The spirit of the Magna Carta needs revival

By Ameen Izzadeen
When was the Magna Carta signed? A Brit asked this question from an American friend during a business lunch at a New York restaurant. When the American shook his head in ignorance, displaying the average American’s trouble with history, the Brit, with his nose in the air, said twelve fifteen. The American looked at his watch and said, “Oh, I missed it by 15 minutes.”
If this is a quotable joke, what happened in 2012 was a public embarrassment for British Prime Minister David Cameron. When US talk show host David Letterman asked Cameron when the Magna Carta was signed, a confident Cameron replied: “1215, on an island in the Thames.” Well, it was pointed out to him that Runnymede where it was signed was not an island but an open space. Cameron was then asked whether he knew what the literal translation of ‘Magna Carta’ was. The Eton educated Cameron was stumped. All what he could say was: “Again, you are testing me.” Letterman replied: “Oh, it would be good if you knew this.” Cameron said: “Yeah, well it would be….”
A commercial break saved the day for Cameron. When the show resumed, Lettermen told viewers, “Magna Carta literally means the Great Charter.”
Jokes and jigsaws apart, politicians and civic rights activists in Britain and the United States often invoke the Magna Carta when they see an erosion of liberties or feel the freedom they enjoy needs further guarantees.
On Monday, the world marked the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. But the celebrations were largely confined to Britain, and, on a lesser scale, the United States, whereas it should have been a grand global event. There were no democracy seminars, fairs or carnivals at global level to mark this great event, to which we owe constitutional democracy.
In many democracies, Sri Lanka included, the day dawned, and disappeared with little or no celebrations that could have been used as a platform to reinvigorate the commitment of those in power to democratic principles. Civil society in Sri Lanka also failed to seize the event to expose the democracy deficiency in the country. Civil society in Sri Lanka could have kindled a countrywide debate on the state of democracy.
Of course, there was a gala ceremony in Runnymede, 32 km west of Central London on Monday to mark the 800th anniversary of the Great Charter, regarded as the touchstone of modern democracy and the font of freedom. Attended by the royals, the Lords and governmental leaders, the event saw Prime Minister Cameron, by now an expert on the Magna Carta, hailing its spirit and championing a British Bill of Rights. If Sri Lanka – or for that matter any other troubled democracy — had held a similar event, our lawmakers, most of whom have not even passed the GCE Advanced Level could have at least got an opportunity to learn what the Magna Carta is and how it contributed to the development of notions such as the rule of law, human rights and freedom with responsibility.
Our politicos could have learnt that the Magna Carta — a document written in Latin — reduced the powers of King John the tyrant. The wise among them could have drawn a parallel between the determination of the 13th century Barons in England and the public mood for change in Sri Lanka ahead of the January 8 presidential election and even now. True, the Charter only empowered the Barons, who were tyrants themselves within the fiefs they controlled. The charter did not improve the lot of the commoner. But it, gradually, set the stage for the commoners to fight for their rights — and the spirit of the charter was visible in the universal adult franchise, the rule of law and many democratic implosions, including the French Revolution. Across the Atlantic, the spirit of the Magna Carta was found in the slogan “No representation, no taxation” during the American independence war.
Internationally, the spirit of the Magna Carta was found in the universal declaration of human rights. When the UDHR was adopted in 1948, Eleanor Roosevelt, human rights activist and widow of the late US President Franklin Roosevelt, described it as the international Magna Carta of all people everywhere.
It’s because of the Magna Carta that, in the late 1980s, Eastern Europe rose against dictators who were pseudo-communists. When the people of the Arab world braved the tyrants’ bullets during the Arab Spring in 2011, it was the spirit of the Magna Carta that drove them to do so.
Yet even in developed democracies, politics produces rulers who know little and care less about the Magna Carta. In 2003, the then US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair did not show respect for the tens of millions of people who protested against the Iraq war. Bush, who also faced a Cameron-like situation when he told a journalist that he thought the Taliban was a rock band, in fact reversed the march of the Magna Carta and introduced legislation that eroded liberty. The spirit of the Magna Carta was mummified in Egypt, where anti-democratic forces ousted a democratically elected president, held questionable elections and elected a military strongman as president.
In Sri Lanka, the oldest democracy in Asia, President Mahinda Rajapaksa got the 18th Amendment passed with a two-thirds majority, murdering the spirit of the Magna Carta, bringing about a constitutional dictatorship and reviving the old notion of the Divine Right to rule, which the Magna Carta had challenged and got rid of.
When President Maithripala Sirisena came forward as the common opposition candidate for the January 8 election, his slogans and manifesto were seen as a Magna Carta for Sri Lanka, for he pledged to abolish or reduce the powers vested in the executive presidency, eliminate corruption, bring about transparency in government, strengthen parliament and empower the people through progressive legislation, including a Right to Information Bill.
Although President Sirisena and the United National Party Government claim they have honoured most of the pledges during the 100-day programme, their promises were largely under-fulfilled. The classic example is the final shape of the 19th Amendment. This was not what the people wanted. The Eldorado that the people hoped for when they voted for Sirisena at the January 8 election now appears to be an illusion.
Notwithstanding the somewhat better situation we now enjoy in terms of freedom and liberty, the fact remains that there is a little bit of King John in every politician in power. Sirisena is no exception, though, to his credit, he has pruned his presidential term and pledged that he would not contest for a second term.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on June 19, 2015)
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Backgrounder
Richard, the Lionheart, King of England had spent much of his reign outside England fighting wars in the Middle East and France. To pay for these he had taxed the English heavily. In 1199, Richard died and his brother, John became king.
John continued to fight wars in France, but he kept losing battles. He needed more money so his government in England ruthlessly demanded more taxes from the nobility who were expected to pay tax if the King asked.
The Barons became very unhappy about John exploiting their loyalty and belief in his complete power. They rebelled and took over London and forced John to negotiate.
— courtesy BBC

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Complex ruptures in the US-Saudi oil vessel

By Ameen Izzadeen
In a monopoly market, a trader can make one thousand rupees by selling a commodity he is dealing with in two ways – by selling a few items at a high price or many items at a low price. Saudi Arabia and some other member states of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), which with its 80 percent of the market dominance acts like a near monopoly, has opted for the latter method – selling more oil to reach the desired revenue.
But Saudi Arabia’s motive is aimed not at raising the revenue alone. It has political agendas with economic undercurrents. What seemed like a political move to punish Russia and Iran has now backfired, with the United States itself looking at the Saudi moves with much suspicion.
The US-Saudi ties were once like that of conjoined twins. So much so that some described Saudi Arabia as the United States’ desert kingdom. But instead of blood vessels what kept the ties warm were pipelines and tanker vessels. Saudi Arabia had declared itself an independent country in 1932 after centuries of Ottoman rule. A year later, American companies led by Standard Oil set foot in Saudi Arabia, which possessed one fourth of the world’s crude oil reserves. At the height of the Second World War, the then US President Franklin Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz, the founder of Saudi Arabia, aboard a US cruise ship in the Suez canal and signed a deal, according to which the US undertook to protect the kingdom and the royal family from internal and external threats. Since then the Americans have done all they could do to keep the Saudi royal family in power and, in turn, ensured that US oil companies brought home billions of petrodollars.
But recent developments indicate a serious rupture in the ties. The relations between the two nations have entered a phase where one’s national interest is in conflict with the other’s. Usually, a nation works towards a balance when it realises that its national interest is in conflict with that of a key ally. But in the US-Saudi ties, we see no such compromise. There seems to be, instead, mutual suspicion of each other’s moves. This explains why Saudi Arabia’s new King, Salman bin Abdulaziz, did not show up at last month’s Gulf summit which US President Barack Obama hosted in Camp David. Analysts say the Saudi king’s absence was nothing but a huge snub.
The strain in the ties did not come about with the new king ascending the throne four months ago. It began more than two years ago when President Obama desisted from attacking Syria even after strong evidence emerged that the Bashar al-Assad regime had used chemical weapons. Saudi Arabia applied pressure on the US to attack, but Obama took cover behind congressional and popular opposition to the war to justify his stance.
An angry Saudi Arabia ditched the US and decided to intervene in Syria its way.
If that was the first indication of a rupture, the second came when the United States intensified contacts with Iran, Saudi Arabia’s enemy number one. In addition to a telephone conversation between President Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in September 2013, the US together with the other four permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany has been holding in the past two years regular meetings with Iran on Teheran’s nuclear programme. The talks reached a breakthrough in April and, much to Saudi Arabia’s chagrin, the two sides are set to sign an agreement next month. The deal is likely to lift some of the sanctions imposed on Iran. If that happens, Iran will be able to attract foreign investors to modernise its aging oil industry and increase its oil and gas output. Saudi Arabia feels that an economically stronger Iran will be a bigger threat than it is today. At present, Iran is providing military assistance to Iraq and Syria to fight the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria). Iran is also the godfather of the powerful Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah and is said to be backing the Houthi rebels against whom Saudi Arabia has been waging a war for the past two months.
The third parting shot was Saudi moves to glut the oil market. Initially the move had the US nod because it targeted Iran and Russia, the world’s number one oil producer, which had spurned Saudi Arabia’s request that it stop propping up the Assad regime.
But soon the US shale oil industry players realised the move also targeted them. The US shale oil industry blossomed when world market prices were going over US$ 100 a few years ago. Thanks to shale oil, by 2013, the US surpassed Saudi Arabia in terms of oil production. The US which depended on Middle East oil to meet half of its energy needs could halve its imports from the Middle East. But when the prices plunged as a result of Saudi oversupply, the US shale oil industry was hit hard. Many small-scale shale oil producers in North Dakota – the key drilling area for shale oil – went out of business. Even after last week’s OPEC talks in Vienna, where members failed to reach accord on supplies and prices, Saudi Arabia continues to glut the market. But now with the oil prices stabilising at US$ 60, some of the big shale oil players have developed cheaper ways of extracting shale oil and are set for a showdown with Saudi Arabia. The shale resilience is no good news for Saudi Arabia.
Also bad news for Saudi Arabia is the US decision to increase its military involvement in Iraq in the fight against ISIS – a move that may increase military contacts between Washington and Teheran. Iran is said to have sent more than 30,000 military advisors to Iraq and is training and arming the Shiite militia groups which are in the forefront of the battle against the ISIS in Iraq. Though Saudi Arabia is officially in the US-led coalition against ISIS, its soft corner for the extremists, who subscribe to the Wahhabi interpretation of Islam just as the kingdom does, is no secret. Saudi Arabia’s main aim is to oust Assad. It does not care who does it.
The United States is also unhappy about the Saudi decision to continue the war on the Houthis in Yemen, because Washington regards the Houthis as a counterweight to al-Qaeda. Here, too, the Saudi policy is in conflict with that of the US.
With the US dependence on Middle Eastern oil declining, the only other factor that keeps US focus on the region is the security of Israel. Ironically, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy finds some common ground with that of Israel, which also sees Iran as its biggest enemy. Don’t they say, my enemy’s enemy is my friend?
(This story first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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China between war and peace

By Ameen Izzadeen
China has read the Riot Act. The warning, as forthright as forthright could be, is aimed not only at regional countries with whom China is embroiled in territorial disputes, but also at the United States, which is, under its Pivot-to-Asia policy, beefing up its military preparedness in the region.
The warning in the form of a Cabinet (State Council) document came a day after Beijing lodged a protest with Washington after it spotted of a US surveillance aircraft over the Spratys – a series of South China Sea islands which China insists belong to it.
“We will not attack unless we are attacked, but we will surely counterattack if attacked,” read the State Council document, demonstrating China’s growing confidence in its military prowess.
Widely known as the biyearly defence white paper, the document titled “China’s Military Strategy” outlined plans to expand the Chinese armed forces’ operational activities beyond what it regards as traditional boundaries, including its offshore territories.
The defence white paper – the ninth since the first such paper was published in 1998 — also accused unnamed foreign countries of “meddling” in the South China Sea. In the past, the document was much looked forward to by policy analysts and journalists alike not so much for its content as its hidden message or the warning between the lines. But this time the message was clear and we need not pore over the words or read between the lines in search of a hidden message. It is perspicuous and stern — and, simply put, it says China’s navy will expand its operations from offshore areas to the open seas, while its air force will shift its focus to include offensive operations in defence of China’s territory.
The white paper says the new military strategy, which it describes as China’s ‘maritime security struggle’ was designed to confront new security challenges, including the United States’ defence buildup in the region, Japan’s decision to overhaul its defence policy and “provocative actions” from neighbouring countries in the South China Sea.
Behave or be ready to face the ire of the fire-breathing dragon, the white paper seems to warn the United States, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam and other regional countries with whom China has burning territorial issues. Analysts say the tense situation could lead to a major regional or world war if negotiations are not started immediately to sort out the disputes in a peaceful manner.
China claims sovereignty over much the South China Sea, through which much of Japan’s ship-borne trade passes. The disputed island chain is believed to hold large oil and gas deposits. The tensions reached high-tide proportions recently after China, in a lightning move, built artificial islands and lighthouses in the Spratly archipelago. The US and China’s neighbours charge that the creation of artificial islands would enable Beijing to control the surrounding waters and airspace.
Given the many territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the East China Sea where China and Japan are sabre rattling over the ownership of the disputed Diayu (to the Chinese)/Senkaku (to the Japanese) islands, countering China’s military threat has become a major defence headache for countries in the region.
Next week, the Philippines’ President Benigno Aquino will meet Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo during a visit aimed at bolstering defence ties between the two countries in view of the rising tensions in the South China Sea.
Abe, meanwhile, is seeking to enact legislation which will enable him to circumvent the constraints in the country’s pacific constitution and deploy Japanese soldiers for overseas military activities. If the bills being debated in the National Diet (parliament) are passed, Japan could be dragged into action in the South China Sea in support of US forces.
China’s latest defence white paper has created more than a ripple in the United States, where Defence Secretary Ashton Carter has instructed his staff to come up with ways in which Washington could deal with the China threat. China’s new defence strategy is expected to dominate the discussions at this weekend’s Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore. Attending the international defence conference will be US Defence Secretary Carter and Adm. Sun Jianguo, Deputy Chief of Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
China’s official news agency Xinhua in a commentary, described the document as proof of China’s commitment to peace and its promise to improve military transparency to the highest degree.
“As many military experts would agree, laying bare its strategic intentions represents a very bold move for a country which has pledged to be more transparent about its military capabilities and war preparedness,” Xinhua said.
It charged that the Western media were seeking to play up the ill-founded notion that China would extend its military reach possibly to the detriment of regional stability. The commentary said the Western media should be reminded that China was entitled to adjust its military strategy in accordance with the latest developments that may pose a security threat, since the same was happening everywhere.
“Unlike world powers that adopt preemptive military strategies, emphasise preventive intervention and take the initiative in attacks, China takes a strikingly different path by following the principles of defence, self-defence and post-emptive strikes,” the commentary said.
But the question that looms large is: Will China, which relies heavily on a peaceful and stable international environment to sustain its economic growth, start a war that will spell doom to the whole world?
Unlikely. China is taking rapid measures aimed at reaching markets in every nook and corner of the world as fast as possible. It is building a network of highways across Central Asia, South Asia and Eastern Europe, reviving the ancient silk road. Parallel to the Silk Road Economic Belt – as this network of roads and oil pipelines is called – will be its maritime silk road, which passes through Sri Lanka’s Hambantota harbour, among other Asian ports. These mega infrastructure projects which are being funded by the newly set up Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) indicate that China’s objective is to promote its trade through world peace.
This is why China is facilitating secret peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban and applying pressure on Pakistan to contribute to the peace process. Pakistan was promised US$ 4.8 billion in aid during President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Islamabad.
World peace is in China’s interest, but the white paper seems to indicate that this peace won’t come at the cost of China’s national interest.
The way forward is peace talks between China and the countries with which it has territorial disputes. The United Nations can play a key role. Unfortunately, there is little movement in the direction of peace. Don’t they say conflict prevention is better than conflict resolution?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on May 29, 2015)

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ISIS takes Iraq, Syria to the gates of hell

By Ameen Izzadeen
In September 2002, the then Arab League Secretary General, Amr Moussa, warned the then United States President, George W. Bush, that an invasion of Iraq would open the gates of hell. Today, one big hell fire in the form of a sectarian conflict has engulfed the region – with the epicentre being Iraq and Syria.
With each passing day, the conflict intensifies and spreads, as though Islam, the region’s dominant religion in whose name the violence is perpetrated, is an ideology of war and the Muslims are warmongers. The latest country to be dragged into sectarian conflict is Yemen.
Nowhere is this sectarian violence more horrific than in Iraq, where every month more than 1000 people are killed in clashes between the Shiite majority and the Sunni minority. With this week’s military success by Sunni extremists led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria or ISIS, the crisis in Iraq has taken a dangerous turn. With the capture of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar, ISIS has emerged the most powerful Sunni fighting force, pushing even the notorious al-Qaeda into oblivion. Its victory in Ramadi this week was followed by more successes in Syria. ISIS, known for its brutality and barbarism, is now in control of Syria’s international heritage city, Palmyra, where it is feared the fanatics would destroy 2000-year-old artefacts just as they did in areas under their control in Iraq.
In Iraq, where the government troops retreated in the face of ISIS’ advance towards Ramadi, the Haider al-Abadi government is relying once again on Shiite militia, mainly the Iranian-backed Badr Brigade, to fight the ISIS. The Shiite paramilitary forces are being accused of persecuting Sunni civilians in liberated areas and their atrocities are pushing the Sunnis to embrace ISIS as saviours.
The Sunni-Shiite divide has crossed the Rubicon and there is little chance for reconciliation. With the oil rich Sunni states of the Arabian Gulf region pumping billions of dollars into the sectarian hellhole, the canker is spreading to other Muslim states where once the Sunnis and the Shiites lived in harmony.
Although the ISIS is not openly backed by the Sunni Gulf countries, their objectives are the same. The ISIS, just as Saudi Arabia and most of its Gulf allies, would like to see Iran militarily weakened and Shiite Islam wiped off from the face of the earth. Also in this anti-Iran informal coalition is Israel.
The ISIS wants to carve out a new Sunni state incorporating parts of Syria and Iraq’s Sunni areas. The creation of a Sunni state out of Iraq and Syria will serve the interest of the Saudis also because the new state will break up the contiguity in the so-called Shiite crescent which extends from Iran to Hezbollah dominated southern Lebanon. Israel also supports the Balkanisation of Iraq. This is because, once the supply line to Hezbollah is cut, Iran’s ability to strike back through its Lebanese militia group wil be curtailed in the event Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Israeli officials and military commanders have openly stated that they prefer the Sunni extremists to the pro-Iranian Assad government and even opposed the US-led coalition’s attacks on ISIS targets.
Michael Oren, a close adviser to Israeli’s hardline Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an interview with Jerusalem Post said: “The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Teheran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc. We always wanted Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.”
On another occasion, Oren said Israel would even prefer a victory by the Islamic State, saying “from Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail.”
Iraqi and Syrian officials allege that Israel maintains a corridor on the Israeli-Syrian border to provide medical and military aid to ISIS. Underscoring this link further is the emergence of an ISIS-affiliated group in the Gaza Strip to fight Hamas, Israel’s number one enemy in the Palestinian territory.
Amid these developments, a big question arises as to why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries have ceased or scaled down their participation in the US-led attacks on ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq.
In Saudi Arabia’s case, its hatred towards Shiite Iran is not so much religious as it is political. Prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution, Saudi Arabia was one of the closest allies of Iran, which was then ruled by the pro-US Shah. The relations between the two countries soured only after Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the chief architect of the Iranian revolution, vowed to take the revolution to neighbouring Arab countries. Ever since, the Gulf despots have been looking at Iran as a venomous snake that should be killed. Just as they feared Iran’s people’s power revolution, the Arab despots also feared the Arab Spring in 2011. Democracy is an anathema to them. That was why Saudi Arabia spent billions to oust the democratically elected government of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt and installed a military dictator.
As part of this cold war with Iran, the Sunni regimes in the Middle East got imams to issue fatwas to the effect that the Shiites are Kafirs or infidels. Unexpectedly, the fall of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein following the US military invasion of Iraq in 2003 dealt a serious blow to the Sunni regimes because it brought about a Shiite dominated government that is friendly towards Iran. The US invasion also pushed Iraq deeper into the hellhole of sectarianism, which was unheard of in the region since the Ottoman days or even before that.
The US and British intelligence units fomented sectarian tension in Iraq as part of their divide-and-rule policy. But the Sunni Arab regimes seized the opportunity to turn this development to their advantage. As the sectarian conflict took root, the Iraqi government came to be seen as favouring the Shiites. In this milieu, al-Qaeda led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi emerged as the defender of Iraq’s Sunnis. In battles with the US forces, Zarqawi was killed and with his death al-Qaeda in Iraq disappeared. But from its ashes rose ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, once a prisoner in US custody.
The sectarian conflict reminds one of the 17th century war between the Protestants and the Catholics in Europe. The Thirty Year War, regarded as the most destructive sectarian conflict, ended with the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia. But the sectarian clashes within the house of Islam seem to outdo the Holy Roman Empire’s war in terms of ferocity and duration. As the Sunnis and the Shiites go for each other’s jugular, neither side feels there is space for negotiations. The world’s big powers are seen to be adopting largely a hands-off or a limited-response approach though more than one million people have been killed and tens of millions rendered homeless due to the violence in the region in the past decade.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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20A: Crack the whip to cleanse the den of criminals

By Ameen Izzadeen
As hectic moves are underway to present the 20th Amendment before the impending general election, it does not appear that political parties and stakeholders have paid adequate attention to preventing the criminalisation of politics – one of the negative offshoots of the existing electoral system.
The District-based Proportional Representation system with a preferential voting facility may appear as the most democratic form of election because, in this method, the will of the people is proportionately represented in Parliament and the voters have the choice to elect the candidate they prefer. But the biggest drawback is that this system has opened the doors for corruption and the criminalisation of politics.
Unlike the pre-1978 first-past-the-post system, where candidates did not have to spend a fortune on their campaign within their electorates, the PR system places a heavy financial burden on the candidate because the area to be covered is much larger than the electorate. The candidates contesting under the district-based PR system have to be filthy rich. If not, to sustain their campaign over a month throughout the district, the candidates will have to sell their property, take a loan or find rich sponsors — often unscrupulous businessmen, drug dealers or persons with plenty of ill-gotten wealth — on a quid-pro-quo basis. Once elected, most candidates’ objectives are to earn back not only the money they spent on their elections, but also the money required for their reelection. Such huge amounts of money can only be earned through corrupt activities. Besides, they have to look after the sponsors also. Didn’t we see during the last regime a letter being sent to the Customs from the Prime Minister’s office requesting the release of a container that carried a record haul of heroin?
Besides, campaigning throughout the district requires the support of criminal gangs as it is they who have the capability to carry out a poster war, run party offices and intimidate rival supporters of not only opposition parties but also one’s own party. These gun-toting gangs give their services at a price, thus adding to the financial liabilities of a candidate. Not only that, as the connection between the national level politico and the criminal gangs grows, the gangsters themselves become politicos at local council level with the patronage of the national level politico. It is no secret that many local council chairmen and members have been involved in serious crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, extortion and running illegal breweries or brothels. Starting from the Pradeshiya Sabha level, criminals graduate to the provincial level and eventually to the national level. And, who knows, one of them can even become the president of this country. Simply put, it is the muscle and money power that controls democracy under the PR system — and the situation in Sri Lanka appears to be worse than what prevailed in post-war Italy, where the Mafia colluded with political parties, funding their campaigns in return for protection from prosecution.
To prevent lawmakers becoming lawbreakers, the 20th Amendment must also focus on how to decriminalise politics. Doing away with the preferential voting system will eliminate intra-party rivalry, but it will not close the door to criminals entering politics. A party’s nomination board can still insert a criminal or two into its district or national list.
How can we keep criminals away from politics? On March 12 this year, the People’s Action Front for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL) got the main political parties to sign a declaration that calls on them, among other things, not to give nominations to those who have served a jail sentence or a suspended sentence, those who have been found guilty of bribery or corruption, those who are involved in trades such as alcohol, drugs, gambling, casinos and prostitution and those who have abused political power.
Denying nomination to those convicted of a crime is good, but in a country like Sri Lanka, where the politicisation of the judiciary was a major concern, an incumbent government can get opponents sentenced by a court on trumped-up charges and prevent them from standing for election. Notwithstanding such abuse, the PAFFREL declaration is a step in the right direction.
We can also learn a lesson from India on how to decriminalise politics. As far back as 1998, the Elections Commission of India (ECI), which is regarded as one of the robust independent bodies that uphold democracy, called on the government to debar persons facing serious criminal charges from contesting elections. Irked by the government’s lack of action in this regard, a civic action group – the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) – moved the Delhi High Court. In a landmark judgment, the court ordered that the Elections Commissioner must provide voters with information about the criminal antecedents of candidates, and assets possessed by them, among other details, so that voters could make an informed decision.
The government petitioned the Supreme Court against the ruling. But the apex court affirmed the Delhi High Court’s decision. In an apparent attempt to circumvent the SC ruling, the government amended the Election Law of 1951, diluting the strict criteria imposed by the court.
The ADR again petitioned the Supreme Court, contending that the amendment was intended to defeat the disclosure requirements ordered by the SC. In its ruling on March 13, 2003, the court ordered that information on not only past convictions, but also all pending cases, assets, liabilities and educational qualifications had to be furnished by the candidates. (See more on this in ‘Undocumented Wonder: The Making of the Great Indian Election’ by S.Y. Quraishi, published by Rainlight/Rupa in 2014.)
In spite of this, according to ADR, a third of the previous parliament were alleged lawbreakers. The ADR’s website says that in the 2014 parliament, more than 80 per cent of MPs are involved in a criminal case. The group says politicians with a criminal record are more likely to be elected than those with a clean slate — because, they have more illicit funds with which to buy votes.
In neighbouring Pakistan, in a bid to prevent criminals from entering politics, a law was passed in 2008 to make only those possessing a university degree qualified to contest the parliamentary elections. But reports say at least 54 candidates in the previous parliament had submitted bogus degree certificates, most of them from religious universities.
A university degree may not be the right solution for Sri Lanka. Besides, such a requirement will block honest people with vision, but without a university degree, from serving the country as lawmakers or heads of state. Some civil society activists call for a code of conduct for elected representatives to keep politics clean. But the code will not prevent criminals from entering politics. Instead, we can try out an entrance exam for candidates to test their knowledge of political theories, democracy, law and economics.
If these measures could also be considered for reforms, Sri Lanka will be well on the road to become not only a model democracy but also a developed economy.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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19A: Without separation of powers, it’s tyranny

By Ameen Izzadeen
The enactment of constitutional amendments in rapid succession could mean either the constitution is woefully incomplete or politicians are manipulating it to achieve personal or political agendas. In a society like the United States, amendments add strength to democracy and shut loopholes for the abuse of power. But in Sri Lanka, the history of constitutional amendments reeks of political skullduggery and deception.
Of the 19 amendments made to the 1978 Constitution so far, eight, including the Second Amendment or the infamous Rajadurai Amendment and the preposterous democracy killer — the 18th Amendment — could be straightaway identified as being politically motivated ones. With the exception of the 17th Amendment and one or two others, the rest fall into a murky area where political agendas mix with national security and judicial or administrative reforms. Such is our march towards greater democracy.
Against this backdrop, victory celebrations in civil society circles over the passing of the 19th Amendment may not be totally out of tune, although what was passed is a watered down version of the original draft, which included several progressive clauses that could have been a good first step towards making Sri Lanka a truly working democracy. But, alas, whatever the justifications the opposition alliance – ironically led by President Maithripala Siriseana, one of the prime movers of 19A – put forward in defence of its demand to dilute certain progressive provisions, the undercurrent indicates destructive motives.
It is high time democracy promotion took centre stage in Sri Lanka’s politics. Our politicians should understand that what prevents them from being statesmen or stateswomen is their lack of commitment to rise above self-centred motives and work for the promotion of democracy which in turn ensures welfare of the people and accountability.
Although the highly devalued 19A was passed overwhelmingly, the debate and the drama behind it show that the urgent need for a quality constitution with a system of checks and balances is lost on the members of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party-led United People’s Freedom Alliance. On the one hand, on the basis of strengthening the authority of parliament, they tried to justify their opposition to the proposed civil-society-dominated Constitutional Council. On the other hand, they opposed the provision that requires the President to act on the advice of the Prime Minister in the appointment of members of the Cabinet though this provision strengthens the supremacy of parliament. But the opposition claimed that it undermined the people’s mandate given to an elected President.
Lacking clarity, the UPFA’s position lacked nobility or virtue. On the contrary, it pointed to a lack of commitment on its part to bring about checks and balances to prevent a democratically elected president from turning into a dictator. The 19th Amendment in spirit seeks to reset the separation of power doctrine in Sri Lanka’s constitution after it was distorted beyond recognition by Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 18A and other legislation that led to the concentration of power in the Executive branch of government.
What makes the United States Constitution stand out as the most enlightened document is the commitment of the founding fathers and latter day legislators to introduce, uphold and sustain a proper system of checks and balances to avoid any of the three branches of government becoming a law unto itself. And to date, perhaps with the exception of the George W. Bush presidency — during which the draconian Patriot Act, which eats into the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the people, was introduced — US presidents and lawmakers have been jealously guarding the separation of powers doctrine first promoted as a constitutional theory by French philosopher Baron de Montesquieu.
James Madison, one of the founding fathers of the US, was a strong advocate of Montesquieu’s doctrine. During the drafting stage of the constitution, he declared: “The accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judicial, in the same hands, whether of one, a few, or many, and whether hereditary, self-appointed, or elective, may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”
The founding fathers of the United States believed that the Government was a trust and that the accumulation of power by a single person or body of government was the greatest threat to liberty. One hopes those UPFA parliamentarians who raised their hands for the ‘dictator-making’ 18A and last Tuesday took away the checks and balances from 19A, would take a lesson from US history by taking another look at their political science or constitutional law notes or reading a book or two or browsing the net.
Surely, as long serving lawmakers, some of those virulent opponents of 19A should know that modern constitutions embody the separation of powers doctrine – though not in the strictest sense — and the more checks and balances there are, the stronger the democracy will be.
Should not the President, who condemned, in the strongest possible terms, those who scuttled his efforts to introduce a national medicinal drugs policy and anti-tobacco laws, also condemn, in a similar manner, those who diluted 19A and squandered a golden opportunity to strengthen democracy in Sri Lanka?
In a democracy, amendments to the constitution are made or new constitutions introduced when constitutional inadequacies lead to a deadlock or abuse of power. The 1978 Constitution brought in the provision for referenda and made fundamental rights justiciable because the 1972 Constitution was lacking such key features and the 1970-77 regime had arbitrarily extended the life of parliament. Similarly, 17A was introduced because despite constitutional guarantees, the independence of the public service, the judiciary, the police and the elections commissioner, had been compromised or undermined. The 19th Amendment was also a product of this rectification process.
In other words, the constitution making process or law making process is one of learning from mistakes. With the focus now being shifted to the 20th Amendment or electoral reforms, we hope our legislators will learn lessons from the past mistakes and act with responsibility to uphold inclusive democracy. If the 20th Amendment turns out to be disadvantageous to small and minority parties, the legislators will only be dragging the country towards a civil war. The JVP insurrections in 1971 and 1988-90 and the 30-year Tamil separatist war were the outcome of the then governments’ short-sighted policies that failed to make democracy inclusive – or failed to give every segment of society a say in the policy making or in the nation building process.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Racism in US: How many more Baltimores?

By Ameen Izzadeen
More whites die in police custody than blacks in the United States. According to data gathered by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, at least 4,813 people died while in police custody between 2003 and 2009 and 61 percent of those deaths were homicides. Of the victims, 42 percent were whites, 32 per cent blacks and 20 percent Hispanics. (Pardon me for using politically and morally incorrect terms – blacks, whites, etc.)
Yet, when an Afro-American (the politically and morally correct term) dies in police custody, it becomes news. Of late, such deaths have been triggering protests by blacks and civil rights activists indicating that there is much more to be done in the long march to freedom and equality in the United States, touted as the land of freedom and opportunity.
Freddie Gray will not be the last Afro-American to die in police custody. And his death last week after he was arrested by the police in Baltimore, Maryland — 68 km from Washington DC –raises the question: How many Afro-Americans will have to die before the United States — as Martin Luther King Jr. hoped in his ‘I have a dream’ speech — rises up and lives out the true meaning of its creed: “All men are created equal.”
In the past 12 months, a number of Afro-American men and boys have been killed by the police and white supremacists across the United States, sparking protests and sometimes riots. Among the victims was a 12-year-old boy who was carrying a toy gun. In almost all these cases, the police have used excessive force and in most cases, a grand jury has acquitted the officer responsible for the deaths. Exactly 23 years ago this month, race riots erupted in Los Angeles after the acquittal of four police officers who mercilessly beat Rodney King, an Afro-American, even though video evidence showed that the policemen had used excessive force. Some 53 people died in the weeklong riots that began on April 29, 1992.
Although the government cannot be held responsible for the actions of a few ‘white’ (or Euro-American) policemen, the riots point to the failure of successive US governments to adequately and meaningfully address the race issue.
This week’s eruption of mass anger in Baltimore, where 2,000 National Guard troops have been deployed to bring the situation under control, indicates that the blacks in the United States have to walk a long distance to reach King’s ideal state.
But race-based prejudices – like old habits — die hard. This is all the more reason why governments should step up efforts to eliminate all forms of discrimination.
Multi-ethnic Singapore, for example, has adopted meritocracy and ethnic harmony as key state principles to create an equal society.
True, the United States has an Afro-American president and many top government posts are held by Afro-Americans. Yet it can take a lesson from Singapore if it is keen to avoid being called a cauldron of social discontent or a country that needs to do much more to eliminate institutional racism which is defined by sociologists as racism perpetrated by government entities such as schools, the courts and police.
Last year, following protests over the acquittal of the police officers responsible for the deaths of Afro-Americans in Ferguson and New York, a visibly agitated President Barack Obama said that more should be done to make all Americans feel that they were equal before the law. “When anybody in this country is not being treated equally under the law, that is a problem, and it’s my job as president to help solve it,” he said.
In another remark, the United States’ first Afro-American President said, “…. there are issues in which the law too often feels as if it is being applied in a discriminatory fashion.”
On Tuesday, as Freddie Gray was being buried in Baltimore, Obama said: “I think there are police departments that have to do some soul searching. I think there’re some communities that have to do some soul searching. But I think we as a country have to do some soul searching. This is not new. It’s been going on for decades.”
Though he reminded the Americans once again that they have more work to do to bridge the racial divide and carry on the civil rights struggle of Martin Luther King Jr, he announced no new initiative.
In the absence of a well-focused programme to bring about social equality, the cries of protesters are not empty slogans. Neither are the riots a futile exercise. None other than the United Nations body dealing with racism has slammed the US for persistent racial and ethnic discrimination and failure to meet its treaty obligations under a key convention that seeks to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.
The United Nations Committee on the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (CERD) in a report last year, said minority communities in the US were disproportionately disadvantaged in all areas of life, including education, criminal justice, voting, housing and access to health care.
One CERD investigator noted that despite several decades of affirmative action, race-based segregation in US schools was worse today than it was in the 1970s.
Lauren Carasik, a clinical professor of law and the director of the international human rights clinic at the Western New England University School of Law, in an article to Aljazeera America, says African-American children are deeply disadvantaged in accessing educational opportunities. Minority students are not provided with equal facilities, many attend single-race classrooms, and their limited access to rigorous curriculums contributes to disparate levels of academic achievement and access to jobs.
The CERD report was a serious indictment of the Obama administration. When Obama won the 2008 presidential election, many thought there would be no more racism in the land where slavery — which is regarded as a crime against humanity today — was once an institutionalised reality, with people stolen from Africa and brought to America being stripped of their humanity and dignity and forced to work like dogs in the white man’s plantations and mansions.
Obama was not merely the 44th President of the United States. When he was first elected in 2008, he symbolised black empowerment. He was the hope of those who were hoping for a world without racism. He cannot just dismiss the Baltimore riots as the work of criminals and thugs. He must recognize that the riots are the product of institutional, social injustice and come up with a plan to bring about an equal society. Then he will go down in history as another Abraham Lincoln, the US president who first abolished slavery.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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