By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On October 30, 2017, the three-day debate on the Interim Report of the Steering Committee set up under the Constitutional Assembly (CA) began in Parliament. The debate was supposed to conclude on November 1. However, due to demands from a large number of Members of Parliament (MPs) for additional time to express their views, Chairman of the CA, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya decided on November 2, 2017, to continue the debate on November 2 and November 8.
The Interim Report was submitted to the CA by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe as Chairman of the Steering Committee on September 21, 2017, stressing that Sri Lanka should remain one undivided and indivisible country, where maximum devolution should be granted, but argued for the inclusion of specific provisions in the Constitution to prevent secession (division of the country). The report proposed that provincial councils would be the primary unit of devolution, while local bodies had been named as the implementing agency of both the central Government and the provincial councils.
Issuing a statement following the submission of the Interim Report, R. Sampanthan, Leader of the Opposition and of the main Tamil party, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA), stated, on September 21, 2017, “The successful conclusion of this Constitution-making process on the basis of an acceptable, reasonable and substantial national consensus would bring about a firm finality to this issue. Sri Lanka would perpetually be a united undivided and indivisible country in keeping with the basic and Supreme Law of the country, and on the basis of the free will and consent of its entire people.”
However, the Joint Opposition has expressed itself against the new Constitution. On July 7, 2016, the Joint Opposition had announced its ‘Shadow Cabinet’ in which former President Mahinda Rajapaksa was appointed shadow Prime Minister. On January 27, 2017, while addressing a public rally in Colombo, Rajapaksa accused President Maithripala Sirisena of trying to appease the minority Tamil community by promising devolution of power, saying he would oppose the “fraudulent” new Constitution. Further, on October 26, 2017, the Joint Opposition’s constitutional expert, Professor G.L Peiris declared that the Government did not have a mandate for a new Constitution, and that the Joint Opposition opposed the Interim Report submitted to Parliament on the new Constitution.
Of late, the Joint Opposition group has been divided over the Constitution-making process, with one group insisting on immediate withdrawal from the CA and the other adamant on remaining in it. Surprisingly, Joint Opposition leader Rajapaksa, participating in the CA debate on the Interim Report on November 2, 2017, expressed hope that the new Constitution would promote national and religious unity. Rajapaksa stated that he was participating in the legislative process to formulate a new Constitution with the sincere hope of creating unity in the country and enjoined leaders not to create hate among communities.
As a result, expressing optimism, Minister of Finance Mangala Samaraweera, participating the debate in Parliament on October 31, 2017, observed, “By formulating a new Constitution the trajectory of the country can be changed towards a new direction and create an ‘equal citizenship’ to bring about economic prosperity.” Meanwhile, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe speaking in the debate on November 1, 2017, insisted that the Government cannot do anything without the agreement of all parties. The Premier called upon everyone to be united to introduce the new Constitution.
Significantly, in another step forward in Sri Lanka’s path to sustained peace, and paving the way to set up an office to trace around 20,000 people still missing eight years after the end of the nearly three-decade-long civil war, President Sirisena on July 20, 2017, signed the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) Act. Further, on September 12, 2017, President Sirisena signed the Gazette Notification to operationalize the OMP Act from September 15. Accordingly, on October 24, 2017, the Government called for applications to appoint members to the OMP. Applications have been called from persons with previous experience in in fact finding or investigation, human rights law, international humanitarian law, humanitarian response, or who possess other qualifications relevant to carrying out the functions of the OMP. The applications, along with the curriculum vitae, were to reach the Acting Secretary General of the Constitutional Council, Parliament of Sri Lanka, Sri Jayewardenepura Kotte, on or before November 6, 2017. The bill to establish the OMP was introduced on May 22 2016, and on June 21, 2017, the bill was passed unanimously in Parliament.
Regarding the devolution of power, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe, on July 27, 2017, declared that it was difficult to go back to a pre-1972 system, as the parties had committed themselves to maximum devolution of power, unlike those days where Government Agents represented the state at the village level. Meanwhile, on October 21, 2017, President Sirisena observed that the devolution of power should not be carried out in the interest of politicians but it should be dedicated to strengthening the people and fulfilling their needs. The aim of decentralization of power, he emphasized, was to equally hand over the benefits of development to each citizen and to create an environment for each person to live in a just society. Devolution of power should never divide or separate the country, the President added.
Meanwhile, reassuring that the Tamil minority community’s demand for a federal solution to meet its political aspirations was not aimed at dividing the country, Northern Province Chief Minister C.V. Wigneswaran stated on September 9, 2017, “You [the Sinhalese] think we [Tamils] are all terrorists. We do not want to divide this country. When we ask for federalism we are being accused of trying to divide the country. The Tamils want the distinct identity recognized by the majority Sinhalese.” Likewise, on October 4, 2017, Opposition Leader Sampanthan stressed that that the majority Sinhala communities need not to be afraid of the Tamils, as there would be constitutional protection preventing any move towards separation. The power-sharing arrangements would be worked out within a United, Undivided and Indivisible Sri Lanka.
Another Tamil demand was the release of prisoners detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) without any court cases. Around 132 Tamil prisoners are known to be in custody, including both those awaiting trial for several years (ranging from 8 to 24 years) or serving sentences. Disturbingly, a Hartal (General Strike) campaign was launched by the business community and Tamil civil organizations in the Northern Province on October 13, 2017, demanding the release of Tamil prisoners. All traders in the Northern Province closed their shops to support the Hartal. Education activities in all Tamil schools in the North were crippled and all transport services came to a halt. Further, moving an adjournment motion in Parliament on October 17, 2017, Opposition Leader R. Sampanthan urged the Government to release all persons held in custody under PTA, from the North and East, without further delay. Once again, Sampnanthan told Parliament on November 1, 2017, that things would get worse for Sri Lanka, especially in the international arena if the country failed to address the ‘national question’.
Separately, the international continues to leverage the human rights platform to pressurize Colombo, expressing disappointment in Sri Lanka’s progress in achieving the key goals set out in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution adopted in October 2015. UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Counter-Terrorism, Ben Emmerson observed on July 14, 2017, “None of the measures so far adopted to fulfill Sri Lanka’s transitional justice commitments are adequate to ensure real progress, and there is little evidence that perpetrators of war crimes committed by members of the Sri Lankan armed forces are being brought to justice.” Similarly, International Crisis Group in a report released on July 28, 2017, said that eight years after the end of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict, the promises by the Government to the UNHRC in 2015 have failed to materialize and the urgent economic and psychosocial needs of all conflict-affected groups remain unmet.
Moreover, at the 36th session of the UNHRC in Geneva on September 11, 2017, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged the Sri Lankan Government to accelerate the pace of fulfilling the UNHRC resolution adopted in October 2015. Similarly, Human Rights Watch (HRW) calling on UN member countries to press Sri Lanka to promptly meet the targets of the UNHRC’s October 2015 resolution for transitional justice, stated on September 14, 2017, “Governments at the Human Rights Council should be clear with Sri Lanka that setting up various reconciliation offices and talking of progress is not the same as implementing the 2015 resolution. Long-suffering Sri Lankans need to see the resolution fully carried out, and they need to see evidence that justice is being achieved.”
Meanwhile, demonstrating the Government’s commitment, Minister of Prison Reforms, Resettlement and Rehabilitation D. M. Swaminathan noted, on September 18, 2017, that the Attorney General’s Department would take steps to expedite the cases of those arrested under PTA. The Minister confirmed that steps were being taken to deal with cases filed under PTA. More significantly, at the concluding ceremony of the Nila Mehewara – President’s People Service – National Programme 2017 held at Saivapragasa Ladies’ College in Vavuniya District, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited Vavuniya District in the North on October 21, 2017, in an effort to resolve the problems of the public. At the event, the President symbolically handed over 5000, land deeds to the people of the North. The Nila Mehewara – President’s People Service – National Programme 2017 was launched in Vavuniya in March. For over seven months Ministers and Secretaries have visited Vavuniya from time to time under the program to provide solutions to the unresolved problems of the people.
On November 1, 2017, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe launched the five-year National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights at a ceremony held at the Parliament Complex. Speaking at the event, the Prime Minister declared the time had come to reaffirm human rights in the country. The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2017-2021 documents goal-oriented activities in Human Rights arena, aimed to strengthen national processes and mechanisms for the protection and promotion of human rights through substantial constitutional, legislative, policy and administrative frameworks. Earlier, on May 26, 2016, Sri Lanka expanded its commitment to human rights by ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
The National Unity Government (NUG) has made remarkable efforts to press forward the reconciliation process by reaching out to the Tamils and initiating constitutional and legal reforms. It has furthered the much-awaited Constitution-making process by debating the Interim Report of the CA Steering Committee in Parliament. However, as some leaders of the Joint Opposition continue to oppose the Interim Report, the process is yet to be completed, and Sri Lanka’s journey to achieve development targets and the reconciliation process remain unfinished.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management