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Political leadership is necessary to resolve protracted conflicts

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By Jehan Perera

Despite its small size Sri Lanka has occasionally been prominent on the world scene for both good reasons and bad.  Sri Lanka gained much positive publicity for having the first woman prime minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike in 1960. This was one of the factors that helped Sri Lanka to host the non-aligned conference in 1976 which was attended by 86 heads of states or their representatives and enabled Sri Lanka to play a lead role on the international scene.  In the decade of the 1960s and 1970s, Sri Lanka was also known internationally as a model of a country that could provide its people with a relatively high quality of life on a relatively low income. At that time Sri Lanka had economic policies that emphasized income re-distribution and subsidies that kept inequalities significantly lower than what they are today.

The area where Sri Lanka failed from the very beginning was in inter-community integration.  This was due to the use of ethnic politics without concern for the common good in which the wellbeing of all was set as the ideal to be achieved. First it disenfranchised almost its entire Indian-origin Tamil population.  Then it imposed an official language policy that belittled and marginalized Tamil speakers.  These two divisive events set the ground for conflict that has blocked the country from reaching its full potential and which it has still to overcome.  Acts of mob violence, terrorism and finally years of brutal warfare brought Sri Lanka into an unfavourable limelight.  Now, with its ban on the burial of Covid victims and its policy of enforced cremations, Sri Lanka has become a source of unusual controversy as it goes against both science and religion.  Sri Lanka is once again in an unfavourable spotlight. 

At the outset of the Covid pandemic the government took the position that Covid burial is not permissible due to the threat to the health and safety of the larger population as it leads to the possibility of groundwater contamination. However, today, the government is reported to be willing to consider the burial of Covid victims in specially located sites which would pose no risk of groundwater contamination.  If there is no evidence for or against such contamination, then the prevailing law and practices relating to burial should continue as the course of justice. If proven otherwise, then the rationale would be to mitigate this in larger interest of the society. By disregarding the strongly felt sentiments of a significant section of the population, the government is risking the buildup of conflict in the future. 

LEADERSHIP QUALITIES

The resolution of ethnic and religious that have taken root in society are very difficult to resolve without enlightened and credible leadership as witnessed worldwide, most notably in the last few years in the United States.  This is part of the Clash of Civilisations warned about by the American political scientist Samuel P Huntington.  In 1992 he wrote that prior to the end of the Cold War, societies were divided by ideological differences, such as the struggle between democracy and communism. However, at the present time he argued that “The most important distinctions among peoples are [no longer] ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural.”

The speeding up of economic development by itself will not resolve the tensions and clashes that arise out of culture and identity.  Even if they were, Sri Lanka will be very poorly situated to utilize this method of resolving its conflicts and Covid and past loans have debilitated the economy.  Therefore, the challenge that is can be dealt with at this time is not so much the economy but getting the fundamentals of inter-community relations in place.  This is a time when the country requires statesmanlike leaders.  First and foremost they need to be able to win the trust and confidence of their populations.  Second they need to have the sagacity to establish institutions that enable equal rights, equal protection and equal opportunity for all citizens irrespective of their ethnicity, religion or other cultural identity. Third, they need to have the strength of character and legal power to push through with their reforms.

The nearest that Sri Lanka came to having such a leader was Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 1994.  She had a popular mandate for a political solution to the war from all communities, especially the Sinhalese majority.  Her mandate of 62 percent of the popular vote was the largestever.  Unfortunately, she faced an intractable obstacle in the LTTE who spurned every offer of hers to settle for a political solution within the framework of a united Sri Lanka.  As her government only had a simple majority in parliament, her political rivals denied her the legal power to translate the new constitution her team had drafted from being passed into law.  Instead the draft constitution of 2000 which could have provided the solution ended up being literally set on fire in parliament.

 

NEW CONSTITUTION

It is said that hope springs eternal in the human breast.  The first year anniversary of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s advent to politics has brought hope to a majority of Sri Lankans who voted for him.   This is a hope that can be realized for all Sri Lankans.  While those who campaigned for him did so on a nationalist platform, a large proportion of those who voted for the president did so because they wanted a strong and decisive leadership that gave priority to the national interest.  Whenever those with extreme nationalist views have sought election on their own, they end up getting very few votes as the general population does not favour extremism.  Echoing the more prevalent moderation in Sri Lankan society, the president stated in his inaugural address after winning the Presidential election that while he was voted for by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, he would be the president of all Sri Lankans.

Since winning the presidency, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has frequently reiterated that he will ensure justice and equal treatment to all sections of the people.   In his address to the nation a fortnight ago the President said that “An administration that protects the rights of all citizens regardless of racial or religious differences will be established during my tenure.”  At the same time the Sinhalese Buddhist majority place their implicit trust in him on account of his leadership in defeating the LTTE which was once deemed an impossible task.  President Rajapaksa has a solid base on which to reach out to the ethnic and religious minority communities while retaining the confidence of the majority community. He has the opportunity to accomplish what the great Sri Lankan political leaders of the past tried to accomplish, which is a consensual solution that meets the needs and aspirations of all sections of the polity.

The primary need for a new constitution would be to resolve the conflicts between the state and people and to afford to all citizens the equal protection of the laws.  The contours of a new constitution for Sri Lanka are taking shape as the Experts Committee has renewed its call for further public representations and given till December 31 to do so.  Following the passage of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution that gives him sweeping powers, and which is backed by a 2/3 majority in parliament, the President also has the legal powers to implement any reform he wishes to put in place. Once again Sri Lanka stands at the edge of international limelight as it set to be on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council once again in March 2021 due to its withdrawal from the co-sponsored resolution of 2015.  The progress towards a new Constitution that will better reflect the country’s multi ethnic, multi religious, multi lingual, multi cultural and plural nature will stand the government in good stead and be a positive example to the world, like we were in the past.

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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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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.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

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.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

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.

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Features

Album to celebrate 30 years

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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.

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Features

LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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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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