Public space decreasing as talk of presidential election looms large

In an unprecedented move, Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena attacked the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) for carrying out its duty to vet soldiers to participate in United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. While the United Nations Peacekeeping Operations requires the HRCSL to vet the human rights record of persons proposed for participation in peacekeeping missions, the President and the military are opposing this move. As a result, an earlier group of peacekeepers already in the Missions continue to be there, while a new group is unable to go. Two persons from the earlier group were killed while taking part in a Mission, and the President attributed these deaths to the HRCSL for their engagement in vetting. This clearly expresses the conflict between the UN criterion of excluding human rights violators from participating in Peacekeeping Missions, and the Sri Lankan President’s point of view on the same matter. Obviously, the President does not want such vetting. It is such dubious policies, which on the one hand express agreement with international policies of the United Nations, while sabotaging the same at home on the other, that makes it impossible to have an honest discourse on these matters.

The President’s duty is to encourage the HRCSL and other national institutions in fulfilling their mandates and serving the interest of the public. Instead, the Sri Lankan government can be seen to put obstacles before such national institutions, discouraging them from doing their duties.

In the same speech in the parliament on February 6, 2019, the President also attacked the Constitutional Council of Sri Lanka. This Constitutional Council was a product of a national frustration with the abuse of power by executive presidents. The purpose behind the Council was to have an independent body choose senior public positions, rather than leaving it in the hands of the President. The Constitutional Council of Sri Lanka in recent times has objected to 12 judges being elevated to various positions due to what was seen by the Council as disqualifications. The President attacked the Council for creating dissatisfaction among judges by this scrutiny of their suitability for promotions.

These two instances indicate the President’s unhappiness with public institutions functioning in accordance with their mandate, contrary to government interests. In the same manner, freedom of speech exists in Sri Lanka only to the extent that nothing is said against the government; certain internet publications have been banned for precisely not following this. There are similar threats to the right to peaceful assembly, and also the right for free and fair elections. The threats take the form of killings and other forms of physical and psychological harm. In great fear, people concentrate on protecting their private life, while keeping a distance from public life. There is little trust in public institutions such as the police coming to their rescue.

A direct result of this widespread fear, is to leave political leadership in the hands of people who come to politics to make money, while decent people become silent. Hannah Arendt gives a similar explanation for why many Germans withdrew from politics in Fascist times. The situation in Sri Lanka today is that criminality is on the rise, while there is no one to give redress. Murder has become easy. This situation lends itself to corruption. And yet, ordinary citizens bear the circumstances without complaint. This led a well-known Buddhist scholar, Walpola Rahula, to state that ‘this is not a society of free men, but one of slaves’. This kind of slavery come from extreme fear, which in turn comes from the state’s failure to protect citizens.

In the latest move showing regression from democratic and human rights ideals, President Sirisena has also proposed that within three months, a 43-year moratorium on the death sentence will end, and those found guilty of drug related offences will be hung. The President has been inspired by his recent visit to the Philippines, where he highly praised the manner in which social control is exercised. President Sirisena’s views are quite contrary to those of the civilised world, which has largely condemned Philippines’ policy of extrajudicially killing drug traffickers.

While there is much talk of a presidential election to be held this year, public space in the country is decreasing. It is hoped that these significant issues can be discussed and debated, in order for any elections to be meaningful, and for Sri Lanka to progress to a better state.

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