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Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Table-thumping Hitler wannabes and empty threats – Kishali Pinto Jayawardene

What is this uncanny fascination that Sri Lankan politicians (and monks) have with the late most profoundly unlamented Adolf Hitler?

Military suppression of protests

It is almost like the vulgarly cheap reprints of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa that one finds hanging in the drawing rooms of Colombo’s nouveau riche, as if to boast one’s entry into the ranks of the elite. In an apt comparison, it seems that, not a week goes by without some President, Prime Minister or Minister invoking Nazi Germany’s genocidal tyrant by name. Is this, the favourite calling card of political leaders, perchance to demonstrate their ‘toughness’? Perhaps a more thorough reading of history would disabuse them of such ridiculous notions.

In 2018, we had a monk calling upon former President Gotabhaya Rajapaksa to behave ‘like a Hitler’ in the run-up to that Presidential campaign. Less than three years after the ‘Terminator’ President won, he had to abandon power along with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet cowering in the face of massive peoples’ protests over bringing the nation to financial ruin through arrogant, corrupt and foolish decisions. This week, an unholy flap has arisen as a result of Rajapaksa’s chosen successor, President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s complaining that he has been typecast as ‘Hitler’ due to his warning that a second ‘aragalaya’ (peoples’ protests) will be dealt with by military force to the highest possible extent.

Cartoonists have had a field day, lampooning President Wickremesinghe in tie-and-suit giving the Sieg Hail salute. Gleefully joining the melee, the main Samagi Jana Balavegaya has promised to ‘protect’ the people from military suppression. That promise would have been a tad more convincing if the opposition had actively performed its role of a government-in-waiting rather than merely holding press conferences. Its performance has been abysmal, there is little evidence of grass roots work in rural constituencies tippling over to desperate poverty.

Silly diversions from the national focus

But to return to the President’s remarks in the House on Wednesday, we must be spared these verbal excesses  of  ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ It does not behove President Wickremesinghe to rant and rail in this manner, jumping from mocking comparisons of ‘human rights defenders’ and ‘land rover defenders’ to proclaiming that ‘we abolished criminal defamation, brought in independent commissions and the like..’ That rant was following the question, ‘‘What have these defenders done?’

His acerbic denunciations (“I know who they are, I worked with them, I protected them… the diesel to power them comes from money from overseas’) were greeted by table-thumping Government members with wild cheers. Mirth aside, these remarks  are a slap in the face of the President’s supporters in Colombo’s ‘civil society’ who persisted in their ‘stability v chaos’ argument when President Wickremesinghe was catapulted into the seat of power absent a popular vote.

But more to the point, these remarks are the height of absurdity. First, it is unnerving to say the least, to find the Head of State, listing out his ‘accomplishments’ so to speak and comparing them against what has been done/not done by ‘human rights defenders.’ Does the President really need to stoop to these levels? Law reforms occur typically as a response to public concern, including those of the ‘human rights defenders’ that the President, once so close to those very ‘defenders,’ so airily disparages. That does not stand to the credit of a passing Government or a passing President alone.

Scandals regarding ‘independent commissions’

Second, there are several factual problems with this claim.  His boast of ‘independent constitutional commissions’ is  controverted by factual realities regarding many of these bodies. The recent fracas over the ‘welcome’ accorded at the airport to Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) ‘strategist’ Basil Rajapaksa on his return to the country, by the National Police Commission Chair and another member, is a case in point. This is the latest scandal to have arisen regarding a seemingly independent commission.

Problems with the ‘independence’ of these commissions did not arise only under the 18th and 20th Amendments, let it be said. Even under the 19th Amendment, which President Wickremesinghe often parades as a stamp of his commitment to governance, the functioning of the constitutional commissions as constituted by a politically top-heavy Constitutional Council, was pockmarked with irregularities. One need only point to the dismal record of the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption as an example.

Quite apart from a sorry performance in the courts with indictments being thrown out for lack of (legal) due diligence, distasteful controversies marked its term embroiling its former Director General in political controversies.  So, this Presidential boast of ‘independent commissions’ must be taken with more than a pinch of cynical salt. Meanwhile, he also pointed to the ‘ICCPR Act’ brought by the previous government. Contrary to the President’s claim, this ICCPR Act remains one of Sri Lanka’s most nonsensical laws.

Presidential barbs at the HRCSL not warranted 

Purporting to model itself on the global best standard, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, it is however a caricature of the Covenant. Its use for the very contrary purposes of the Covenant, namely to harass and intimidate citizens legitimately practicing their freedoms of speech and expression, has been noted. But far more ominously than all of this was the President’s bizarre barbs directed at invoking the authority of the Human Rights Commission in respect of violations of the Constitution by police officers. Indeed, it is difficult to make sense of what the President said. The thrust of his remarks was that, the police must not be obstructed from doing their lawful duties by such interventions. His conceding that if some ‘small’ abuse may occur (making this sound as casual as a passing wave of a hand), that can be dealt with ‘lawfully,’ makes the whole point of his argument redundant. It is precisely when abuse occurs that the Human Rights Commission is mandated, in terms of its Act, to step in. It does so, after careful thought and consideration.

After all, the Commission is not composed of children, to be intervening into matters within its mandate, as carelessly as if it was playing in a sandbox? More so, the President’s claim that, if the police continue to be ‘obstructed’, that he would be calling upon the Attorney General to draft laws to prevent such obstructions in terms of Article 15 of the Constitution, is infinitely surreal. One does not envy the Attorney General if such a call is, in fact, made. Article 15 relates to legitimate constitutional restrictions that may be ‘prescribed by law’ in regard to the exercise of certain fundamental rights.

The State and the citizen, equation cannot be coercive

That Article did not suddenly come upon us, as if manna from heaven to political leaders disgruntled with being called to account by the citizenry. The President and whoever prompted him from his side in the House in a display of extraordinary stupidity to quote this Article during the sitting, must educate themselves on the fact that, we already have laws aplenty setting out such restrictions. The ambit and constitutional application of this Article has been thoroughly reviewed by the Supreme Court during the past several decades.

One cannot simply indulge in a frivolously ‘jack-in-the-box’ demand for ‘new laws’ under Article 15 to undermine the legitimate right that a citizen has to go to the Human Rights Commission alleging that abuse has occurred. One aspect of the President’s speech is however merit worthy. This is that, resorting to violence with the aim of coercively overthrowing the State cannot be justified under the cover of ‘fighting for the people.’ While that is the case, the State cannot also suppress lawful protests under the cover of ‘maintaining law and order’ and uphold the police as paragons of virtue. Both are sides of the same coin. We would do well to remember that caution.

(Sunday Times)

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