By Jehan Perera –
Political attention at the present time is focused on two issues that are being used to create a sense of larger governmental failure. The first is that of payments made by a single business company, PTL and its subsidiaries, to a large number of parliamentarians whose number seems to be increasing by the day. Although the sums being mentioned are in the millions, which is very large by the calculations of ordinary citizens, they are nowhere near the tens and hundreds of millions that are understood to be part of every major infrastructure project, some of which have turned out to be pure white elephants, such as the Mattala International airport. As mentioned by some of the politicians whose receipts of funding have been exposed, the practice of receiving funds from business enterprises is widespread.
The other matter that has been receiving considerable attention is the issue of the targeting of media institutions, TNL and Lanka E News, by regulatory action. It is suspected that there has been a political motivation behind the singling out of these two organisations for adverse action. However, those who focus on this do not give their attention to the larger context in which freedom of speech and media has expanded from what it was in the not so distant past. In the same way that the PTL case is being used as a political instrument to target individual politicians so is the harassment of media institutions being used to target individual politicians. What is necessary is a wider focus in which actions taken to highlight and restrict corruption and the equal treatment of media institutions are made part and parcel of the system of governance.
This broader perspective is to be found in the European Union’s assessment of governmental progress with regard to human rights for its trading purposes and to see if Sri Lanka continues to qualify for the GSP Plus tariff concessions. This is a trade benefit that is given to countries that are making a serious effort to create a more democratic and human rights respecting environment within their polities. Sri Lanka has passed this test again, which is for the benefit of the country’s economy. The promotion of Sri Lanka’s exports by providing them with easier access to European markets is a way of promoting economic growth within the country. Export-led economic growth leads to a strengthening of the productive capacities within the country and compares favorably to loan-led infrastructure development which is often squandered on uneconomical projects.
Following the third meeting of the Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights under the European Union-Sri Lanka Joint Commission, the EU commended efforts by the Sri Lankan government for its progress in protecting and enhancing human rights. The meeting took place in the context of Sri Lanka being granted access to the EU for its exports under the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences Plus (GSP+) in May 2017. The EU noted that progress has been made by the Government of Sri Lanka in protecting and enhancing human rights and fundamental freedoms in the country.
The EU also pointed out that a number of important measures have been taken, including the operationalisation of the Office on Missing Persons, the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and the passing of the Right to Information Bill. The EU also noted many important ongoing reforms, such as the replacement of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and reform of the Code of Criminal Procedure Act to bring them in line with international standards, and the status of the Constitution. However, it also noted that the full implementation of the UN Human Rights Council Resolution of October 2015, including the urgent return of land, remains a priority and expressed its readiness to continue supporting the Government in advancing national reconciliation.
The irony is that most of the positive developments that the EU has noted are not in the political debate within Sri Lanka at the present time and instead it only the negative ones such as bribe taking and political in-fighting within the government alliance that are getting attention both in the media and on political and intellectual platforms. The political scandals and rivalries within the government are being reported and commented upon in great detail. But the passage of new laws and formation of new institutions that will bring about changes in the political culture in the longer term are not being adequately communicated to the general population.
Each of these laws have been advocated for decades by civil society and human rights activists as being essential for good governance in the country, and they have come to fruition during the period of the National Unity Government. For instance, the issue of large numbers of people going missing during times of anti state violence has been with Sri Lanka from 1971 when the first JVP insurrection took place. Subsequently there have cycles of repression that led to more and more missing persons being added to the list, but with the victim families having no place to go to get an adequate response. The Office of Missing Persons has been set up as a permanent institution with a substantial budget and with commissioners with proven track records.
The new laws and institutions that the EU has noted, and which has the potential to transform the life of the citizens in the years to come, are the result of the UNP-SLFP alliance that is led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. They have used the 2/3 majority in parliament that their alliance has made possible to pass the landmark 19th Amendment and also important laws such as the Office of Missing Persons, Right to Information and law against Enforced Disappearances. These are significant achievements and the fullest credit for them needs to be given to the president and prime minister who head their respective political parties and have steered the country to achieve these tasks which have earned the commendation of the international community and won their support and access to their markets.
There are many who are frustrated by the infighting within the government and its failure to take decisive action on its promises with regard to anti corruption and economic prosperity. They may believe that an end to the UNP-SLFP alliance is the way forward for Sri Lanka. However, such a break in relations, if it takes place, could take the country on another path of instability and uncertainty. It is necessary to appreciate and commend the Government of National Unity for its achievements that have been noted internationally by the EU and use those achievements for the purposes of reconciliation both within and outside the government. It is also necessary to build public opinion for them to stay together. The government has more tasks to accomplish which may still happen.
It is reported that there is rapprochement taking place between the UNP and SLFP, and the president and prime minister in which the two focal points of discussion were about fast tracking development plans and fulfilling the pledges made to the people ahead of the January 2015 presidential election. They agreed that there was a need for a limited common programme and to finalise it during future meetings. They reportedly spent considerable time on the pledges already made. That brought about a discussion on police investigations in both corruption cases and the abduction, torture and killing of several persons. It is important that systems be put in place and ensure that those who lead the country are those who respect those systems and not believe they are above the law.