as fulfilling the goals of Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (CPR) which reads:
Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions:
(a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives;
(b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors;
(c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.
This raises a question with regard to our overdue local government elections. Why register to vote when there are no elections to vote at? Laudable though the voter registration drive might be, it also exposes two weaknesses in our democracy. Where are our periodic elections? When the CPR gives this right to vote to every citizen, we have lakhs of Tamil refugee citizens who are not allowed to vote. This denies them the right to choose their representatives as promised in the CPR.
Article 25 of our Local Authorities Elections Ordinance demands that elections be held within the six months preceding the date of a new Council assuming office – meaning within the last six months of the expiry of a local body. However, there have been no elections long after these bodies expired. Tamil bodies (e.g., Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, Batticaloa) have been dead much longer from the time the Joint Opposition was in power but Supreme Court petitions from the Joint opposition to hold elections have become a torrent only after the bodies in Sinhalese areas expired. These demonstrate the continuing parlous state of Tamil rights.
It is argued that no elections can be held as required in law because, one, the relevant laws in Sinhalese use the wrong word for ward so one cannot elect persons to an undefined ward; and, two, the delimitation work is not over because the public needs to be given time according to the law to object to the boundaries. The reasons given are palpably self-serving. If the law does not properly define ward, it is within the government’s power to pass the required legislation quickly. As to delimitation, no one ever intended to give the Minister of Local Government the power to postpone elections indefinitely by giving long extensions to file appeals. The fact is, however, that we already have a valid (even if flawed) old delimitation, and elections have to be held under that as required by the Local government Act.
In law there are hierarchies. Holding timely elections in a democracy is of higher importance than the right to appeal electoral boundaries – much like a policeman’s right to leave with pay not ever abridging that policeman’s duty to defend the right to life of citizens in danger. To argue for the lawful right to leave for the policeman when a right to life is under threat and has to be defended, is like the tail wagging the dog. The right to appeal boundaries is the tail wagging the dog that is the much higher principle of having representative government.
The delay in holding elections and the denial of franchise to many citizens abroad show lack of commitment to democracy. It never bothered anyone for years when Tamils in Jaffna, Batticaloa, etc. had no representation; or that Tamil refugees could not vote. Now suddenly the joint opposition has discovered democracy and wants local government elections. They are asking for the right thing for the wrong reasons.
Our experience is that the government forcefully acts for Sinhalese interests; but for Tamil interests only under pressure. The withdrawal of GSP+ privileges worked. The threat at UNHRC worked in getting the government to agree to international judges in war crime tribunals. But now that, after regime change the US has openly said that it would support this government, the government, newly infused with confidence, appears to be going back on its word. The President would rather not punish the bombing and disappearances of Tamil civilians than even find out in a fair trial whether Sinhalese troops murdered Tamil civilians.
We appear to have been fooled by a government which, it is now apparent, saw its 100 point program as a means of coming to power rather than a platform of solid principles. Qualified Tamils returning after displacement have not been restored as promised but rogues who have been charged with large scale embezzlement have been appointed to high office at Secretary level. Ministers who made millions are back as ministers. In Jaffna, the old power structure continues with the same old people in charge.
A seeming achievement in the appointment of nine independent Commissions is an illusion, a farce. The Commissions are poorly thought through. Their members were appointed in November without a word on their remuneration. The Constitutional Council (CC), after the Commissions were appointed, recommended the same monthly salary for all Commissions (Rs. 150,000 for chairmen and Rs. 100,000 for members), although some have a lot more work and many more meetings. Whether living in Colombo or far off places, the recommendation was Rs. 25,000 a month for travel, which necessitates outstation members free-loading on relations. Yet, the President thought all this was too much making Commissioners unsure of whether they would be paid at all. The cabinet after much delay approved the CC recommendation. Now the Salaries Commission which sets salaries only to public servants and has no authority over Commissioners, has slashed the cabinet recommendation and made significantly lower recommendations. One wonders how the President’s and Ministers’ advisers are paid a lot more while the Peoples Bank Chairman gets Rs. 500,000 a month. In the meantime, the Commissioners have not been paid (except for those on pre-existing commissions like the Human Rights Commission who are paid their old salaries). Persons on Commissions like the Audit Commission, the Finance Commission and the Procurement Commission that have hardly met will get the same salary backdated when it is approved, whenever that is and a travel allowance without meetings. The new Delimitation Commission meets in the home of its worthy woman member, Dr. Anila Dias Bandaranayake, who serves lunch and tea at meetings.
Was the government ever serious about making the Commissions independent? In asking eminent persons to work for over 6 months without knowing the terms on which they work? No Commission waiting for the government to set its salary and begging for travel reimbursement and tea at meetings is worthy of the adjective “Independent.” I take that to be deliberate.
The government does have some achievements like unrestricted travel anywhere in Sri Lanka and the removal of the trappings of a police state that we were under. The removal of the military governor for the North is another achievement. Some lands taken over by the forces have been returned. These seem to be the only positive changes of note. But we voted for a lot more. There is much more to be done to make us fully proud to be Sri Lankans.
I am a proud Sri Lankan and I want Sri Lanka to do well – for our fishermen to sell more of their fish and for our textile manufacturers to sell more clothes in Europe. However, also as a Sri Lankan, I want Sri Lanka to be a lovable country where we all live as equal brothers and sisters. For that, the GSP+ pressure is necessary.
*Prof. R. Sivachandran was Dean of the Faculty of Arts at University of Jaffna before his retirement