An opinion poll conducted in the United States after Britons voted to leave the European Union (EU) has thrown up results that Sri Lankans can well relate to. The USA TODAY and Suffolk University survey finds Americans agreeing by an overwhelming margin that the outcome of the referendum was a sign of anger and dissatisfaction [...]


Lessons from Brexit


An opinion poll conducted in the United States after Britons voted to leave the European Union (EU) has thrown up results that Sri Lankans can well relate to.

The USA TODAY and Suffolk University survey finds Americans agreeing by an overwhelming margin that the outcome of the referendum was a sign of anger and dissatisfaction that can be seen in other countries, including the United States — “an indication of a broader feeling among people around the world, where they are feeling more and more helpless about controlling things in their own countries”, as defined by one participant. Another reflects that a lot of people were unhappy with the status quo, feeling, like many Americans did, “that we kind of lost control over our own destiny”.

Then, there were those revelatory comments made in April by EU President Jean-Claude Juncker. He said the bloc faced ruin because of a backlash by voters angered by a lack of respect for the powers of national governments. This mea culpa, welcome as it is, offers small consolation to the countries in whose internal affairs the EU and other nations in the West have liberally meddled, Sri Lanka firmly included.

It was only in May that this newspaper reported how the EU — purportedly the very embodiment of free commerce — had laid down a sprawling list of non-trade conditions in exchange for Sri Lanka winning back duty concessions under the bloc’s GSP Plus facility. Back then, we called this ‘neocolonialism’. Millions more have now echoed us in decrying the EU’s institutionalised culture of holding sovereign governments to ransom.

As we emphasised, the GSP Plus concession is trade, not aid: “If economically developing countries are being encouraged to be self-reliant, sanctions in any form, the West’s latest ‘weapon of war’ cannot be used selectively to bring countries in line with its foreign policy.”

On the one hand, the EU is employing sanctions to cow others down to its foreign policy. But, on the other hand, the British people have reacted against the block’s “protectionist policies” that impacted on their fellow member States.

Sri Lanka has since lodged its application for the GSP Plus concession after, no doubt, bending over backwards to appease the bloc. This administration has shown little skill in negotiating itself out of untenable situations; if anything, it seems to hurtle faster and deeper into more and more deeply compromising positions.

For instance, the Government is now brazenly yielding to pressure from New Delhi to finalise the controversial Indo-Lanka Economic and Technology Cooperation Agreement (ETCA). Some junior ministers are even dressing up the deal as essential to counter balancing the negative economic impact (which is yet to be analysed or understood fully) of Brexit. This is disingenuous, to say the least. Further, the Government is considering issuing permits to Indian fishing trawlers to operate legally in Sri Lankan waters — a proposal that has only ever emanated from the Indian side and to which there has been fierce resistance by the Sri Lankan industry and fisheries officials.

Even in the past, the Western nations deployed a whole gamut of “tools” to bend developing countries to their demands. They repeatedly slapped travel restrictions on Sri Lanka citing security concerns and human rights violations. Today, it has come to pass that no corner of the world is safe from the scourge of terrorism; and that human rights are ever more being trampled upon by nations struggling, as we did, to contain this plague.

In that process, increasingly, people’s power is asserting itself when people see their mandates to the Governments they elected being ignored by the ruling class.

Conviction of the prison system

The 2015 annual performance report of the Department of Prisons presented recently to Parliament contains some worrying statistics. It reveals that a vast majority of inmates in jail — by a yawning margin—were remand suspects not yet convicted in a court of law.

Of 113,734 prisoners, a shocking 89,586 were suspects in remand. Only 24,184 were convicted prisoners. This meant that three in four inmates have not been found guilty of any offence. As our news report (see story on Page 12) reveals, one of the reasons that many are wasting away in lockup continues to be their inability to meet often needlessly harsh bail conditions. Sri Lanka’s prisons are today 53 percent overcrowded.

This is a travesty of justice, one that has long been highlighted by legal experts as being unacceptable in a modern democracy. Our prisons are filling up simply because remand suspects are incarcerated for long periods of time — without ever being convicted — or because others who have committed minor offences are kept inside for several weeks without bail. This is worsened by long lamented laws delays for which successive governments have provided no solution.

The very rationale behind placing a defendant in custody pending the adjournment of a trial is being violated. Persons who are neither violent nor posing a threat to society, have no history of previous offences and show no signs of absconding arrest are today inflating prison numbers and guzzling up precious resources.

Even worse is a repeated judicial failure to specify when sentences should be served concurrently by convicted prisoners. This results in some inmates languishing in jail without legal aid for months, if not years. Lives are going to ruin due to identified, remediable flaws in the prevailing system.

Experts are pushing — and have done so for many years — for more accurate interpretations of the Bail Act that do not violate the fundamental rights of a person enshrined in the Constitution. Among other things, there is a need for a new Bail Act to go through without further delay.

Yet, there has been little or no movement in the direction of meaningful change. After the 2012 Welikada prison riots, in which 27 people died, a comprehensive Prisons Bill aimed at improving prison conditions was drafted by a multi-sector ten-member committee headed by Justice Hector Yapa. They studied international and local legislation, rules and prisons practices to create an all-inclusive Act. Special attention was given to the aspects of rehabilitation and reformation of prisoners as well as alternatives to incarceration as a solution to overcrowding.

But it came to nought. After the draft was finalised, it disappeared and is no longer spoken of. It would not take much to resurrect this Bill and to proceed from where previous policymakers left off.

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