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19A: Key changes necessary but consensus on several provisions – SLPP lawmaker

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‘We received two mandates to enact a new Constitution’

By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP National List member Gevindu Cumaratunga strongly pushed for a new Constitution instead of bringing in the 20th Amendment in place of 19th Amendment enacted at the onset of UNP-SLFP administration in 2015.

Addressing a media briefing at the Sri Sambuddajayanthi Viharaya and meeting organized in Kandy also on Sunday (30), Cumaratunga emphasized that Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP received overwhelming mandate at the 2019 presidential and 2020 general election, respectively, to enact a new Constitution.

The leader of civil society group Yuthukama dealt with the 13th, 16th and the 19th Amendments as well as the Proportional Representation (PR) system introduced by the then President JR Jayewardene. In addition to one NL slot, Yuthukama Kalutara district candidate Anupa Pasquel entered parliament.

The ideal solution would be to either abolish/do away with inimical provisions in those amendments, Cumaratunga said, underscoring the responsibility on their part to realize the mandates received at the presidential and parliamentary polls.

Cumaratunga said that the 13th Amendment undermined the country’s unitary status whereas the 16th imposed restrictions on the use of Sinhala language in the North and East and the 19th caused anarchy. Therefore, tangible measures should be taken to abolish/amendment/rectify shortcomings without further delay, he said.

Cumaratunga pointed out how the National Joint Committee (NJC), in a statement issued recently explained the need to address all problematic matters without focusing only on the 19th Amendment. Referring to a statement issued by the Buddasasana Karyasadaka Mandalaya on August 25, 2020, Cumaratunga emphasized that the 19th Amendment wasn’t the only cause for continuing political turmoil and instability.

Therefore, the government should seriously look into concerns expressed by those who really believed in a total constitutional overhaul, Cumaratunga said. The civil society activist acknowledged that an influential section of the government pushed for the 20th Amendment in place of 19th Amendment as enactment of a new Constitution would take time. Cumaratunga said that those who preferred the 20th instead of the 19th Amendment were of the view a new Constitution couldn’t be enacted without public consultations.

Lawmaker Cumaratunga questioned the need to engage in fresh public consultations as the previous government conducted quite large scale countrywide operation in that regard. The procedure included a comprehensive report put out by the Public Representations Committee on Constitutional Reforms and the parliamentary process spearheaded by Premier Ranil Wickremesinghe, as the Chairman of the Steering Committee of the Constitutional Assembly.

The first meeting of the Constitutional Assembly took place on April 5, 2016.

 The Yuthukama leader said that the high profile constitutional reforms process that had been undertaken by the previous government was in the public domain. Those who had campaigned for that constitutional reforms process were routed thrice at the 2018 Feb Local Government poll, 2019 Nov presidential and 2020 August general election, Cumuratunga said.

 Now that the SLPP had secured a near two-thirds majority and the required support could be obtained from friendly political parties, the government could go for a referendum. Such a course of action would allow the government to achieve its objective without having to go before the Supreme Court.

Cumaratunga said that consensus could be reached on some provisions in the 19th Amendment. Pointing out that the SLPP government was agreeable to the two term limit on an executive president and the restriction of presidential term to a five-year period, Cumaratunga said that Yuthukama, too, believed those provisions should be retained.

Far reaching change required pertaining to the 19th Amendment was the provision that deprived the elected President to hold ministerial portfolios, MP Cumaratunga said. Emphasizing that Article 4 where the sovereignty of the people was dealt with, specified as follows in Sub Article 4b: “The executive power of the People, including the defence of Sri Lanka, shall be exercised by the President of the Republic elected by the People,” Cumaratunga said all obstacles should cleared for the President to take over the defence portfolio.

Lawmaker Cumaratunga said that it would be better to specify that the President should hold the defence portfolio.

MP Cumaratunga said that the provision that denied the President the right to dissolve parliament one year after the general election, too, should be amended. In terms of the 19th Amendment, the President received the right to dissolve parliament only after the House completed four and half years.

The former government amended the provision that dealt with the President’s power to dissolve parliament in spite of the Supreme Court previously ruling that such a change should be subjected to a referendum, Cumaratunga said. The civil society activist pointed out how President Sirisena struggled to cope up with treasury bond scams allegedly perpetrated by the UNP as he lacked the constitutional power to intervene.

Commenting on the provision that deprived anyone below the age of 35 contesting the presidency, Cumaratunga said that the particular stipulation should be retained. The MP said that he didn’t see any reason why a person at such a young age should contest the presidency.

Cumaratunga also discussed the continuing controversy over amending the constitutional provision that prevented dual citizens from seeking public office. The National List MP said that he would like to discuss the matter taking into consideration Basil Rajapaksa’s dual citizenship (US and Sri Lanka), former Central Bank Governor and now fugitive Singaporean Arjuna Mahendran and President Gotabaya Rajapaksa giving up his US citizenship to be eligible to contest 2019 presidential election.

 Lawmaker Cumaratunga said that having left the country soon after the 2015 change of government Basil Rajapaksa could have stayed in the US. Instead, the former SLFP National Organizer returned in April 2015 after the then government initiated investigations, Cumaratunga said. The police arrested and remanded him and he underwent hardship but remained committed for a political role, the MP said. If all dual citizens were prepared to face investigations the way Basil Rajapaksa did, there was no need for the provision to prevent dual citizens from holding public office, Cumaratunga said.

However, Arjuna Mahendran fleeing the country was evidence that dual citizens/foreign citizens shouldn’t be accommodated unless they accepted sole Sri Lankan citizenship, he said.

Cumaratunga said that President Gotabaya Rajapaksa had set an example by giving up his US citizenship to serve the country. The lawmaker said that Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his capacity as the wartime Defence Secretary played a significant role while being a US citizen.

The MP said that the stipulation that the President and members of parliament should only be Sri Lankans could be extended to other higher level categories.

Lawmaker Cumaratunga declared his firm support to the Independent Commissions while calling for proper procedures to be followed in making appointments to Independent Commissions. Pointing out that the previous government blundered by accommodating TNA leader R. Sampanthan as the Opposition Leader to enable him to sit in the Constitutional Council, Cumaratunga alleged that was done to manipulate the process.

Of the 10 member Constitutional Council, five are appointed in agreement between the Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader.

 If the Joint Opposition was given the Opposition Leader’s Post, the whole process wouldn’t have gone awry, Cumaratunga said.

He said that Premier Mahinda Rajapaksa and Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa could choose five persons to ensure the proper functioning of the Constitutional Council. The MP said that the need was to rectify the Constitutional Council and the Commissions not to abolish them. Cumaratunga proposed that the President could choose from persons recommended by the Constitutional Council. The President should also receive the constitutional authority to remove those appointed, the MP said.

Cumaratunga said that the SLPP should be sensitive to the sentiments of those who brought the party to power. The lawmaker warned that political parties and the government could no longer continue as if public sentiments didn’t matter. “Look at what happened to the UNP. The UNP was reduced from 107 to 55 (SJB 54 + UNP 1), TNA 16 to 10 and the JVP 6 to 3,” Cumaratunga said, adding that those treacherous civil society elements were taught an unforgettable lesson.

Quoting statements issued by the Buddasasana Karyasadaka Mandalaya as well as the NJC, MP Cumaratunga strongly suggested that much delayed Provincial Council elections shouldn’t be held as the very basis of the system undermined the country’s unitary status or in other words was contrary to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s ‘One Country, One Law’ concept.

 



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Govt. MP Wijeyadasa strikes discordant note on Port City Bill

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… alleges bid to turn Port City into Chinese territory

Over 12 petitioners move SC against proposed law

By Shamindra Ferdinando

SLPP lawmaker Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe PC, yesterday (15) alleged that the proposed Bill, titled ‘Colombo Port City Economic Commission,’ would transform the reclaimed land, adjacent to the Galle Face Green into a Chinese territory.

Addressing the media at the Abhayarama temple, under the auspices of Ven Muruththettuwe Ananda Thera, the former President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), Rajapakshe, warned of dire consequences if the government went ahead with what he termed the despicable project.

Sixteen parties had filed action against the Bill. Ven. Muruththettuwe Ananda thera was among the petitioners.

The ruling party had placed the Bill on the Order Paper on April 8, just 15 calendar days after the publication of the Bill in the Gazette. In terms of the Constitution a citizen intending to challenge the constitutionality of a Bill had to do so within one week from the Bill being placed in the Order Paper of Parliament, Dr. Rajapakse said.

Among those who moved the SC were the General-Secretary of the UNP and the Chairman of the UNP. The Attorney-General has been named a respondent in the petition. The BASL, too, moved SC against the Attorney General. Three civil society activists, Oshala Herath, Dr. Ajantha Perera and Jeran Jegatheesan also filed action.

Lawmaker Rajapakse explained how the proposed Bill, if enacted, could allow independent status to USD 1.4 bn Colombo Port City. Former Justice Minister alleged that the Colombo Port City project was far worse than the selling of the strategic Hambantota port to the Chinese by the previous administration.

The Colombo District MP said the Parliament wouldn’t have financial control over the Colombo Port City Project whereas its independent status would legally empower those managing the project to finalise agreements with external parties

Referring to the previous administration, the former UNPer alleged that China had bribed members of Parliament. MP Rajapakse questioned the rationale behind China providing computers to all members of Parliament and officials as well as jaunts to China.

Rajapakse said that Sri Lanka shouldn’t give in to Chinese strategies aimed at bringing Sri Lanka under its control. The former minister explained the threat posed by the growing Chinese presence including the Colombo Port City, a terminal in the Colombo harbour and at the Hambantota port.

 

 

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Sooka pushing UK for punitive action against Army Commander

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An outfit, led by Yasmin Sooka, a member of the UNSG Panel of Experts’ (PoE), has urged the UK to take punitive measures against the Commander of the Army, General Shavendra Silva, who is also the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

The Army headquarters told The Island that the matter had been brought to the notice of the relevant authorities. It said that it was all part of the ongoing well-funded campaign against the Sri Lankan military.

Issuing a statement from Johannesburg, the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) said it had compiled a 50-page dossier which it has submitted to the Sanctions Department of the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on General Shavendra Silva. The Submission argues why Silva, who is Sri Lanka’s current Army Commander, should be designated under the United Kingdom’s Global Human Rights (GHR) Sanctions Regime established on 6 July 2020.

“We have an extensive archive of evidence on the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka, meticulously collected by international prosecutors and lawyers. The testimony of victims and witnesses – many now in the UK – was vital in informing this Submission, and making the linkages to Shavendra Silva and those under his command,” said the organisation’s executive director, Yasmin Sooka.

The ITJP Submission details Shavendra Silva’s role in the perpetration of alleged gross human rights violations including of the right to life when he was 58 Division Commander during the final phase of the civil war in 2009 in the north of Sri Lanka. It draws on searing eyewitness testimony from Tamils who survived the government shelling and bombing of hospitals and food queues in the so called No Fire Zones, many of whom now reside in the UK as refugees. The Submission also looks at Silva’s alleged involvement in torture and sexual violence, including rape, which is a priority area of the UK Government’s foreign policy.

“The US State Department designated Shavendra Silva in 2020 for his alleged role in the violations at the end of the war but the remit of the UK sanctions regime works is broader and includes his role in the shelling of hospitals and other protected civilian sites during the military offensive. This is important in terms of recognising the full extent of the violations, as well as supporting the US action,” commented Ms. Sooka. “UK designation would be another significant step forward in terms of accountability and would be in line with the recent UN Human Rights Council Resolution passed in Geneva for which Britain was the penholder,” she added.

Political will in applying the UK’s new sanctions regime to Sri Lanka was apparent in a recent parliamentary debate which saw 11 British parliamentarians ask why the UK government had not applied sanctions against Sri Lankan military figures, including Shavendra Silva, who was named six times in this context.”

 

 

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‘UNHRC missive exposes UK duplicity in grave accountability matters’

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By Shamindra Ferdinando

Wartime Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama says that the leader of Sri Lanka Core Group at the Geneva–based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) the United Kingdom’s policy of double standards has been challenged by no less a person than UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet.

Bogollagama said that the Bachelet warning couldn’t have been issued at a better time as the UK stepped up pressure on Sri Lanka over accountability issues. The former FM was responding to Bachelet’s declaration on April 12 that the proposed new Overseas Operations (Service Personnel and Veterans) Bill, in its current form, would undermine key human rights obligations that the UK has committed itself to respect.

The UK is a member of the UNHRC. Bogollagama pointed out that Bachelet had called for amendments to the proposed Bill to ensure that it didn’t protect British personnel deployed overseas for acts of torture and other serious international crimes.

The Bill is now reaching its final stages in the legislative process, and will shortly be debated again by the House of Lords, the UK’s upper chamber, where amendments may still be made.

In the run-up to the Geneva vote on a resolution spearheaded by the UK on March 23, SLPP Chairman and former External Affairs Minister Prof G.L. Peiris questioned the rationale in British actions. Prof Peiris asked how the UK sought protection for its armed forces deployed outside their territory whereas it sought punitive measures against Sri Lanka for fighting terrorism in its own land.

Bogollagama said that British double standards should be examined taking into consideration the UK’s current membership in the UNHRC as well its role as the leader of Sri Lanka Core Group. The Core Group members include Germany and Canada.

Bogollagama who served as the Foreign Minister during the fourth phase of the war (2007-2010) alleged that the UK adopted an extremely hostile position primarily because of domestic political reasons. Wikileaks disclosed the true extent of Tamil Diaspora influence on the British political establishment, Bogollagama said. So much so, the UK allowed the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) to announce its formation in the House of Commons in early 2010, the former Minister said. Would the UK accept Geneva advice as regards the proposed Bill, Bogollagama asked, those who voted for the resolution moved against Sri Lanka and abstained to realise that the UK’s stand in respect of Colombo was political.

The UK succeeded the US as Sri Lanka Core Chair in 2018 after the latter quit the Geneva body in a huff calling it a cesspool of political bias.

The purpose of the controversial British Bill is stated as being “to provide greater certainty for Service personnel and veterans in relation to claims and potential prosecution for historical events that occurred in the complex environment of armed conflict overseas.” British Forces played significant roles in the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. The Bill seeks to achieve this, in particular, by introducing new preconditions for the prosecution of alleged offences covered by the Bill.

“As currently drafted, the Bill would make it substantially less likely that UK service members on overseas operations would be held accountable for serious human rights violations amounting to international crimes,” the UNHRC statement dated April 12 quoted Bachelet as having said.

It stated that in its present form, the proposed legislation raises substantial questions about the UK’s future compliance with its international obligations, particularly under the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT), as well as the 1949 Geneva Conventions. These include obligations to prevent, investigate and prosecute acts such as torture and unlawful killing, and make no distinction as to when the offences were committed.

Responding to another query, Bogollagama said that Bachelet’s statement exposed the British hypocrisy. While demanding accountability on the part of Sri Lankan military on the basis of unsubstantiated war crimes accusations, the British deprived Geneva of wartime dispatches (January-May 2009) from its High Commission in Colombo in a bid to facilitate the campaign against Sri Lanka, former minister Bogollagama said.

The British exposed their hostile intentions when London turned down Sri Lanka’s request to hand over those dispatches to Geneva, the ex-lawmaker said, urging the government to continuously highlight the need for examination of all available evidence by the proposed new Geneva inquiry unit appointed at a cost of USD 2.8 mn.

Bachelet’s request to the UK was interesting, Bogollagama said. The former minister was referring to Bachelet’s appeal: “I urge UK legislators in both Houses of Parliament, and the Government, to take these concerns fully into account when reviewing the Bill, and to ensure that the law of the United Kingdom remains entirely unambiguous with regard to accountability for international crimes perpetrated by individuals, no matter when, where or by whom they are committed.”

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