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Govt. needs to start implementing its plan for reconciliation

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By Jehan Perera

The report on Sri Lanka of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has been much stronger than anticipated. It has shattered the belief that Sri Lanka was too important a country, in geopolitical terms, for the international community to use to prove a point. In her report, the High Commissioner has stated that Sri Lanka’s disregard of the commitments that it had made should not become an excuse for other countries to follow suit. The recommendations made in the High Commissioner’s report are dangerous. They include a call for targeted economic and travel sanctions on those suspected of human rights violations. The report has recommended the launch of criminal proceedings at the International Criminal Court and an international mechanism to gather evidence. In addition, there is an invitation to countries to take independent action against those deemed to be human rights violators on the basis of universal jurisdiction.

This latter recommendation, in particular has the possible consequence of opening the floodgates to a whole host of law suits filed by aggrieved individuals and human rights organisations. The High Commissioner’s report is therefore a document that cannot be ignored but needs to be responded to with due attention to detail. If the issues raised in it are not dealt with, it can place members of the government and security forces vulnerable to having legal cases and summons placed before them while they are in transit in foreign countries. The legal field in relation to universal jurisdiction is particularly well developed in Western countries.

The doctrine of universal jurisdiction allows national courts to try cases of crimes against humanity and war crimes even if these crimes are not committed in the national territory and even if they are committed by government leaders of other states. The concept is not new, though states have shown an increasing willingness to enlarge the zone of their jurisdiction and to prosecute or extradite those in high places. (See https://www.globalpolicy.org/international-justice/universal-jurisdiction-6-31.html)

 

UNIVERSAL JURISDICTION

One of the main cases of the practice of universal jurisdiction comes from Chile. The present High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet herself comes from Chile where she became President for two terms. Her father Alberto Arturo Miguel Bachelet Martínez was a Brigadier General of the Chilean Air Force. He opposed the 1973 coup of General Augusto Pinochet, and was imprisoned and subject to torture for several months until his death in 1974 while in prison. After ending his eight- year term as president, former President Pinochet got himself appointed as Senator for life in Chile with immunity for any crimes he may have committed. The arrest of Augusto Pinochet in London after being indicted by a Spanish magistrate in 1998 signaled changing international norms in the late 1990s.

As a result of the precedents of the Pinochet case, other leaders who were alleged to have committed well-documented crimes have been pursued; the former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. Although an influential and respected person in the US, Henry Kissinger has had to restrict his international travel, because he was wanted in so many jurisdictions either for trial or as a prosecution witness. He served both as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford during the Vietnam War in which large numbers of war crimes took place.

 

STRONG RESPONSE

The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report gives its analysis and recommendations under the topics of “Emerging threats to reconciliation, accountability and human rights; Militarization of civilian government functions; Reversal of Constitutional safeguards; Political obstruction of accountability for crimes and human rights violations; Majoritarian and exclusionary rhetoric; Surveillance and intimidation of civil society and shrinking democratic space; New and exacerbated human rights concerns; Assessment of the implementation of resolution 30/1; Transitional justice and confidence-building measures; Impunity in emblematic cases; Conclusions; Recommendations.” The first indicators of the government’s response to this UN report is that it will respond strongly and show up flaws, biases and weaknesses in the report.

It is likely that the government’s response will be strong as this would be the expectation of the majority of people who voted it to power to put a stop to what they see as excessive international intervention in the internal affairs of the country. However, a strong response to the High Commissioner’s report does not preclude the government from reaching an accommodation with the UN Human Rights Council (which is a separate body and consists of 47 countries which have been elected to sit on it) on the issue of a follow up to its resolutions 30/1 of 2015 and 40/1 of 2017. Reaching accommodation with this body would be a better strategy to follow than one of full scale confrontation as occurred during the period 2011-14 which proved to be costly to the country.

It probably will be easier to reach a compromise agreement with the Human Rights Council which consists of the governments of 47 countries. Already some ambassadors of foreign powers who are expected to be playing a lead role in the deliberations that will take place in Geneva have offered conciliatory messages. US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz has said in an interview that “The support for human rights is absolutely not an effort to bully Sri Lanka or to diminish its sovereignty.” German Ambassador Holger Seubert has tweeted that an “Important UNHRC session coming up in Geneva soon. Hoping that a consensual resolution will be possible.”

Not only are human rights one of the many considerations that governments have, they also consider geopolitics including what is happening in other countries. The latest news is that Myanmar has suffered a military coup and democracy icon Aung San Suu Ki and many of the democratically elected government are under arrest. This is a matter that will necessarily occupy the attention of the Human Rights Council and the secretariat including the High Commissioner. Also, unlike in 2012 and 2013 when it lost in voting at the Human Rights Council in 2021 the balance of global power has shifted and its allies China and Russia much more important on the global stage. However, a confrontational strategy would still pit Sri Lanka against powerful countries, and those who have courts that practice universal jurisdiction, and this is best avoided.

 

CONSENSUAL RESOLUTION

The possibility of a consensual resolution has been a subject of discussion within the government. Foreign Secretary, Prof Jayanath Colombage, a former Admiral of the Sri Lanka Navy, who was part of a team that designed the cooperative naval strategy with foreign powers that overcame the LTTE at sea, including the US and India, has been quoted as saying that a consensual resolution was under consideration. This would provide the government with an opportunity to set out its roadmap for reconciliation and obtain international support for it without going to a divisive vote.

The High Commissioner’s report has noted that the government’s path to reconciliation will be through the two prongs of reparations and development. The governments of the 47 countries represented in the UN Human Rights Council might be more amendable to this government strategy for reconciliation if they see it is in the process of being implemented. Such a strategy cannot remain only a promise but needs to be seen implemented on the ground right away. While development is a long term process whose visible impact may not be seen immediately, there are several act of reparation that can be done with immediate visibility impacts.

These include increasing the quantum of reparations given to families of the missing from the present sum of Rs 6,000 per month, amnesty for LTTE suspects held for over a decade without indictment or trial and resettlement of the war displaced with housing and livelihoods being provided to them. In her recent media interview, US Ambassador Alaina Teplitz has also given some suggestions regarding what the international community is looking at. She said that “it would be good to see more progress in terms of finalizing the last of land returns, in terms of looking at the independent institutions that had been established previously to address the missing, to address the cause of reparation and finally an institution that was not established for looking at the need for some truth telling so that people can kind of examine the past and move ahead.” Another important symbolic reconciliatory action that can be taken at this time would be to sing the national anthem in Tamil also at the Independence Day celebrations on February 4 particularly in the Tamil majority areas.



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Opinion

Should only private sector employees pay income tax?

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File photo of a recent protest against tax hikes

By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

Who currently amongst those who receive a salaried income is not on the streets protesting against the need to pay income tax? The obvious answer is only those working in the private sector. The private sector is often slammed for its reluctance to criticise the government for everything wrong with our country. So their reticence may once again result in only private sector employees paying income tax if the government caves into the demands of the public sector employees and trade unionists.

Based on media reports and television visuals, most state sector employees and those working in state-owned enterprises are on the streets demanding that they not be subject to income tax. Yes, a few say they don’t mind paying income tax but at a lower rate and whilst some demand greater transparency regarding how taxpayer money is spent. However, the overall impression created is that state sector employees don’t want to pay income tax.

As someone who worked in the private sector for nearly three decades and paid significant amounts as income tax, I, too, despised the lack of transparency and equity. However, I did not have the luxury of coming to the streets, refusing to pay the tax, or seeking judicial intervention. I had no choice. My employer deducted the tax and remitted the balance to my bank account.

Shockingly, those protesting against paying income tax are not on the breadline. I see there are two segments. The first lot is mostly public sector employees who are at least in middle management. The second is those in state-owned enterprises earning significantly high salaries and overtime despite being overstaffed.

Those working in the public sector who are out on the street are mostly university graduates who benefited from free education, demanded and received a government job, and earned a pension they never contributed to post-retirement. So their reluctance to pay income tax is perplexing, although many would put it down to the entrenched entitlement mindset.

GMOA IS ONCE AGAIN AT THE FOREFRONT

As usual, the Government Medical Officers Association (GMOA) has been the most vociferous of those objecting to increased income tax rates. That is not surprising because even in 2015, they went to the supreme court seeking relief from paying income tax at the highest rate then of 24%. When they failed, they approached the government requesting that doctors be categorised as part of the small and medium enterprises (SMEs) subjected to only 14%!

So it is unsurprising that they do not want to pay income tax at 36%. It amazes me that doctors, despite benefiting from free university education, the right to engage in private practice, and regular car permits have a great reluctance to pay income tax at the same rates as others. Many stories are circulating about how doctors ask patients to settle their fees in cash, particularly post-surgery, to avoid income tax on their fees.

The good doctors have been joined by judges, university professors, university teachers, engineers and bankers. The only lot that has not joined the protests are those working in the department of Inland Revenue! It would be ironic but not surprising if they do.

It is a shocking indictment of our country’s social fabric that the most supposedly educated citizens feel that they should not be paying income tax and that only those employed in the private sector should bear the income tax burden.

THE GOVERNMENT AND PARLIAMENT ARE NOT WALKING THE TALK

Having said that, I certainly endorse those who protest, saying there is a lack of will on the part of the government to reduce state expenditure and, of course, a lack of transparency as to how our taxes are spent and that rampant corruption is going unchecked.

The appointment of cabinet ministers and state ministers well above what is required solely for political expediency is a case in point. That those appointed are inefficient and some stand accused of corruption makes it even harder to digest.

The much-debated expenditure allocation of Rs 200 million for the independence day celebration whilst asking ordinary citizens to tighten their belts is proof of utter insensitivity and an entrenched mindset of political entitlement. Moreover, the explanation given by the President that the world might think that the country lacks the financial resources to celebrate independence day has left me and many other millions totally incredulous.

Several international aid agencies have assessed that over five million of the population cannot adequately feed themselves, and malnutrition among children is at an all-time high. In addition, foreign and local correspondents have filed media reports of the dire situation in our country. As such, the world is aware of our predicament, and this fact should not escape the President and his cabinet. So who are they trying to deceive?

A principle of good leadership is being able to “walk the talk.” In that respect, the President and his cabinet have been woefully lacking. My criticism is not just limited to the current President and cabinet. The parliament, which includes those in the opposition, can easily demonstrate their commitment to austerity measures that they demand from us by voting to curtail their benefits, such as closing down the parliamentary restaurant where it is claimed that sumptuous meals are served. In the overall context of government expenditure, it might be a meagre amount. However, they need to be seen “walking the talk”.

A media report reported that Rs 800 million had been spent on refurbishing a residence occupied by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa. If this report is indeed correct, then it is an abominable act by someone who keeps repeating that he is with the common person.

A recent report that the Kurunegala Municipal Council has spent Rs. 60 million to remove a stone at a construction site where a building was being constructed for a Maternity and Child Clinic, whereas the approved cost was Rs. 9.3 million reflects the corruption that permeates all state institutions. That none will be charged and jailed for this offence is guaranteed.

I have highlighted a few minor examples of taxpayer money being robbed and wasted. It is, therefore, not surprising that some feel that being subjected to income tax is unfair.

WIDEN THE TAX NET AND IMPOSE A 10% WITHHOLDING TAX ON INTEREST INCOME

There is no doubt that the tax net should be widened. Many liable to tax are not doing so as they are wilfully avoiding tax payment, with many not having a file at the IRD. It was recently reported that as many as 113 members of parliament do not have tax files. In many conversations, a question is raised whether all traders in Pettah have a tax file. From my experience in the private sector, I know that most wholesalers and distributors are either not paying taxes or what they pay is significantly understated. It is generally believed that most of the 500,000 grocery stores are not within the tax net. The IRD is at fault for not forcing these miscreants to register.

An eminently sensible proposal by Dr Nishan De Mel, head of the research agency Verite is to increase the withholding tax (WHT) on interest income to 10 per cent. He has argued that the additional tax collected would enable the government to give a tax reduction to those earning salaries above Rs 100,000 to maybe Rs. 500,000 per month. His suggestion is based on the assumption that most of our country’s “super rich” are underpaying taxes. Taxes collected as the source is guaranteed income for the state. An argument that may be put forward against this is that it will penalise pensioners who may not be liable for tax. The IRD issuing a tax direction can resolve this by confirming that the recipient is not liable for tax. The reluctance of the government to adopt the suggestion is perplexing, if not surprising.

THE NEED TO INCULCATE PAYING OF INCOME TAX AT A YOUNG AGE

Returning to why most state sector employees are reluctant to pay income tax, I believe that the reluctance has been ingrained in their DNA by successive governments by exempting them from income tax. This is because so many good social attributes are taught, and people are exposed to them at a young age.

In my case, my parents inculcated in me that I have a social responsibility to those underprivileged and, of course, the need to adhere to the law of any country I live. At 18, when I worked part-time as a petrol station attendant in the UK whilst studying, my salary was subject to income tax. Despite my nominal wage, I was conditioned to the need to pay income tax. It is the same discipline I adhered to during my working career, and even after my retirement pay my taxes every quarter without any underpayment or delay. It is the same for all private sector employees in our country, where the employer deducts income tax from the salary. So they are conditioned at an early age to the proverb, “Nothing is certain in life other than death and taxes.”

Those employed in state-owned enterprises have gotten used to the employer bearing the tax on their behalf. So the new rule that the employer will no longer be allowed to absorb the tax is causing them much distress. Yet, shockingly, such a scheme has been in existence. The mindset of state employees was illustrated when recently, an employee of the Ministry of Finance justified this practice by saying, “What does it matter whether the employer bears the tax? After all, the IRD receives the tax” It is a shocking reflection of the prevailing attitude.

It is a universally accepted social principle that those better off must contribute a fair share towards maintaining those less well off and other services that the state provides, either free or at subsidised price levels. The responsibility of paying income tax is even more critical in a society that has accepted free education and free health care should be a right of every citizen. It is, therefore, difficult to comprehend why our supposedly educated citizens who have immensely benefited from free education are now unappreciative of the need to repay the state and the citizens a fair share of their income. I am shocked that university professors and teachers, who are assumed to be a fountain of knowledge and appreciate social responsibilities, are also out on the street protesting against the increase in income tax rates. The same applies to those at the Central Bank, who should understand our economy’s perilous state more than others.

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Opinion

Mrs Paripooranam Rajasundaram- A Gracious Lady

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I first came to know Mrs Pariapooranam Rajasundaram, who was born in Singapore on October 25, 1935 while serving a short stint in Jaffna with police intelligence. Her late husband who called her “Pari” was my very close friend, Mr. Vaithilingam Rajasunderam, the former principal of Victoria College, Chullipuram who was introduced to me by my friend and police batch mate, late Tissa Satharasinghe, who was the Personal Security Officer, to the late Mr T.B. Ilangaratne in 1971.

Mrs Rajasundaram was blessed with three sons and a daughter and several grandchildren and can be truly described as a very faithful spouse and dedicated mother, mother-in-law, grandmother and a great grandmother to the family of which she was matriarch.

My short spell in Jaffna in 1973 brought me closer to the Rajasunderams who celebration their 25th wedding anniversary in 1974. Theirs was an open house and my wife and sisters too came to know them well.

Mrs Rajasundram and her husband were good hosts and his assassination was a shock to all of us. It was then she became part of our family as she lived with us briefly till she obtained a UK visa to join her daughter and son-in-law there.

Many years later when she was living in England, I had joined KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and my family used to spend vacations with them in Cockfosters in North London. Mrs Rajasundaram treated us to sumptuous meals lavishing attention on us. She was very fond of my wife and two children and had a heart of gold. A devout Hindu she never failed in her religious obligations, lived within her means and was never greedy for what she could not afford. She firmly believed in being patient and willingly gave to those in need.

She was a lady who was selfless, full of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, very virtuous, and full of love and character. I can say of her: “People may forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel!”

My prayer as a Christian is that God grants you eternal rest.

NIHAL DE ALWIS

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Opinion

Independence celebrations for whose benefit?

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Celebrating what? Bankruptcy, corruption and nepotism to name a few. Surely isn’t there one MP among 225 who feel we have nothing to celebrate. We say we cannot pay govt. servants’ salaries in time, the pensioners’ their entitlements. A thousand more failures confront us.

In our whole post-independence history such a situation has never arisen. We should be mourning our lost prestige, our lost prosperity our depleting manpower. Our youth in vast numbers are leaving the country for greener pastures. We should be conserving every cent to live, not to celebrate a non-existent independence. We should be mourning, walking the streets in sack cloth and ashes in protest at this wanton waste of money by an irresponsible government.

I can’t understand this mentality. The forces are also our young men who feel for their fellow men and women. Maybe their lot is a little better than the rest of us. But how can you order them to go parade? They cannot refuse. It is an unwritten or written code that they have to obey orders without question. I feel sorry for them. All that spit and polish – for whose benefit? Definitely not ours. We will be mourning in silence in our homes.

Padmini Nanayakkara.

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