If politicians are faithful to promises, Lanka can grow in stature

By Ameen Izzadeen
In the afterglow of the 1969 moon landing, a political analyst quipped that if politicians had been like Pinocchio, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin would have been disappointed to note that before they set foot on the moon, the noses of most of the earth’s politicians had already reached the surface of the moon. Today we may have to say that the points of their ever lengthening noses would be touching our galaxy’s black hole, some 27,000 light years away.
Their lies which come to us largely in the form of promises from political platforms have a gravity that makes super gravities of black holes look insignificant. Gullible voters often fall into their promise traps headlong.
Until and unless we come up with a system of accountability and holding politicians legally responsible for the promises they give to the sovereign people during election times, the unscrupulous will continue to promise the sun and the moon and paint a picture of a paradise under their governments in our minds.
The politically more mature voter knows from the word go that what comes out of boneless tongues of politicians is not to be taken seriously. However, in Sri Lanka, which boasts of a 90 plus literacy rate, many voters are still gullible. They get carried away by promises politicians make. Until they ask themselves whether the country has enough wealth to implement these promises, they will remain politically illiterate and will be culpable in the crime of electing a dishonest politician, a kleptocrat or a dictator.
In this regard, Singapore’s illustrious leader Lee Kuan Yew’s remarks about Sri Lanka’s elections still ring true. He said Sri Lanka’s elections were an auction of nonexistent resources.
One wonders whether our promise-peddling candidates have ever heard of the term fiscal deficit. With great difficulty and some luck, our finance ministry mandarins may work out a balance-of-payment surplus, but since Independence, they have been beset with the crisis of budget deficit, except in two years in the 1950s.
In coping with economic crises, most countries often come under pressure from lending agencies to bring the fiscal deficit within a reasonable limit. Sri Lanka’s present government has set a 4.4% fiscal deficit target as a condition to obtain the US$ 1.5 billion International Monetary Fund assistance. But it could be as much as 5.4% or more for the current year. Besides, we are a debtor nation, borrowing on a regular basis to repay our growing foreign loans. By the end of last year, the country’s public debt had reached a record 90 percent of our GDP with the external debt amounting to US$ 55,469.49 million. With the country struggling to cope with the debt crisis, political promises, if implemented, will see the budget deficit soaring to record levels, while the economy will be hurtling towards self-destruction. No wonder, economists are aghast at the unrealisable promises the politicians dish out with much ease. However, for the economists, the consoling factor is that politicians, once elected, seldom implement these promises.
But can we let such politicians go free as so many political racketeers have been gone unpunished in recent years? Is it not a breach of trust, if politicians, upon being elected, bin their promises with which they dupe the sovereign people?
In some advanced democracies, public enthusiasm to hold politicians accountable for promises they make is high. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg was once jolted by a question a city resident asked him. Bloomberg was confronted by a civic conscious citizen — Anthony Santa Maria — at a subway station during his 2001 campaign to become New York’s mayor. Santa Maria scoffed at the promises politicians make. But the criticism did not make Bloomberg angry. Instead, it inspired him to release an annual status report on his 381 campaign promises. When he completed his first term as mayor in 2005, his annual report said 87 percent of the promises had been fulfilled. His final Campaign Accountability Report released in 2013 at the end of his third term showed he had implemented 89 percent of the 611 combined promises made during the three campaigns. Bouquets to Mr. Bloomberg!
Sri Lanka’s governments may not have an impressive record card like that of Bloomberg. But we cannot dismiss their record as zero. The present government, for instance, had the political will to fulfil its campaign promise regarding democracy promotion. It enacted the 19th Amendment, the Right to Information Act and the National Audit Act, among others. Besides, it took steps to restore judicial independence, eliminate the fear psychosis and empower the people to fearlessly confront the government. As promised, it also increased the public sector salaries. On the minus side, it failed to fulfil the promise of bringing to justice those involved in corruption during the previous regime and its promise to bring the Volkswagen company to Sri Lanka to set up as assembly plant. Megapolis development with monorails, logistic cities and education hubs is another unfulfilled of underfulfilled promise.
The previous government also fulfilled a few of its promises. It supplied fertilizer at the highly subsidized price of Rs. 350 a 50kg bag and took steps to implement some of the proposals stated in candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa’s election manifesto – the Mahinda Chinthanaya, which, however, did not have to promise the voters a rose garden to win the election. This is because its popularity had reached the sky for giving political leadership to the military campaign that ended the 30-year separatist war.
With our politicians unlikely to emulate Bloomberg, we have no idea as to what percentage of the promises the two governments fulfilled. This is why civil society must step in to hold our politicians accountable for their election promises.
Promise tracking is not a major task in this digital era. In some countries, civil society groups have worked out an app to monitor the progress in the implementation of the promises. Or civil society can pressurise the next government to pass legislation to set up a commission, before which every party contesting a presidential, parliamentary or provincial election must appear to present its promises and explain how it will find the money to implement the promises without widening the budget deficit beyond a set limit defined by a parliamentary Act. Candidates and parties should be allowed to include their promises in their manifestos only after approval is obtained from the legally constituted commission consisting of top economists. This is real good governance. This way, we can save our country from ruin.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Participatory democracy: People’s power vital for Sri Lanka

By Ameen Izzadeen
In recent days and months, Hong Kong, Iraq, Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Lebanon and several other countries have seen mass-scale public protests. Though the reasons that drew the people to the streets vary, a common thread or a powerful message binds them together. Rulers, be mindful. Do not underestimate the people’s power or take their docility for granted. Beware! Their collective force has brought down tyrannical monarchies and dictatorships.
People power protests erupt when a government betrays the trust the people have placed on it or those in power insulate themselves with elitism and become a law unto themselves. In 1789, what triggered the French Revolution was the continued oppression of the people, while the social inequality between the elite and the ordinary people widened. The revolution took place when Europe was politically awakening and the people were becoming literate enough to understand that the government was a social contract. The French people realised they were denied their voice in the affairs of the government.
Early French monarchs were not tyrants. Sharing power with the Catholic Church, kings like Henry the IV had the country’s interest at heart. But with time, monarchs became obsessed with power and their grandiose status. Louis the XIV disregarded the Church and ruled as an absolute monarch. Arrogant with power, he sought more power, little realising that the more arrogant he became with power, the more he distanced himself from his subjects.
During the reign of King Louis XVI, the empowerment of the people reached a peak while the Enlightenment movement contributed to the greater public awareness about politics and power. People began to realise that they owe no obeisance to an oppressive monarch, if he betrayed the social contract. So, on July 14, 1789, they stormed the Bastille and began the French revolution, which 230 years later still inspires revolutions and people’s power agitations around the world.
Rulers who become drunk with power lose their moral fibre and begin to believe that they can fool all the people all the time or oppress all the people all the time. A key aspect of power politics is that those who possess power often display their power by resorting to lavish spending. In poor and middle income countries, rulers resort to foreign loans to launch ego-boosting grandiose projects. As a result, the people are burdened with more taxes, while the rulers dwell in corruption.
Each time an oppressive ruler uses excessive power to subdue the people, a counter force to resist is the natural outcome in the people. However, they keep this emotion suppressed, until their tolerance level reaches a critical point and explodes as a people’s power force. That is the time for the rulers to run away from the country. In 1979, it happened in Iran; it happened in Eastern Europe in 1989. In recent years, it happened in Tunisia and Egypt during the Arab Spring.
But the danger here is that there are big power vultures who wait in ambush to hijack the people’s power movements to bring about a regime change of their choice. A bitter example is Egypt’s counter-revolution that undermined democracy and enabled a military strongman to recapture power. The United States and regional powers Saudi Arabia and Israel played key roles behind-the-scenes to overthrow the democratically elected Mohammed Morsi regime.
Against this backdrop, China’s accusation that the West is instigating the ongoing daily people’s power demonstrations in Hong Kong is not without substance. The people took to the streets to protest against a controversial extradition bill which violated the Basic Document that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy under a one-country-two-systems political structure. That the demonstrations continue even after the suspension of the bill may give credence to China’s allegations that behind the riots are foreign powers which want to destabilise China. But China will be committing a big mistake if it ignores the fact that the driving force of the people power explosion is the people’s unflinching determination to protect their freedom.
In Lebanon, too, the people’s resistance against corrupt politicians reached a bursting point last week. The dislike for corrupt politicians has united the people to discard their sectarian identities and rise up as civic-conscious Lebanese to give in unison marching orders to the president, the prime minister and all lawmakers, for they are all part of a corrupt system. What began as a youth protest against social media tax has now turned into a force against the corrupt oligarchy. The protest goes on, while government leaders still hang on to their posts, offering concessions including a move to effect a 50 percent pay cut for ministers.
In Sri Lanka, which has seen two insurrections and a separatist campaign arising from social injustices and the politicians’ failure to address youth grievances and minority aspirations, a mass people’s power protest divorced of party politics is yet to happen. It does not mean Sri Lankans do not have issues that make them unite across the party lines. There were many, but they were largely at local levels. For instance, in 2013 in Ratupaswela, the people protested demanding clean water after their groundwater sources were contaminated by the effluent of a rubber glove factory. A youth was shot dead when soldiers sent in to control the agitation opened fire.
The closest to a countrywide public protest Sri Lanka had witnessed was the 1953 hartal when the left parties organised a mass civil disobedience campaign against the then United National Party government over its budget proposals to remove subsidies on rice and other welfare measures. Then in November last year, tens of thousands of people gathered in Colombo to safeguard democracy and denounce the President’s unconstitutional removal of the prime minister, although the premier commanded a majority in Parliament. But these protests lose their shine and cannot come even distantly close to the French revolution, however significant they were, due to the involvement of political parties with agendas.
This is probably a scourge of Sri Lanka where even the labour movement has been politicised beyond recognition to promote party interests instead of the workers’ interest. Even the Government Medical Officers’ Association remains highly poltiicised. This week, a photograph widely circulated on social media shows GMOA officials with presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The picture is drawing a flood of adverse comments, questioning whether politics was behind the GMOA’s many strikes that dragged hundreds of thousands of patients to the threshold of deaths. It is high time, public-spirited researchers carried out a study to evaluate the human cost of the GMOA strikes.
Talking of doctors and health care, people’s power agitations, which derive their legitimacy from the hallowed concept of people’s sovereignty, should only surface in the right dose. An overdose will certainly lead to anarchy.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Progress not possible till we crack down on corruption

By Ameen Izzadeen
Many of us have heard the story about a Sri Lankan minister meeting his counterpart from a developed nation. For the benefit of first time voters, the story is retold here. Once, a Sri Lankan minister visited a developed country. During a conversation, his counterpart admitted there was corruption in his country, too. He pointed at a nearby highway and said, “ten percent”– meaning he had pocketed ten percent of the project cost. After some time, the developed nation’s minister visited Sri Lanka and again, during a private conversation, the topic turned to corruption. To prove he is a bigger crook than his guest, the Sri Lankan minister opened the window of his office and pointed at the empty space and said, “One hundred percent” — meaning he had gobbled up the entire project cost.
Emphasising the pandemic proportion of corruption in Sri Lankan society, the latest twist to the story is that the Sri Lankan minister has told his visitor that he pocketed 200 percent. Based on this fictional story, a simple equation P=D+C can be worked out. In this equation P is politics, D is Development and C is corruption. As it is, the equation reads politics equals development plus corruption. The equation can also be expressed in this manner: P-D=C – meaning politics minus development is corruption. However, the best expression of this equation is P-C=D – i.e. politics without corruption is development.
At every election, eliminating corruption, the public enemy number one, is one of the topmost topics most candidates wax eloquent about, only to push the issue to the back burner the moment the winner is declared.
The previous government was kicked out of office largely because the unprecedented level of corruption it is alleged to have indulged in. The present government came to office on a pledge that it would take legal action against corrupt politicians and officials of the previous regime. Apart from the case where the former presidential secretary and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission chief were found guilty of misusing public funds to distribute Sil cloth among Buddhist women, none of the high profile cases has passed muster with the judiciary. That some of the high profile cases have been dismissed raises a question whether deliberate holes were made in the prosecution brief to let the suspects go scot free. With high profile cases being dismissed or postponed regularly, the whole process appears to be a charade. This has even led to the erosion of public confidence in the judiciary. The people wonder whether there are deals within deals between ruling party and opposition politicians to protect each other.
Besides its pathetic record in bringing the corrupt to justice, the present government itself faced serious corruption allegations surrounding the Central Bank Treasury Bond issue. Even the President’s Office came under a cloud after its chief of staff was caught allegedly accepting a bribe of Rs. 20 million from an Indian investor.
The supposed to be independent Commission to investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) receives complaints against politicians on regular basis. But it cuts a sorry figure when it comes to prosecution of these cases.
What’s worse? The CIABOC’s one time Director General who was later transferred back to the Attorney General’s Department and promoted as Deputy Solicitor General, was heard saying in a leaked conversation with a suspect in a high profile case, “I can make the law and break the law”.
In 2016, President Maithripala Sirisena attended the world anti-corruption summit in London and boasted about the measures he had taken to probe corruption and punish the culprits. As he ends his presidential term next month, his speech appears to be empty words, while those accused of corruption walk tall as though they are holy cows.
In addition to the CIABOC, the present government set up an anti-corruption secretariat, a Financial Crimes Investigation Division and a special high court. However, these mechanisms appear to be inadequate and the public trust in these institutions is fast eroding in the absence of successful convictions. Unless this trend is reversed, we cannot even afford to dream of emerging as a developed nation. The US Federal Reserve’s former chairman, Paul Volcker, says a weak rule of law is closely related to stunted economic growth.
It is not possible to quantify the money lost due to corruption, but a London Chatham House study published in 2017 says that in Nigeria since Independence in 1960, the country’s politicians and officials had stolen more than US$ 582 billion from public coffers. No wonder Nigeria is still a poor country despite its vast oil wealth.
At global level, the United Nations in recent years has redoubled efforts to eliminate corruption as part of its Global Compact that emerged from the Davos Economic Forum in 2003. The Partnering Against Corruption Initiative is another programme of the Davos Forum.
These programmes look good on paper, but in reality most multinationals and big businesses thrive in corruption, especially in third world countries. Last year, a New York Times article claimed that more than 7.3 million dollars had been paid by China Harbor Construction Company which is building the Colombo Port City to the 2015 political campaign of a main party. Another Chinese company, Colombo International Container Terminals Limited (CICT), admitted that it donated nearly 20 million rupees to a “foundation” of a powerful former minister’s wife as part of its “corporate social responsibility.”
In April this year, the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which built the mega stadiums for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, was accused of funding election campaigns and paying bribes to politicians in more than half of the countries in Latin America, as well as in Angola and Mozambique in Africa to secure lucrative construction contracts.
In 2016, the Panama papers saga highlighted how politicians and businessmen used tax havens and shell companies to hide their wealth. The exposé underlined that domestic arrangements alone won’t end corruption however tough the laws are, because kleptocrats with their money and muscle power know how to tackle the judiciary.
To combat corruption, some countries have proposed the setting up of an international anti-corruption court in terms of the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), so that big time corrupt officials can be hauled before this court when local courts fail.
Unlike Sri Lanka, some countries take the anti-corruption battle seriously. In South Korea, prisons are filled with a large number of politicians, corrupt officials and business leaders. Among them was an ex-President.
In April last year, a South Korean court sentenced former President Park Geun-hye to 24 years in jail after she was found guilty of abuse of power and corruption. In Brazil last year, socialist President Lula de Silva was sentenced to a 12-year jail term and another 13 years in April this year after he was convicted of corruption.
But in Sri Lanka where politicians control the system that is in place to ensure public funds are spent with accountability, the long arm of the law remains paralysed. Their weakness indirectly encourages corruption and they become a major impediment to the country’s growth.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Elections and media: Hi-tech hijacking of the people’s sovereignty

By Ameen Izzadeen
If any election does not reflect the will of the people, it is a sham. Whoever tries to distort the will of sovereign people is committing an act of treason. Identifying the rogues before they commit the act of treason is a national call of the highest order.
In the past, the culprit was the area thug, who, in collusion with the area politician, forcibly collected polling cards of the people and sent impostors to the polling booth to vote for the politician over and again.
But today, in this digital era, election fraud is a highly sophisticated affair. Election officials and monitors worldwide are at a loss for a solution. If large scale fraud could mar the 2016 presidential election in the United States and the 2016 Brexit referendum, how safe can the developing nations’ elections be? Who can forget the term ‘computer jilmart’ in the Sri Lankan context?
At the centre of this great robbery of the people’s will are billion dollar Big Tech companies. One such company was the now disgraced Cambridge Analytica. The Britain-based company was accused of distorting the people’s will during the 2016 US elections and the Brexit referendum. Its underhand role was also suspected in elections in India, Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic and several other countries.
Donald Trump’s victory was the biggest shock in US election history. Perhaps, he would not have breasted the tape, if not for the involvement of Cambridge Analytica, whose vice president was US media baron Steve Bannon, who later became the Trump White House Chief Strategist.
Cambridge Analytica’s boss Alexander Nix once bragged that they were able to use the data in the company’s possession and identify that there were large numbers of persuadable voters who could be influenced to vote for Trump. He displayed no remorse that his company was hijacking democracy while remaining in a dark alley of the digital world.
How did the company manipulate the people’s will?
For the US election campaign, it is alleged that Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data from up to 87 million Facebook profiles – including status updates, likes and even private messages. It then misused its data harvest to micro-target swing voters. Data harvesting companies are the online version of the Orwellion big brother. They secretly record whatever we do online. When we pay our utility bills online, book a movie ticket online, or visit a particular website regularly, our activity becomes data for Google, Facebook and other big players lurking behind the screen. Using psychographic analytics, the data harvesters then categorise us into various target groups.
“Hillary Clinton is a danger to US National Security” was one of the pop-up advertisements which Cambridge Analytica strategically used to influence unsuspecting swing voters to vote for Trump. Usually, political ad makers, in their attempt at behavioural manipulation, resort to fear mongering. During the Brexit campaign ahead of the referendum, this was the tactic Cambridge Analytica adopted to ensure the victory of its client — the ultranationalist United Kingdom Independent Party (UKIP) which wanted Britain out of the European Union.
It goes without saying that any surveillance is a violation of our right to privacy. Besides, using unscrupulous means to influence our voting decision is a criminal violation of our political rights.
What’s more? There is always the danger of foreign countries interfering in the election process of a target nation. A big power can hire the services of a company like Cambridge Analytica to get its preferred candidate elected in any target country. By hiring hackers, it is alleged that Russia successfully influenced the outcome of 2016 US presidential election.
To combat this violation of the people’s sovereign right, US Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein is introducing a Voter Privacy Bill. It seeks to empower voters with new authority over how their data are collected and used by political campaigns. If approved, campaigns would be required to notify the voters that they have obtained their data through a data broker. This will allow voters to protect their data. Voters would also be able to ask platforms like Facebook and Google to stop sharing their data with these campaigns.
Given the magnitude of the problem and the meagre resources, how much can Sri Lanka’s National Election Commission do in combating international interference and fake news campaigns?
We can only find solace in the fact that the NEC is a much independent institution today after the 19th amendment. Before the democracy-promotion amendment was introduced in 2015, the election commissioner was a virtual faint-hearted invertebrate. For instance, in 2010, he could not stop the state television being misused on the day of the presidential election by politicos supporting candidate Mahinda Rajapaksa to spread the fake news that opposition candidate Sarath Fonseka was not a registered voter and therefore the vote cast for him would be considered invalid. This blatant violation of election laws did change the outcome of the election. It is also said the Election Commissioner went missing for some time while votes were being counted. He later admitted that he was under tremendous ‘tension’.
The same election commissioner should have also nullified the 2005 election results after it became clear that the LTTE, by use of threats, had prevented the northern voters from exercising their franchise. He should not have declared the winner because if the northern voters had been allowed to vote freely, the election result would have been different. Usually if the election could not be held in a polling area due to violence or if the polling in the area was nullified due to flagrant malpractices, the commissioner before declaring the winner will say that in his opinion even if every voter in that area had voted against the winner it would not have changed the result and announce the winner. This principle was not used with regard to the LTTE boycott. The United National Party did not challenge the election results in courts, probably knowing the futility of such an exercise at a time when courts were not seen to be independent.
With its independence restored, the NEC is seen to be determined to make the November 16 presidential election free and fair. Under the Constitution’s Article 104B(5)(A), the NEC has issued guidelines to the media, including social media platforms, urging them to provide accurate, balanced and impartial information. It warned that the neutrality of the media would be monitored by special committees appointed for this purpose. But the NEC’s Gazette notification did not spell out details of punitive measures against misbehaving media groups. It remains to be seen how tough the NEC could get with media groups which violate election laws.
In recent months, we saw certain media groups stooping so low to in promoting hate speech. The disdain these media groups had for the code of ethics of the Editors’ Guild of Sri Lanka has rendered the self-regulatory mechanism ineffective.
Certain media groups still think they can make or break governments. If that is so, their attitude is as disgraceful as that of Cambridge Analytica. No media outlet should think it can be the kingmaker. The kingmakers are the people who exercise their democratic duty on election day.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Britain’s Supreme Court gives vital lesson to Lanka

By Ameen Izzadeen
When the United Kingdom’s Supreme Court in a landmark ruling held that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s advice to the queen to prorogue parliament was unconstitutional, the air was similar to what prevailed in Sri Lanka in December last year, when the country’s highest court rescued parliament from the tyranny of the executive.
In Britain, the Supreme Court was a recent concept. It was set up only in 2009 consequent to a judicial reforms process started in 2003 primarily aimed at strengthening the concept of the separation of powers, especially with regard to the Lord Chancellor, whose office was seen as a fusion of governmental powers. He was a member of both the Cabinet (executive) and the House of Lords (legislature) and was the head of the judiciary. This was done away with the establishment of the Supreme Court in terms of the Constitutional Reform Act 2005. The reforms underline the evolution of Britain’s democratic tradition and a desire to vest in the judiciary as much independence as possible, unlike in Sri Lanka where judicial independence has faced its ups and downs.
Delivering the highest court’s unanimous ruling, Britain’s first female Supreme Court President, Lady Hale, displayed her steely determination to convey that governance is not for politicians to manipulate to suit their party or personal agendas. Though the court did not say in so many words, it saw Prime Minister Johnson’s prorogation as a move to prevent parliament from discussing his Brexit plan ahead of the October 31 deadline or a dishonest move to give effect to his no-deal Brexit. When she said the “decision to advise Her Majesty to prorogue Parliament was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating the ability of Parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification,” she was expressing the court’s belief that parliament has a hallowed duty to debate, discuss and determine all matters on behalf of the people. The ruling upheld the spirit of democracy in what is seen as the zenith of judicial activism.
However mighty you are, you are not above the law. That’s the beauty of democracy; that is independence of the judiciary. Johnson would have had the ruling his way, if the court had gone by the letter of the law, but, instead, the court chose to see the spirit of the law.
The law is not an ass, but the politicians who find loopholes to achieve their crooked motives are.
Now let’s turn to Sri Lanka. How many times has parliament been prorogued for devious political reasons? The last time it was prorogued it was to prevent the presentation of the COPE report on the bond scam. Oh, we wish we had a Lady Hale in Sri Lanka.
Judicial independence is a key pillar of democracy. In Sri Lanka, this hallowed principle remains largely suppressed or vulnerable to intimidation and political interference.
The high point in Sri Lanka’s judicial independence was seen last year when Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court and the Court of Appeal issued several rulings, underscoring the importance of constitutional governance and bringing an arrogant executive branch to its senses.
The superior court rulings restored the people’s confidence in the judiciary. Lower courts began to reflect judicial courage and activism. There was relief that everything was still not lost in this country. Some institutions still can make a difference. When in December last year, the Supreme Court ruling proclaimed that the President had violated the constitution, it was the moment we felt that the judiciary was not dead. We the people, at least the civic minded among us, not the sycophants paying feudal obeisance to politicians, were elated as though we had found a long lost close relative after having lost hopes of finding him alive.
The elation was not without a reason.
Since Sri Lanka adopted the 1972 constitution, the erosion of the independence of the judiciary has been a major concern among civic-minded civilians, especially in views of the high-handed actions of politicians in power to undermine the Separation of Powers concept and give more weight to the executive branch of the government.
With the adoption of the 1972 constitution, the separation of powers concept in its conventional sense was abandoned. The National State Assembly became a point of convergence for all three arms of the government in the name of — or under the guise of — parliamentary supremacy. The judicial power was not vested in courts while the power of judicial review of enacted legislation was taken away from the courts, although a constitutional court came into being to determine the constitutionality of the bills. The judicial Service Commission was replaced with an advisory board.
The 1977 United National Party government with its steamroller five sixth majority in parliament introduced the presidential form of government through the 1978 constitution. It rectified to some extent serious shortcomings in the 1972 constitution, but it left room for the executive’s interference in the judiciary, especially through the constitutional provision that made the President the appointing authority of judges to the high courts and above. Worse still, upon the adoption of the constitution, the new government sacked some Supreme Court judges and demoted some.
Until the 17th Amendment was incorporated into the constitution in October 2001, with bipartisan support, during the Chandrika Kumaratunga government, the judiciary remained vulnerable to the executive’s political demands. Notwithstanding the accolades, Kumaratunga came under a cloud for appointing politically slanted judges to the high posts of the judiciary. In an interview she later admitted the appointment of one particular chief justice was one of the two big blunders she made during her presidency. However, the 17th Amendment — the rare piece of good governance legislation — was upended by the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime’s 18th Amendment, which severely undermined the separation of powers concept. So much so, a Chief Justice who gave rulings unpalatable to the then government was unceremoniously impeached in a process that resembled a mafia court. It had been politics as usual for the judiciary since then. The judiciary stooped so low that a chief justice reportedly told the government just elected to office in January 2015 that he could be flexible.
Thanks to the corrective measures the present two-headed government took through the enactment of the 19th Amendment, judicial independence, so vital to the idea of separation of powers, has been restored.
Judicial independence means courts and judges have freedom from inappropriate intervention in the judiciary’s affairs. It is important because courts and judges are constitutionally entrusted with the task of safeguarding the people’s rights and freedoms and upholding the rule of law to ensure that the law is enforced impartially and consistently, no matter who is in power, and without undue influence from any other source.
It is election time in Sri Lanka and the question is: Where do we go from here? With the November 16 presidential election set to bring in a new political dispensation, one wonders whether the scales that Lady Justice held evenly last year during the constitutional coup, have begun to tilt. Whoever contests or wins, both politicians and judicial officers must hold judicial independence sacrosanct whatever the circumstances are. Therein lies the future of Sri Lanka as a democratic state. As voters we must insist that the main candidates should spell out their policies with regard to judicial independence. We may be asking too much if we ask them what they have to say about Lady Hale’s ruling.
(This story was first published in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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For children’s sake, let there be peace in Yemen!

By Ameen Izzadeen
Neither Saudi Arabia nor the United States will start a war on Iran following last Saturday’s attack on two Saudi oil installations in Abqaiq and Khurais. The strikes, seen as the most devastating of a series of recent attacks, sent shockwaves across the world oil markets, as they knocked out more than fifty percent of the world’s top exporter’s crude output or five percent of the global oil supply.
If the US and the Saudis could afford to start a war with Iran, they could have done it long ago. If past tense situations were any indication of a behavioural pattern, there is enough reason to believe that this time, too, the developments, however grave they are, will not lead to a war against Iran.
Take for instance the tense situation in June this year. Despite strong predictions that the US would not allow Iran to go unpunished for downing a US spy drone, President Donald Trump chickened out at the last minute and abruptly called off preparations for an attack. Then there were incidents involving oil tankers in recent months. Two tankers came under attack in the Gulf while one was seized by the Iranians weeks after a British warship seized an Iranian tanker. Yet these highly inflammable incidents did not lead to a war with Iran.
The fear of the consequences or worries about their impact on the US interests in the region and the likelihood of world oil prices skyrocketing, bringing in its wake a global economic downturn at a time when US President Donald Trump is facing reelection, probably de-escalated the US war drive.
It should also be recalled that during the US’ standoff with Iran over the Islamic republic’s nuclear power programme, Saudi Arabia and Israel kept prodding the US to launch an attack on Iran. But the US did not attack Iran. President George W Bush and even President Barack Obama would only say that all options were on the table.
In 2001, Iran, together with Iraq and North Korea, was one of the three countries of President Bush’s Axis of Evil. Iraq was attacked and invaded, but not Iran.
This is because, in US assessments, Iran is not like Iraq. Iran has the ability to hit the US and its regional allies where it hurts, although it is only an average military power when compared to the US or even Saudi Arabia which spends US$ 65 billion a year on defence and has signed up to buy US$ 150 billion worth of arms from the US. Iran has, throughout the decades of US and international sanctions, developed strategic weapons capable of dealing a devastating blow to the enemy. Besides, it has built up a powerful network of regional allies. In Iraq, Iran acts as a patron to Shiite paramilitary groups that joined the government’s war against the Islamic State terror group in 2018. Numbering around 150,000 militias, these groups are a virtual arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
In Syria, Iran has established a considerable military presence. In Lebanon, it has its proxy army – the Shiite militant group Hizbollah. In Yemen, it is the Houthis who are seen as Iran’s ally. Besides, in several Gulf states, Iran commands the support of the Shiite populations. In Saudi Arabia itself, the Shiites make up 10-15 percent of the population and they see the Sunni monarch as a persecutor and Iran as their likely liberator.
If war breaks out, Iran can mobilise these support bases to its advantage. Through diplomatic channels, Iran, while denying it carried out the attacks on the Saudi oil sites, has conveyed to the US that any military action against it will be met with an immediate response.
The US knows well the capabilities of Iran. Some 30,000 US troops are stationed in the Gulf region, 5,000 in Iraq and another 14,000 in Afghanistan. They all sit within the striking distance of Iran’s military.
This is why, even after Saudi Arabia displayed remnants of drones and missiles to back its claim that the attack was “unquestionably sponsored” by Iran, Trump said he was looking for options short of war.
On Wednesday, Trump tweeted he had ordered the US Treasury to “substantially increase sanctions” on Iran.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, rushed to Saudi Arabia where he described the attacks as “an act of war” on the kingdom.
Meanwhile, some analysts believe that Iran is being blamed because the US defence shield the Saudis have bought and installed had failed to detect and destroy the Houthi drones and missiles. So the arms suppliers to save their skin now say the missile came from the eastern direction indicating Iran or Iranian backed groups in Iraq — and not from Yemen in the south.
However, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have claimed responsibility for the attack, which if taken positively sends a powerful peace message that it is time to start talks on ending the war.
The international community needs to step in to make peace, instead of being a spectator in a bloody war that kills daily scores of children in Yemen, if not by Saudi bombs, but by starvation or diseases such as cholera. According to a 2018 Save the Children report, an estimated 85,000 children under the age of five had starved to death in the first three years of Yemen’s civil war.
But the world community’s indifference is appalling, even after the United Nations has described the situation in Yemen as the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War.
Instead of compelling the parties to the conflict to come to the negotiating table and defuse the worsening crisis, the US, Britain and France sold Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates weapons which were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Yemeni children. A recent UN report warned that these western powers might be complicit in war crimes.
On Tuesday, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told the media in Ankara where he met Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin: “The people of Yemen are forced to respond to all the violations and the flood of weapons from the US and Europe toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE.”
The Houthis are willing to talk peace. They did not start the war. The war, which is into its fourth year, was made in Saudi Arabia, the Saudis did not want to see on their southern border an Iran-friendly Houthi-dominated state. The war is another human rights violation baggage Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Muhammad bin Salman, carries in his person, in addition to the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Saudi Arabia, it is learnt, has requested the Trump administration to facilitate talks with the Houthis. The Yemen war does not have a popular backing in Saudi Arabia or in the Arab world. Peace offers an opportunity for the Saudi crown prince to re-enter the world stage. For the starving and ailing children’s sake, let there be peace in Yemen.

This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka

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Good governance: We need sincere servants of the people

By Ameen Izzadeen

With national security being touted as the most pressing issue in the upcoming presidential election campaign, good governance, an equally important issue, has virtually become a non-issue.
The lack of concern for good governance is unfortunate and raises a question as to whether Sri Lankans are really interested in good governance and if so what percentage of the population is concerned about it.
At the last presidential election five years ago, in areas outside the north and east, a majority of the people voted for Mahinda Rajapaksa, despite his regime’s poor good governance record. So, good governance was not the concern of some 47.58 percent of voters. In contrast, in the north and east where the minority combination of Tamil and Muslim communities makes a majority, most people voted against Rajapaksa because they perceived his regime as anti-minorities. Good governance was not their main concern. Their votes – more than 25 percent of the total vote — gave the joint opposition candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, a head start over Rajapaksa. With Muslim and Tamil votes in his bag, Sirisena wanted only about 25 percent of the Sinhala vote. This he managed to get from the hardcore UNP Sinhalese and also from the educated Sinhala swing voters who wanted to see good governance in politics.
This basic psephological analysis indicates that only a small percentage of the total voters voted for good governance or yahapalanaya at the 2015 election, but their votes enabled Sirisena to fill the shortfall and win the poll. However, the good governance slogan stuck with the Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe administration in the early days of their coalition government. Later, the slogan became the butt of political jokes. Mekada Yahapalanaya? Iduwa Nallatchi? Is this good governance? People began to question as the government failed to fulfil most of its promises and itself faced corruption allegations, the main among them being the central bank bond scam.
Corruption allegations apart, to be fair by Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s administration, one must admit that it has, to a great degree, strengthened democratic institutions by adopting the 19th Amendment and ensured, to a great extent, the independence of the judiciary. The Right to Information Act is one of its few good governance feats. On media freedom, it gave an overdose of it; so much so certain media groups and journalists began publishing fake news with impunity and twisting and turning news to suit their political agendas. Also, even the present government’s harshest critics admit that no person has been abducted or has gone missing for speaking out against the government.
To assess a government’s good governance record, we need to understand what good governance actually is. Good governance has become a catchy phrase in political discourses and development literature around the world. The United Nations has become its chief proponent, while the European Union, the Commonwealth and other multilateral world bodies have made it a priority issue and a vital condition in dispensing development aid.
According to a UN document, good governance has eight major characteristics. It is participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive and follows the rule of law. It assures that corruption is minimised, the views of minorities are taken into account and that the voices of the most vulnerable in society are heard in decision-making.
In other words, good governance is about democracy, human rights, accountability, transparency, law and order and the independence of the judiciary.
Although the Wickremesinghe administration may have fallen short in many of these good governance aspects, the little it has brought about can become a foundation for us to reach the peak of good governance. This can be achieved only if the next president is committed to good governance. Even national security, which we have made a priority presidential campaign issue, can be assured better in a good governance setup than in a strongman setup.
On good governance, certainly the present government’s score is much higher than that of the previous government.
However, it is a matter of great concern that of late, especially since the April 21 terror attacks, whatever little good governance we had has taken a beating with regard to the implementation of the rule of law. Good governance requires fair legal frameworks that are enforced impartially. When laws are selectively applied and the police act with partiality, there is no good governance. A case in point is the misuse of or the selective use of the ICCPR (International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights) Act by the law enforcement authorities.
Good governance, a check against corruption and abuse of power, is not only the responsibility of government and state institutions. People also should become stakeholders of good governance. The media, trade unions and other pressure groups which are part of civil society should also become advocates of good governance, instead of becoming lackeys of a politician or a political party.
Obviously, the opposite of good governance is bad governance symbolised by corruption, money laundering, thuggery, violence, civil strife, injustice, nepotism, absence of democracy, lack of human rights and suppression of minorities. Therefore, as political parties gear up for the presidential election, we the people as responsible members of civil society must extract a pledge from all candidates that they will adhere to good governance principles if they are elected to office as the servants of the people.
Good governance (Yahapalanaya in Sinhala or Nallatchi in Tamil) is not a topic for politicians to laugh about or make a joke of it. Good governance is not a political charade to win votes. The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe alliance is accused of doing this in 2015. The Ven. Sobhitha Thera, who was championing good governance, died a disappointed monk after he felt his vision was being scaled down by the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government. Similarly, during the 1977 general election campaign, the then opposition the United National Party pledged to set up a Dharmishta or just government. But once in office, its governance became anything but Dharmishta. The March 12, 2015 declaration that Sri Lanka’s political leaders signed, giving an undertaking that they would adhere to clean politics, was about good governance and ending corruption. Sadly, only a few remember that they have signed such a document.
Good governance is a serious topic; the candidates should spell out in their manifestos the measures they will take to establish good governance in Sri Lanka’s political culture.

(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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