By Jehan Perera –
The government has decided to present its proposed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA) to parliament for debate on April 25. The decision to delay calling for a vote on it, and using the government’s majority not to bulldoze its decision is to be welcomed. The government needs to reconsider its present formulation as it would impact on the democratic space and rights available to political parties, trade unions and civic activists. In any legal reform, the fundamental rights and protection of citizens need to be guaranteed. The power of the people is shared with the government for their benefit as per the constitution. The ATA fails to achieve both these objectives. The draft ATA presented by the government has several features that are worse than the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) that it is intended to replace.
Unfortunately, it appears there is no change in the mindset of those who have framed the replacement legislation. Instead, there are indications of a mindset that wishes to suppress political activism on the grounds of terrorism. Among the worst features of the proposed ATA is its vague and broad interpretation of terrorism that would include theft of government and even private property and trade union action. It brings legitimate activities within the scope of terrorism including protests, publishing material, demands for action by the government, strikes and disputes relating to racial and religious places. The law permits police or military or coast guard personnel to arrest anyone without warrant on whom they have “reasonable suspicion” of being involved in acts such as those given above.
There are two opposing views of what might happen with the passage of the Anti-Terrorism legislation (ATA) that is presently pending in parliament. Some members of the government have said a parliamentary debate on the matter could be held on April 25 while others say that this is unlikely to happen as the government has already decided to shelve the matter for a better time due to the international and local pressures that have been brought to bear upon the government. The ATA is proving to be more controversial than the PTA it seeks to replace due to the pressures brought on successive governments to bring it in line with international standards at a minimum or risk the economic sanction of losing the GSP Plus tariff concession granted by the EU.
The abuse of the PTA by successive governments has been adversely commented upon and noted by human rights organisations and by foreign governments which is why it is subject to the EU’s warning that there need to be substantial changes in the law that are narrowly defined to tackle the problem of terrorism. The GSP Plus concession is given to countries that are both developing themselves from under development and demonstrating a genuine willingness to protect the human rights of their people rather than to oppress them. At this time, in the midst of an economic crisis, losing existing economic assistance and being subject to economic sanctions are the last thing that the country needs.
A key feature of the proposed ATA that has been criticized by local and international organisations, including the Bar Association and now the Organisation of Professional Associations (OPA) is that it brings in a whole host of activities within the scope of what can be considered to be terrorism. These would include trade union action in pursuit of workers’ rights which could also have an impact on government’s economic functions and therefore on the national economy. As a result, there is widespread unanimity among analysts and scholars that the real purpose of the ATA is less to control terrorism in the form of terror attacks on the country and more to focus on effort to curb the ongoing protest campaign against the government’s efforts to restructure the economy, the plans of development which also seem questionable.
What has changed most since the protest movement came on to the streets a year ago and the present time is the appearance of law and order. There is also the reappearance of nearly all economic items and commodities rather than the severe shortages of a year ago. The protests started with the shortages of fertilizer to begin with and then progressed to protests against the shortages of fuel and gas — and dollars, which was the mother of all shortages, whether food, medicine, fuel or electricity. It was these shortages that led to chaos on the streets with tens of thousands of people protesting against the sudden and totally unexpected decline in their standards of living that brought a once prosperous middle and working class to the level of penury where 70 percent of families had to cut back on their daily intake of food. In addition, a quarter more of the population of the country fell below the poverty line due to the fact that although available the prices and the cost of living have not returned to their former levels though the income remains lower or same as before.
The reasonable and legitimate demand of the people is that those who are, and were, responsible for the impoverishment of the country and have siphoned money abroad one way or the other should be held to account and punished. It would also be the case that in the aftermath of the economic collapse that any responsible government would seek to take responsibility for the deterioration and continuing non-performance of the economy and the sufferings it has thrust upon the people. People have a moral right to protest when the government they have entrusted their collective futures to behaves in a self-seeking and non constructive manner. Over the past year the government has used the security forces to crackdown on the protest movement and to quell public protest and also embarked on a process of IMF-directed economic recovery in which the main burden of price rises and cuts in social welfare have fallen on the poorer sections of the population.
The system of democracy is based on notions of social contract that go back three centuries in time. According to these theories, people give up parts of their rights and freedoms to the government which promises to fulfill those rights and obligations to the people’s benefit. However, this governmental obligation has not been fulfilled with the collapse of the Sri Lankan economy in a short space of time in which prices shot up by 100 to 200 percent while incomes remained the same or even fell. In a situation where people lost their jobs in the shrinking economy which shrank by 9 percent last year and is expected to fall by 4 percent this year the people have a legitimate right to protest when they see that the corruption and mismanagement within the government is not being adequately dealt with.
Protest is morally justified when basic human rights are violated and the door to legal and democratic political remedies is shut with the government refusing to accept responsibility and resigning in the face of calamity. More than a year after the economic collapse and resignation of the government most of whom were reappointed, there have neither been elections to give people a new set of elected representatives whom they might place their confidence in, nor has there been progress in the holding of those who created the economic collapse accountable for their wrongdoings. It is obnoxious to see those who broke the economy sitting in office and trying to repair the damage as if nothing had happened. Instead, there is the placing of more and more economic burdens on the masses of people in the form of tax hikes and anticipated cuts in jobs. While many lost income and assets over this period the burned and looted houses of parliamentarians and government supporters alone and generous allocations for the losses they suffered have been made which seems inequitable. While more loans have been obtained from the IMF, the decisions on how to allocate and spend those resources lie with essentially the same group who were instrumental in bringing the country to its present state. There is nothing to ensure their will not be a repeat of the past. They have neither been held to account or removed from positions of power. These form the basic MORAL justifications for the continuation of the protest movement which the ATA seeks to suppress.