By Chamindry Saparamadu –
The most recent Report of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachele, released on March 20th 2019 makes some vital observations regarding the progress made by Sri Lanka in the implementation of the Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 in promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights between October 2015 and January 2019.
While the High Commissioner notes with appreciation the introduction of a new institutional architecture to take the Transitional Justice processes forward through the establishment of the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation and the Office of Missing Persons by Act No. 14 of 2016 as well as the enactment of new laws such as the Enforced Disappearances Act in March 2018, her failure to mention the importance of making the existing institutions, such as the Provincial Councils, considered vital to achieve reconciliation, functional is a cause for serious concern.
The High Commissioner underscores the importance of developments in the Constitutional Reforms process, albeit in a limited way, by the continuation of the political dialogue and the tabling of a Panel of Experts Report by the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly in January 2019, towards a political settlement and devolution. However, the importance of making devolution meaningful and a living reality seems to have missed her attention. The legal terms of Six of the Provincial Councils expired late last year, including that of the Northern Provincial Council, which have all been brought under the control of the respective Governors, who are appointed by the President, at his sole discretion. There is, at present, not even a discussion on when the elections to such Provincial Councils would be held and the people in the respective provinces would get the opportunity to exercise their right to elect their councilors.
I see two main problems here. The first being, the serious undermining and/or the erosion of the right to franchise of the Sri Lankan people, as enshrined in and guaranteed by Article 3 and Article 4 of the Constitution as well as a reversal of the devolution debate in Sri Lanka. Needless to reiterate that Sri Lanka’s devolution debate has hitherto been based on province as the primary unit of devolution. Discussions on state reforms, including that of the most recent Constitutional Reforms process, have focused on further power devolution to the province as a meaningful political solution to the national question, a fundamental plank in the reconciliation agenda. .
As such, the non-holding of elections to the Provincial Councils, and denying the people of the provinces the right to elect their representatives, in my view, constitute a serious regression in the Human Rights, Transitional Justice and Reconciliation Agenda, which seems to have rather disturbingly missed the attention of the High Commissioner. Emphasizing on new laws and new institutions, the High Commissioner is presenting a futuristic vision for devolution and reconciliation. But I think it is much more important to make devolution of power a living reality for the people for achieving reconciliation and for meeting people’s aspirations and needs on the ground according to the principle of subsidiarity, which requires that decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen. .
Such lapses on the part of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, underlines the importance of United Nations Offices holding more inclusive consultations with diverse stakeholders in preparing their country reports.
*The author Chamindry Saparamadu, is a Lawyer and an International Development Specialist having extensive work experience in the area of democratic governance with a multitude of international organizations including the United Nations. She served as the Head of the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office in Colombo from 2014-2016 and as a Member of the Panel of Advisors to Sri Lanka’s Constitutional Assembly from 2016-2019. Chamindry holds a Master of Arts Degree in International Development with Distinction from the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.