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President Maithripala Sirisena

UNHRC sessions that started in Geneva on Tuesday, though it came without much noise and trepidation in the local political arena, was a vital thing for the government as well as for the country.

This session comes up two years after Sri Lanka co-sponsored a resolution with the US in September 2015 in a historic move, surprising many third world countries that backed us at the UNHRC.

It was a complete turnaround from the approach of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration which had resisted all attempts by the UN and UNHRC to investigate into possible war crimes during the final phase of the war against the LTTE.

US-sponsored resolution titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’ was tabled at the UNHRC following lengthy negotiations between the Sri Lankan delegation and the ‘Core Group’ sponsors which included delegations from US, Britain, Montenegro and Macedonia.

It called for an international role in the domestic mechanism that would be set up to address accountability issues. The document affirmed the need to create independent judicial and prosecutorial institutions and has noted the importance of participation in a Sri Lankan judicial mechanism, including the Special Counsel’s office of the Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers, and authorized prosecutors and investigators’.

It is in this context that Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s address to the High-Level Segment of the ongoing 34th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on 28th February 2017 becomes significant. Explaining the realpolitik on the ground at home he referred to both gains and drawbacks in relation to the UNHRC resolution during the last two years.

He said “As we move forward in this journey, the forces of extremism and regression on both sides of the divide are creating roadblocks for narrow, short-term political gain. While stubbornly refusing to acknowledge any of the far-reaching gains we have made in the last 2 years, they argue that we have either done too much or too little.”

He highlighted some of the achievements made since his last address to the UNHRC in June 2016 such as legislation to give effect to the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance legislation to establish a Permanent Office on Missing Persons; reports of the 6 Sub Committees of the Steering Committee already handed over to the Constitutional Assembly; National Human Rights Action Plan for the period 2017-2021; and the Right to Information Act.

He also told the council that the draft legislation on the Truth-Seeking Commission will be presented to the Cabinet of Ministers within the next two months and the government’s resolve to bring justice to the victims of human rights violations remains firm.

He hinted that it could be a journey strewn with both success as well as some setbacks. “In the face of roadblocks and other obstacles in the day-to-day world of realpolitik, there may have to be detours from time to time, but the destination will remain the same.”
Reading between the lines many see this as an attempt to get extra time for Sri Lanka to implement what may be implementable in the UNHRC resolution. But the question of including Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorized prosecutors and investigators in a judicial process to go into the alleged rights abuses remains a sticky point.

President   Maithripala Sirisena has already stated in public that he would not allow any international courts, international judges or international organizations to interfere with the internal affairs of Sri Lanka and its judiciary.

However, senior diplomatic sources say that the likelihood is that Sri Lanka may get a postponement of the discussion or what is known in diplomatic parlance a ‘rollover’ for another year or two, but pointed out that what is important is whether there will be unfavourable conditions and that is what the government should avoid. Postponement,if it is to be meaningful, should be without any conditions, they pointed out.

UNHRC resolutions carry only a moral weight,  particularly if the target country has co-sponsored a resolution like in Sri Lanka’s case. However, there is no mechanism for enforcing them. The UNHRC was intended to assist countries to improve their human rights performance and not to act as a global human rights enforcer.

Another possibility is for Sri Lanka to take advantage of the new opportunity presented by the election of Donald Trump in the USA and Theresa May in the UK and their non-interventionist policies. If Sri Lanka manages to get extra time certainly that could be used to explore these possibilities as well.

politicalUnderworld raises its head
While our diplomats in Geneva and the mandarins in the foreign ministry were busy with grappling external issues, domestically the political landscape was full of infighting on more mundane issues. But among them was one question that most people were worried about – Is the underworld raising its head again?

The immediate reason was the shooting attack on a prison vehicle at Kalutara where seven people including two prison officials were killed. The incident took place in broad daylight while some prison inmates including a well-known underworld leader were being transported to courts.

In another similar incident a bag containing several rounds of ammunition and a ready-to-fire revolver and pistol were recovered from the premises of the Mount Lavinia Magistrate’s Court. Police managed to suspend the court proceedings, restrict entry and clear the premises well in time. The suspicion was that the weapons that were fully loaded might have been brought for an attack.

This raises many issues about public safety not only in courthouses,  but anywhere else too, as similar incidents of internecine fighting between underworld factions is possible as these groups become stronger.

The Joint Opposition was quick to profit out of the situation and went to the extent of saying that during their time Gotabhaya Rajapaksa had controlled the underworld and now they have re-emerged with the blessings of the current government.

But the fact remains that the organized underworld, since its emergence several decades ago, has never been totally eliminated. There is no secret that politicians of all hues have used them some time or the other for their advantage and there are definite links among the underworld, drugs trade and politics. This raises the question as to whether politicians do have the will to eliminate the underworld.

The existing PR based electoral system with much infighting has also given ample opportunity for the underworld to thrive as politicians need them during election times. Despite election promises to abolish the PR system it is unfortunate that electoral reforms in that direction are not moving with many minor political parties opposing it, while some politicians even in the main parties who are surviving because of the PR vote are tacitly supporting the moves to retain it.

Periphery fights the centre
Another issue that erupted during the previous weeks but has gone underneath for the moment is the conflict between the central government and the provinces over the exercise of powers to approve development related projects.

Northern and southern politicians mostly disagree when it comes to devolution of power. While it is customary for the North to ask for federalism it is customary for the south to cry foul and say it will lead to separatism. But there seem to be one thing both agree on – the powers already granted to the PCs under the thirteenth amendment should not be reduced. That indirectly suggests that they don’t mind getting more powers either.

This means, while there is an anti-devolution lobby waiting to scuttle any attempt to introduce a new constitution, underneath there seem to be unity among the nine provincial councils to retain all powers already vested with them and, in fact there are moves to reassert themselves by passing new provincial legislation.

In the recent times, Northern Province Chief Minister C V Vigneswaran has renewed the call for federalism and for amalgamation of northern and eastern provinces, mostly for reasons of popularity. Vignaswaran’s call which goes beyond the thirteenth amendment has received angry responses from the southern politicians notably those engaged in communal politics.

But strangely all of them are much in tandem when opposing the moves by the government to introduce now postponed Development (Special Provisions) Bill which sought to take back some of the powers devolved to the periphery with the idea of expediting the development process. The bill sought to facilitate the formulation of a national policy on all subjects including accelerated economic development.

Then came the government’s recent gazette notification vesting some of the powers of the provincial councils and local government institutions with the Urban Development Authority (UDA). They included power with regard to approving building plans, clearance for industries, fuel stations and construction of buildings of national importance.
This move has already been heavily contested and Western Province Chief Minister Isura Devapriya has threatened retaliatory measures. They have said that they would be adopting a new charter through which they would take back the powers that have been removed from them.

All these are some of the powers traditionally enjoyed by the local government bodies. But perhaps the problem facing the government is the need for accelerated development for which the current lethargy, corruption and lack of conformity in some of the local government areas notably in Pradesheeya Sab has have become an impediment.

It is no secret that in most of these areas approvals have been given for building projects backed by local politicians in complete disregard of street line, environment and other requirements and unlike in a city hardly any questions are raised by residents of the area who fear reactions from local politicians and thugs.

The question confronting the government seems to be how to fast track economic development in the face of proposed Megapolis and other development plans which have been envisaged for the next few decades. On the other hand the reality is that once certain powers are devolved to the periphery, it is technically difficult to take them back. There could be even major legal issues requiring constitutional amendments.