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Resolution #9: Protecting Human Rights & Prosecuting Economic Crimes

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by Rajan Philips

Sri Lanka is facing its ninth Resolution at the current UNHRC session in Geneva. To be clear, it is not the people of Sri Lanka but the government that is being embarrassed in Geneva year after year. It is because the government shows up every year without doing any of the homework it promises to do. Every year, the resolution gets longer – with new paragraphs added to old ones. In this year of Gotabaya disgrace, a new clause has been added concerning the country’s current economic crisis. That has raised plenty of hackles among self-righteous patriots.

There are also plenty of other Sri Lankans, no less patriotic and not just diaspora Tamils, who are welcoming the new resolution and its reference to the economic crisis and its criminal perpetrators. The resolution itself does not include the words, ‘economic crimes,’ but calls upon the government to investigate and even prosecute “corruption by public and former public officials,” and assures that the Commission “stands ready to assist and support independent, impartial, and transparent efforts in this regard.” What is wrong with that? Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister has a different take.

Addressing the Commission before the 9th Resolution was released, Foreign Minister Ali Sabry took the usual exception to the Acting High Commissioner’s Report for making “extensive reference to economic crimes.” The Minister went on to add that “apart from the ambiguity of the term, it is a matter of concern that such a reference exceeds the mandate of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).”

Back home, the Minister has been taken to task by commentators for being oblivious to the fact that in UN lexicon, human rights – all human rights including economic, social and cultural rights – are “indivisible, interrelated, interdependent and mutually reinforcing.” If anyone thinks women’s rights are excluded, Hillary Clinton famously answered it in Beijing nearly 30 years ago, declaring that “women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights, once and for all.”

Economic Crimes

All rights are one and indivisible, and the violation of each is a crime. Even so, why pick on a small country like Sri Lanka when there is no country in the world where there are no human rights violations or economic crimes. That has been the commonplace grouse among Sri Lankan objectors to what some of them call the “Geneva charade.” But calling it a charade doesn’t solve the problem. You can argue till the cows come home about how and why Sri Lanka got stuck in Geneva, but that will do little to get the country unstuck. It has become an agonizing annual ritual for the country and the yearly escalation in the resolution is a direct result of the government’s inaction during the preceding year.

The Rajapaksa regimes used Geneva as a platform to whip up political support at home. The Ranil (Wickremesinghe)-Mangala (Samaraweera) duo, on the other hand, thought they could find a way out of Geneva simply by co-sponsoring a resolution without any back up action to win public support at home. Both strategies backfired. This year is different. The UNHRC mandarins got an altogether new brief for their drafting of the annual resolution. That brief arose from the vortex of aragalaya protests that quite peacefully ended the presidency of Gotabaya Rajapaksa barely halfway through its elected term.

Minister Sabry can split hairs as much as he wants, but he cannot hide a pumpkin in a plate of rice. Not after aragalaya, and not after the expulsion of Gotabaya Rajapaksa from office. Mr. Sabry cannot deny that there were economic crimes committed by the Gotabaya Government that led to a wholly ‘man made’ economic crisis. Nor can he disagree that the men who made it must be made to answer for their crimes. If he wants UNHRC out of the picture, he should advise his current President to find domestic ways to bring justice to the victims of not only economic crimes, but all crimes committed by the state.

On the external front, the Rajapaksa regimes extended their native cunning methods to play one country against another, not so much for any strategic benefit for the country but for their own nefarious purposes of making money for the family through the machinery of the state. This is the root cause of the country’s over reliance on China for bilateral debt. The Ranil-Mangala duo berated the Rajapaksas for annoying India and alienating the West and played the opposite strategy of wooing the West and India without upsetting China. But the duo was not transparent at home about what they were trying to do abroad and they did not make a concerted effort to persuade a critical mass of the people to get on board with their approach to national reconciliation in general, and the UNHRC in particular.

In the upshot, the resolutions in Geneva kept getting longer, and Sri Lanka’s debt to China kept getting bigger. In Hambantota debt was turned into equity, like water becoming wine, for China. In Port City, again to please China, Ranil Wickremesinghe went back on his election promise to shut the project down, a promise he made without meaning to keep it. When Rajapaksas returned with Gota at the helm, the highway construction robbery resumed in earnest. But a half a billion dollar US (Millennium) grant for road infrastructure was recklessly rejected because there was no room for cuts or commissions. The Colombo Light-Rail project with Japanese funding was stopped by an email from the President’s Secretary to the Transport’s Secretary, with no formal or informal intimation to Japan. Non-organic fertilizers were banned to save foreign exchange while hoping for an organic agricultural miracle. The military President’s select experts had other bright ideas as well. Eliminate taxes to boost the economy and print money to get out of debt. If these are not economic crimes, what are they?

Rude Awakening

The rude awakening came too much, too late, with the tanking of the economy two years after Gota became President and 17 years after the family first took office. Coincidentally, like the 17 year UNP rule earlier. Now, the government suddenly finds itself having to be exceptionally ambidextrous – talking ‘hair cuts’ with the IMF, and splitting hairs at the UNHRC. The kneejerk thinking among patriotic pundits is that the IMF and the UNHRC are in cahoots against Sri Lanka and the Core Group of countries who are navigating the resolution in Geneva are also calling the shots in the IMF in Washington. Udaya Gammanpila is already into speculation that the UNHRC resolution might be tied to economic relief for Sri Lanka, and is baselessly scaremongering by comparing Sri Lanka’s situation to Indonesia and East Timor in 1999. Thankfully, few pay attention to Mr. Gamanpila or the new political outfit – Uttara Lanka Sabhagaya, that he and his former fellow Rajapaksa acolytes have recently launched.

It turns out that the countries that are positively flexible with Sri Lanka on the economic front and debt restructuring are taking a sterner stand over the UNHRC resolution and accountability for human rights and economic crimes. India is charting its own course in Geneva after being the only country to consistently advance forex through weeks and months when Sri Lanka had neither cash nor credit. India is staying clear of the resolution but reading from the old script on devolution and provincial councils. China, on the other hand, is frightfully non-committal on debt write-off or restructuring, but leading the cheers for Sri Lanka in Geneva. Cash or cheers? That should not be the question.

New Unity

There is no need to conflate the debt crisis and Geneva resolutions as some external imposition on Sri Lanka. There is no external conflation, only domestic delusions about it. Even if there is conflation, there is little that any Sri Lankan government can do about. The need is for the government to realize that both are of its own making and that the resolution of both should start with fundamental changes at home. Living with a permanent stalemate in Geneva was possible so long as the economy was limping along. Now with the economy broken, nothing can be fixed until everything is fixed. That is the conflation here – a national necessity for change and not a foreign imposition of burdens.

The President has a busy schedule with far flung funerals – from London to Tokyo. British Prime Minister Harold Wilson once said that a state funeral can be a good working funeral. The Sri Lankan President must surely be having two good working funerals, one after the other. Hopefully, more so in Tokyo where it needs to be all about debt. The country can wait for their results. Between funerals there is nothing much to write home about. There is endless haggling in parliament as to who knows what about the IMF agreement. Nothing is likely to be sorted out until the President is back to normal work after the working funerals. If you did not notice Sri Lanka has no finance minister to answer these questions. It is all with the President and about the President, no matter who is President.

At the same time, there has been a positive development outside parliament with the starting of a new ‘mobile signature campaign’ for repealing the Prevention of Terrorism Act. The campaign that was initiated by the ITAK in Jaffna on September 10 reached Gall Face last week and was joined by signing opposition MPs, Civil Society activists and even retired public servants. Former defence secretary Austin Fernando was reportedly the first person to start off signing in Colombo. ITAK MPs, Sumanthiran and Rasamanickam were joined by Eran Wickramaratne, Mujibur Rahuman, Hirunika Premachandra, Rauff Hakeem and Tissa Attanayake. There were also social activists Pubudu Jagoda, and Dharmasiri Lankapeli, and Trade Unionist Joseph Stalin. Bringing great poignancy to the occasion was Human Rights Lawyer, Hejaaz Hizbullah, who had been long detained under the PTA for no reason by the Rajapaksa regime.

Sumanthiran struck a note of unity between the north and south in the new campaign for the repeal of an old law that first entered the statue books in 1979, introduced as temporary measure for six months. The bill was challenged by TULF activists as fundamental rights case in the Supreme Court, with Colvin R. de Silva as the lead lawyer. Court challenges meant nothing at that time for a government that had a five sixths majority in parliament. The law was kept in force by every succeeding government despite promises to repeal it. Just like the promise to abolish the executive presidency.

All that President Wickremesinghe has to do now is to start fulfilling the unkept promises of his predecessors. One promise at a time. That will speedily shorten the UNHRC resolution from year to year until there is nothing left. He can do most of it in one year. He could start by repealing the PTA and stop arresting political protesters. That would be a positive change after two working funerals.



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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