Sharma hails 100-day plan as ‘innovative’ citizens’ charter

Thursday, 12 February 2015 01:30 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

As Head of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma and his office have borne the biggest brunt of the organisation’s association with Sri Lanka’s previous ruling administration. On his sixth visit to the country in just over two years, Sharma arrived in Colombo to fresh faces in office, including Mangala Samaraweera, once one of his staunchest critics for his tolerant attitude towards the Rajapaksa administration, now serving as Foreign Minister in the new Government. The Commonwealth Secretary General sticks to his guns about the body’s decision to go ahead with the CHOGM in Colombo 10 months after a controversial sacking of the Chief Justice. But he cannot hide his optimism about Sri Lanka’s new rulers and their 100-day program, which he says is a citizen’s charter that sets out clearly what the Government’s policies are towards democratic governance, and articulates a set of values that resonate strongly with the Commonwealth’s own guiding principles. In an exclusive interview with the Daily FT upon conclusion of his latest visit to Sri Lanka, Sharma talks about all the ways the Commonwealth could renew assistance to the Sri Lankan Government as it sprints towards constitutional reform. Following are excerpts: Q: You’re arriving in Sri Lanka again, after a crucial election, with many faces having changed in Government. What is your engagement on this visit about? A: I’ve come to Sri Lanka quite often. This is my sixth visit. There are many reasons I have been coming. The first time I came was for the Commonwealth Youth Ministers’ meeting and then the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association meeting and of course CHOGM. I have been coming in-between on bilateral talks, so this is a country I have visited more than any other. Because of the change in Government, there were two pursuits in my mind. One is that we have a new Chair in Office in the new President. That role carries on until the next CHOGM in Malta. I wanted to brief the new President and the team about what this involves in terms of decision making on his side and all of the things the Chair in Office must participate in. The other one was that when I read this 100-day program of the Government – obviously this requires a very compressed way of looking at these goals, and they are not just focused on the very distant future. The Commonwealth being an organisation that our member states can rely on to advance national goals, I thought I should be here and saying what parts of this plan the Commonwealth can be partnering with Sri Lanka on. I have met the Foreign Minister, the Finance Minister, the Minister for Democratic Governance. At lunch today I met the Chief Ministers, all nine of them, and the Governors, to find out what is on their minds; and the Prime Minister and the President. Q: From your discussions, which areas do you see the Commonwealth being able to make the greatest contribution to? A: One clearly is judicial appointments. Senior appointments and dismissals. This has created a great deal of political and social tension and polarity in this country. Even the Hon. Speaker said in a speech once, that the country should not need to go through this again, that you need to have proper legislation to safeguard natural justice and the separation of powers – which is a core pursuit of the Commonwealth always. That is one area. Another one is independence of the Election Commission. The Elections Commission acquitted itself extremely well in the last election. So obviously it is a very strong institution. But by standards of Commonwealth best practice, there are aspects of it – the way the Commissioners are appointed and the tools which the Commissioner has – in other words, the Elections Department and how that is aligned to the Commission. These aspects are there. We have good practices. In fact the domestic observation side of the last election was very much a Commonwealth contribution. Commissioner Deshapriya, I believe, has acknowledged that. This is nothing special to Sri Lanka. We work with all our member states. This is simply a Commonwealth brand strength. Because our Heads have told us to pay special attention to elections. There should be no postponement of elections that is not merited, just for political convenience of somebody. That is not allowed in the Commonwealth anymore. And the citizens’ voice has to be heard. It is their right to have their judgment converted into a transparent and credible outcome. So we work with all of them. A third area is the Human Rights Commission. Once again, the way the Human Rights Commissioners are appointed, it was as a result of this that the grade which the Human Rights Commission enjoys was lowered by the international accreditation committee from A-Level to B-Level. If it is the goal of Sri Lanka to get that A-level restored, then we are prepared to work with them. We have been working a lot with them anyway. Then there are the areas of Judicial Services Commission, anti-corruption, parliamentary processes and systems – how to make them work better, reconciliation, accountability – many of these areas that are already in the LLRC, which is a very comprehensive document. We are going away very encouraged by the responses we have received. We have got a way of working our way forward, also agreed upon. I also feel that, in time to come, rapid progress can be made. Another very important area is the Right to Information and media law, which will regulate the activities in the Fourth Estate and make the rules of the game very clear. No impunity should be allowed in the area of freedom of expression. They are very keen to do that and this is also one of the Commonwealth values. We have a very large cluster from which to work so we have to now create a roadmap. We have many Commonwealth organisations that can assist us in this, depending upon the area we are working in. We have to draw them in, whether it is local self-governance, media or justice, or parliament, they can be very helpful. Q: These are all areas Commonwealth has been trying to work on with the former Rajapaksa regime, seemingly with little success. Do you feel this new Government will be more receptive to the support you’re offering? A: They have a very clear political plan that they have announced, which includes all or a lot of this. Obviously their plan is a plan which seeks to demonstrate to the citizens that these are values they attach the highest importance to – and these values actually resonate with the Commonwealth. Q: So are you saying the values of the previous administration didn’t resonate as much? A: The progress which I see can be made on all this, I see will be much swifter, because of the political backing they are receiving. Q: The Commonwealth has been seriously criticised for inaction on the Sri Lankan impeachment drama, especially after the jurists’ report your office commissioned found her sacking to be illegal, and despite all the commitments made by the Government of Sri Lanka to the Commonwealth, no action was taken to change the process of removing judges… A: There should not be any cause for criticism on this score. While this process of impeachment of Chief Justice Shirani was going on, I made three statements expressing my disquiet at what was going on. Even at the last stage, when the Legislature had given its recommendation and it was lying before the President, I made a statement even at that stage that the President could give pause to this and see whether it followed the best practices of natural justice and independence of the Judiciary which are involved in it. I also offered the deployment of an expert very quickly, in an advisory capacity, if advice was needed. And when it was signed, I expressed deep disappointment at it. Shortly after that we told the Government and the Honourable Speaker also made a statement that the legislative framework and all of this needed to be reviewed and a better system needed to come in place. So we prepared a report and we sent it to the Government in order that it may be discussed and handled as required. This had all the best practice and all the practice actually in the Commonwealth for them to look at. Every country can have a system that expresses these values, but the systems need not be exactly the same. So this menu became available for the Government to look at and there was also a distillation of core items for them to consider and the direction they could take. We were told that this would looked at by the Select Committee of the Parliament in the early part of this year. But now there is going to be elections, so I suppose it is the new Parliament that is going to discuss it. But the copies of this have been made by me to the Attorney General, to the Prime Minister, to the Minister of Justice. Once again, we are also preparing a similar compendium of best practices for the Elections Commission and best practices for the Human Rights Commission. This will once again be Commonwealth resource which can be looked at by all member states. It is not as if it is only Sri Lanka we are working with in these matters. It is important to know that there is a process of sedimentation of our values that takes place. Let me give you an example which is not from Asia. There is a Mo Ibrahim Index of Good Governance, which has very fastidious benchmarks and every year, out of the first 10, eight are Commonwealth countries. That is because the Commonwealth works assiduously all the time with our member states to keep on lifting these values. There is no one great killer, silver bullet, which accounts for it. It is because progressively, institution building takes place. When these tests are done and all these boxes are ticked, people doing the research see that in Commonwealth countries, these values are being given greater importance than elsewhere. It is very interesting that there is a Minister now for Democratic Governance. Democratic governance is at the heart of Commonwealth values. Q: But after the Rajapaksa Government proceeded with the impeachment in January 2013, the fact that the Commonwealth went ahead with the CHOGM in Colombo only 10 months later was strongly criticised. In hindsight, do you still believe that was the right decision with regard to your CHOGM host for 2013? A: The stream for the approval of CHOGMs is a very clear one. All the heads collectively take that view. The offer for CHOGM by Sri Lanka had been considered by them on three separate occasions. So it is the heads who take the decision on CHOGM. It is only the heads who then have the authority to, if they want, rescind their decision. It is not a matter for the Secretary General. There was a very clear signal from the heads that what they wanted to do was to proceed with the CHOGM as they agreed. It was not a small matter to withdraw this decision for them. But they wanted the Secretary General to engage with Sri Lanka in all these areas, through his good offices and try and correct the derogation from Commonwealth values that had taken place. I think, in hindsight, that was probably the right course of action. Q: You hold this position despite the fact that your own office has been criticised by some member states for failing to make the reports of those jurists that clearly stated that Shirani Bandaranayake’s impeachment was illegal available to CMAG which met in April 2013, which could have influenced a decision on the summit venue? A: When I in my good offices make a recommendation to a member state, I have to have the depth of expertise available to make that recommendation. It’s not a small matter that I am telling a member state that ‘you need new legislation’. That their procedures in this matter ‘are wanting’. On what basis am I saying this? From general knowledge of the Secretary General? Or the two or three members of staff that the Secretary General has? So in many of the advice that we give to member states, we take the advice of outside experts to help us come to a view that yes indeed, this view that we hold is corroborated by expert advice. So I took this expert advice precisely in order to be confident in the distillation which I mentioned, advice which I am giving to a member state. It was not a public exercise. A public exercise is conducted in a very different way. First of all, the Secretary General would not be doing a public exercise on behalf of a member state. But even if the Secretary General were doing it, then the member state would have to be involved. That is a part of natural justice. ‘What is it that you as a member state have to say on this matter?’ None of this was done, because this exercise was only an internal exercise to get an expert opinion which would feed into the material in the advice that we were preparing. Q: In light of all that has happened in Sri Lanka’s Upper Judiciary over the past two years, how do you view the sacking of Chief Justice Mohan Peiris by the new Government? Was this sacking in line with the Commonwealth’s Latimer House principles governing the independence of the Judiciary? A: My hope is twofold. Firstly, I hope that with what has happened recently, the past chapter of the friction that was nationally created can now be closed, as a bad experience from which lessons have been learnt, but the nation can move ahead. And secondly that a system is put in place which ensures that a situation of this nature is never repeated. That best practices are put in place, where all the checks and balances are visible to people and are operating, so that people have the confidence that this is not a political motivation that is driving this kind of an exercise. This is why we have made this compendium available so largely, because you don’t really need to go beyond that compendium to look at what you would like to do nationally. This is an exercise we do with all our member states, this is nothing peculiar to Sri Lanka. But we have some priorities that the Heads have agreed as values that must be safeguarded, and independence of Judiciary and separation of powers are some of them. Q: Did the issue of Mohan Peiris’s sacking come up in any of your discussions? A: Not really, no. I have come here with an offer to make our expertise and best practices available in order to improve the legislation that exists at present, which allowed the previous experience to take place, so that it never happens again. We always look forward. We always come in good faith, with the intent to advance what would be a good national outcome, and not with an external remedy. It depends entirely on our member states where they want to go. We are a partner in their journey. It was very clear from the present Government that they are very serious as far as the senior judicial appointment policy is concerned. So I thought that this was the right time again to give to the new Government what we had made available to the last one. Q: The Commonwealth has also been very involved with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. Especially after CHOGM, the indication was that the previous Government was certainly not interested in engaging with the Commonwealth on issues of human rights. In fact, during CHOGM, I think it made sure that human rights were not on the agenda at the summit. Do you think things have changed with regard to the State attitude to human rights, after this election? A: The agenda for CHOGM is influenced significantly by the theme which has been collectively agreed upon. Q: But in the People’s Forum for instance, the civil society forum on the sidelines of CHOGM, wasn’t the topic of human rights proscribed? A: The civil society forum is precisely what it is. The civil society voice on this matter – everyone has heard that voice. And the civil society comes up with its own statement. But as far as the inter-governmental process was concerned, the theme for CHOGM was development with equity. A lot of attention was given to that theme. Q: I guess what I am asking is, was it difficult to engage with the previous Government on human rights? Were they receptive or not? And is the new Government any different? A: Our policy is to work with national intent. The national intent became very clear in the LLRC report. All the ideas that we gave, and the ones that I have mentioned to you, many of them, were in fact from the LLRC. So they were not Commonwealth ideas, they were national ideas, in which the Commonwealth was coming forward to assist, if assistance was needed. But the political direction is much clearer now than it was earlier in the form of this document which has arisen. So I am here again to say here is your national political intent – formerly it was the LLRC, that remains valid – it is for you to pick items from them and make it as comprehensive as you want, move at any pace that you want. In addition to that, here is a 100-day program, which already includes many of the things I am talking about. So I am here, only three weeks after you’ve taken over; how is it that in a compressed period of time, you can get results? You need partnerships for this and that is acknowledged here. Our visit has been very warmly received. We are going to create a coordinating point so that all of this can be done with coherence and all this can be measured. I hope the citizens will see all the advances that are being made in all the areas I mentioned. Q: Do you see Maithripala Sirisena being very different as a Chair in Office to Mahinda Rajapaksa, in terms of the direction in which he takes the Commonwealth? A: The direction, in terms of Commonwealth values, is public and it has been declared to the nation. It is there in the 100-day document. It is a very innovative document, it is a kind of citizen’s charter that the Government has created. Q: So how do you think it will differ from Sri Lanka’s chairmanship of the Commonwealth under the previous regime? A: Because the political goal has been made very clear; much clearer. Q: Personally for you, as Secretary General, was Sri Lanka a particularly troublesome Chair in Office? A: Not at all. I wouldn’t say that at all. All the duties that devolved upon the Chair were exercised by the Chair in Office. When the Chair in Office was in New York, he chaired a meeting of heads in order to approve the post-2015 statement of the Commonwealth, which was supposed to contribute to the UN debate on what the sustainable development goals could be post-2015. There was another meeting on CHOGM reform, which allowed us to look at the ways in which the summit could be made better. That was chaired by the former President and that was approved as well. So those were duties that were performed by the Chair in Office. The functions of the Chair in Office were all being exercised by them. Q: The present Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has previously been one of your staunchest critics, sending you heated letters criticising your tolerance of the behaviour of your Chair in Office and its flouting of democratic values. In this new role as Foreign Minister, what was your engagement with him like? A: My engagement with him has been very cordial. He wrote a public letter to me about what it is that the Commonwealth should be doing. I wrote to him, pointing out that according to Commonwealth values, advising him about all the areas in which we are engaged, which he may not have known. The way we engage is to make advancements. Publicity is something we give to success, publicity is not always something we give to a process, because we want an advancement rather than just an advertisement of what we are doing. Once he was informed that we are actually engaging, repeatedly, and that these are the areas in which we have offered partnership, he felt he was better informed. But when I came here in my last visit in October last year, he was good enough to come and see me. We had a very good conversation. A few hours after I landed, my first meeting was with him. He was very fulsome in acknowledging the fact that the Commonwealth has engaged in good faith and in good effect with Sri Lanka, this was very graciously mentioned by the President just now. We feel extremely encouraged and lifted by the receptivity we find here to our engagement. Q: Would you say a lot has changed in the political atmosphere and your engagement with the Sri Lankan State, since the election in January? A: The goal to move rapidly in terms of Commonwealth values is much more clearly expressed. The big difference of course is that it has been given a timeframe. We have to see what happens within 100 days. But at least the political intent is absolutely clear. It is not just signposting – ‘let us see how long it takes’; but very ambitious signposting – ‘let us see how quickly we can do all this’. Some of it might require legislation later on. The point is that they want to get started in all these areas; that is a very different approach. From the point of view of the citizen, it should make it clear to them the kind of policy the Government wants to adopt on many national issues.

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