Emergency’s exit

Saturday, 27 August 2011 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Of late, if the Government has got one thing right, even though it came late, it was Thursday’s decision to lift the state of Emergency.

While it is true that the move has been on the cards for a few months – with the international community and civil society questioning the validity of Emergency two years after the fight against terror had ended – if the Government had lifted the Emergency one year after the end of the war or even early this year, such an exercise would have been labelled as “proactive” whilst this week’s announcement in the context of growing criticism of its existence may be termed “reactive”.

Either way, the Government eventually doing it is a good move, hence coming in for commendation from all quarters, such as Opposition Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe, civil society, the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce and the West, including the US and UK. More praise will flow over the weekend and next week as well.

Underscoring its importance, President Mahinda Rajapaksa chose to announce the move himself and in the house of people’s representative – the Parliament.  See the full speech elsewhere on this page.

The US described it as a “significant step towards normalising life for the people of Sri Lanka, and reflects more than two years without terrorist activity after the defeat of the LTTE,” whilst the UK noted that the announcement “marks an important move towards normalisation and the strengthening of civil and political rights”.

The Ceylon Chamber welcomed it by saying it was a clear indication of return to normalcy and a positive signal for businesses to prosper and encourage more foreign investments to the country. UNP Leader Wickremesinghe even thanked President Rajapaksa for the decision, saying that the Opposition had been asking for an end to Emergency rule for over a year and now that it was done, the UNP would support the move. The JVP said it was a victory for the democratic forces that struggled for it.

The state of Emergency, first put in place on and off since a JVP insurgency erupted in 1971, had been continuously in force since August 2005 after an LTTE sniper assassinated Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar in Colombo. Its continuity despite the Government relaxing Emergency laws in a staggered manner since May 2010 had been an overhang and an obvious target for critics of the Government, both locally and internationally. Emergency laws had been described as draconian and limited a lot of political freedoms.

As expected, the focus now will be on the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which will remain in force despite the lifting of the Emergency. In fact TNA MP P. Sivajilingam and JVP alluded to this aspect. Both said the PTA must be either scrapped or scaled down for a true restoration of normalcy in the country post-war.  “This is just a cosmetic change as long as the Prevention of Terrorism Act is in place, which is as draconian as the Emergency,” Ruki Fernando, Head of the Human Rights in Conflict Programme at the Law and Society Trust had warned.

The PTA allows arrest, confiscation of property and life imprisonment for those involved in “terrorist activity”. Given the fact that terrorism is a global threat and tougher laws exist even in the West, the continuity of the PTA is a likely course, but the Government must avoid harassing innocent people and political parties in the guise of applying the PTA.

For law-abiding citizens, the past two years must have been peaceful, especially since the end of the war. In that context the Government’s decision on Thursday to lift the Emergency rule from end August may not have had a psychological impact. We are unlikely to see people celebrating the move on the streets either. However, from both democratic and economic perspectives, the end of the state of Emergency is a major milestone.

The President’s decision to announce the move in Parliament too must be commended as it signified that he wanted to share the good news with the country’s legislators of all communities and parties. In the same vein, the onus is also now on all parties in a bipartisan manner to treasure and foster a new era of life and times without having to reintroduce Emergency rule.

As we have often said in these columns, even after two years since the end of the war, true normalcy politically and economically is yet to return to the north. There is a dire need for improved democracy, rule of law, good governance and inclusive economic development, which are the real foundations for sustainable peace and prosperity in Sri Lanka.