The Mahinda Rajapaksa government it seems is engaged in a coup against the constitution to remove all areas that would hinder the path towards further consolidating its powers during the forthcoming election years. The first move in this coup was the repealing of the 17th Amendment to constitution and the introduction of the 18th Amendment of the constitution, which removed the limit of a two-year term for the President.
The repealing of the 17th Amendment also resulted in the removal of independent commissions. The current impeachment motion against Chief Justice Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake is expected to be the icing on the cake on the government’s move to take charge of the constitution. Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia, Dr. Alyssa Ayres expressed these concerns during her visit to Sri Lanka recently to look at the progress made by the government in implementing the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) recommendations as stipulated in the US backed resolution that was adopted at the UNHRC in March this year. She noted that the US stance on the judiciary was clearly stated by the US ambassador in Geneva on November 1st and by the US State Department Spokesperson on November 2nd. Therefore, the issues faced by the judiciary that has been intensified by the impeachment motion against the Chief Justice is a serious concern for the US government.
However, she also expressed the need for the Rajapaksa government to accelerate the implementation of the LLRC recommendations. “We just continue to urge fast implementation on these important recommendations that are important for reconciliation here. So we’re looking for accelerated progress now on that implementation,” she said concluding her visit to Sri Lanka.
She spoke more on the LLRC report: “In all the different meetings that we had, we have focused on the ongoing work of the implementation of the many issues and recommendations contained in the LLRC report.”
According to Dr. Ayres, in his visit, Assistant Secretary Blake had emphasized the accelerated implementation and making progress on the recommendations in the LLRC report. “Some of the issues he mentioned to all of you in the press and remains very important issues are reducing the role and profile of the military in the North, full respect for human rights, and an agreement to be reached on the devolution of powers to the provinces. These are questions that remain foremost on the minds of members of the international community and they are very important for the lasting peace and reconciliation of the people of Sri Lanka,” she said.
However, she noted several positive features as well. She said that “the release of the translation of the report into Tamil and Sinhala and that is now up on the Presidential website…I should also note that the most important thing that happened in the course of the last several months is the development of the National Action Plan which really lays out the path that the government will be taking to ask each of the line ministries to have responsibility for different aspect of the different recommendations…We have also noted that in the recent budget there’s been funding specifically allocated, that will be given to individual ministries, so they’ll be empowered to implement the recommendations.”
Nevertheless, Dr. Ayres was quick to point out that the US continues to urge fast implementation on these important recommendations that are important for reconciliation here. “So we’re looking for accelerated progress now on that implementation,” she said.
While she was in Sri Lanka Dr. Ayres went to Puttalam to learn about IDP issues from civil society there and in Colombo met with government officials including Minister G.L. Peiris, Rauff Hakeem and Basil Rajapaksa, Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunge and Treasury Secretary Dr. P. B. Jayasundera as well as members of opposition political parties, including the UNP and TNA. She also met with business leaders and members of civil society. Be that as it may, the Rajapaksa government is to face the litmus test to the entire goings on at present come March 2013 at the UNHRC sessions.
It is in this backdrop that Chief Justice Dr. Bandaranayake appeared before the parliamentary select committee (PSC) that is probing the impeachment motion against her. Dr. Bandaranayake appeared before the PSC around 10.30 a.m. last Friday along with her lawyers. The Chief Justice’s lawyers have reportedly been declined entrance to the committee room where the sessions were to take place.
However, following objections by the Chief Justice, the lawyers had been allowed inside. Dr. Bandaranayake has already filed answers to the 14 charges leveled against her in the impeachment motion. Her responses had been handed over to the members of the PSC the previous day, Thursday. However, she has been granted time till December 4th to make any additional submissions when the PSC is to reconvene. Although the PSC probe on the impeachment motion is continuing, legal experts say that the Chief Justice was unlikely to receive a fair trial given the current procedures.
“In fact, the Chief Justice has been removed from the post in the eyes of the government although the inquiry is being carried out for formalities sake,” a senior lawyer said. Also, attempts by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) had requested Speaker Chamal Rajapaksa to grant permission for representation in the PSC, the Speaker had not approved it.
The momentum is now continuing to build against the Rajapaksa government’s move to impeach the Chief Justice on a political basis. Most of the political parties, groups and organizations protesting against the impeachment motion have said that it was not an effort to protect Dr. Bandaranayake, but to safeguard the judiciary. The threat faced by the judiciary meanwhile has become a new addition to the list of concerns against Sri Lanka by the international community.
The fact that the impeachment motion was handed on November 1st when the country was facing its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) before the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) did not go well for the Rajapaksa government.
Several countries, especially the US has since then been continuously highlighting its concerns. It would therefore be wise for the Rajapaksa government to know that the pressure will increase at the UNHRC when Sri Lanka’s review on the US sponsored resolution against Sri Lanka is taken up in March 2013.
The politically-motivated impeachment of the chief justice has now become one of the key features that would undermine claims made by the Rajapaksa government to the international community, even during Dr. Ayres’ visit last week, to be implementing the UNHRC’s March 2012 resolution. The irony is that the resolution has called for the strengthening of independent institutions like the judiciary.
Response to report
Amidst pressure from the international community on a wide range of issues, the Rajapaksa government last week decided to respond to the “Report of the Secretary General’s Internal Review Panel on UN action in Sri Lanka” or the “Petrie Report.” The External Affairs Ministry has stated “While this Report is an internal review of the UN’s action in Sri Lanka during the terrorist conflict, the Ministry’s attention has been drawn to certain issues with regard to allegations directed at the Government of Sri Lanka, which are regrettably unsubstantiated, erroneous and replete with conjecture and bias.”
Interestingly, the government took over one week to respond to the report or at least the references to the Sri Lankan government in incidents that took place during the final stages of the war in 2009. Former BBC correspondent in Sri Lanka, Frances Harrison has stated, “What happened in Sri Lanka in 2009 has come back to haunt the UN with the leak of an internal inquiry commissioned by the Secretary-General. The independent report concluded that the UN’s own conduct during the final months of Sri Lanka’s civil war marked a “grave failure.” There was damning criticism of senior staff, who “simply did not perceive the prevention of killing of civilians as their responsibility.”
The report’s executive summary that was removed before publication has stated that some have argued many deaths could have been averted had the Security Council and the Secretariat, backed by the UN country team, spoken out loudly early on, notably by publicizing casualty numbers. This statement in the Executive Summary serves as an indictment on the Rajapaksa government’s actions during the final stages of the war.
Nevertheless, after refuting allegations leveled against the government, the External Affairs Ministry has stated, “Finally, the Report, which is critical of the Member States, seems to forget that the United Nations is an inter-governmental organization whose members are equal in terms of sovereignty and dignity. We remind the author of the Report that they must act within their given mandate and the Charter, and be equal and fair in their dealings with all Member States. A Report of this nature could serve to dangerously have the statistics and unsubstantiated information acquire a life of their own. In fact, the initial statements emanating from some countries seem to disregard the fact that the basic purpose of the Report was to engage in a critical appraisal of the UN system’s performance. Ignoring this vital aspect, they have taken the opportunity to resort to criticism of the GoSL in a manner that reflects patent bias and unwillingness to examine the developments with any degree of objectivity.” Be that as it may, the Rajapaksa government is treading on very thin ground where the international community is concerned. Apart from the UNHRC sessions next March where the resolution would be taken up for review, Sri Lanka would also have to play host to a large number of foreign dignitaries when it hosts the next Commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) in October.
The Rajapaksa government’s actions have provided ammunition to certain quarters of the international community to once again raise a voice against Sri Lanka. Some groups have even called on Commonwealth heads of states to boycott the sessions in Sri Lanka and demand for a change in venue. This was amply exhibited when International Crisis Group’s Project Director for Sri Lanka, Alan Keenan stated, “With the next commonwealth heads of government meeting (CHOGM) slated for October 2013 in Sri Lanka, leaders of commonwealth nations have a particular responsibility, and opportunity. They need to follow the lead of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and announce in advance that they won’t be attending the next CHOGM unless the impeachment is abandoned and real progress is made to end Sri Lanka’s institutionalized impunity for human rights violations. Progress should include a credible investigation into the atrocities and mass civilian deaths at the end of Sri Lanka’s war in 2009.” The build up in the international community is not at all favorable to the Rajapaksa government and the locally exhibited arrogance would not work in the international arena.
Meanwhile, coalition partner of the UPFA government, the SLMC is to send a letter to President Rajapaksa tomorrow (26) outlining the party’s stance on the 13th Amendment. The letter is to be sent after the SLMC concludes a workshop to be held for the party’s legislators and provincial councilors at the party headquarters today. The workshop is to be held under the patronage of SLMC Leader and Minister Rauf Hakeem and party senior including several members of the High Command.
The workshop is to deal with three topics – the 13th Amendment, Divi Neguma Bill and the current electoral process. Party members, especially those not holding positions in government bodies, have already expressed concerns over the SLMC’s failure to stand firm during key issues like the Divi Neguma Bill and the debate on the 13th Amendment. The party leaders have however sent the word out that there has not been any change in the SLMC’s stance on major issues like the devolution of power and the 13th Amendment.
Given the dissention building within the party, the SLMC leaders have decided to hold several workshops for party members holding public offices and organizers. After today’s workshop, the SLMC is to have another workshop in two weeks time for the party members in local government bodies. “The SLMC is supportive of the 13th Amendment and would continue in its stance,” a senior member of the party said.
Apart from the SLMC, the main opposition UNP has its work cut out as well. The party is now in the process of preparing for its annual convention on December 1st. However, the now defunct pro-rebels group headed by Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa is looking at re-grouping to create trouble at the convention. It is learnt that Premadasa and several members of his group are planning to stand and object to the amendment that is to be presented at the party convention on extending the term of the party leader to six years. When the proposed amendment on extending the term of the party leadership is announced at the convention, Premadasa and several of his supporters including parliamentarians are to stand an oppose it. Nevertheless, some members in the group have expressed doubts whether Premadasa would in fact stand up and object to the amendment along with them.
During the discussion, several young UNP MPs have said that they would stand and oppose the amendment regardless of whether Premadasa objects to the move or not. “We have had bitter experiences where he (Premadasa) has initiated certain plans and later backtracks leaving us in a difficult spot,” a young UNP MP said.