by Jehan Perera
In 1961, shortly after his election victory, President-elect John F Kennedy quoted one of the first colonists of the US, John Winthrop who, in the year 1630, said, “We must always consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us”. This was one of the first examples of the belief that America would be exceptional, and that it would become a country that would set standards for the world to follow. The significance of the United States throughout the world and the protracted vote count and the roller coaster nature of the recently concluded presidential election ensured that it was keenly watched throughout the world.
When President Donald Trump contracted coronavirus, it seemed he had been dealt a knockout blow by the forces of nature that he showed little regard for. But demonstrating an astonishing resolve and will-power, and utilizing the power of chauvinism, bigotry and fear he stormed back into the presidential election contest, defied predictions to rally those millions that backed him, and almost made it in the end. In one state the difference in votes is wafer thin, which has generated an automatic recount. However, the president’s inability to come up with solid evidence of irregularities that would make a difference to the result has led the courts to decline to act on his protests. He has not displayed the graciousness displayed by former losers in previous presidential polls in accepting the verdict of the majority of voters.
In President-elect Joe Biden’s victory at the 2020 presidential elections, overcoming the politics of racism and chauvinism which many other democratic countries worldwide are succumbing to, the US has reaffirmed the value of democratic values through education and the strength of its democratic institutions. The election was closely contested to the end. At the beginning when the regular votes cast at the polling stations were being counted, President Donald Trump ran up a lead which contradicted the pollsters as his election victory in 2016 had done. When this lead dissipated with the counting of mail-in ballots, the president found fault with the electoral process. But the courts of law in various states rejected his call to stop the vote count.
Although holding the most powerful position in the most powerful country in the world there were two key factors that finally ensured that the majority of voters with more enlightened views prevailed rather than the US president and his supporters despite early declaration that he was the winner and insistence by him and his advisors that there was voter fraud. The first was the strength and independence of its institutions. The second was the layered nature of US democracy with power being shared at different levels of government. This meant that issues were resolved speedily at the level at which they arose without needing to go to higher levels where power is more concentrated and presidential power might have prevailed. This is also the contrast between the US system and its system of independent institutions and multi-layered democracy and the direction in which Sri Lanka is heading following the passage of the 20th Amendment.
In Sri Lanka, unlike in the US, the centralized nature of the polity, which the 20th Amendment has exacerbated, will ensure that the president’s decisions can go right down the line to the lowest level. The failure to institute the Province Councils as envisaged, and to strengthen them adequately, also prevents a multilayered approach in our country. Sri Lanka has opted for a system where the president will select the heads of all national level institutions. The president has strengthened this top-down system of decision making by bringing in the military to implement coronavirus containment strategies and also by deploying retired military personnel within the government administration. This centralization of power is being justified on account of the need to resolve the many crises that beset the country. Sri Lanka’s historical experience is that imposing a top-down strategy of governance without adequately assessing the needs of communities at local levels would lead to frustrations and negative consequences.
Among the crises that Sri Lanka has to cope with are getting the economy restarted after the Easter bombing and Covid catastrophes, providing productive employment to all those who have lost their jobs, and generating sufficient revenues to repay the foreign debts that have fallen due. It is unfortunate that the government has not included the opposition parties in its deliberations on these matters. Both the SJB and JVP have offered to support the government in addressing these problems. Speaking in parliament about dealing with the community spread of the coronavirus, a respected university academic, Dr Harini Amarasuriya of the JVP said, “This is not a task that could be achieved by a single party…The leadership should be mature enough to make preparations and plans and to manage them. This is not an issue that should be used to score political points.”
One of the reasons why President Trump could not win the election was his unwillingness to hear the voices emanating from the opposition political entities and the scientific communities including WHO, which could have reduced the high levels of fatalities in one of the richest and most developed countries in the world.
Likewise, the cost will be very high if Sri Lanka does not take the best path right from the outset. The most pressing would be to contain the spread of the coronavirus into the community. The role of community-based organisations and groups becomes important when it concerns preventing or limiting community spread. Decisions taken at the top need to be conveyed to the community level to elicit cooperation of the community.
In divided societies it is important to have consensual decision making to the extent that is possible. This can be through the setting up of forums for dialogue and discussion that bring inclusivity into government as often stated by Justice Minister Ali Sabry but is not yet manifested in the country’s political and administrative life. The greater the participation that people have in the decisions that are made, the more likely they are to understand and cooperate with them which differs from a military compliance or demand to obey instructions.
The manner in which the incoming Biden administration deals with the deep divisions in US society in the immediate post-Trump period may offer lessons to Sri Lanka as it grapples with its own internal divisions. Especially during the period of President Trump, US society began to polarize not only on the long standing basis of race and colour, but also on the basis of political ideology. These fissures will continue into the future and President-elect Biden and his team will need to address them. The situation is not unlike that which took place in Sri Lanka in 2015. A rainbow coalition which included breakaway factions of the Republican Party combined forces to defeat President Trump. In Sri Lanka, a similar coalition was unable to cohabit successfully other than for a relatively short time after it came to power, and thus lost an opportunity to provide an example to the world.
It is likely that the new Biden administration would adopt a middle of the road and pragmatic approach to policies within the country. They would be mindful that some of the liberal policies of the Obama era, in regard to issues such as climate change, gender justice and immigration, are red flags to those millions who voted for President Trump and passionately support his conservative view of the world. The need to address the divisions within the United States, and deal with the needs of those who feel marginalized and disrespected on all sides, would need to be prioritized. One of the clarion calls of ‘”Black Lives Matter” of the opposition to Trump campaign should ideally be converted by the Biden administration to “All Lives Matter’ not only within the US but at international levels as well.
The issue of the UN Human Rights Council and the US role in it vis-a-vis Sri Lanka would be a sensitive one to the government. There is a likelihood that the US will rejoin the UNHRC which it left with President Trump denouncing it as a “cesspool of political bias”, and other international institutions such as the Paris Agreement on climate change, in the aftermath of the change of administration. In March of this year, the government announced that it was withdrawing from the co-sponsorship of UNHRC Resolution No 30/1 of 2015 that was backed by the US and which its predecessor signed. The former government committed itself to a process of transitional justice and reconciliation which included setting up institutions that dealt with past violations of human rights and remedies for them. At the time of withdrawal from those commitments the present government also committed itself to developing a nationally driven reconciliation process. By starting to implement it, the government can speed up the healing process all round.
During the recent visit to Sri Lanka of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the government’s official position spelt out by Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena was to be “As a sovereign, free, independent nation, Sri Lanka’s foreign policy will remain neutral, non-aligned, and friendly. Conscious of the opportunities and responsibilities that come with our strategic location, we see the importance of maintaining the freedom of navigation in our seas and airspace, also protecting sea lines of communication and the undersea cables. We believe all countries should adhere to and respect international law, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.” Healing the relationship with the US and the international community with regard to UNHRC resolution 30/1, and healing the wounds that are internal, would be more constructive than to rely on other international powers and get deeper into geopolitical quagmires that are beyond our depth.
Port City Bill Requires Referendum
by Dr Jayampathy Wickramaratne,PC
The Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill was presented in Parliament on 08 April 2021, while the country was getting ready to celebrate the traditional New Year. With the intervening weekend and public holidays, citizens had just two working days to retain lawyers, many of whom were on vacation, and file applications challenging the constitutionality of the Bill in the Supreme Court within the one-week period stipulated in the Constitution. One wonders whether the timing was deliberate.
Special economic zones are common. They are created mainly to attract foreign investments. In return, investors are offered various concessions so that their products are competitive in the global market. Several negative effects of such zones have also been highlighted. The sole purpose of this article, however, is a discussion on the constitutionality of the Bill.
The Bill seeks to establish a high-powered Commission entrusted with the administration, regulation and control of all matters connected with businesses and other operations in and from the Colombo Port City. It may lease land situated in the Colombo Port City area and even transfer freehold ownership of condominium parcels. It operates as a Single Window Investment Facilitator for proposed investments into the Port City. It would exercise the powers and functions of any applicable regulatory authority under any written law and obtain the concurrence of the relevant regulatory authority, which shall, as a matter of priority, provide such concurrence to the Commission. The discretion and powers of such other authorities under the various laws shall thus stand removed.
The Commission consists of five members who need not be Sri Lankan citizens, quite unlike the Urban Development Authority, the Board of Management of which must comprise Sri Lankan citizens only. One issue that arises is that the vesting of such powers upon persons with loyalties to other countries, especially superpowers, would undermine the free, sovereign, and independent status of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 1 of our Constitution. It would also impinge on the sovereignty of the People of Sri Lanka guaranteed by Article 3 read with Article 4.
The removal of the discretionary powers of the various regulatory authorities is arbitrary and violative of the right to equal protection of the law guaranteed by Article 12 (1).
Under Clause 25, only persons authorized by the Commission can engage in business in the Port City. Clause 27 requires that all investments be in foreign currency only. What is worse is that even foreign currency deposited in an account in a Sri Lankan bank cannot be used for investment. Thus, Sri Lankans cannot invest in the Port City using Sri Lankan rupees; neither can they use foreign currency that they legally have in Sri Lanka. The above provisions are clearly arbitrary and discriminatory of Sri Lankans and violate equality and non-discrimination guaranteed by Article 12. They also violate the fundamental right to engage in business guaranteed by Article 14 (1) (g).
Under clause 35, any person, whether a resident or a non-resident, may be employed within the Port City and such employee shall be remunerated in a designated foreign currency, other than in Sri Lanka rupees. Such employment income shall be exempt from income tax. Clause 36 provides that Sri Lankan rupees accepted within the Port City can be converted to foreign currency. Under clause 40, Sri Lankans may pay for goods, services, and facilities in Sri Lankan rupees but would be required to pay a levy for goods taken out of the Port City, as if s/he were returning from another country! The mere repetition of phrases such as ‘in the interests of the national economy’ throughout the Bill like a ‘mantra’ does not bring such restrictions within permissible restrictions set out in Article 15.
Clause 62 requires that all disputes involving the Commission be resolved through arbitration. The jurisdiction of Sri Lankan courts is thus ousted.
In any legal proceedings instituted on civil and commercial matters, where the cause of action has arisen within the Port City or in relation to any business carried on in or from the Port City, Clause 63 requires Sri Lankan courts to give such cases priority and hear them speedily on a day-to-day basis to ensure their expeditious disposal.
The inability of an Attorney-at-Law to appear before the court even for personal reasons, such as sickness, shall not be a ground for postponement. These provisions are arbitrary and violate Article 12.
Clause 73 provides that several Sri Lankan laws listed in Schedule III would have no application within the Port City. Such laws include the Urban Development Authority Act, Municipal Councils Ordinance, and the Town and Country Planning Ordinance. Under Clauses 52 and 53, exemptions may be granted by the Commission from several laws of Sri Lanka, including the Inland Revenue Act, Betting and Gaming Levy Act, Foreign Exchange Act, and the Customs Ordinance.
The Commission being empowered to grant exemptions from Sri Lankan laws undermines the legislative power of the People and of Parliament and violates Articles 3 and Article 4 (c) of the Constitution.
Several matters dealt with by the Bill come under the Provincial Councils List. They include local government, physical planning, and betting and gaming. Article 154G (3) requires that such a Bill be referred to Provincial Councils for their views. As Provincial Councils are not currently constituted, passage by a two-thirds majority will be necessary in the absence of the consent of the Provincial Councils.
The exclusion of the Municipal Councils Ordinance from the Port City area is not possible under the Constitution. When the Greater Colombo Economic Commission was sought to be established in 1978 under the 1972 Constitution, a similar exclusion was held by the Constitutional Court not to be arbitrary. Since then, under the Thirteenth Amendment under the 1978 Constitution, local government has been given constitutional recognition and included under the Provincial Council List. Under the present constitutional provisions, therefore, the Port City cannot be excluded from laws on local government.
The writer submits that in the above circumstances, the Colombo Port Economic Commission Bill requires to be passed by a two-thirds majority in Parliament and approved by the People at a Referendum. Quite apart from the constitutional issues that arise, such an important piece of proposed legislation needs to be widely discussed. It is best that the Bill is referred to a Parliamentary Committee before which the public, as well as citizens’ organizations and experts in the related fields, could make their submissions.
I usually end up totally exhausted when I finish reading the local newspapers from the Pearl. There are so many burning questions and so much is written about them but there are no conclusions and definitely no answers. For example, we seem to have three burning issues right now and this is not in order of importance.
We have a lengthy report that has been published on the Easter Sunday carnage. Everybody knows what I am talking about. However, no one, be it an editor, a paid journalist or a single one of the many amateurs who write to the papers, has reached a conclusion or even expressed an opinion as to who was responsible. At least not a believable one! Surely there are energetic and committed young people in the field of journalism today who, if asked, or directed properly will go out and find a source that would give them at least a credible hypothesis? Or do conclusions exist and has no one the courage to publish them?
At least interview the authors or should I use the word perpetrators of that report. If they refuse to be interviewed ask them why and publish an item every day asking them why! Once you get a hold of them, cross-examine them, trap them into admissions and have no mercy. It is usually geriatrics who write these reports in the Pearl and surely a bright young journalist can catch them out with a smart question or two, or at least show us that they tried? The future of the country depends on it!
We have allegations of contaminated coconut oil been imported. These are very serious allegations and could lead to much harm to the general populace. Do you really believe that no one can find out who the importers are and what brands they sell their products under? In this the Pearl, where everyone has a price, you mean to say that if a keen young journalist was given the correct ammunition (and I don’t mean 45 calibres) and sent out on a specific message, he or she couldn’t get the information required?
We are told that a massive amount of money has been printed over the last few months. There is only speculation as to the sums involved and even more speculation as to what this means to the people of the Pearl. Surely, there are records, probably guarded by extremely lowly paid government servants. I am not condoning bribery but there is nothing left to condone, is there? There are peons in government ministries who will gladly slip you the details if you are committed enough and if you are sent there to get it by a boss who will stand by you and refuse to disclose his sources.
I put it to you, dear readers, that we do not have enough professional, committed and adequately funded news organisations in the country. We can straightaway discount the government-owned joints. We can also largely discount those being run by magnates for personal gain and on personal agendas. As far as the Internet goes, we can forget about those that specialise in speculative and sensationalist untruths, what are we left with O denizens of the Pearl? Are there enough sources of news that you would consider willing to investigate a matter and risk of life and limb and expose the culprits for the greater good of society? Can they be counted even on the fingers of one hand?
In this era when we have useless political leaders, when law and order are non-existent when the police force is a joke, it is time the fourth estate stepped up to the mark! I am sure we have the personnel; it is the commitment from the top and by this, I mean funding and the willingness to risk life and limb, that we lack. Governments over the last few decades have done their best to intimidate the press and systematically destroy any news outlet that tried to buck the usual sycophantic behaviour that is expected from them by those holding absolute power.
Do you think Richard Nixon would ever have been impeached if not for the Watergate reporting? Donald Trump partially owes his defeat to the unrelenting campaign carried out against him by the “fake news” outlets that he tried to denigrate. Trump took on too much. The fourth estate of America is too strong and too powerful to destroy in a head-to-head battle and even the most powerful man in the world, lost. Let’s not go into the merits and demerits of the victor as this is open to debate.
Now, do we have anything like that in the Pearl? Surely, with 20 million-plus “literate” people, we should? We should have over 70 years of independence built up the Fourth Estate to be proud of. One that would, if it stood strong and didn’t waver and collapse under pressure from the rulers, have ensured a better situation for our land. Here is Aotearoa with just five million people, we have journalists who keep holding the government to account. They are well-funded by newspapers and TV networks with audiences that are only a fraction of what is available in the Pearl. Some of the matters they highlight often bring a smirk of derision to my face for such matters wouldn’t even warrant one single line of newsprint, should they happen in the Pearl.
Talking of intimidation from the rulers, most of us are familiar with the nationalisation of the press, the murder and torture of journalists, the burning of presses to insidious laws been passed to curtail the activities of Journalism. These things have happened in other countries, too, but the people and press have been stronger, and they have prevailed. We are at a watershed, an absolutely crucial time. It is now that our last few credible news sources should lift their game. Give us carefully researched and accurate reports with specific conclusions, not generalisations. Refuse to disclose your sources as is your right, especially now that the myopic eye of the UNHCR is turned in our direction.
All other ways and means of saving our beloved motherland, be it government, religion, sources of law and order and even civil society leadership seems to have lapsed into the realm of theory and rhetoric. Our last chance lies with the Fourth Esate and all it stands for. I call for, nay BEG for, a favourable reaction from those decision-makers in that field, who have enough credibility left in society, DON’T LET US DOWN NOW!
The world sees ugly side of our beauty pageants
Yes, it’s still the talk-of-the-town…not only here, but the world over – the fracas that took place at a recently held beauty pageant, in Colombo.
It’s not surprising that the local beauty scene has hit a new low because, in the past, there have been many unpleasant happenings taking place at these so-called beauty pageants.
On several occasions I have, in my articles, mentioned that the state, or some responsible authority, should step in and monitor these events – lay down rules and guidelines, and make sure that everything is above board.
My suggestions, obviously, have fallen on deaf ears, and this is the end result – our beauty pageants have become the laughing stock the world over; talk show hosts are creating scenes, connected with the recent incidents, to amuse their audience.
Australians had the opportunity of enjoying this scenario, so did folks in Canada – via talk show hosts, discussing our issue, and bringing a lot of fun, and laughter, into their discussions!
Many believe that some of these pageants are put together, by individuals…solely to project their image, or to make money, or to have fun with the participants.
And, there are also pageants, I’m told, where the winner is picked in advance…for various reasons, and the finals are just a camouflage. Yes, and rigging, too, takes place.
I was witnessed to one such incident where I was invited to be a judge for the Talent section of a beauty contest.
There were three judges, including me, and while we were engrossed in what we were assigned to do, I suddenly realised that one of the contestants was known to me…as a good dancer.
But, here’s the catch! Her number didn’t tally with the name on the scoresheet, given to the judges.
When I brought this to the notice of the organiser, her sheepish reply was that these contestants would have switched numbers in the dressing room.
Come on, they are no babes!
On another occasion, an organiser collected money from the mother of a contestant, promising to send her daughter for the finals, in the Philippines.
It never happened and she had lots of excuses not to return the money, until a police entry was made.
Still another episode occurred, at one of these so-called pageants, where the organiser promised to make a certain contestant the winner…for obvious reasons.
The judges smelt something fishy and made certain that their scoresheets were not tampered with, and their choice was crowned the winner.
The contestant, who was promised the crown, went onto a frenzy, with the organiser being manhandled.
I’m also told there are organisers who promise contestants the crown if they could part with a very high fee (Rs.500,000 and above!), and also pay for their air ticket.
Some even ask would-be contestants to check out sponsors, on behalf of the organisers. One wonders what that would entail!
Right now, in spite of the pandemic, that is crippling the whole world, we are going ahead with beauty pageants…for whose benefit!
Are the organisers adhering to the Covid-19 health guidelines? No way. Every rule is disregarded.
The recently-held contest saw the contestants, on the move, for workshops, etc., with no face masks, and no social distancing.
They were even seen in an open double-decker bus, checking out the city of Colombo…with NO FACE MASKS.
Perhaps, the instructions given by Police Spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana, and Army Commander, General Shavendra Silva, mean nothing to the organisers of these beauty pageants…in this pandemic setting.
My sincere advice to those who are keen to participate in such events is to check, and double check. Or else, you will end up being deceived…wasting your money, time, and energy.
For the record, when it comes to international beauty pageants for women, Miss World, Miss Universe, Miss Earth and Miss International are the four titles which reign supreme.
In pageantry, these competitions are referred to as the ‘Big Four.’
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