When President R. Premadasa declared open the first South Asian Regional Cooperation for Law (SAARCLAW) conference in Colombo in 1991, Sri Lanka’s then Chief Justice sat next to him. Neither uttered a word to each other throughout the proceedings as an election petition was being heard against the President by the country’s apex court. Such [...]


SAARCLAW: What it means to the people


When President R. Premadasa declared open the first South Asian Regional Cooperation for Law (SAARCLAW) conference in Colombo in 1991, Sri Lanka’s then Chief Justice sat next to him. Neither uttered a word to each other throughout the proceedings as an election petition was being heard against the President by the country’s apex court.

Such propriety – ‘Justice must not only be done, but seem to be done’, fell by the wayside along the way as SAARCLAW celebrates its silver jubilee this weekend in Colombo, where it was born. This is also when the region’s Chief Justices are here for their 11th get-together.

In the intervening years, there have been vast legal developments in the South Asian region. The Indian judiciary continued its judicial, almost adventurist activism, but standing out was Pakistan, whose judiciary left its closeted court houses to take to the streets to restore democracy to that country. Sri Lanka was not without its own highs and lows with confrontations between the executive, legislature and the judiciary being part of the life of the nation.

SAARCLAW’s Charter has the twin objectives of bringing together the legal communities in the region, exchanging ideas and to develop the law as an instrument of social change for the peoples of the region. In the 25 years, the grouping may have succeeded as a networking ‘club’, but its role as “an instrument of social change for the peoples of the region”, can receive critical scrutiny.

One area screaming for SAARCLAW’s intervention is in the field of protecting the Intellectual Property Rights of the peoples of South Asia. Intellectual Property Rights or IPRs are economic assets of the people. They include the newly developing advent of the ‘knowledge economy’ like the ICT (Information and Communication Technology) industry which could also help in the adoption of effective databases and search engines of the respective National Intellectual Property Offices, provided each country has signed the Patent Cooperation Treaty.

South Asian countries have been facing exploitation of their fauna and flora and their indigenous products specific to their geographical indications – Appellation d’origine, for years now. One of the famous cases has been the copying of the popular basmati rice that originated in Pakistan and India. The trade name and patent were registered in the US Registry by Western parties before the South Asians could do so. Bitter legal battles ensued. Today, they even have a cloned rice strain grown in Texas in the United States. It has been named Texmati.

Sri Lanka has its own issues. It has been slow to protect the Ceylon Tea trademark. Gotukola, rich in nutrients, is already churned into teas and other beverages and sold in European markets under their own brand names. One reads in local newspapers regular instances of people trying to smuggle out Walla Patta, a local resin used for perfumes in the West, Kaha or turmeric, Sudu handun (sandalwood), Perriwinkle, a wild flower used for chemotherapy in cancer treatment.

There are several international treaties that are governed by the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), but the scales of these laws are heavily weighed in favour of the economically developed countries of the West. One of the reasons for this is that regional groups from the economically poorer regions like South Asia, Latin America and Africa are not addressing these issues in a systematic or meaningful way. ASEAN, the South East Asian group, is only beginning to protect its peoples’ Intellectual Property Rights.

The working sessions of the SAARCLAW conference, which concludes today, included crucial topics like money laundering, climate change, and promoting the protection of fauna, flora and sustainable development. It behoves the legal fraternity of the region to consider this subject very seriously. SAARCLAW could join hands with LAWASIA in this exercise to prompt the political leadership of the region if it is looking for bigger clout at the bargaining tables of world fora.

South Asia seems to be the flavour of the week not only for the legal profession in Sri Lanka. The South Asian-Pacific Choir competition is being held in Colombo under the patronage of the Prime Minister himself. Then, there is the South Asian Apparel Leadership Forum. In the midst of it, the President issued a statement after meeting the visiting Pakistani Foreign Secretary pledging Sri Lanka’s support to that country to host the next SAARC Summit in the midst of increasing tension between the prospective hosts and India.

SAARC has got bogged down in this seven decade long rivalry between India and Pakistan, and SAARCLAW’s own future within the SAARC framework remains on the edge of a cliff. That insecurity, however, ought not to prevent the South Asian legal fraternity of judges, lawyers and academics to remain in touch, and united in purpose, ensuring that the Rule of Law and Justice prevailed in the region, and also, that they served the peoples of the ‘seven sisters’ in their ordinary lives, while enriching their economies by preventing the exploitation of the region’s natural resources by the ‘rapacious West’. There is strength in unity, and there is strength in numbers.

UN: Turning the searchlight inward

This is also the United Nations week. It is the 72nd anniversary of the organisation tasked with ensuring world peace, eliminating hunger and poverty among a host of other good things for the benefit of humankind. Sri Lanka joined the UN as part of a superpower deal in 1955, and its citizens and the country have played a role disproportionately above its weight. At present, Sri Lanka’s soldiers are doing yeomen service with the UN Peace Keeping Force in Africa.

The week also saw, one of the many UN Special Rapporteurs submit a report that was expected from him. His official website titled it “Sri Lanka must step up progress on transitional justice”, though the state media said he was happy with the progress Sri Lanka was making. It all seems relative and a matter of interpretation.

Meanwhile, another UN Special Rapporteur, for the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression has slammed the UN itself for “failing” to adopt “robust” policies on access to information, which is increasingly the norm among Governments. Guess it is not a perfect world, after all.

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