Oct 2022

Nation struggles as noose tightens

Neville de Silva reports on the latest tide of troubles facing both Sri Lanka’s government, and the island’s beleaguered people

Time is running out. Even as this is written, Sri Lanka is desperately canvassing support from within the 47-member UN Human Rights Council now meeting in Geneva, to stave off a tougher and hard-hitting resolution that castigates the island-nation for its democratic regression, rising militarisation and official corruption.

The UNHRC blames Sri Lanka for breaking a litany of promises made to the council in the last decade: to clean up its human rights record, hold those accountable for violations of civil liberties, and tailor existing abhorrent laws to meet international standards and norms.

Besides these regular concerns,the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has,in her 16-page latest report,introduced another serious issue: economic crime and its connection to abuse of power. This issue has been included in the new draft resolution, with calls for sanctions against perpetrators, including travel bans and freezing of assets, and for judicial action under universal jurisdiction.

This must worry Sri Lankan politicians and officials, as the matter will now be added to those which the High Commissioner’s office is engaged in investigating, collating evidence against those suspected of crimes including breaches of international human rights and humanitarian laws.

Resolution 51/1 will be put to the vote on October 6 at Sri Lanka’s request. Not that Sri Lanka believes it has the faintest hope of winning the vote on a resolution that Rajapaksa governments and the current successor administrationhave helped father, with their arrogant belief that sovereign Sri Lanka can bypass international opprobrium without consequences.

Speaking to the state-run Sunday Observer, new Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Sabry gave assurances that ‘some countries will vote for us’. That is no secret, as Sri Lanka’s voting history on UNHRC has shown.  As long as the UNHRC membership includes dictatorial and authoritarian regimes that have little or no respect for international human rights and humanitarian laws –for example, China, the Russian Federation and others still closer home, like Myanmar and like-minded regimes in Africa and Latin America – they will vote against any moves to subject countries to international scrutiny.

It was asingle political family’s insatiable thirst for power and its governance with impunity, opening the door to widescale corruption, exploitation of state assets with no accountability and a callous disregard for the rule of law and human rights, that increasingly drove the UNHRC to harden its stance on the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Sabry
CONFIDENT: Sri Lanka’s new Foreign Minister Mohamed Ali Sabry gave assurances that ‘some countries will vote for us’

Picking up on Resolution 46/1 of March 2021, the ‘Core Group’ on Sri Lanka, led by the UK along with the US, Canada, Germany, Malawi, Montenegro and North Macedonia, based their new resolution on an updated report by the Geneva-based Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), headed by the nowretired Michelle Bachelet.

The High Commissioner presented a telling characterisation of political and economic developments in the last year, which saw the use of obnoxious laws to suppress mass public protests and violence by the police and military against demonstrators calling for the resignations of the country’s president, prime minister and finance minister – three Rajapaksa brothers – and other Rajapaksas holding political positions.

If the current resolution seems to Sri Lanka excessively harsh, especially against a country that has struggled to survive following a precipitous economic crash, the island’s political leaders must accept much of the blame for tightening the noose round its neck.

Just a few days after Minister Ali Sabry, who earlier in September led the country’s ‘light brigade’ to Geneva’s ‘valley of death’, told the UN General Assembly in New York:‘We unconditionally recognise the fact that one has a fundamental right to freedom of expression, which we all treat as sacrosanct.’

But he did add a rider saying that the exercise of that freedom must be within the law.

On the very day the minister was singing hallelujahs to Sri Lanka’s undying commitment to freedom of expression, thousands of kilometres away in the country’s capital Colombo, 84 people, including three Buddhist monks and four women, were arrested for what authorities called ‘illegal’ protests held ‘without permission’. The police claimed they were arrested under the Police Ordinance.

Interestingly, these arrests were made the day after President Ranil Wickremesinghe declared in an Extraordinary Gazette notification several premises and official buildings as ‘high security zones’ (HSZ), falling back on an archaic law called the ‘Official Secrets Act’ (OSA), dating back to 1955.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has, in her latest report, introduced another serious issue: economic crime and its connection to abuse of power

The president’s declaration covers some 20 locations in Colombo.Judging by the demarcated boundaries for the HSZ,even some private residences and businesses fall within them, turning the capital into a mini fortressthat prohibits public admission to buildings, offices including courts and parliament complexes, and roads now used by the public, without official sanction.

Some believe the court complexes in Colombo have been included in an attempt to please the judiciary and as a riposte to lawyers, many of whom sided with this year’s mass protests, mainly in Colombo, that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign from the presidency.

It will also be a serious burden to litigants, especially those who have been filing Fundamental Rights and other petitions against the government and officials, for various acts of malfeasance.

The Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) immediately condemned the president’s act, stating it ‘is deeply concerned that under the cover of the purported order under Section 2 of the Official Secrets Act there is the imposition of draconian provisions for the detention of persons who violate such orders, thus violating the freedom of expression, the freedom of peaceful assembly and the freedom of movement all of which are important aspects of the right of the people to dissent in Sri Lanka’.

It reminded the authorities, including the president, of an important Supreme Court judgment in 1993, which stated that ‘stifling the peaceful expression of dissent today can only result, inexorably, in the catastrophic explosion of violence on some other day’.

street protests in Colombo
SOLIDARITY: Many lawyers sided with this year’s mass protests

Resolution 51/1 will be put to the vote at Sri Lanka’s request

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, Legal Affairs commentator of the respected Sunday Times, owned by President Wickremesinghe’s maternal uncle, in a devastating rejoinder on September 25 tore into the declaration for resorting to an out-dated law that was meant for an entirely different purpose.

‘Whatever the motivations for the Ranil Wickremesinghe Presidency to drag the Official Secrets Act (1955) out of cold storage and employ its provisions to declare certain places as “High Security Zones”, that decision is both foolish and counter- productive,’ she said. In an elementary lesson in law she wrote: ‘A ground rule which first year law students are taught is that laws enacted for one purpose must not be used for other purposes. The short title of the Official Secrets Act states unequivocally that its object is to “restrict access to official secrets and secret documents and to prevent unauthorised disclosure thereto”.’

In sum, Pinto-Jayawardene said, the trigger-happy and defensive resort to the Official Secrets Act speaks of a state terrified of itself. ‘A nation can never be collectively oppressed to the point of silence,’ she concluded.

This late development of trying to use an obsolete law to suppress dissent will not figure in the draft text of the impending resolution, but it certainly will in the ensuing debate, for it buttresses further the UN High Commissioner’s contention of Sri Lanka’s democratic degeneration and its increasing militarisation.

Strangely, Ranil Wickremesinghe,who in his early days as prime minister in 2003 supported democratic reforms and freedom of information and expression, has in his two months as president,turned to the use of the obnoxious Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which the Rajapaksa governments undertook to amend, promising the UNHRC a moratorium on its use.

President Wickremesinghe went back on it. He authorised use of the PTA to arrest student leaders and other activists, and has now utilised another antiquated and irrelevant law to curb public demonstrations.

Public unrest was against economic hardships suffered by a majority of citizens burdened by unbearable living costs and demanding the resignation of the ruling Rajapaksas and the purification ofcorrupt politics.

The continued presence of the PTA in the statute books is one issue that has figured prominently in previous UNHRC resolutions, and doeseven in today’s resolution.

As President Wickremesinghe negotiates with the IMF for an Extended Fund Facility, and with the country’s creditors to rescue Sri Lanka from bankruptcy, he knows only too well how important the support of western and other creditor nations, such as India and Japan,will be in this process.

During his UK visit for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral last month, he candidly told the Sri Lankan community in London that Sri Lanka needed to be lifted ‘from the bootstraps’ as ‘we are broke’,and called for help from persons of Sri Lankan origin.

Wickremesinghe also knows that the IMF is calling for decisive action against corruption –a major causeof the country’s economic woes. Several major stakeholders in the IMF, such as some of the nations sponsoring the upcoming Sri Lanka resolution, are pressing the Colombo government for tangible progress in its human rights performance, accountability and an end to impunity.

While holding out the begging bowl with one hand, the government is using the other to slap the international community in the face.Sri Lankans are confused by this ambidexterity. Is it foolhardiness or arrogant disregard? they ask, scratching their heads in disbelief.

Neville de Silva is a veteran Sri Lankan journalist who held senior roles in Hong Kong at The Standard and worked in London for Gemini News Service. He has been a correspondent for foreign media including the New York Times and Le Monde. More recently he was Sri Lanka’s deputy high commissioner in London