By Mangala Samaraweera –
H.E. Kamalesh Sharma, Secretary General,
The Commonwealth. 13th Nov. 2013
I saw pictures of you arriving in Sri Lanka , obviously a happy man, as your dream of holding the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting will come true in a few days time and Sri Lanka will be entrusted with the task of implementing and nurturing the newly signed commonwealth Charter for the next two years. Like the proverbial father – over anxious to get his ageing daughter married at any cost – who hides certain details of the groom’s dubious past from the relatives , you too had to resort to many manoeuvrings to overcome the objections of some of your powerful members.
In fact, in your enthusiasm to go ahead with this unholy alliance, steps were taken to conceal the legal opinion sought by you regarding the scandalous impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, earlier this year. You invited two senior jurists to tell you whether removal of the chief justice was consistent with Commonwealth values and principles. Their responses were unequivocal. Jeffrey Jowell, a QC who directs the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, found that the chief justice had been ousted by an unfair process that ‘did not comply with … Commonwealth values and principles’. The second lawyer you consulted, the late Pius Langa, a former chief justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court, was even more forthright. Sri Lanka’s government, he concluded, had not merely contravened Commonwealth values and principles: it was ‘sowing the seeds of anarchy’ and ‘directly violating the rule of law’. This opinion was also echoed by the International Commission of Jurists and the Commonwealth Lawyers Association. Not only did you ignore the opinions provided by these eminent jurists, but you failed to make these reports available to CMAG (Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group) when they met in London in April and September this year.
Thanks to your single minded determination, President Mahinda Rajapakse, the very man who has spent nearly eight years undermining the values and principles he is supposed to uphold will now become the public face of the Commonwealth for the next two years.
Like the kindly teacher who believes that the truant of the class can be rehabilitated by making him, the monitor, I am sure that you too believe that President Rajapaksa will mend his ways when given the task of upholding the Commonwealth Charter in 53 countries and this blue eyed optimism is reflected in a statement made by you to a British TV network last week when you say “…….significant advances have been made in the interests of the citizens of Sri Lanka.” Instead of merely basing your assumptions on information provided by a few salaried members of the regime, you should at least now speak to members of the opposition and civil society as well as affected parties and ordinary citizens of this country to assess the prevailing situation. If at all, the drift towards authoritarianism continues unabated but as Dr. Nirmal Dewasiri, president of FUTA says in a statement on the closure of all universities during this period, ‘ …….this is part of the general programme of deception that has been launched by this regime to use CHOGM to whitewash its sins at considerable cost and inconvenience to its citizens.’ In fact for the next few months, we are going to be tortured by the ubiquitous smile of our great/dear leader looking down benevolently from giant billboards that would have put Kim Il Jong of North Korea to shame.
Perhaps emboldened by apologists for this regime within the international community like you, the Rajapaksa regime continue to violate the core values of the Commonwealth Charter with impunity. The witch hunt against the Chief Justice is continuing and the Supreme Court has now become a mere appendage of the executive. Shirani Bandaranayake was summoned to court in mid-September on charges that would be laughable if they weren’t so vindictive: her failure to disclose empty bank accounts, it is alleged, amounts to the corrupt concealment of valuable assets. The pliant figure that Rajapaksa chose to succeed her, Mohan Pieris, a former attorney-general and cabinet adviser, is meanwhile supervising Supreme Court judges who are soon going to be asked to rubber-stamp Bandaranayake’s removal and his appointment. If, as looks likely, some of the judges prefer instead to retire, the president will get to pick their successors, at which point the last significant obstacle to executive domination will disappear.
Violating the Lattimer principles even further, the legislature has become a mere rubber seal for executive action under the Chairmanship of yet another Presidential sibling. 47% of the budgetary allocations for 2014 are for the Ministries directly controlled by the Rajapaksa brothers and Parliament has very little say on deciding on such allocations. Not only the references to the President but even references to the defence secretary – even by innuendo – are censored and expunged from the Hansard.
Despite reluctantly holding the Northern Provincial elections in September thanks to intense international pressure the situation in the North remains tense with the militarisation process continuing unabated.However the militarisation is not confined to the North: in every district of Sri Lanka new army units have been formed and many of the key posts in the civil service are held by military personnel hand picked by the defence secretary. Even the permanent secretary of the new Ministry in charge of the police is a military man reporting directly to the defence secretary.
In the North lands are also being taken over forcibly in an insidious attempt to change the demography of the area. Instead of coming up with a genuine political settlement which can address the grievances of the long suffering Tamil people of the North and the East, a Parliamentary select committee has been appointed to keep International pressure at bay.
Tolerance, respect and understanding is yet another core value of the Commonwealth charter but religious and ethnic intolerance has been actively encouraged by the state run media since the conclusion of the war and many Muslim and Christian places have been attacked while the Police looked on. Some of these extremist groups fostering this culture of intolerance are openly seen with key members of this regime. Recently, on the 3rd of September, a statue sacred to the Hindus was vandalised in Dambulla and two weeks later the kovil was flattened to the ground after a visit to the temple by persons in Army uniform who claimed that the temple which has been there for over 30 years was on sacred Buddhist land! Until the advent of the present regime, Sri Lanka was renowned as a land of great tolerance and in many places Buddhist temples have coexisted with kovils, mosques and churches next to each other for decades if not centuries.
In yet another insidious plan to change the demography of the city of Colombo which remains unfavourable to the ruling party, the residents of the predominantly Muslim and Tamil neighbourhood of Slave Island are been resettled elsewhere against their will. This must be condemned as a violation of United Nations principles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Accordingly human settlement planning must seek to improve the quality of the life of people with full respect for indigenous, cultural and social needs. Settlement planning and implementation for the purpose of prolonging and consolidating occupation and subjugation in territories and lands acquired through coercion and intimidation must not be undertaken .
The Police, since the abolition of the independent Police commission in 2010, is now nothing more than a servile and obliging security service catering to the whims and fancies of the ruling family. Last month, I too was a victim of a massive witch hunt against me and my supporters in my constituency in Matara. As a result of a clash which erupted between supporters of the UNP and a group of government backed protesters, nearly 60 persons were arrested and kept in remand custody for two weeks while many of the perpetrators have not even been questioned. Five people were wounded by shots fired by a self proclaimed advisors to the President and one bystander has been partially paralysed for life. Many of those arrested were key office bearers of my party who according to video footage available did not in any way participate in the violence and even the general Secretary of the women’s group who was not even present where the incident took place was arrested after midnight without the presence of a WPC as the law requires. I have last week lodged 11complaints at the Human Rights Commission but as the commissioners are now directly appointed by the President in violation of the Paris Principles, an impartial investigation cannot be expected.
The President is now not only the Commander in Chief of the Armed Forces, he also has assumed the role of Editor in Chief of all media. Almost all the media is directly or indirectly controlled by the government. Other than the Wijeya group of newspapers all other newspapers are run by proxies of the regime and because of the inherent climate of fear prevalent at all levels of the media, most journalists resort to self censorship especially when dealing with allegations of corruption against the first family. Those who dare to deviate from the expected norms are threatened and recently Mandana Ismail, who was investigating a corrupt land deal became the latest journalist to join dozens of others from the fraternity, living in exile abroad. Even this open letter to you, even if carried in newspapers will, I am sure, be heavily censored.
The expulsion of a Senator from Australia and a M.P. from Australia a few days ago and the cancelling of visas of two senior representatives of a respected international media organisation last week shows that the government remains set in its ways even on the eve of CHOGM.
Thanks to your sustained efforts, the Commonwealth has therefore chosen to reward blatant and sustained violations of its supposed values and principles to a man so little concerned with Democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
He will not only be the public face of your association for the next two years but also the guardian of the Commonwealth Charter in 53 countries. Therefore, it is your bounden duty to ensure that the new Chairman of the Commonwealth implements the Charter in his own country first , if he is to have the moral authority to preach to other member states who may behave in contravention of the charter. You must not be fooled by time buying tactics of the regime like the proposed Commission on Torture and must insist on the speedy implementation of the President’s own LLRC proposals.However, as some of the proposals may require time for full implementation, there are three proposals which can be implemented immediately in order to prove that the truant of the class has now turned a new leaf since being made monitor and is truly committed to the Commonwealth Charter.
1. Repeal the 18th Amendment and restore the independence of the judicial Commission, the elections commission, the police commission, public services commission and the bribery and corruption commission. In fact this is one of the key recommendations of your own Commonwealth Election Observer Mission to ensure free and fair elections in this country. As 2014 has been touted as an election year this must be passed in Parliament in January and the UNP has already handed a draft amendment to the Speaker.
2. The freedom of Information Act can also be passed in Parliament immediately as an act has already been tabled in Parliament by the UNP.
3. There are unverified but extremely serious allegations of war crimes against the Government which in turn has tarnished the reputation of our armed forces who for many decades were renowned for their discipline and dedication as a fighting force. Therefore it is extremely important that the government abandons it’s ‘shoot the messenger’ policy and initiate a credible and independent investigation into these allegations as early as possible without paving the way for international scrutiny.
The immediate implementation of these proposals will reassure the people of this country, that your strategy has worked and the Rajapaksa regime has now changed its authoritarian direction and is sincere in its commitment to the fundamentals of democracy. Given the history of the regime, I do not expect it to implement the Charter voluntarily.Therefore , I hope that you along with the leaders of the Commonwealth will bring sufficient pressure on the government to implement the charter as soon as possible.
We in the UNP and other political and civil organisations will also be commencing a campaign to compel the regime to uphold these rights until our goals are achieved democratically.
I wish you a pleasant stay in our beautiful but tortured island.
Mangala Samaraweera M.P.