Reconciliation beyond Constitution-making

Monday, 6 November 2017 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Last week top politicians across the party divide gathered in Parliament to debate the interim report on proposals for the eventual formation of a new Constitution. What emerged from the diverse views was the reality that the adoption of a new Constitution would be a long and hard process for Sri Lanka and while it is a worthwhile one that should be undertaken by all means, it should not be at the exclusion of other reforms that have been discussed and, in some cases, already started by the Government. 

The European Union Parliamentary Delegation that travelled to Sri Lanka parallel to the debates in Parliament expressed its “disappointment” over the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to come through on commitments given over the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and criminal law as well as other pledges made to comply with 27 international rights conventions. 

Delegation chair Jean Lambert raised serious concerns over a lack of progress on changing the laws, warning that the shortcomings would be noted by the European Parliament.

Stressing that the Sri Lankan Government gave assurances that there would be “rapid changes” in repealing the controversial act, which allows law enforcement authorities to detain individuals without charging them for long periods of time, Lambert said they were under the impression that the Government was keen to repeal the current act to replace it with laws complying with international standards. 

Visiting UN missions have also highlighted the lack of progress in repealing the PTA. According to the figures given by the UN Special Rapporteur on counter-terrorism and human rights, Ben Emmerson, who visited the country in July, there are 81 prisoners held without a charge under the PTA, of whom 70 had been in detention without trial for over five years and 12 had been in detention without trial for over 10 years. 

Recent demonstrations in Jaffna during President Maithripala Sirisena’s visit to the North prompted him to assure the Tamil community that he would look for solutions to the issue with Opposition and TNA Leader R. Sampanthan. 

Lambert also said that although the EU Parliament did not officially raise objections against reinstating preferential trade conditions to Sri Lanka, a number of concerns remained regarding the commitment of the country to the 27 international conventions that GSP+ was tied to. 

These include a gamut of rights including ending torture, protecting women, increasing gender inclusively and improving rights for marginalised communities. Strengthening key institutions, implementing progressive laws, improving transparency and banishing corruption are also approved under these conventions to improve Sri Lanka’s democracy. 

Lambert also said that the EU would be closely monitoring Sri Lanka’s progress over commitments made to the United Nations, noting that the lack of progress in the accountability process was a concern. She also noted that the UN had imposed timelines on achieving the goals, which the EU Parliament would also take into consideration. 

However, the delegation also noted that there had been positive developments “with clear declaration of intent” in terms of labour rights and implementing conventions related to women. 

Nonetheless, the Government must not become complacent and put all its reforms in the new Constitution basket and believe that it alone will achieve the needs of reconciliation, peace, transparency and greater democracy. It also should not sacrifice short-term or medium-term gains in the hope that a new Constitution will eventually fix all ills. 

The road to reconciliation and reform will always be a hard one and the Government should not get into the habit of kicking difficult decisions further down the road and hope that out of sight is out of mind. The dangers of this are obvious as frustrations could build up and further erode confidence in the Government. The fallout of what could happen if no reforms are achieved doesn’t bear thinking about.

Finding and implementing solutions should be a multilayered and multipronged effort.