Secretary General of the Commonwealth, K.S. Sharma’s pleas this week at the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) press conference (London, Friday 26th April) that he is constantly engaged with Sri Lanka to uphold the shared values of the Commonwealth that are ‘so dear’ to him, can only invoke guffaws of ribald laughter from many within this country.
Vacuous reassurances by the Commonwealth
Pressed by abrasive if not belligerent interlocutors to explain exactly what he meant by this phrase, Mr Sharma responded with soothing but beautifully vacuous reassurances. He seemed supremely confident that his ‘good offices’ would result in, as he termed ‘very good results in all the areas of human rights, of rule of law, governance, institution building and strengthening.’
In fact, the transcript of this press conference should be compulsory reading for Sri Lankans to fully comprehend the complete lack of knowledge, understanding and capacity on the part of the Commonwealth’s chief administrator in regard to the multiple Rule of Law crises that this country faces today. While a degree of lack of awareness may only be natural, the extent of this ignorance is virtually staggering in its impact.
Cornered particularly in regard to the government’s subjugation of the judiciary, his almost incredibly nave assertion was that he was happy, during his visit, to have had a thorough discussion with the Speaker on ‘correcting’ current procedures of the appointment and removal of judges and that the Commonwealth hopes to share comparative experiences in that regard. Another such gem was the belief that the reconciliation crisis in Sri Lanka can be addressed effectively through the holding of a workshop in London where experts on reconciliation are expected to attend so that Sri Lanka will learn from these experiences.
The government’s role playing is understandable
The other members of CMAG who participated in this press conference were little better as classically illustrated by the Australian Foreign Affairs Minister who declared confidently that ‘I have arranged with the President of Sri Lanka, the full implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission.’ And the less said about the Bangladeshi Chair of CMAG, the better.
Underneath the smiling flattery and glib promises made by this government to the Commonwealth to score what will be an important propaganda victory, it is well known locally that it believes it can run contemptuous rings round these yawning mouthpieces.
In a way, the impotence and ineptness displayed by the Secretary General and other members of CMAG most appallingly at this press conference bears out the Rajapaksa Presidency’s cynical role playing in no uncertain measure. This is quite apart from the question of holding or not holding the next Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka. The fact of the matter is that if these are the superficial perceptions of this country’s problems on with which the Commonwealth hopes to engage with the Sri Lankan government, it is very clear that such disastrous naivete (if one may take the more sparing view of the matter) will be a harbinger of its own doom. The credibility of the Commonwealth, in which its Secretary General seems to have such a strong belief, will certainly be the first casualty. Of this, there is little doubt.
Lack of political will to enforce the law
And even as these fun and games are played out in London, the government continues to ride roughshod over the judiciary with judges from the lower courts to the superior judiciary being well nigh scared of their own shadows. Certainly, the Commonwealth’s pompous reassurances will be of little concern to them. Tamil parliamentarians and journalists are deliberately targeted to snuff out even the remaining resistance while the Muslim minority in Sri Lanka remains paralysed with fear. It is such an un-salubrious environment that the Commonwealth refuses to recognize, preferring instead to gloss over ugly realities by smooth words that signify nothing.
The core problem in Sri Lanka remains the lack of political will to enforce the law. Take the issue of religious extremism against Muslims for example. Forgetting about inept and nave outsiders, many here still believe quite myopically that the spewing of racial, religious and communal hatred may be remedied by better laws. Worse indeed are those unctuous letters addressed to President Mahinda Rajapaksa entreating his interventions. It is this collective asinine shortsightedness which has led us sheep-like into the post war destruction of democratic structures and the enactment of an obscene 18th Amendment with nary a whimper.
A surreal mockery of the law
In the first instance, let it be said quite clearly that Sri Lanka does not need revised or additional laws or regulations in order to tackle this deliberately engineered explosion of hatred by groups with a clear political agenda. Existing laws are quite sufficient for this purpose.
And as these column spaces would indicate later on, one does not really need to go on a voyage of discovery to extract these laws from our statute books as they have already been used against critics whom the government has wanted to punish. Secondly, groveling entreaties to the President to intervene and stop this hate filled invective are fundamentally useless. The full and awful weight of the law is not being used against these groups because there is no political will to do so at the highest levels of this administration.
The resultant tragic-comedy that occurs is surreal. So, on the one hand, while the Secretary to the Defence Ministry presides over functions of the Bodu Bala Sena, we also hear him issuing full throated exhortations not to engage in racial or religious abuse. And when conscientious citizens show their dissent by peacefully lighting candles in Colombo, they are arrested while the hate instigators escape scot free.
Primary duty of the State to intervene
The Attorney General, on his own part, has asked individuals who have been abused on social media to lodge a complaint at the nearest police station, citing difficulties that the prosecutors and investigators will face in otherwise identifying the abusers. Yet the issue is not the lodging of complaints but the robust investigation and prosecution of hate mongers. Is there public confidence that this will be done effectively?
In theory, stringent laws already prohibit the propagation of racial and religious hatred. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act No 56 of 2007 prohibits propagation of war and religious hatred. Section 120 of the Penal Code prohibits the promotion of feelings of ill will and hostility between different classes of people and prescribes rigorous punishments. JS Tissainayagam was found guilty of intending to “cause communal disharmony” inter alia under the Prevention of Terrorism Act 1979 (PTA) by writing to a relatively obscure journal titled magazine in North Eastern Monthly magazine. Instead of using this provision to unfairly prosecute journalists, the same provision can be used against racial hate mongers.
Evidently the problem is not the lack of law but its deliberate negation by powerful individuals in government. While it is good to see that corporates are taking stern action to punish hate mongering, the State has a primary duty to intervene. Yet that will not happen. And to add insult to injury, we will now be treated to the spectacle of ‘talk-shops’ being held on reconciliation, the independence of the judiciary and the Rule of Law by the Commonwealth.
Is there no end to these absurdities?