UNP Hits Out at Commonwealth Secretary

The leader of the opposition Ranil Wickramasinha said that it will be embarrassing to all concerned to have unresolved  issues on the Commonwealth Agenda with Sri Lanka chairing CHOGM.

 

it pointed out that-With the 2013 CHOGM less than six months away, the United National Party wish to bring to the notice of the Secretary-General and the Commonwealth, that no broad engagement has taken place at ground level in Sri Lanka and the deteriorating ground situation belies the statements made by the Secretary-General and Dr. Moni during the Press Briefing following the CMAG meeting.

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HERE IS THE THE FULL STATEMENT 

During the visits to Sri Lanka by the Secretary-General in September 2012 and February 2013, the Leader of the Opposition and Leader of the United National Party Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe met with him.  At these meetings, Hon. Ranil Wickremesinghe while emphasizing his and his party’s support for holding the CHOGMin Colombo for the year 2013, said that outstanding issues relating to Commonwealth values, UNHRC Resolutions regarding Sri Lanka and Sri Lanka’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC)’s recommendations should be resolved before CHOGM 2013 commences.   It will be embarrassing to all concerned to have these issues on the Commonwealth Agenda with Sri Lanka chairing CHOGM.

Therefore, the United National Party (UNP) subscribes to and holds correct the announcement made by the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group (CMAG) at its meeting on 26 April 2013 that the Ministerial body cannot change a decision taken by the previous Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) and that only a Heads of Government meeting can act to change the venue for the 2013 CHOGM.  The UNP also welcomes the emphasis placed by CMAG on the need for Sri Lanka to comply with the Commonwealth values.

During the Press Conference after the CMAG meeting, the Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Mr. Kamalesh Sharma, identified human rights, rule of law, governance, institutional building, strengthening the independence of the judiciary and the LLRC report as issue of concern in Sri Lanka.  He referred to the “many lacunae in the appointments and dismissal practice of judges” and Dr. Dipu Moni, Foreign minister of Bangladesh and Chair of CMAG admitted to discussing issues arising out of Sri Lanka. The Vice Chairman of CMAG Foreign Minister of Australia Bob Carr referred to the issues of accountability, legal protection for all Sri Lankans and reducing inter-religious tensions.  The Chairman of the CMAG stated that the Secretary-General’s good offices are engaged in Sri Lanka on all issues that were raised by the media personnel, including resettlement of displaced persons and human rights suppression.

Mr. Sharma said he had engaged with Sri Lanka on many levels, “across a wide front” to pursue “Commonwealth values that are so dear to us” and will continue to do so in the months to come. Mr. Sharma also mentioned that the Secretariat is also engaged through helping the government of Sri Lanka to implement the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission´s recommendations released in November 2011, more than 18 months ago.

With the 2013 CHOGM less than six months away, the United National Party wish to bring to the notice of the Secretary-General and the Commonwealth, that no broad engagement has taken place at ground level in Sri Lanka and the deteriorating ground situation belies the statements made by the Secretary-General and Dr. Moni during the Press Briefing following the CMAG meeting.

The UNP is disturbed with the Secretary-General’s statement that his good offices have drawn up the road map that the “Commonwealth had developed and agreed upon by Sri Lanka”.  The UNP is of the belief that the Secretary General´s interventions are limited to Human Rights Commission and the Electoral Commission and in fact avoid all real issues connected with Human Rights at the level of civil society.

The road map developed by the Secretary-General for Sri Lanka appears to have dealt so far with the only the following issues:

Enhancing the authority of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka

  • The Secretary General met with the Chairman and some members of Sri Lanka´s Human Rights Commission at the Commonwealth roundtable on reconciliation, held at the Commonwealth Secretariat in the first week of May 2013.
  • Sri Lanka’s National Human Rights Commission was downgraded from Grade A to Grade B by the International Coordinating Committee of National Institutions for the promotion and protection of human rights, for not being in compliance with the Paris Principles.   One such grounds was that the Commission’s practice was not balanced, objective and non political.  Any attempt by the Secretariat therefore to strengthen the Commission without interaction with the International Coordinating Committee is bound to fail.
  • Another ground for downgrading was that the appointment of the Commissioners is not compliant with the Sri Lankan law at that time.  The situation has been further aggravated since by the repeal of the 17thAmendment to the Constitution and the abolition of the Constitutional Council that was an independent mechanism for supervising appointments.
  •  
  • To support independence, effectiveness and professional standards of Sri Lankan journalists including strengthening the independence of the Sri Lanka Press Council – a government appointed body.
  • None of the Independent Media Associations in Sri Lanka recognizes the Press Council – instead most media associations are members of the Sri Lanka Press Institute, an independent, self-regulating body.[i]
  • The spokesman for the Nine Independent Media Organizations representing the Sri Lanka Press Institute pointed out to Max Everest-Philips – Director Governance and Institutional Development Division of the Commonwealth Secretariat, that the media organizations have called for the abolition of the Press Council Law which is empowered to fine and jail journalists up to 20 years.

The issues affecting the freedom of expression, media freedom and right to information are set out in Section 9.115 of the Report of the LLRC.  The recommendations made by the LLRC includes

  • Steps to taken to prevent harassment and attacks on media personnel and institutions;
  • Action to be taken to impose deterrent punishment on such offences, and priority to be given to the investigation, prosecution and disposal of such cases;
  • To build-up public confidence in the criminal justice system;
  • The Government to ensure the freedom of movement of media personnel in the North and East, and;
  • Legislation to be enacted to ensure the right to information.

None of these issues have been resolved.  For example, four attacks have been made on Uthayan Newspapers in Jaffna, this year alone.  The last being on 13 April 2013, a few days before the CMAG meeting, armed men entered the office and printing press of Uthayan, a daily Tamil language newspaper published from Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka and burnt the printing press and newspapers that were about to be dispatched for sale.

Just a few days earlier, on April 3, the same newspaper’s Kilinochchi office was attacked and several employees were injured.  On 20 March, an Uthayan reporter was threatened by the military.  In mid-January the Editor of Uthayan was interrogated by the Criminal Investigation Department about an article implicating senior army officers.  Over the years, at least five staffers have been killed or disappeared and many have been injured.

The US State Department’s acting deputy spokesperson, Patrick Ventrell, referring to the Uthayan on 30 April said, “Uthayan has seen its personnel beaten, its newspaper shipments burned, its equipment destroyed, and its offices set ablaze in this last month alone.”

Mr Ventrell described the “assault on a free press in Sri Lanka” as extending beyond Uthayan.  “The BBC Tamil-language service has had its programs about Sri Lanka and the Human Rights Council censored.  Reporters have been physically assaulted and murdered in years past, and a prominent political cartoonist has been missing for three years,” stating that “the necessity of upholding this fundamental right was not only a component of the UN Human Rights Council resolution in Geneva this March but it was a central recommendation of the Sri Lankan Government’s own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation commission.”

The New York-based, Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in its Impunity Index listed Sri Lanka as the fourth worst country for journalists to live in.

The members of the Media highlighted all these when they spoke at the World Press Freedom Day at Sri Lanka Press Institute on May 03, 2013.

Subsequent to the CMAG Press Conference the following issues relevant to the Commonwealth “engagement” have also surfaced:

  •  Continuing attacks on Uthayan paper, mostly in the form of threats and negative reporting in the government owned media
  • The disruption of political activities of the TNA and other Opposition parties
  • A tight control kept by the Government on the civil society and security forces that are used for the detriment of the Opposition political parties.

Addressing the Commonwealth roundtable conference on Reconciliation, Lord John Alderdice pointed out the need to build trust on institutions and legal regimes for delivering justice. Implementing the main recommendations of the Report of the Presidential Commission on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation is one of the main issues relating to the violation of the core principles.

The LLRC (in Section 9.202 to 9.228) emphasizes “along with an independent Judiciary and a transparent legal process a strict adherence to the Rule of Law is a sine qua non for peace and stability which is of the essence, if there is to be any meaningful reconciliation.”

The Commissioners recommended:

  1. Police to be de-linked from the Ministry of Defense and the establishment of an independent Police Commission – Section 9.214 to 9.215 [ii]
  2. The establishment of an independent Public Service Commission – Section 9.217 to 9.219. [iii]
  3. Power to be devolved – Section 9.229 to 9.237 [iv]

During the Secretary-General’s second visit to Sri Lanka in February 2013, he took note of the constitutional crisis that had arisen due:

  • To the removal of the Chief Justice subsequent to a debate in Parliament.
  • The violation of the Constitution during the enactment of the Appropriation Act 23 of 2012 [v]

 

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At the Abuja CHOGM in 2003, the Heads of Government endorsed the recommendations of their Law Ministers on Commonwealth Principles on the accountability of and relationship between the three branches of Government. They acknowledged that judicial independence and delivery of efficient justice services were important for maintaining the balance of power between the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary.

These recommendations, known as the Latimer House Principles due to their origin at a meeting summoned in June 1998 by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, the Commonwealth Legal Education Association, the Commonwealth Magistrates’ and Judges’ Association and the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association to discuss the implementation of the Harare Commonwealth Declaration with regard to the Commonwealth parliaments and the judiciary, at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, England, lays down clear guidelines and set values to enshrine the balance of power between the three branches of government.

Following the Secretary General´s visit in September 2012, the Executive, blatantly violated the Latimer House principles with heavy interference in the judiciary. The procedural violations in impeaching the sitting Chief Justice in February  2013 by the Executive need not be elaborated more as they have been documented and discussed extensively. [vi]

These violations were extensively discussed and raised with the Secretary General´s office by the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Commonwealth Judges Association, two of the bodies that were involved in defining the Latimer House principles in 1998.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission´s recommendations released in November 2011, more than 18 months ago, also deals extensively with Re-settlement and High Security Zones.

Affirming inalienable right of any citizen to acquire land in any part of the country, in accordance with its laws and regulations, and reside in any area of his/her choice without any restrictions or limitations imposed in any manner whatsoever, the Commissioners stated “the land policy of the Government should not be an instrument to effect unnatural changes in the demographic pattern of a given Province. In the case of inter provincial irrigation or land settlement schemes, distribution of State land should continue to be as provided for in the Constitution of Sri Lanka”. (Ref paragraph 6.104)

Beginning from the 2009 UNHCR review meeting in Geneva, the government of Sri Lanka has continued to re-affirm its commitment to the UN principles governing post-conflict resettlement and restitution of property, described by the 1997 Francis Deng report and the subsequent Pinheiro principles adopted in 2005.

The present Government policy in regard to re-settlement and land distribution is in violation of the recommendations as well as the UN’s Deng and Pinheiro Principle.  More so as this is despite a 2006 order by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka to replace all displaced people and President Mahinda Rajapaksa‘s undertaking to resettle all those displaced by the war by the end of 2009, in his joint communiqué with the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon on 26th May 2009.

The Minister of External Affairs G L Peiris has acknowledged in Parliament that the Secretary-General has wide discretion in exercising his good offices.  Accordingly, there is no impediment for the Secretary General to determine the manner of engagement suitable to the situation in Sri Lanka and he can engage with any party or body without any hindrance from any other party.

Paragraph 18(1) of the Report on   Strengthening the Role of the CMAG, requires the Secretary-General to take cognizance of serious violations of the Commonwealth values.

Article 1 of the Charter of the Commonwealth specifies that the trinity of government, political parties and civil society are responsible equally for upholding and promoting democratic culture and practices, and therefore engagement must be equal across all three.  The Secretary-General has so far failed to engage with the political parties and many segments of the civil society, contrary to the many statements attributed to the Secretary-General that he has done so.

The road map referred by the Secretary General at the conclusion of the CMAG meeting has failed to take cognizance of any of these issues.  Therefore the question arises as to whether the Secretary-General addressed the serious violations of the Commonwealth values.

The engagement has been mainly with the government.

It is not possible for the Secretary-General to resolve the serious violations of Commonwealth values without engaging the political parties and civil society in Sri Lanka.

Members of the Commonwealth family – the Commonwealth Lawyers Association and the Commonwealth Judges Association in particular, have issued statements in relation to some of these issues.   There is no indication so far that the Secretary-General has consulted the members of the Commonwealth family who has expressed concern.

In promoting and protecting Commonwealth values, the Secretary-General is expected to keep high-level contact both with the Government and the civil society.

None of these have happened so far.

The United National Party notes the dichotomy between Mr. Sharma´s “emerging menu of working” with the government, his sense of progress and positive engagement as opposed to that of the International Community, including bodies represented within the Commonwealth, such as the Commonwealth Lawyers’ Association, who continue to note with clear apprehension the continuing decay of polity and platforms within the framework of basic human rights in Sri Lanka.

It is necessary for the Secretary-General to clarify as to:

  1. Whether he will take cognizance of the serious and persistent violations of the Commonwealth core values referred to above.
  2. Whether engagements will be restricted to the Government of Sri Lanka excluding political parties in the Commonwealth family;
  3. What time frame within which the Secretary-General hopes to report on these issues, since the CHOGM will take place in a few months time.

The answers to these issues will determine whether the Commonwealth will live up to its obligations envisaged in the Charter, or prefer silence as an option thereby making a mockery of the Commonwealth Charter.

In this background the UNP and many other Opposition parties which constitute Vipakshaye Virodaya have called for the:

  1. Appointment of the Police Commission, independent Public Services Commission, independent Judicial Services Commission, Elections Commission with the powers granted under the 17th Amendment (now repealed) prior to the Northern elections.
  2. Replacement of the present Governor-currently a retired military official, with a civilian.
  3. Presence of the international observers at the Northern Provincial Council elections.  These elections are being held subsequent to an undertaking given to the UN Human Rights Council.
 


[i] The Newspaper Society of Sri Lanka, The Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka, Free Media Movement, Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association, Sri Lanka College of Journalism (SLCJ), Sri Lanka Tamil Media Alliance (STMA), Sri Lanka Muslim Media Forum (SLMMF), Federation of Media Employees Trade Union (FMETU) and South Asia Free Media Association (Sri Lanka Chapter) support the SLPI.

[ii] 9.214:  The Police Department is a civilian institution, which is entrusted with the maintenance of law and order. Therefore, it is desirable that the Police Department be de-linked from the institutions dealing with the armed forces, which are responsible for the security of the State.

9.215: The Commission is of the view that an independent permanent Police Commission is a pre-requisite to guarantee the effective functioning of the Police and to generate public confidence. Such a Commission should be empowered to monitor the performance of the Police Service and ensure that all Police officers act independently and maintain a high degree of professional conduct

[iii] 9.217: The political culture of the country has made the general public powerless and helpless to a point that they have become dependent on politicians to obtain many services and amenities they are entitled to.

9.218:  The present law that deals with the office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration is inadequate to effectively deal with the grievances of citizens arising from state action, even though the amendment introduced by Act No 26 of 1994 has sought to improve the public petitions procedure. Therefore, the Commission recommends that the Government should establish an independent institution to address the grievances of all citizens, in particular the minorities, arising from the abuse of power of public officials and other individuals involved in the governance of the country. This mechanism should be invested with a strong investigative arm in order to enable it to effectively discharge its functions.

9.219: Any citizen of this country who has a grievance arising out of any executive or administrative act, particularly those based on ethnicity or religion, should have the right to seek redress before the independent institution

[iv] 9.229: The Commission wishes to underline the critical importance of making visible progress on the devolution issue, in order to ensure the success of any process of lasting and sustainable reconciliation. The Commission therefore recommends that the present opportunity be utilized to launch a goodfaith effort to develop a consensus on devolution, building on what exists – both, for maximum possible devolution to the periphery especially at the grass roots level, as well as power sharing at the Centre. This consensus should be one that will enable peoples’ participation in governance decisions affecting them and avoid costly and unnecessary duplication of political, bureaucratic and other institutional structures that hamper efficient, cost-effective and transparent governance.

9.237:  To this end, the Government must take the initiative to have a serious and structured dialogue with all political parties, and those representing the minorities in particular, based on a proposal containing the Government’s own thinking on the form and content of the dialogue process envisaged. That dialogue must take place at a high political level and with adequate technical back-stopping.

[v] On 8th December 2012, in relation to the Appropriation Bill 2012, which authorizes for the Government’s expenditure for the calendar year 2013, the government refused to adhere to the determination of the Supreme Court (made under Article 123 of the Constitution), holding Clause 2.1(b) of the Appropriation Bill 2012 to be unconstitutional because it violates Article 148 – Parliamentary Control over Finance.  The determination specified an amendment to Clause 2.1(b) to ensure its conformity with the Constitution. Completely disregarding this, the government enacted the Bill as law without incorporating the proposed amendment but with the government’s own amendment.

[vi] For example the US State Department´s 2012 Human Rights Report on Sri Lanka released on April 13, 2013, states “Following the September 2010 passage of the 18th amendment, executive influence over the judiciary significantly increased. The 18th amendment repealed the 17th amendment and eliminated the Constitutional Council, a multiparty body created to name members of independent judicial, police, human rights, and other commissions. In place of the Constitutional Council, the 18th amendment established the Parliamentary Council, which submits nonbinding advice on appointments to the president, who has sole authority to make direct appointments to the commissions. The president also directly appoints judges to the Supreme Court, High Court, and courts of appeal. There were coordinated moves during the year by the government to undermine the independence of the judiciary”. (http://www.state.gov/j/drl/rls/hrrpt/2012/sca/204411.htm)

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