President moves to rebuild Govt’s image; cracks within UNP widens

= Rajapaksa takes errant ministers to task; but bigger challenge looms in Geneva
= Government's human rights assurances made in 2008 may come under international scrutiny during UPR
= Premadasa accused of sabotaging UNP campaign in Sabaragamuwa as party meeting gets out of hand

In the light of mounting public discontent over a number of recent issues, President Mahinda Rajapaksa cracked the whip on his cabinet ministers this week. It came when they had finished their usual business of approving cabinet papers last Wednesday evening. During “any other business” listed in the agenda, Rajapaksa took up one issue after another.
He referred to the incident where Industries and Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen is alleged to have abused the Mannar Magistrate Anthonypillai Judeson, requested him to change an order he had made about fishing rights in the area, and instigated mob attacks on the court premises.

“I am hearing all kinds of things. We need to have an independent investigation. What needs to be done thereafter will be done,” he said in Sinhala. Minister Bathiudeen was conspicuously absent at the meeting. His remarks showed clearly that Rajapaksa is keeping an open mind on the issue until he receives a full report. At a news conference at the Mahaweli Centre on Tuesday, Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) General Secretary Maithripala Sirisena said the government “unconditionally condemned” the mob attack on the Mannar courts and the alleged threat and intimidation by Minister Bathiudeen on the magistrate.

Already the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) and other Police teams are probing all aspects of the incidents. This is whilst supporters of Bathiudeen have been staging demonstrations in his favour after Friday’s Jummah prayers in some mosques in Colombo and other towns.

Details related to the on-going investigation and related matters are reported in the news pages of the Sunday Times today. Contrary to reports last week, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) did not file action against Minister Bathiudeen on Tuesday. It declared then that such a move was to “vindicate the honour, dignity and respect of the holders of judicial office and of the judicial system.”

The matter came up yesterday for discussion before the Bar Council, a wider body than its executive committee, and it was decided that the BASL will act as an intervening party in the contempt case already filed by some lawyers against Bathiudeen in which matter the Court of Appeal has issued a rule on the minister.

Last Wednesday, Geoffrey Alagaratnam, PC together with six other senior lawyers filed a petition in the Court of Appeal seeking to issue a rule on Minister Bathiudeen for contempt of court. The Court of Appeal’s Acting President W.L. Ranjit Silva directed the registrar to issue forthwith a rule on Minister Bathiudeen returnable on September 5. The court perused the documents filed, particularly the complaint by the Mannar Magistrate to the Police and also a letter issued by the Judicial Services Commission. This was in response to letters addressed to them by the President of the Bar Association of Mannar and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL). Acting in terms of the Constitution (Article 105 (3), the judge noted that there is “sufficient material to issue a rule” against Bathiudeen to “show cause as to why he should not be charged for contempt of court.”

Senior Counsel Romesh de Silva PC appeared with nine lawyers for the seven petitioners. He told court that he reserved the right to move for an order to have Bathiudeen arrested, taken into custody and remanded, in case he or his agents or any other person on his behalf, threatens, intimidates, uses any undue influence or causes any bodily harm to the petitioners, or any of their close relatives or to the petitioner’s witnesses or makes any attempt to commit any such act. The court endorsed his submissions. A longer date has been given in the case due to the upcoming court vacation which begins on August 17. In addition, it is also due to the planned absence of senior counsel Romesh de Silva who is billed to travel abroad.
With that over, President Rajapaksa referred to the on-going controversy over the ‘Z’ score marks for university admissions.

He said he had received complaints of great injustice being caused to some advanced level students as a result of the marking system. He was awaiting reports from Higher Education Minister, S.B. Dissanayake and Education Minister Bandula Gunawardena. Thereafter, he would place their reports before the ministers and decide on a course of action.
The controversy over the G.C.E. (Advanced Level) examination ‘Z’ score results continued this week. Keeping with a Supreme Court decision the previous ‘Z’ score marks were cancelled and the new marks were officially released only last Sunday. Since the release of these results, it has set off a wave of reactions. The immediate one was from students who found their Z-score marks reduced. Thus, they will not be able to enter the desired faculty and face the prospect of even losing the opportunity of entering a university.

Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa addressing the party meeting at Ratnapura. Pic courtesy Lankadeepa

Opposition UNP leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa addressing the party meeting at Ratnapura. Pic courtesy Lankadeepa

As a solution to the problem, the Higher Education Ministry has given the option for students to re-sit the Advanced Level examination — but many of them believe it is an unfair option as they have been given only five days to re-apply and 13 days to prepare for the examination in August. Parents have protested that this was an unconscionable move by higher education authorities due to a blunder of the authorities themselves. Another proposal put forward by the Higher Education Minister Dissanayake is that the intake of the students to universities be increased. This, he said was to ensure that no injustice was done to the students who found their Z-score marks reduced. This again is for no fault of theirs.

But, university officials say this in turn will lead to an overcrowding of students in campuses. These campuses already lack proper hostel facilities and face a variety of other problems. The medical faculty is one of those bound to be affected, they point out. In such an event, the conduct of practical tests would become a huge problem, university authorities warn. The process of university entrance is also delayed due to these issues. During islandwide protests students and parents raised their voices against the blunders in the present education system including the issue of the Z-score marking system.

President Rajapaksa then referred to media reports that a politician in the Kurunegala district had abused the newly appointed officer-in-charge of the Gokarella Police Station. He had told the officer not to come to him. According to the reports, he had asked the OIC, who paid a courtesy call on him, how he came to be appointed to that station without the politician’s approval. This was despite the politician making a request to the Inspector General of Police, N.K. Illangakoon for another officer.

Armed with a report from the IGP, which President Rajapaksa appeared to have studied carefully, he waved it in front of Ministers and named Salinda Dissanayake, Minister of Indigenous Medicine, as the person to whom these reports had referred to. The President read parts of the report and reminded ministers that “we have to work with the Police. It was bad for the government to have the police force against it.”

Minister Dissanayake was to intervene to explain his side of the story. He said he was constructing a road in a dilapidated condition. It was one leading to a school in the district. For this purpose, he was transporting gravel. A senior police officer in the district had sent a team, seized the vehicle and later charged the driver in court. He had been fined Rs. 50,000. He argued that this was an obstruction of development activity in the district. President Rajapaksa countered by saying “that may be so,” but it was necessary on the part of ministers to deal with the police in such a way their relations were not acrimonious. “I want to ensure that the Police do not go against the government over such issues,” he reminded his ministers and added that they should get along well.

President Rajapaksa then touched on one of the sensitive issues facing his government. In one particular area which he did not name, he said he had reports of a mosque being built by Muslims alongside an existing one. Other communities were getting agitated because it was side by side with a temple. He complained that he had to do the work of Muslim ministers who were not addressing these issues. Recently, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had told him of people in bus loads going into villages on missions to convert people to new evangelical faiths, the President said. This, according to Most Reverend Malcolm Ranjith, was taking place whilst degrading Catholicism. Another example, Rajapaksa said, was a letter he had received from the Mahanayake of the Malwatte Chapter, Most Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Siddartha Sumangala Thera that Buddhism was being compromised. He had called upon the President to initiate action to ensure the situation was arrested.

President Rajapaksa’s remarks highlighted the need for ministers, particularly of different faiths, to play a bigger role in religiously sensitive issues.

For well over half an hour, the President took pains to inculcate in his ministers the need to be prepared to deal with increasing number of politically negative issues confronting the government. That he did this ahead of the September 8 elections to North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provincial Council elections assumes greater significance. This is particularly in the light of several ministers taking part in the polls campaigns for the UPFA.

The United National Party (UNP) launched its campaign with a meeting of its Ratnapura district Bala Mandalayas (a UNP district level organisation) at the Gap Hotel last Wednesday. Party seniors and candidates from the eight electorates in the district were present. The reception hall in the hotel had overflown to the lawn outside with the large turnout.
There was a distraction of the proceedings when two persons who walked in exclaimed “Apey anagatha nayakathumata jayaweva or welcome to our future leader.” The two were from the entourage of Deputy Leader Sajith Premadasa. Moments later, Premadasa walked in to join Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and General Secretary Tissa Attanayake among others. The two had already spoken and it was Premadasa’s turn.

Premadasa said some media had reported that he had avoided meetings of the party’s Advisory Committee and the Working Committee and ran away. “Sajith Premadasa does not run away. Had I been there at the Working Committee meeting, I would have fought tooth and nail to prevent the decision to amend the party constitution to allow the leader to remain in office for six years,” Premadasa said speaking in Sinhala.

Last week’s the Sunday Times (Political Commentary) reported that there was to be an announcement at the Working Committee, before going public, that the party leadership had decided to sink all differences and move as a “united force.” In other words, Leader Wickremesinghe and Deputy Leader Premadasa, were to join hands. Last week’s report added: “They were to travel from electorate to electorate in the North Central, Sabaragamuwa and Eastern Provinces talking to the public to demonstrate that they had sunk their differences. This was not through public rallies but meeting up with people at public places and galvanising the party organisers around the country. It was to begin on July 25 and end on July 29………..But the man who agreed to the détente or the relaxing of strained relations, Premadasa was not present at the meeting…….According to the deal that was finally wrapped up, both Wickremesinghe and Premadasa were to jointly address a news conference on Thursday, just after the Working Committee meeting. However, Premadasa did not turn up for either the advisory committee or the working committee meeting………His mobile phone was switched off. Premadasa had neither telephoned nor written to the party hierarchy about his inability to be present. Some of his supporters claimed he was sick.”
Premadasa told candidates for the Sabaragamuwa PC and Bala Mandalaya members that he would ensure that the move to amend the UNP constitution was prevented. He said he was sick and could not therefore attend the Advisory and Working Committee meetings. A few clapped. There was neither a word said by Premadasa on the “unity” deal he had reached with his leader, Wickremesinghe nor any reference to the planned news conference. Sources close to Wickremesinghe said Premadasa had been persuaded not to agree to the deal brokered by the party’s former chairman Malik Samarawickrema by his top advisors and backers. They have threatened a ‘total blackout,’ if he did not heed their advice. However, Premadasa supporters remained tight lipped over the matter.

The Bala Mandalaya meeting was followed by a meeting of candidates and team leaders at a private residence in Ratnapura. It was to discuss campaign issues. Before the meeting began, one of the candidates rose to make a speech. He said “we were very happy to see Mr. Premadasa coming to our meeting. However, our hopes were dashed by his remarks. He is trying to sabotage our election campaign.” He spoke in Sinhala.

An angry Premadasa shouted back. He asked him whether he (the candidate who spoke) knew Sinhala and understood what he said. That was to draw a stronger response. “We cannot be threatened. We will leave, if necessary, only after telling the truth. The truth is that the election campaign is being sabotaged,” the candidate alleged. He went on to say that the party should maintain discipline and be united to take on the Mahinda Rajapaksa government. There was commotion then. One of the participants tried to hurl a chair. Wickremesinghe intervened to say he would deal with the matter and that they should proceed with the issues before them. He said he would call off the meeting if they continued attacking Premadasa.
Premadasa then withdrew and the meeting continued.

Unlike the UNP, which was riven by internal issues and had three different provincial polls to win, a humongous task confronted the government given its lowering popularity ratings. This week, the cabinet granted approval to a 15-page report forwarded by President Rajapaksa titled “The National Action Plan for the Implementation of the Recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation (LLRC).” In an accompanying note, Rajapaksa said, “The LLRC has made 285 recommendations. These recommendations were classified into four main groups, namely (i) Recommendations relating to National policy, (ii) Recommendations pertaining to the final phase of the conflict, (iii) Recommendations relating to human rights and National security concerns, and (iv) Recommendations related to resettlement and development.

“The Cabinet of Ministers, early May this year, decided that a Task Force would monitor the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC. The Task Force headed by the Secretary to the President gave careful consideration to the formulation of this attached Action Plan for implementation, over several meetings in the past one month. It must also be noted that many synergies (as much as 78) have been found between these recommendations and the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (NHRAP). The matrix attached to this note, The National Action Plan of Action to Implement the LLRC Recommendations,” sets out the main focus areas culled out from the recommendations contained in the report of the LLRC. Each recommendation has a corresponding activity, an implementing agency, a key performance indicator and a time frame.” The full Action Plan is available in the government’s official website news.lk.
The formulation of an Action Plan was one of the main elements in the US-backed resolution adopted at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March this year. It was also called for by the United States, particularly during talks External Affairs Minister G.L. Peiris had with US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton in May.

The time frame for implementation of some recommendations varies from “on-going” ones to six months or up to two years. One of the issues raised by several western nations is the alleged war crimes both by security forces and Tiger guerrillas. A probe into such activity and the initiation of legal action would take as much as five years. At a news conference last Thursday, both Minister Peiris and Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga explained details. Weeratunga said, “If we take one example, under international humanitarian law issue, the LLRC recommendation (9.33) states, ‘Based on the first-hand accounts and other material placed before it by the affected civilians and detainees, it was clear to the Commission that despite the efforts by the Security Forces to avoid harm to people, there have been instances of exchanges of fire over the civilian areas including NFZs causing death and injury to civilians.’”

Three courses of action have been defined in the Action Plan. (1) “There is on-going disciplinary process according to laws that govern the armed forces. (2) Upon conclusion take follow up action to prosecute where relevant. (3) Use the existing system provided for in the Criminal Procedure Code to originate a compliant and give such mechanism sufficient publicity.
The responsible agencies would be the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice and the Attorney General’s Department. “For this activity,” Weeratunga said, “we would like to see that the disciplinary inquiry is concluded. That would take one year. For activity two, the key point index is very precise: Offenders will be prosecuted by the Ministry of Justice in two years. In the third one, based on the Criminal Procedure Code, cases would be filed in court. We have given a time frame for the first activity which is 12 months, for the second activity 24 months and for the third activity 24 months, he said.
Another example is the LLRC recommendation that said, “Maintain and support current practice of the National Anthem being sung simultaneously in two languages.” The Action Plan says that this would be a subject for the proposed Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) that is to examine Tamil grievances. Another subject listed for the PSC is the recommendation to “de-link the Police Department from the institutions dealing with the armed services.”
The official announcement of the government’s action plan comes as a report on Sri Lanka’s human rights record was sent to the UN Human Rights Council this week. This is for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in November, where the UN body examines human rights records of member countries every four years. The report is based on recommendations made by various countries in 2008 besides the voluntary pledges made by the government. The report deals with progress in the implementation of those pledges, resettlement of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), rehabilitation of combatants including child soldiers, implementation of the Tamil language, fresh inquiries into the 17 aid workers killed in Mutur, the killing of students in Trincomalee and Sri Lanka’s economic development.

Diplomatic sources in Colombo say that in addition to Sri Lanka’s report, the assurances given to the UNHRC by the government in 2008 will also come up for scrutiny. Among such assurances are:
= Strengthen National and independent Human Rights Institutions
= Engage with OHCHR to strengthen National Mechanisms
= Reconstitute the Constitutional Council (Note: The Council has since been abolished with the 18th Amendment being introduced).
= Improve and upgrade detention facilities,
= A bill will be introduced in Parliament shortly and measures will be taken to implement the legislation including the establishment of the necessary institutions
Law / constitutional / policy reform
Constitutional Charter on Human Rights
= Constitutional Charter on Human Rights to bring Sri Lanka’s Human Rights guarantees in line with international obligations.
Consultations will be held with civil society towards this and the draft charter will foster national discourse on human rights
= Implementation of Official Languages policy
= Ensure full incorporation and implementation of international human rights instruments at the national level in particular ICCPR and CAT.
= Implementation of action plan for IDPs and conflict affected communities including host communities
= Comprehensive and uniform compensation policy for displaced and dispossessed
= Bill of Rights to be drafted on the rights of IDPs having consulted all relevant stakeholders including long term housing.
= Protect humanitarian workers
= Sri Lanka to continue to protect and promote human rights and coordinate humanitarian assistance and facilitate the work of local and international agencies providing such assistance
= Take measures to protect the rights of IDPs, including long term housing and property (housing and land) restitution policies that meet international standards
= Economic development of the Eastern Province. Promote dissemination and inculcation of best practices good governance and political pluralism as well as take measure for the rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-combatants particularly children and young persons.
= Share experiences on measures taken to improve its social and economic development
= Special attention to the rights of women and further promote education and development and their representation in politics and public life
= Trafficking of human beings particularly women and children. Sri Lanka will work closely with its partners to combat this heinous activity in line with Sri Lanka’s policy of open and constructive engagement with the international community and its commitment to enforce global standards
= Sri Lanka will continue its traditional role of consensus builder and participate actively in the work of the Human Rights Council to make the Council a strong, effective and efficient body capable of promoting and protecting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of all – and will continue to participate in the work of the Council in norm setting in the field of Human Rights
Continue close dialogue with the UN human rights mechanisms. Work towards the submission of its periodic reports to treaty bodies
= Along with member states and relevant UN bodies assist OHCHR to formulate proposals for treaty body reforms
= Co-operate with special procedures/respond in a timely manner to the questionnaires.
= Take into account recommendation made by the HRC that it incorporate all substantive provisions of the ICCPR into its national legislation unless already done
= Civil Society organizations including those from multi-ethnic communities and conflict areas in Sri Lanka North and East be involved in the follow up to the UPR process
= Sri Lanka will introduce changes in both formal and non-formal education systems to introduce and/or further develop the human rights content with these programmes with a view to nurturing a culture of Human Rights in society
= Pursue efforts to improve essential services to be provided to targeted vulnerable groups such as literacy, school enrolment, health
= Sri Lanka to take measures to protect Human Rights Defenders, ensure a safe environment for Human Rights Defender’s activities and that perpetrators of murders, attacks, threats and harassment of human rights defenders to be brought to justice.
= Take measures to safeguard the freedom of expression and effectively prosecute those responsible
Disappearances kidnapping and extra judicial killing
= Increase its efforts to further prevent cases of kidnapping, forced disappearances and extra judicial killings; ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice

The upcoming elections will no doubt be the foremost issue both for the government and the opposition in the coming weeks. While President Rajapaksa remained in Colombo for some opening ceremonies, Opposition UNP leader Wickremesinghe was touring the Eastern Province over the weekend to rev up party organisers. However, both have added burdens. For the government, they are issues outside Sri Lanka like the UPR and befriending India once more ahead of that. For the main opposition UNP, it would no doubt be further erosion in their ranks.

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