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Sunday, April 21, 2024

Democracy Deficit and Citizens’ Initiatives

The rule of law is the cornerstone of a democratic state. The basic rights of the people will suffer when the people lose confidence in the mechanisms of law enforcement and justice. We have seen several instances in our country of the law being applied differently to different people.


‘Peace’ was a game we liked to play

as kids of six, or may be seven,

it needs some players to divide

into two teams, of Odds and Evens.

The Odds were the children down the street

and marvelous scraps and strays,

the Evens were my brothers and

our friends, well, upright, regular guys.

We Evens were a well-fed lot

and tough, so that the little patched

and scrawny Odds would never dare

to say the teams were not well matched.

That was the beauty of the game,

we chose the ground and made the rules,

they couldn’t really do a thing

about it, stunted little fools.

– Yasmine Gooneratne

Democracy in a country can be simply understood, as a writer has put it, as a procedure for making decisions whereby all adult citizens have an equal right to have a say and make their opinions count. It is for this reason that we welcomed the introduction of universal suffrage in our country in 1931 when every adult, male and female, earned the right to vote at elections and to elect their representative to the legislature. But that was not the beginning and end of democracy. Democracy comes alive only when the citizens constantly, between elections, remain vigilant to check that their representatives do the job for which they were elected. They also need to ensure that the citizen’s democratic rights remain secured. In many countries, including the western democracies, democracy has survived because of the struggles of the common people, often at considerable cost to themselves, to hold their government accountable and responsive to the whole community, to all the people.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001, the Bush administration in US declared a ‘war’ on terrorism. Many were arrested as terrorist suspects and human rights activists demanded compliance with International Conventions on Human Rights. and for the US Government to desist from any action that violated them. Noam Chomsky, Professor of Linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and well known political writer and activist was interviewed on TV. He said: ‘Of course, there would be those who demand silent obedience (to human rights abuses). We expect that from the ultra-right and anyone with a little familiarity with history will expect it from some left intellectuals as well, perhaps in an even more virulent form. But it is important not to be intimidated by hysterical ranting and lies and to keep as closely as one can to the course of truth and honesty and concern for the human consequences of wehat one does, or fails to do. All truisms, but worth bearing in mind.’

Human Rights

The situation in Sri Lanka is not very different. The war on terrorism lasted many years and many laws and regulations were promulgated that violated International Conventions on Human rights. There were even administrative actions taken that had no sanction in law. It is now over three years since the LTTE was crushed and their leader killed. Yet, under the pretext that the threat from the LTTE is still real, the people are asked to bear blatant human rights violations, abduction of people claiming that they are LTTE supporters and detaining several hundreds of persons against whom no charges have been filed (and obviously no evidence is available to charge them, unless former terrorists now supporters of the government come forward with “evidence”). But sadly, polarisation of the two major communities is so deep that the vast majority do not seem concerned about the violation of the human rights of the ‘other’. Democracy is in deficit when a large section of the population find themselves disengaged from the political process and there is little public outrage at this.

Corruption in public affairs

The recent affair concerning the purchase of shares in The Finance Company by the National Savings Bank was by no means a case of misjudgment. It has now come to light that the Employees’ Provident Fund had also purchased shares in the same company sometime ago. The Central Bank’s feeble and ridiculous attempt at justifying this transaction shows that that there is more to this sordid affair. Resignations of sthe Chairman and the Directors of NSB cannot be the end of the matter. An independent Commission of Inquiry is called for. These are public funds and no public official has the right to misuse such funds. His or hers is a position of trust to be used in the public interest. The UN Crime Prevention and Criminal Division issued in 1997 a code of conduct for public officials. That Code clearly states that no public official should engage in any transaction that is incompatible with their office. In these two cases, there is not only a violation of the UN Code but also prima facie evidence of corruption involving The Finance Company, the NSB, the Central Bank and the stock brokering firm involved. There must be public pressure brought, irrespective of the personalities involved, for a full and independent investigation.

The Rule of Law

The rule of law is the cornerstone of a democratic state. The basic rights of the people will suffer when the people lose confidence in the mechanisms of law enforcement and justice. We have seen several instances in our country of the law being applied differently to different people. This is often based on the level of political interference exerted. But it is also, and more alarmingly, based on what the law-enforcers or the dispensers of justice perceive as what those who wield political power would want as the outcome. It is not necessary to quote instances because the public are aware of miscarriages of justice in politically related cases. And also numerous cases where the aggrieved parties are denied justice, also in politically related cases. In all democracies, the law-enforcers and the judiciary are seen as the last bulwark against misuse of power by those in authority. It is when that avenue is also compromised, a country invites violence and people begin taking the law into their own hands. In many cases of violence and murder reported recently, we see this trend emerging – people losing confidence in the legal system and resorting to extra-judicial methods.

The state has the primary responsibility to ensure that the rule of law is upheld. It has to ensure, unlike in Yasmine Gooneratne’s Peace-game, that Odds and Evens have a level playing field. That rules are fair and equal and applied impartially. It must not deprive former Prime Ministers and former Army Commanders of their civic rights on obscure charges merely because they are a political threat to those in power. If real democracy is to re-assert itself in Sri Lanka, the people have to urge that legitimate political dissent is not just tolerated but actively encouraged. With elections to the Eastern Provincial Council expected shortly, it was alarming that two cases of arson were reported from the Batticaloa district last week. On the eve of the Tamil National Alliance holding a Convention in a Hall in Batticaloa, the Hall was subject to arson. A few days later, the newly set-up local headquarters of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress was set on fire. In both cases the law-enforcers have yet to apprehend those responsible. This naturally gives rise to the suspicion that they are unwilling to do so because the perpetrators enjoy political patronage.

Diplomacy and International Relations

The country is facing an economic crisis, in spite all the sunshine stories that we have been used to hearing from the Governor of the Central Bank. People do not need economists to tell them about a widening trade deficit or of a weakening rupee, or of depleted foreign reserves. They feel the pinch in their daily struggle to make ends meet, even if a cabinet minister is able to live on Rs 2500 per month. Being in the throes of such an economic crisis, it is all the more necessary for the country to put its house in order as far as diplomatic relations are concerned. It is at times like this that our country needs the support of other nations. Yes, we may need to go around the countries of west Asia and south-east Asia urging them to employ our workers, skilled and unskilled, so that could send remittances home to lift our foreign reserves. But much more than that needs to be done to woo our trading partners, in India and in the West, to increase our trading volumes. It is utterly irresponsible to whip up anti-Indian and anti-Western sentiments and emotions domestically when we need their support at an international level. As former diplomat Jayantha Dhanapala stated in a recent newspaper article, such a course of action may help the President and the UPFA to obtain dubious short-term gain in the domestic political scene, ‘but internationally, it may destabilize the entire country, dragging us all into a dystopia that our people do not deserve.’

In the same article, Dhanapala demolished a myth that the recent resolution at the UNHRC was an infringement on our sovereignty and an interference in the internal affairs of our country. For one thing, the thrust of the resolution was to call upon the Government to implement the recommendations of the LLRC, a Commission appointed by the President himself, and therefore in no way anti-Sri Lanka. Dhanapala has said: “By joining the UN voluntarily in 1955, we were party to the UN Charter and to the 1948 Universal Declaration on Human Rights. We agreed to the setting up of the HRC in 2006 and its mandate. We were members of the HRC when we voted on resolutions and lost our bid for re-election in 2008. We agreed to the mechanisms set up such as the Universal Periodic Review and the procedure, which allows individuals and organizations to bring human-rights violations to the attention of the council. The HRC also works with the UN special procedures made up of special rapporteurs, special representatives, independent experts and working groups that monitor, examine, advise and publicly report on thematic issues or human-rights situations in specific countries. In addition, we have signed several international instruments on human rights under which we have reporting obligations which we fulfil. These obligations stem from our being in the international community and a signatory of international treaties.”

The Government of Sri Lanka needs to change direction for its own good but more importantly for the good of the country. It must stop playing politics and ensure that we return to the rule of law (which means doing away, for a start, with the disastrous 18th Amendment). The people of the country, the civil society in particular, can help the government to do so by having the courage to stand up and speak up against injustice and any violations of democratic values. They need to hold the government accountable and responsive to the whole community. As Dhanapala said, we must ensure that we do not fall into the pit of a dystopian society.


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