By Rajiva Wijesinha –
I write this before the results of the Presidential Election are known and I assume President Sirisena will address these challenges. But since it is conceivable that President Rajapaksa might be declared the winner, and might be able to convince our people as well as the world that he was fairly elected, I hope that he too will think of these matters and not continue with the mixture as before. In particular he must make it clear that he will no longer rule through an oligarchy of family and friends with questionable capacity, but will work with senior members of his own party and technocrats subject to supervision by democratically established institutions.
The most important issue facing the new President is to restore confidence in the governmental process. For this purpose it is necessary to establish systems that work according to the Rule of Law, and with full accountability to the people. In this respect it is vital that Parliamentary control of legislation and finances be restored.
This does not mean strengthening an Executive based in Parliament, but rather strengthening Parliament to be an effective check on the Executive. This means strengthening the power of ordinary members of Parliament, both government and opposition.
Measures to ensure this were the principle component of the Standing Order changes I had proposed last year, changes which the Speaker ignored in contravention of the existing Standing Orders. My main purpose was to strengthen Committees of Parliament by streamlining them and ensuring that they were not chaired by members of the Executive. In the case of the Finance Oversight Committees, the PAC and COPE, the chair was to be a member of the opposition.
But ensuring open discussion in committees is not enough. It is also necessary to give them teeth, and for this purpose we should ensure that the Executive either follows their recommendations, or else gives reasons in writing as to why this is not desirable or possible. The same would apply to the petitions committee, the directions of which are now simply flouted by the Executive.
I would take this principle further, to promote consultation as well as accountability at local levels. The Local Government Act should be amended to ensure involvement of People’s Representatives in Committees of Pradeshiya Sabhas and Local Councils. I have already suggested amendments in this regard to the Secretary of the Local Government Ministry who had consulted me about the Act. It will also be necessary to define clearly the areas of responsibility of local government bodies, and to give them powers to work effectively in these areas.
In addition, given the number of administrative decisions made at Divisional Secretariat level, there should be consultation mechanisms at Grama Niladhari level, with mandatory feedback at the decision making level. This is the Divisional Secretariat, and I am glad that Mr Sirisena’s manifesto declares the centrality of this level, and the need to ensure coordination of services. With regard to this I have been working together with several Ministry Secretaries on a UNDP Project to improve delivery of services, and I hope the next government studies the excellent report produced by Asoka Gunawardena and implements its recommendations. Certainly we must get rid of the ridiculous system introduced by Basil Rajapaksa, of handing over development funds to Members of Parliament to spend virtually at will, with no coordination and little reference to the plans of the Line Ministries.
Line Ministries should be strengthened, and this requires reducing the size of the Cabinet in accordance with clear rationales, as pledged in the opposition manifesto. We cannot have many ministries dealing with similar subjects, and we cannot have ministers doing what they want – and in particular accepting unsolicited bids for projects, which has become a feature of the way the present government runs things – without adherence to well developed plans. It is imperative that a Ministry of Policy and Plan Implementation be set up, and given teeth on the lines of the suggestions the Secretary to that Ministry and I forwarded to Mr Lalith Weeratunge at the end of 2009.
I have stressed governance issues, because these seem to me the most important in terms of safeguarding democracy and promoting equitable development. For this purpose it is also essential to pass the proposed Freedom of Information Act, and to give it teeth through ensuring public accountability at all levels of government. In addition I hope we will also introduce the Bill of Rights which wass promised in the 2005 Mahinda Chintanaya, and which the Ministry of Disaster Management and Human Rights had got drafted by the end of 2009, but which has since been ignored.
Such a Bill, and many of the measures necessary for good governance, require an effective judiciary, and this is an area in which immediate reforms are needed. Obviously we must strengthen the independence of the judiciary, but we also need to make it responsive and accountable. Parliament must pass laws to speed up the judicial process, and also set in place an independent mechanism to monitor the judges. Best practice in other countries should be explored for this purpose, and guidelines developed to prevent exploitation of those who come before the law. We must also strengthen mediation procedures to deal with exorbitant costs for those who seek recourse to justice.
I will not dwell on the need for independent commissions since this is obvious. But we also need to empower these commissions, and ensure that their recommendations are followed with regard to the enforcement of rights and the prevention of financial abuse. These are areas where Parliament must be supreme, and the Executive should not have power to interfere with decisions, though provision may be made for appeals in writing by the executive and for a consultation process.
With regard to Constitutional Reform, measures to which no one can object should be introduced immediately. These include the repeal of the 18th Amendment, introduction of a mixed electoral system, and reduction of the size of the Cabinet. There should also be rapid implementation of the 13th Amendment, which is already in the Constitution. This should happen after discussion with all stakeholders to ensure that National Security is not adversely affected, but also that there is maximum empowerment of citizens to contribute to governance with regard to subjects that affect them. In particular we should formulate National Policy swiftly in important areas, set in place mechanisms to ensure that this is followed, and then allow implementation to smaller units which can be more responsive to the actual needs of people. This is especially important with regard to Land, as to which we cannot delay any longer on setting up the National Land Commission which was mandated when the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was passed.
I should stress that clear policy, and provisions for systematic implementation and careful monitoring, are especially important with regard to Education, which is the key to both empowerment of people and development. Ensuring equality of opportunity to rural children of all communities, by amongst other measures providing enough teachers in key subjects (and ensuring constant attendance), and by developing employment oriented education and training, is vital. Monitoring of this must be done at Divisional Secretariat level, not by the providers but by stakeholders who should have checklists to ensure that children everywhere get quality education. We also need to establish vocational training centres in all Divisions, with a curriculum that also develops soft skills.
This will increase employment opportunities, nationally as well as internationally. But the skills curriculum should also include entrepreneurship development. This needs to go hand in hand with mechanisms to develop Small and Medium Enterprises, with development of credit facilities as well as training in marketing. We must move our young people from a mindset which relies on government to bestow jobs, and instead develop a culture of job creation. This should be the responsibility of government, of the private sector including individuals and cooperatives, and of partnerships between any of these.
With regard to the media, independence is vital and this must be entrenched, with measures to ensure both the Right to Information and the Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression. However there must also be measures to ensure accountability and basic standards with regard to both accuracy and decency. The Press Complaints Commission responsible to the industry will be strengthened, with mechanisms for swift action and effective remedies. The State Media (both electronic and print) must have clear guidelines which make clear its social and educational role, with an independent governing body that is accountable to Parliament.
National Security is of paramount importance, as is Law and Order. The latter function involves protection of the lives and rights of individuals, and should be the responsibility of a separate Ministry from that which is concerned with defending and protecting the country and its unity. The Ministry in charge of the police should understand the social implications of law and order, and should pay particular attention to Community Policing, and ensure close liaison with the citizenry. The functions of local police stations should include attention to social problems and the prevention of situations that might give rise to exploitation of the vulnerable as well as criminal activity. Close liaison with agencies responsible for social issues is vital, and the development of local action plans to forestall crime and abuse. Not just the protection but also the empowerment of women and children should be a priority, and Community Police should work closely for this purpose with the Women and Children’s Units which have been established in every Division.
Security also needs to be interpreted broadly, with strengthening of protection mechanisms against natural disasters. More attention needs to be paid to environmental issues as well as to Disaster Prevention and Management. The plans developed by the Disaster Management Centre, in particular those regarding Water Management and Landslide Prevention, should be given priority. On the basis of these, Divisional Secretariats should have timelines not only for implementation but also for ensuring community understanding of potential hazards, and involvement in avoiding them. Stress should be placed on renewable energy, and the plans in the opposition manifesto for dendro-energy, seen also as a source of income for rural populations, should be fast forwarded.
With regard to National Security in the traditional sense, its importance should be registered by all citizens, which also means ensuring that all citizens participate in promoting this. Measures should be taken to increase enlistment of all communities, so that the security forces represent the nation as a whole. Participation of the forces in social activities should be encouraged, on the basis of partnerships.
The contentious issue of land acquisition by the security forces needs to be addressed immediately. The following principles should be understood by all and followed with transparency –
- The State has a Right to acquire land for security purposes
- The State has an obligation not to acquire more land than is essential, and to explain the reasons for such acquisition to stateholders
- Appropriate compensation must be paid for such acquisition
These positive principles also entail that the good name of the forces should not be sullied by involvement in the acquisition of land for other purposes. That must follow due process. It is heartening therefore that, while the opposition pledged to resettle the displaced in their places of origin, Douglas Devananda too has followed suit. There should be no question then of acquisition, on Security grounds, of private land for golf courses and hotels, or even for a Presidential Palace. Such abuse must stop, and the people should have confidence that they can have recourse to the Law if there are incursions into their property. In this regard I strongly recommend that the Right to Private Property also be included in the Bill of Rights, since that should be the norm, with State acquisition for whatever purpose, Security or Development, subject to clear conditions.
Finally we must develop and institutionalize a Foreign Policy that will prevent threats of the sort we have faced during the last few years, whilst also ensuring that we overcome these. For the latter purpose, we must fulfil the commitments we made about addressing the concerns the Secretary General of the United Nations and our President discussed back in May 2009. The way to this was spelled out by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and we must expeditiously implement its recommendations. This should apply to all but, if we have reservations about any, we should discuss these with all stakeholders in the country and develop alternative strategies to overcome the problems that have been identified. In particular we must proceed with the domestic inquiries that both main Presidential candidates are now pledged to hold. These need to be conducted with credibility and transparency, with recourse to judicial measures within the country if warranted.
Formulation of an effective Foreign Policy requires attention to principles as well as implementation strategies. The principles should include ensuring regular engagement with all countries and in particular with the United Nations. Whilst safeguarding our sovereignty, we must respond to the concerns of others with understanding of the issues involved, and fulfil commitments we enter into.
Our responses should be based on clear policy guidelines. Most important of these, given geo-political realities, is ensuring good relations with India. This cannot govern domestic policies, but there should be good and reliable communication with India as regards such policies, with the understanding that commitments cannot be violated.
Within a broader framework that also lays down the need for promoting multilateralism, there should be flexibility. A capable Minister should ensure regular consultative meetings of senior level Foreign Ministry officials, with provision for consultation of officials of related Ministries, with circulation of minutes and attention to follow up.
With regard to implementing the policies we formulate, we need a cadre of officials who can think and speak and act effectively. We must build up collegiality within the Ministry. Though there may sometimes be good reasons for appointment of non-career individuals with publicly acceptable qualifications to Head of Mission posts, all other posts should be reserved for members of the Diplomatic Service. These officials must submit brief regular reports on their activities, and our relations with countries to which they are accredited.
There is also need of a wider professionalism, for which Government should establish high level think tanks, which function independently and have research staff to produce position papers and respond to international developments. These institutions should have a training wing, which develops communication skills in addition to the capacity to analyse. They should also publish journals to which diplomats are expected to contribute.
The way ahead will not be easy. But, as indicated throughout, if we put in place an education and training system (in schools as well as for administrators) that develops thinking sklls and initiative, and ensure consultation and accountability, it will not be difficult to move towards a just, prosperous and a happy country.