By S. Binodkumar Singh*
Articulating new hopes of prosperity, coexistence and reconciliation, President Maithripala Sirisena, in his New Year message on January 1, 2017, declared, “The year 2017 dawns with new hopes of prosperity, coexistence and reconciliation in our hearts. It is imperative that we overcome the challenges ahead of us. The progress of the human race was pioneered by people who faced challenges with confidence, utmost courage and determination amidst obstacles. Our goals could be achieved if we manage our work efficiently and productively, and do the right thing at the right time with unwavering commitment to serve the greater good.” Similarly, the Leader of the Opposition and of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) R. Sampanthan, in his message of greetings for the New Year, noted, “2017 will be a crucial year in the history of our country. Our expectation is that we should find a permanent and lasting solution to the national question. The new Constitution in the New Year should bring about this achievement.”
On March 9, 2016, the Sri Lankan Parliament unanimously and without a vote, approved the change of the Parliament into a Constitutional Assembly (CA) to draft a new Constitution for the island nation. The new Constitution is expected to replace the current executive President-headed Constitution adopted in 1978 and to replace it with a Parliamentary system. It could also partially replace the Proportional Representation system by the First Past the Post System. District-wise constituencies are also likely to be partially replaced by smaller constituencies and preferential votes for candidates in a party list could be abolished entirely.
At the first sitting of the CA held on April 5, 2016, a 21-member Steering Committee, chaired by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, was appointed. The Steering Committee is responsible for the business of the CA and for preparing a Draft Constitutional Proposal, and is assisted by the six Sub-Committees appointed at the second sitting of the CA held on May 5, 2016 to make recommendations on Fundamental Rights, Judiciary, Finance, Law & Order, Public Service and Centre-Periphery Relations. Assuring the country’s legislature that the new Constitution would be drafted in consultation with all political parties and the people would have the opportunity to approve it, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe presented the reports of the six sub committees on November 19, 2016. The Prime Minster disclosed that preliminary debate on the reports could be held on January 9-11, 2017. However, the three-day Parliamentary debate on the Constitutional proposals was postponed by two weeks on January 5, 2017, as some political parties sought further time to define their stands.
Separately, seeking the support of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa for the ongoing Constitutional reform efforts, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and Leader of the Opposition Sampanthan, on December 16, 2016, asked Rajapaksa to back the National Unity Government (NUG) and other political parties working with it to remake the country’s Constitution. Disturbingly, on December 29, 2016, Joint Opposition (JO) leader Rajapaksa vowed to topple the NUG and regain power in 2017, just two years after he was ousted in a shocking election upset. Earlier, on July 7, 2016, the JO announced its ‘Shadow Cabinet’ during a meeting in Parliament, in which Rajapaksa was appointed shadow Prime Minister and given the portfolio of Defence as well. Some of the other appointments to the ‘Shadow Cabinet’ included Education – Dullas Alahapperuma; Finance – Bandula Gunawardana; Foreign Affairs – Namal Rajapaksa; Highways – Chamal Rajapaksa; Local Government and Provincial Council – Ranjith de Zoysa; Ports and Shipping – Kumara Welgama; Labour – Gamini Lokuge; and Rural Industries – S.M. Chandrasena.
In another development which is expected to have a far reaching impact on the reconciliation process, President Sirisena handed over 701 acres of land to 700 original land-owners during a ceremony held at Nadeshvar College in Jaffna District on March 12, 2016. Further, on October 31, 2016, the President, handed over 100 houses newly constructed by the military to internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Jaffna District in Northern Province and released another 454 acres of land that was seized by the military in war time to the original owners. On August 4, 2016, the Cabinet approved SLR 971 million to resettle IDP families. Once again, on November 10, 2016, the Cabinet approved another proposal to allocate SLR 88 million to purchase more lands in the former war-torn North to resettle the remaining 462 IDP families. Three decades of civil war between Government Forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had ended in May 2009, leaving behind an estimated 300,000 IDPs in the North.
Further, on January 26, 2016, the Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms appointed by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe handed over its report to the Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera on January 3, 2017. In its report the Task Force recommended including at least one international judge in the judicial process seeking accountability for war time abuses during the last phase of the country’s decades-long civil war.
The Government, however, remains opposed to the participation of foreign judges to hear or inquire into war crime allegations. Giving an assurance that the Government was planning to finalize judicial mechanisms to probe war abuses in 2017, Health Minister Rajitha Senaratne observed, on January 10, 2017, “Deciding on the participation of foreign judges with the investigations on Sri Lanka’s war crime allegations and human right violations is a sovereign right of the Sri Lankan Government and will be decided by the Sri Lankan Government.” Likewise, Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera stated, on January 11, 2017, “Sri Lanka is committed to the implementation of the United Nations resolution, which it cosponsored in October 2015 so that we as a country can deal with the past honestly and truthfully, accept that past, put it behind us, and then move forward to build our Sri Lankan nation anew.”
To help several thousands of families of missing persons across Sri Lanka to discover the fate of their loved ones and the circumstances under which they went missing, Parliament passed the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) Bill on August 11, 2016. According to the Government, the OMP will be composed of commissioners and officers of the highest moral integrity, constituted at the highest level by the President, on recommendation of the Constitutional Council. Separately, the Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons (PCICMP), established on August 15, 2013, handed over its final report to the Presidential Secretariat on August 14, 2016. The Commission had received 16,213 complaints from civilians and another 5,000 complaints from relatives of missing Security Force (SF) personnel. Further, on August 26, 2016, the Parliamentary Oversight Committee of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Ministry decided to grant bank loans at concessionary rates to ex-LTTE cadres for self-employment purposes. About 12,000 LTTE combatants surrendered to the military during the final stages of the war and underwent rehabilitation, which included the provision of vocational training skills.
The Government is also in the process of repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and introducing a new counter-terrorism legislation that is in line with contemporary international practices. On March 2, 2016, the Law Commission Department submitted the amended Prevention of Terrorism Draft Bill with human rights safeguards to the three relevant Ministers – Justice and Buddha Sasana (“teachings of the Buddha”) Minister Dr. Wijayadasa Rajapakshe, Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera and Development Strategies and International Trade Minister Malik Samarawickrema. Further, on October 11, 2016, the Government appointed a Committee chaired by the Minister of Law and Order and Southern Development Sagala Ratnayake to draft the new counter terrorism law to replace PTA.
The Northern Province has, however, been stressing federalism as a solution to devolve power in the Island nation. On April 23, 2016, the Northern Provincial Council (NPC) passed a Bill with a majority vote to establish the Northern and Eastern Provinces into one federal ruling system. Several organizations and the parents and relatives of Tamil political prisoners staged a demonstration in the Killinochchi town of Killinochchi District on September 5, 2016, calling upon the Government to free Tamil political prisoners. Further, thousands of Tamils staged a mass protest led by Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran in Jaffna District on September 24, 2016, to highlight issues faced by the community. This was the first time the Northerners have taken part in a public gathering of this scale since Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena took over in January 2015. Significantly, on November 26, 2016, the 62nd birth anniversary of slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran was celebrated at the Jaffna University in Jaffna District. Hundreds of Jaffna University students, as well as academic and non-academic staff gathered at the Kailasapathy Auditorium of the varsity to celebrate the birth anniversary by cutting cakes. They also lit candles and planted saplings in memory of those who were killed during the civil war. The birth anniversary was celebrated despite the Government’s warning that action would be taken against anyone trying to take part in the event.
Speaking for the minority Tamils, United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on Minority issues Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, who concluded a 10-day mission to Sri Lanka on October 20, 2016, recommended that the Government should establish an Independent Commission on Minorities under the Constitution with a clear mandate, powers, resources and autonomy. Earlier, on June 28, 2016, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, while releasing its annual report, urged Sri Lanka to rein in the military and prosecute war crimes. At least 250 security detainees were still being held under the PTA, the UN report noted. Separately, the Human Right Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) in a report submitted to the United Nations Committee Against Torture (UNCAT) on November 1, 2016, observed that, based on statistics at the Commission’s disposal, the Commission recognizes torture to be of routine nature and practiced all over the country. UNCAT called on Sri Lanka on December 7, 2016, to investigate documented allegations of torture and rape of detainees by Security Forces (SFs) and to rein in broad Police powers. Further, Human Rights Watch (HRW) on January 12, 2017, noted that, though the Sri Lankan Government was able to report progress on certain aspects and sought technical expertise from the UN and other countries, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolution adopted in October 2015 on the country remained largely unimplemented. The resolution called upon Colombo to establish a credible judicial process, with the participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defense lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators, to go into the alleged human rights abuses.
To address the demand of the Tamils for the devolution of power through the new Constitution to provinces within a united Sri Lanka, President Sirisena stated, on March 21, 2016, that devolution of power instead of centralizing it is the practice of developed nations and distributing power is effective in terms of democracy, independence, human rights and fundamental rights. Similarly, on January 15, 2016, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe had noted, “We are ready to devolve power (to minority Tamils) and protect democracy. The Constitutional Assembly will discuss with all, including (Tamil-dominated) provincial councils to have a new Constitution. We will do that in a transparent manner.”
Praising Sri Lanka’s commitment to reconciliation, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon telephoned President Maithripala Sirisena on December 22, 2016, and commended the progress achieved in social, economic, political and all sectors in Sri Lanka, under the President’s leadership. Further, on January 11, 2017, the European Commission proposed Generalized System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) trade concessions to Sri Lanka in exchange for the Government’s commitment to ratify 27 international conventions on human rights, labor conditions, protection of the environment and good governance. GSP+ preferences can make a significant contribution to Sri Lanka’s economic development by increasing exports to the European Union market.
Through 2016, the political environment for a comprehensive Constitutional reform has changed for the better. It remains to be seen whether the redrafted Constitution will be able to sufficiently accommodate the aspirations of all communities in the country. Of greater concern are the remnants of Tamil separatist formations who seek to keep confrontation alive, seeking racial segregation, rather than integration or the “democratization, reconciliation and development” that the new Constitution seeks. The drafting of a new Constitution clearly creates both a challenge and an opportunity to address the grievances of the long, twisted and violent history of this Island nation.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management