Pandemic profiteering and constitutional distractions
Ah, take the cash, and let the virus spread!
by Rajan Philips
“Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!”
― Omar Khayyam
Covid-19 is getting too close to home for too many. Last week it was Suresh Perera at the Sunday Island. This week it was Mangala Samaraweera, the veteran politician, who passed way after contracting Covid-19. He was a political stalwart behind the victories of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena in presidential elections. He was also a faithful lieutenant to former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. A frontline cabinet minister in multiple portfolios since 1994, Mangala surpassed his father and political figure Mahanama Samaraweera in profile and in popularity.
Mangala Samaraweera will be remembered as a sincere and outspoken champion of pluralism, tolerance and national reconciliation even though his public pronouncements often created more controversy than consensus among his compatriots. As Foreign Minister, he tried to forge a new relationship with western countries predicated on respect for and observance of human rights. Shortly before his illness, he successfully interceded to obtain Covid-19 vaccine supplies for Sri Lanka from the US. Mangala Samaraweera’s death is widely mourned even as Covid-19 victims are getting more numerous and increasingly personal.
The 10-day lockdown imposed on Friday August 20 has not been able to reduce the daily totals of infections and deaths. Without a lockdown the totals would have been way higher. If the current trend continues, it would be a matter of weeks before total infections pass the half a million landmark and the number of deaths exceed 10,000. For the longest time after the onset of Covid-19, Sri Lanka’s totals were few hundreds of infections and hardly two dozen deaths. A political victory was declared prematurely, and public health was ignored almost permanently. Now there is no obvious end in sight, to plan for victory celebrations, even with the optimistic expectation of a fully vaccinated nation. Before looking for the end of the tunnel, look at what next steps are in sight.
The known unknown, at the time of writing, is whether the current lockdown will be ended or extended, come Monday. The decision apparently will be made on Friday August 27, according to news reports citing Dr. Asela Gunawardane, Director General of Health Services. By the time this column appears, you will already know whether or not the lockdown is continuing. The known known from Dr. Gunawardane’s statement is that the good doctor is at least open to continuing the lockdown. The unknown unknown, in Rumsfeld parlance, is the mind or the mindlessness of the President.
Friday last week, after months of resisting medical opinion, the President used the plea from the country’s highest prelates as reason for relenting and agreeing to a lockdown. Whose pleas are going to tip the scales a second time? What planetary signals are flashing in the national clairvoyant’s crystal ball? There are many other knowns and unknowns.
Unclaimed Bodies and Overclaimed Profits
The big known about the current lockdown is the confusion that shrouded its multiple announcements. As a result, people have been left to wonder whether they are in a lockdown, or a quarantine curfew; what is open and what is closed; and what activities are allowed and what are not. The administrative confusion is confounded by political infighting in the government. The SLPP is again taking to task its miniscule partners in the governing alliance for showing disloyalty to the President – this time writing to him and asking for a lockdown in deference to the medical opinion that has been calling for one for months on end.
It really requires extraordinary imagination to accuse the likes of Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara that they are of part of an international plot to bring about a regime change in Sri Lanka. Plot with whom – North Korea? But that apparently is the current pre-occupation of the SLPP – to safeguard the President, and not fighting Covid-19 to save the country. It has also been reported that at SLPP’s behest senior government officials are releasing communications and statements opposing the current lockdown and/or curfew measures. And this at a time when the police are arresting people on the street in record daily numbers for alleged curfew violations.
Besides the confusion at large in the country and paranoia within the government there is also the tragically known unknown about the last rites for people who are dying and are going to their graves or are turning into ashes – unseen and unwept and even unclaimed by their bereaving families. Lynn Ockersz has versified the insensitive crassness with which the (Covid-19) dead are being officially treated. His poem “The Unclaimed Body” (The Island, August 18) also calls out the Republic’s preference and religiosity: “Such treatment of the dead is no surprise,” the poem hits the nail on the coffin, “In a republic that’s preferred to be in chains … and in a land where religiosity pompously parades …”
Even elephants are protesting at parades, perhaps unlocking what DH Lawrence poetically saw while on a visit to the island during the 1922 “Pera-hera, at midnight, under the tropical stars,” as “the mystery of the dark mountain of blood, reeking in homage, in lust, in rage, and passive with everlasting patience.” Prudent rulers, whether kings or presidents, would never take patience to be everlasting either among elephants or among citizens.
While it is too much to expect poetic sensitivity to be observed in government operations, it is fair and reasonable to expect that a government that is boastful of its vistas and splendour, would show some respect for the nation’s dead and compassion for those that are left to mourn. Just as healthcare workers are expected to have good bedside manners, it is not too much to ask that the government directs its deathcare workers to show proper mortuary manners, graveside manners and pyre-side manners.
From deaths to profits is a tortuous leap, but not with a pandemic around and with this government at the helm. There are plausible allegations that profits and commissions are being garnered from selling vaccines, performing tests, disposing dead bodies and designating quarantine hotels. A retired Chief Epidemiologist has publicly stated that the President’s directive to conduct weekly Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) on people over 60 years of age with pre-existing medical conditions will not contribute to saving lives but only to generating profits for companies importing RAT test kits.
It known that test kits are imported at USD 4 (Rs. 800) per kit with 10 testing samples, or a cost of Rs. 80 per sample. Private hospitals apparently charge patients Rs. 2,500 per sample, for a profit of Rs. 2,420 on each sample with the bulk of it going to the importer. The cost of a RAT test kit in India is INR 150, and in many countries the kits are distributed free. It is bad enough to have a government that is ill-equipped and incompetent, but do people deserve a government that presides over such a rip off in the middle of a pandemic? Ah, take the cash, and let the virus spread. That seems to have become the unwritten motto.
As for the virus spread, Sri Lanka has all the experts needed in Epidemiology and Public Health to advise the government and lead a programmatic path to containing the spread of the virus. But the government has failed to assemble them to perform this task. The government’s failure to give medical experts an organizational forum to provide leadership has led them to literally freelance in the media instead of directly advising the government.
Practically in most countries governments are following the advice of medical experts. In some western countries governments conveniently abdicate their responsibilities to scientists and experts. India and Sri Lanka are notable exceptions. The results on the Covid-19 front are unmistakable. The Indian situation is different from Sri Lanka’s. In India, the BJP and Prime Minister Modi do not trust any Indian expert, professional, or academic who is not a BJPer. They are suspected to be secularists or Nehru loyalists and are excluded as far as possible from decision making in state institutions. All important decisions have to be made by the Prime Minister himself. Similar to the Trump presidency. This approach blew up in the face for Modi and the BJP, jus as it did for Trump.
In Sri Lanka, until recently, almost everyone of consequence wanted to be associated with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP. There are no Senanayake or Bandaranaike loyalists lurking in state institutions and agencies to undermine the Rajapaksas. President Rajapaksa did not have to suspect anyone or exclude anyone especially in the matter of Covid-19. He could have summoned and consistently obtained the best expert advice and recommendations possible and presided over their implementation through the state machinery including the army. When things go right, he could take political credit for them, and if they go wrong he could damn the experts. Why was this approach not taken? That has already become the defining question for the prematurely tottering GR presidency.
As explanatory factors go – there is inexperience and incompetence. But one year of Covid-19 experience is worth a lifetime of normal experience, and you can always compensate for incompetence by picking and relying on people who are competent. Sinhala nationalism is more a convenient ruse than a defining political cause for the Rajapaksas. Of course, for those who want to manipulate Rajapaksas as weapons of history, they can be a pretty authentic bunch. In any event, nationalism is neither a vaccine nor therapy against Covid-19. Even ‘vaccine nationalism’ never found much traction, and for Sri Lanka it has no meaning.
What seems to have pushed the GR presidency off track on Covid-19 is the administration’s, and the family’s, hunger for project distractions. They would rather allocate national resources and incur debt for financially profiteering but economically dead end development projects than spend time and resources in purposefully fighting Covid-19. The government and the family have never shied away from their distractive priorities: the Port City in Colombo, a millionaire Yacht Club in Hambantota, 500 gyms throughout the country, transport and highway projects based Ponzi funding sources – the list will keep going on. And where there is a choice involved between public interest and commercial interests, the scales are always tilted in favour of the latter. No government has so comprehensively alienated and outraged every working segment of Sri Lanka’s population – farmers, teachers, fishers, workers and professionals.
A qualitatively different distraction is the constitutional project. Covid-19 may have put on hold the work of the Expert Committee set up to guide the writing of a new constitution – the fourth in 74 years. The Committee’s report was expected in July, there has not been any new news on its current status. This is hardly the time for preparing a new constitution. More importantly, the present government and parliament are by far the least constitutionally literate government or parliament in 90 years of constitutional government. Without Covid-19 the government may have ploughed through to producing a new constitution.
In the current situation and alternating between lockdowns, the government will be pilloried by the public if it takes up the constitutional project as a priority. The project should ideally be allowed to stay quiet and wither away. However, the government would likely welcome any opportunity to restart the project if the suggestion were to come from outside the government. It would be unfortunate and politically ill-advised if a request were to be extended to the government at this time, to write a new constitution to address the problems of the Tamils. It is irresponsible to think that “Covid-19 is a temporary situation and a new constitution is more important.” No one wants a permanent Covid-19 situation, but until Covid-19 is significantly controlled, nothing else can be a priority. More importantly, Covid-19 has turned upside down the credibility of the Rajapaksa government. The government must be pushed and persuaded to focus on Covid-19, even if leads to restoring its credibility. It should not be given the excuse to be distracted from Covid-19 to write a new constitution.
Singarasa Case should guide GoSL’s Geneva policy
BY Dharshan Weerasekera
In 2005, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled in the seminal case Singarasa v. Attorney General (SC/SPLA/182/99) that the U.N. Human Rights Commission (the predecessor of today’s U.N. Human Rights Council) did not have jurisdiction, within Sri Lanka, to make recommendations on behalf of the petitioner. In doing so, the court decided that Sri Lanka’s accession to the optional protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) in 1997 had been done in a manner contrary to the Constitution, and hence illegal.
This case has invaluable lessons to teach in regard to the present government’s ‘Geneva Policy.’ By ‘Geneva Policy,’ I mean the government’s stance to the UNHRC’s follow-up resolutions to Sri Lanka’s unilateral withdrawal, in March 2020, from the co-sponsorship of Resolution 30/1 of October 2015. In response, the Council adopted Resolution Resolution than 30/1. Among other things, it establishes an evidence-gathering mechanism to collect evidence of war crimes and other crimes against Sri Lankans.
Meanwhile, in September 2022, the High Commissioner released a report on Sri Lanka’s progress in implementing the recommendations of Resolution 46/1. The government has officially rejected both, Resolution 46/1 and the High Commissioner’s report, on grounds that they were done without Sri Lanka’s consent and, therefore, contrary to the founding principles of the Council. (See A/HRC/51/G/1, paras 1.1, 1.2). However, the Foreign Ministry, in its response, lists various things that the government is doing to comply with Resolution 46/1.
I argue that the government, continuing to comply with the Resolution while, at the same time, rejecting it in principle, without first obtaining a definitive interpretation of the relevant legal position, from an international forum, or even the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, creates a dangerous precedent. Given the fact that state practice is one of the sources of customary international law, the government’s conduct has the potential to do irreparable harm to the long-term interests of the country.
Unfortunately, there is little, or no, discussion of these issues in local newspapers, and academic journals, and it is in the public interest to start one. In this article, I shall discuss: i) the facts and reasoning of the Singarasa judgment, ii) the High Commissioner’s report and the government’s reply, iii) assess of the government’s position, and draw the relevant conclusions.
The Singarasa case
In 1991, the High Court of Colombo convicted Singarasa of five charges, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The charges dealt with alleged attempts by Singarasa, and others, to attack the Army camps,in Jaffna and its suburbs. Singarasa appealed against the conviction to the Court of Appeal and then the Supreme Court. He also complained to the U.N. Human Rights Commission. The HRC could entertain petitions under the Optional Protocol to ICCPR. Sri Lanka had ratified the ICCPR, in 1980, and acceded to the protocol, in 1997. The HRC said that, Sri Lanka was under obligation to release Singarasa.
The main issue, in this case, is whether Sri Lanka’s accession to the ICCPR, and the related protocol, gives a right to an international body to intervene in the domestic sphere to determine Singarasa’s fate. The court answers ‘no,’ because of the following reasons. The court starts with the premise that the authority for the President to enter into international agreements comes from Article 33(f) of the Constitution. Article 33(f) states: “To do all such acts as, not being inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution…he is required or authorized to do.” It follows that the President cannot agree to anything inconsistent with the Constitution.
The court then assesses the signing of the ICCPR, in 1980, and the subsequent accession to the optional protocol, in 1997, separately. The court points out that the ICCPR requires that the respective signatories adopt domestic legislation to implement the provisions of the covenant. This does not conflict with our Constitution and hence is lawful.
However, when acceding to the optional protocol, the government had issued a declaration that envisioned that the rights of Sri Lankan citizens could be adjudicated in tribunals, and forums, outside this country. The court points out that the institutions, through which Sri Lankans can vindicate their rights, within this country, are exhaustively set out in Article 105 of the Constitution, and the HRC is not one of them. Therefore, the court deems the accession to the optional protocol illegal. The court states:
“Where the President enters into a treaty or accedes to a covenant the content of which is inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution or written law it would be a transgression of the limitation in Article 33 (f) and ultra vires—such acts of the President would not bind the Republic qua State.” (p. 11)
The High Commissioner’s report and the Government’s reply
The most disturbing aspect of the High Commissioner’s report is its description of the progress made by the impugned evidence-gathering mechanism. It states: “OHCHR continues to develop the information and evidence repository using an e-discovery platform….OHCHR commenced identifying material held by other actors and engaging with information providers. To date, the databases of two organisations have been migrated into the repository, and negotiations with other information providers are ongoing.” ((A/HRC/51/5, 4th October 2022, para 54.)
The report also details what the OHCHR plans to do with this information. It says: “To develop possible strategies for future accountability processes, the project team started mapping potential accountability process at international level, including through consultations with relevant stakeholders, in particular national authorities, victims and civil society organisations.” (para 56.)
In sum, it is clear that a vast operation is underway, not just to collect evidence against Sri Lanka but to set the groundwork to help prosecute Sri Lankans before various national and international forums. To the best of my knowledge, the founding statutes of the UNHRC, as well as the OHCHR, do not give enforcement capabilities to these institutions to prosecute or assist in the prosecution of people for violations of human rights and other offences.
Their respective mandates to protect and promote human rights are to be carried out with the consent of all nations concerned and in a spirit of “cooperation and constructive international dialogue.” Therefore, through the impugned mechanism the OHCHR has now arguably expanded its mandate to include an enforcement component, seemingly without any debate or discussion of the matter before the Council.
To turn to the government’s response, in the introductory paragraphs of the said document, the government rejects both resolution 46/1 as well as the High Commissioner’s report on grounds that they violate the UN’s founding principles. However, for much of the remainder of the report (which runs to 16 pages) the government enumerates the various things it has been doing to implement various provisions of the resolutions. For instance, the government discusses the work being done under the Office on Missing Persons, Office for Reparations, and so on.
On the OMP, the report states inter alia: “The OMP conducted panels of inquiries as part of the verification process. More than 89% of persons (1207 of 1370 applicants invited for inquiries) met with members of the panel and their testimonials were recorded.” (A/HRC/51/G/1, 9th September 2022, para 46)
Meanwhile, on the Office for Reparations, the report says, “The office processed 5964 claims for payment, by the end of 2021, and paid a sum of Rs. 399.8 million in settlement, out of the allocated sum of Rs. 800 million….Upto the end of 2022, the OR received Rs. 226 million to pay compensation and 2097 claims were settled utilizing Rs. 153 million.” (para 56)
In sum, even though the government has nominally rejected resolution 46/1 and by extension resolution 30/1 as well, the government is expending great energy, including enormous sums of money, to comply with various provisions of those resolutions.
Assessment of the policy
The Singarasa case establishes that the President, when conducting foreign policy, is exercising the power conferred under Article 33 (f) of the Constitution. One cannot suppose that it is consistent with the Constitution to comply with the provisions of a resolution that the Government itself considers to be in violation of the founding principles of the UNHRC.
Admittedly, a resolution of the UNHRC does not rise to the level of a treaty or covenant. However, there should now be a serious debate in this country about whether the reasoning above should apply to such resolutions which continue to target Sri Lanka on the world stage.
Furthermore, if, as I have suggested, the OHCHR has expanded its mandate by exploiting the provisions of Resolution 46/1 to acquire capabilities that were never envisioned in the relevant founding statutes, permitting such conduct to continue has the potential to set precedents in customary international law, with grave consequences for Sri Lanka, as well as other nations.
Therefore, Sri Lankan citizens are entitled to know the legal basis for the government’s continued compliance with provisions of Resolution 46/1, while nominally rejecting the Resolution. The only institution that can provide a legal opinion binding on the government is the Supreme Court. The President has the capacity, under Article 129 of the Constitution, to request an advisory opinion of the Supreme Court on any matter of public importance.
In these circumstances, it is incumbent on the government to seek an advisory opinion as to whether it is lawful for the government to continue complying with provisions of Resolution 46/1 unless and until the UNHRC clarifies its position in regard to the impugned mechanism.
It is in the interest of all Sri Lankans to keep a close eye on what the government is presently doing in Geneva. There is a famous legal maxim that says, “The laws assist the vigilant, not the sleepy.” Ultimately, it is the Sri Lankan people who will pay the price for any mistakes or missteps that successive governments make in regard to their “Geneva Policy.’
(The writer is an Attorney-at-Law)
Human Papillomavirus vaccine: one that can prevent a cancer
This article has been written as a fervent plea to the parents of little girls of the eligible age group. Please make sure that your precious daughters get this vaccine. It will be an investment for their happiness in the future.
By Dr B. J. C. Perera
All vaccines by definition are substances that are used to stimulate immunity against a particular infectious disease or a specific causative organism. Such vaccines are used to prevent the occurrence of the said diseases in humans and animals. Several vaccines have been introduced to combat such infectious diseases over the last few decades. In some countries, the use of some of these vaccines has led to the elimination of dreaded diseases like Diphtheria, Tetanus, Whooping Cough or Pertussis, Polio, Measles, German Measles or Rubella, just to name a few.
Sri Lanka has a very efficient and inherently equitable system that looks after the Expanded Programme of Immunisation (EPI) for children and young people. In general, we have been extremely successful in this programme and can boast of over 90 per cent coverage for the vaccination of all children. We have successfully eliminated polio, the last case being confirmed as far back as 1993, and we are free of diphtheria, tetanus, measles and German measles or rubella. The success of the EPI is due to many factors that include government commitment, the unstinted dedication of parents, the promotion of the programme through all media channels and the dedicated work of all grades of healthcare personnel. The very high literacy rate of the populace of our country enables all information regarding vaccination to be most conveniently conveyed to the population. Sri Lanka has been hailed as a country that has achieved so much in this field, but with so few resources. It has been cited as a model to the entire Asian region as well as even the world.
In addition to their undoubted effectiveness in protecting against infective microorganisms, some of these vaccines have other bonus effects. At least two of the vaccines in use today have telling effects in preventing certain cancers. One is the Hepatitis B vaccine. It provides protection against liver cancer. The other is the more recent Human Papillomavirus vaccine (HPV vaccine) which protects females against cancer of the neck of the womb, which is also referred to as the cervix of the womb. That disease is generally referred to as Cervical Cancer.
The Human Papillomavirus (HPV) is sexually transmitted and most people become infected sometime during their lifetime. In the majority, it is soon after becoming sexually active. Most infections are asymptomatic and usually clear up spontaneously, accounting for remission in 90% within two years. Only 10% of persistent HPV infections with certain genotypes of HPV can persist and progress to changes in the cervix. If infection from cancer-causing HPV types persists over 10-15 years, women can go on to develop precancerous lesions that, if left untreated, develop into cervical cancer. This process takes an average of 20-30 years from infection to the development of cervical cancer.
In 1995, Dr Anne Szarewski, a renowned researcher from the United Kingdom, led a team who outlined the role of human papillomavirus in uterine cervical cancer detection and screening. Then the researchers began work on an HPV vaccine. Szarewski was also a chief investigator, principal investigator and author of key HPV vaccine trials and publications, who helped to develop the bivalent HPV vaccine. The word bivalent is used to indicate that it contains two strains of HPV. HPV infections are very common, often with minimal symptoms, but high-risk HPV strains can go on to cause other medical conditions, particularly cervical cancer.
In 2006, the first vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV) to be used globally was approved. HPV vaccination has now gone on to become a key part of the effort to eliminate cervical cancer. According to the available research results, HPV vaccination could reduce the lifetime risk of cervical cancer by 35–80%; the rather wide range being due to several studies with different methods. The vaccine was initially promptly snapped up in the West, especially in the Scandinavian countries. In Sweden, the coverage of the vaccine is over 80 per cent. However, according to the data put out by the World Health Organization (WHO) in November 2022, the human papillomavirus vaccine against cervical cancer has been introduced in just 41 per cent of low-income countries, even though they represent much of the disease burden, compared to 83% of high-income countries. We have a set of 10-year data on the benefits of the vaccine and in certain Western countries, a significant drop in the morbidity and mortality rates of cervical cancer is already evident.
In Sri Lanka, the National Vaccine Summit in January 2015 recommended the usage of the HPV vaccine and the government introduced it in 2017 for girls within the age range of 10 to 13 years. That age group was decided on the premise that to get the best results, we need to introduce the vaccine before sexual activity starts. The vaccine was to be administered to the selected age groups in the schools free of charge and in the fee-levying private sector. To date, the vaccine is not available through the Immunisation Clinics of the Provinces and the MOH Clinics.
NOW HERE IS THE REAL CRUX OF THE MATTER. For a variety of reasons, the coverage of the HPV vaccine in the entire cohort of eligible girls in Sri Lanka is somewhere between 30 and 40 per cent. This is woefully inadequate coverage to get the best possible results, especially when looked upon in the light of over 90 per cent coverage of the other vaccines in the National Expanded Programme of Immunisation. Cervical cancer ranks among the five commonest cancers in women in Sri Lanka. HPV vaccine is just one of two vaccines that can prevent cancers. All children have had the Hepatitis B vaccine which protects against liver cancer, as it is given through the National Programme of Immunisation. But, and this is a BIG BUT, the only other vaccine, the HPV vaccine that can prevent cervical cancer, shows a rather low uptake.
We do need to escalate the uptake rate of the HPV vaccine to at least around 80 per cent to get reasonable benefits in the reduction of the morbidity and mortality that is currently seen in cervical cancer. I think we have to admit that due to very many reasons, the message has not gone through to the general population in the country. When inquiries are made from the mothers of eligible girls, the vast majority of them are not even aware of the existence of this vaccine and more importantly, the future beneficial potential of this endeavour. The age group selected is a rather tricky cohort. They get upset at the drop of a hat. The last thing they want is an injection. They will run away, as fast as possible, to avoid it. Some are so frightened that it is not uncommon to see them faint even at the sight of the syringe and the needle. One way of getting the cooperation of these little girls is to allow either the mother or the father to be present to hold her hand most reassuringly when the vaccine is administered. An additional initiative would be to make it widely available through the Immunisation Clinics for it to be administered to all those who have missed it when it was given in the school. This is particularly important as the vaccine is quite expensive when administered in the private sector.
Latest position on debt restructuring process
By Jayampathy Molligoda
According to the announcement made by the Managing Director of the IMF Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF Executive board meeting will be held on 20 March to consider and hopefully approve the EFF arrangement for Sri Lanka. In the meantime, the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank in consultation with IMF have finalised the latest position of Sri Lanka’s Public Debt as at end 2022 just prior to commencement of debt restructuring negotiations with creditors. Having perused the document uploaded to the Ministry of Finance (MOF website) recently, which is a comprehensive summary of debt stock as at end 2022, I have tabulated the summary of the main facts and figures (See Table). As can be seen, the total public debt stock has skyrocketed to US $ 83.6 billion, which includes total foreign debt of US$ 45.6 billion and the local debt of 38 billion in US $ equivalent. The total debt as a % of GDP as stated in the above MOF doc is 128%. The public debt is expected be reduced to 100% of GDP in order to ensure debt sustainability in line with IMF supported program parameters coupled with ‘comparability of treatment principle’ whilst ensuring equitable burden sharing for all restructured debt.
However, I have my doubts about GDP computation here. As per the MOF doc page 1, the Nominal GDP was stated as Rs. 23.7 trillion for the year 2022. The $ exchange rate used for conversion as Rs.363.10 clearly indicating that it is the year end figure, they have taken the year end Exchange rate of Rs 363.10 per US$. It is pertinent to ask the question as to why ‘year- end exchange rate’ figure to convert our annual GDP in rupee to US dollars? It should have been the ‘average exchange rate’ as in the past so many years computed by CBSL. As a result, the GDP (in US$ terms) works out to US$ 65.2 billion only. That’s why the total public debt stock of US$ 83.6 billion works out to 128% of GDP – my initial query is; why did they take year-end figure of Rs363.10 instead of taking the average exchange rate?
Besides, the real critical issue is how to reduce the debt stock to a level of 100% of GDP in the context of declining GDP (- 7.8% in 2022) and on the other hand, our debt stock is on the rise. More importantly, if we take the total ‘multilateral debt’ out, then the foreign debt is US $ 34 billion only, which includes ISBs and bilateral loans. Assuming a higher ‘haircut’ of 33% for foreign debt is agreed upon, it works out to 11 billion thus reducing the total public debt to 73 billion only.
In this regard, The President in his latest open letter dated 14 March ‘23 to Sri Lanka’s official Bilateral creditors has clearly indicated that there will be equitable treatment of burden sharing in respect of all creditors (except IMF/WB/ADB) Quote; ” ..we reiterate our commitment to a comparable treatment of all our external creditors with a view to ensuring all round equitable burden sharing for all restructured debt. To that end, we will not conclude debt treatment agreements with any official bilateral creditor or any commercial creditors or any group of such creditors on terms more favourable than those agreed. …To this end we also confirm that we have not and we will not make any side agreements with any creditor aimed at reducing the debt treatment impact on that creditor.”
In the circumstances, my own view is we are reluctantly compelled to restructure local debt i.e.; TBs and, it is inevitable that the local debt of USD equivalent of 38 billion would also need to be taken into consideration for debt restructuring – otherwise there is no way of reducing the total public debt stock to the level that is required as per IMF conditions. This would create a serious issue for our ‘finance system stability’ and all our commercial banks will be in trouble. Further the deposit holders including pension funds are badly affected. The temperature of social unrest is brought closer to the boiling point.
As stated in the global research article by Jonathan Manz recently, former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, has slammed the IMF for unleashing riots on nations the IMF is dealing with; he has pointed out that the riots are written into the IMF plan to force nations to agree with the average 111 conditions laid down by the IMF and they destroy a country’s democracy and independence. He has been a critique of IMF causing great damage to countries through the economic policies it has prescribed countries to follow in order to qualify for IMF loans. However, neither Stiglitz nor any other eminent economist has yet to come out with a practical and alternative policy framework to overcome the most serious economic and financial crisis faced in the 75 years of Sri Lanka’s independence.
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