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.
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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