Constitutional Council: The crisis continues

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  • Justice Minister submits new set of rules in three-page document; after Speaker withdraws 58-page set of rules
  • AG says even Justice Minister’s proposals contravene Constitution
  • SLPP dissidents in talks with SJB for political tie-up
  • New Bill to restructure power sector; private entities to play important roles in all activities now carried out by CEB

By Our Political Editor

The tussle continues between the executive and the legislature over rules for the discharge of the duties and functions of the Constitutional Council.

The latest to join in is Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapaksha, with his own three-page draft rules to President Ranil Wickremesinghe. The Attorney General’s Department, the Sunday Times learns, has pointed out that some provisions in them reportedly contravened provisions of the Constitution.

As revealed in these columns last week, earlier Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena, who chairs the Constitutional Council, withdrew a 56-page document containing draft rules. It had been sent for publication in the government gazette. This was after the Attorney General’s Department opined that the draft contravened many provisions of the Constitution. Moreover, Speaker Abeywardena, had on November 21 proposed that an English text of the Rules be tabled for the information of all Members of Parliament. The Attorney General advised that in terms of the Constitution, it should have been gazetted first not tabled. It was thus a contravention too; it was pointed out.

The genesis of the ongoing controversy was the recommendations made by President Wickremesinghe to the Constitutional Council over the extension of the term of office of the Inspector General of Police, C.D. Wickremeratne. As a result, he was granted three-week extensions by him on three different occasions. Thereafter, Wickremeratne was allowed to go on retirement. Senior DIG Deshabandu Tennekoon has since been named acting IGP and the Constitutional Council has endorsed the recommendation. In its wake came the appointment of Nissanka Bandula Karunaratne, now President of the Court of Appeal as a member of the Supreme Court. This was to fill the vacancy created by the retirement of Justice Buweneka Aluwihare. The other was the elevation of Justice Sobitha Rajakaruna, now a member of the Court of Appeal, as its president. The duo were recommended by President Wickremesinghe.

President Wickremesinghe told Parliament that Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya had also recommended Court of Appeal president Justice Karunaratne. However, at a vote during a meeting of the CC three members had been in favour and three others had opposed it. A further three had abstained. Now, President Wickremesinghe has declared that a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) would be named to address the issues that have arisen.

Justice Minister Rajapakshe has, in his draft rules, addressed issues arising out of the latest impasse too.

  • The Council shall ensure its transparency and accountability in its decision-making process while respecting the principles and norms enshrined in Chapter III and Article 41B (3) of the Constitution while making its recommendation or granting approval for such appointments.
  • The Council shall ascertain to the best of its ability that a person it recommends, or grants approval or its concurrence has reached to an eminence and maintained an unstained integrity in the field of his expertise and earned a very high reputation in the public eyes.
  • When the Council makes a recommendation or grants approval for the appointment of a person to a commission, institution or board, it shall make every endeavour to ascertain as to whether such a person has no any conflict of interest either directly or indirectly to the affairs of such commission, institution or board. Rules relating to the grant of approval of persons to offices referred to in Part I of the Schedule to Article 41C (1) of the Constitution.
  • Where the Council receives a recommendation of a person to be appointed to an office referred to in Part I of the Article 41C, from the President, the Council shall ascertain whether the Chief Justice has given his observation and whether such observation is in favour of the person so recommended for the appointment to the President.
  • Where the Council is of the opinion that further inquiries from the Chief Justice or the Secretary to the Judicial Service Commission (through the Chief Justice) is appropriate regarding a person whose name is forwarded by the President, the Council may seek further information regarding the accuracy of the information it has received or any other information about his previous performance and his integrity.  Where the Council is of the opinion that it is appropriate to obtain any information from any officials of the State or non-State institution to ascertain as to whose name is forwarded by the President for any such office, the Council may summon any such person to obtain any information either in writing or verbally.

Justice Minister Rajapaksha told the Sunday Times, “The Constitutional Council should present to Parliament the rules and criteria on the performance and discharge of duties and functions. I have made my proposals to assist the Council in preparing this criterion. The rules and criteria are required to ensure that the proper process is followed and the correct appointments are made. The purpose is to ensure that there are no blunders in making the right appointments. My proposals relate to the Commission’s recommendations for the selection process, except for the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), appointments to the Supreme Courts by the President, appointment of high-ranking officials and other appointments such as the Right to Information Commission.”

Here are some of the other aspects contained in Justice Minister Rajapakshe’s draft rules:

“Rules relating to the grant of approval of persons to offices referred to in Part II of the Schedule to Article 41C (1) of the Constitution.

“Where the Council receives a recommendation of a person to be appointed to an office referred to in Part II of Article 41C, from the President, the Council shall ascertain whether the person whose name is forwarded has complied with the basic qualification and other requirements such as experience, seniority, efficiency bars etc., as necessary to hold the relevant office.

“Where the Council is of the opinion that further inquiries from the head of the institution or any other person holding any responsible office of such institution in which he was serving or whose service is or was regulated earlier is appropriate, the Council may seek further information regarding the accuracy of the information it has received or any other information about his previous performance and his integrity.  Such institutions include parliament, any ministry, department, commission, bank, or any other institution whether it is State or non-State.

“Where the Council is of the opinion that it is appropriate to obtain any information from any officials of the State or non-State institution to ascertain as to whether whose name is forwarded by the President for any such office, the Council may summon any such person to obtain any information either in writing or verbally. Rules relating to the grant of approval or concurrence or recommendation of persons to any other offices where such approval or grant of concurrence is required by any of the written laws.

“Where the Council is of the opinion that it is appropriate to obtain any information from any officials of the State or non-State institution to ascertain as to whether a person whose name is forwarded by the President for any such office, the Council may summon any such person to obtain any information either in writing or verbally.

General powers

“The Council may amend, alter or rescind these rules or any part of these Rules and make new Rules.

“The Council shall ensure that it will not recommend or approve or grant concurrence for the appointment of any person to any office, commission or institution where such person has any conflict of interest in the affairs or matters of the office, commission, or institution where such person’s name is nominated or forwarded. For this Rule “interest” means any interest or benefit, monetary or otherwise which may derive either directly or indirectly by a member of the Council or members of his family or closed relatives.

“The Council may have the powers to call for any confidential information from any authority relating to the accuracy of a person whose name has been recommended or grant of approval or concurrence of the Council is required under the Constitution or any other written law as are necessary to hold the office where such person is nominated or recommended.

“For the purpose of this Rule “interest” means any interest or benefit, monetary or otherwise which may derive either directly or indirectly by a member of the Council or members of his family or closed relatives.”

In the wake of these developments, President Wickremesinghe has also triggered a debate with his remarks that the Constitutional Council is part of the executive. The issue is being hotly contested by those in the opposition and civil society groups who argue that it is part of the legislature. They contend that it is a mechanism put in place to ensure checks and balances in the working of the presidency.

FPC’s alliance talks with SJB

Other than the tussle between the executive and the legislature over the Constitutional Council, the ongoing budget debate in Parliament has also seen several side events. One was a heated debate last Wednesday among parliamentarians of the Freedom People’s Congress (FPC), a breakaway group from the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), to form a common front with the main opposition Samagi Jana Balavegaya (SJB). For months now, the FPC has been talking to SJB leadership but has not been able to reach an understanding on an acceptable economic policy. At a meeting this week, the majority view was that they should agree to a political tie-up only based on a set of mutually acceptable terms. However, some were of the view that they should join hands and discuss an acceptable programme. Among those eloquent have been G.L. Peiris, Nalaka Godahewa and Dilan Perera. It was agreed that the FPC has another meeting with SJB leader Sajith Premadasa to further determine future action.

In another development, ousted Sports Minister Roshan Ranasinghe and cricketing idol turned parliamentarian Arjuna Ranatunga invited a group of parliamentarians for a meeting at the Monarch Imperial in Battaramulla. The idea was to form what they called an organisation to ensure Sadarana Samajaya or a just society. The duo explained that it would be on the lines of the Movement for Justice and Equality that was spearheaded by former Speaker Karu Jayasuriya together with the late Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera.

Power-sector draft Bill

This week also saw the publication in the government gazette of a Bill that will bring radical changes to the electricity sector, while steep rises in tariffs have severely hit the people. So much so, an estimated 500,000 consumers of electricity utilised by poorer sections of the public have been disconnected at their own request. There have been widespread allegations of bribery and corruption in the CEB. Added to it, it is also alleged that some categories of employees enjoyed high salaries. The adverse impact has been on the consumer.

At present, the industry is vested in a single government entity, the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB). The private sector is being assured of a role in all sectors of the industry with the proposed setting up of “independent corporate entities where all activities connected with the generation, transmission, distribution, trade, supply and procurement of electricity will be responsible.” The draft Bill claims it will lead to the “efficient management of these activities and the creation of market competition.  It also claims that the reforms would “ensure financial self-sufficiency of the corporate entities to be established under this Act, through a cost reflective and transparent system of tariffs, and transparent financial, investment.”

The draft Bill seeks to establish a National Electricity Advisory Council, formulate the National Electricity Policy, and issue policy guidelines. It will advise the Minister in charge of the subject of electricity on matters relating to the electricity industry, formulation of national electricity policy and a variety of other tasks.

Among the objectives, according to the draft Bill, in relation to the generation, transmission, distribution, trade, supply, and procurement of electricity within Sri Lanka will  be:

  • to ensure improved Electricity Industry performance through independent and accountable corporate entities responsible for the provision and maintenance, in so far as it is economically viable to do so, of a well-coordinated, efficient and economical system of electricity supply throughout Sri Lanka at all times, through transparent policies;
  • to facilitate the establishment of independent and accountable corporate entities for the efficient supply of electricity throughout the country.
  • to promote and facilitate the establishment and functioning of the Wholesale Electricity Market;  to promote competition in relation to the generation,
  • transmission, distribution, trade and supply and procurement of electricity and wherever possible to improve energy security and reliability;
  • to protect the public from dangers arising from the generation, transmission, distribution, trade, supply and procurement of electricity by improved reliability and the quality of electricity services.

Parliament will hold an extra sitting today (Sunday) from 9.30 am to 4.30 pm to debate the Value Added Tax (Amendment) Bill and the Finance Bill (second reading). Parliamentarians will have a lunch break from 12.30 pm to 1 pm. Contrary to speculation, Parliament is not expected to be prorogued when the ongoing budget debate ends on December 13. What the new year portends with new laws and new measures will be of great interest to Sri Lankans.

Buddhist prelates and Global Tamil Forum join hands for peace 

President’s office says Truth and Reconciliation Commission will be set up by Act of Parliament; interim secretariat also being formed

Members of the Sangha for Better Sri Lanka (SBSL) and the Global Tamil Forum (GTF) with President Ranil Wickremesinghe. On the President’s left is Suren Surendiran.

The United Kingdom-based Global Tamil Forum (GTF) has embarked on the task of ethnic reconciliation through the Buddhist clergy in an initiative backed by President Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The project had its origin in the Nepalese town of Nagarkot, known the world over for the sunrise view of the Himalayas including Mount Everest and other peaks. On April 27, seven members of the Buddhist clergy representing various sects and two Chief Sanghanayakes signed what was termed the Himalaya Declaration – a six-point pledge that will form the basis. The member of the clergy form the Sangha for Better Sri Lanka (SBSL). Other signatories are GTF representatives in the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

The first copy of the Himalaya Declaration was formally handed over by a SBSL-GTF delegation on Thursday to President Wickremesinghe. On Friday, the same delegation met the Mahanayakes of both the Malwatte Chapter (Venerable Thibottuwawe Sri Siddharatha Sumangala Thera) and Asgiriya Chapter (Venerable Warakagoda Sri Gnanarathana Thera) in Kandy to hand them copies. Yesterday, the delegation members travelled to Jaffna for a string of meetings with leaders of the clergy in the district. They will return to Colombo to speak to Parliamentarians at a meeting in Committee Room 2, civil society groups and three former Presidents – Mahinda Rajapaksa, Maithripala Sirisena and Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga.

“This is the first time an organisation is spearheading reconciliation initiatives. In the past, those taking part have all been political parties,” said Suren Surendiran, spokesperson in London for the GTF. He said, “We propose to carry our message to likeminded people the districts and educate them on the need for peace, which is foremost for economic development.”

The six-point Himalaya Declaration formally released at a news conference in Kandy on Friday says:

  • Preserving and promoting the pluralistic character of the country where no community feels threatened about losing its identity and pride of place.
  • Overcoming the economic crisis, selecting an appropriate development model which encourages local production, facilitating involvement and investment from overseas Sri Lankans and others, ensuring the country is in a growth trajectory and making Sri Lanka firmly a middle-income country.
  • Arriving at a new constitution that guarantees individual and collective rights and promotes equality and equal citizenship among all peoples, ensures accountable institutions and guarantees adequate devolution of powers to the provinces, and until such time focus on the faithful implementation of provisions of sharing of powers in the existing constitution.
  • Devolving power in a united and undivided country, accepting the religious, cultural, and other identities of people and respecting those identities, and working towards establishing trust between ethnic groups and religious groups.
  • Envision a Sri Lanka that is reconciled and committed to learning from its past and creating measures including accountability to ensure that such suffering never occur again.
  • Complying with bilateral and multilateral treaties and international obligations, taking steps to follow independent and dynamic foreign policy, and ensuring the country takes its pride of place among the democratic, peaceful, and prosperous nations of the world.

The signatories listed in the Himalaya Declaration are: Ven. Madampagama Assaji Tissa Thera, Anu Nayake of the Ambagahapitiya Chapter, Ven. Siyambalagaswewa Wimalasara Thera, Chief Sanghanayake of Northern and Eastern Provinces, Ven. Kithalagama Hemasara, Nayake Thera, General Secretary, Siri Dharmarakshitha Chapter, Ven. Prof. Pallekande Rathnasara Thera, Acting Maha Nayake of Vajirawansa Chapter, Ven Kalupahana Piyaratne Thera of Sri Daddharamawansa Chapter, Member of Sri Lanka Human Rights Council 2023, chairperson  of Human Development Edification Centre, Ven. Narampanawe Dhammaloka Thera, Chief Sanghanayake of Central Province and Ven. Walatara Sobitha Anunayake Thera, Sri Dadhammawansa Chapter.

The GTF signatories are Velupilla Kuandndra (GTF – UK), Dr Shanthini Jeyarajah (GTF – USA), Thanabalasingham Surendiran (GTF – UK), Sri Kantha Bavaguhan (GTF – UK) and Dr Kannappar Mukunthan (GTF-Australia).

In a related move, the government also announced on Friday that it would set up an “independent Commission for Truth, Unity and Reconciliation.” An announcement by the Presidential Media Division on Friday said, “This proposed Commission will be established through an Act of Parliament, currently in the drafting process as a concept paper in consultation with relevant stakeholders.

“The concept paper, used to prepare the final draft of the Bill for Parliament, will soon be available for comments to ensure an inclusive process in developing legislation that strengthens and safeguards national unity through truth, transitional justice, reconciliation, reparation, and social cohesion.

“A key objective of this process is to establish the truth regarding post-conflict grievances of Sri Lankan citizens, facilitating reconciliation, reparation and sustainable peace. The proposed Commission acknowledges every Sri Lankan’s inalienable right to ascertain the truth, a pivotal aspect for individuals and communities to heal from past conflicts.

“Additionally, the Commission aims to ensure and strengthen national unity, peace, the rule of law, coexistence, equality, tolerance, respect for diversity and reconciliation among the people of Sri Lanka. This commitment extends to preventing any recurrence of disharmony and future conflict between the multi-ethnic and diverse communities.

“The Commission is expected to review, consider and facilitate the implementation of recommendations made by past Commissions related to Sri Lanka’s post-conflict reconciliation efforts, including the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). Findings from the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, established in 2006 by the Government of Sri Lanka, will also be considered.

“The Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensuring that the proposed independent Commission acts impartially, free from any political influence. With a victim-centric ethos, the proposed Commission will be a sanctuary for voices to be heard, pain to be acknowledged and dignity to be reclaimed, providing a closure to victims and paving the path for national unity and social cohesion.

“Pending the enactment of the proposed new law, the Government has initiated the establishment of an interim body, the Interim Secretariat for Truth and reconciliation Mechanism (ISTRM). The ISTRM is working to build the necessary legal and policy framework, operational procedures and guidelines for the Commission. The objective of the ISTRM is to lay the foundation for a home-grown solution for truth, reconciliation and national unity. The ISTRM is currently engaging with the public and stakeholders to ensure the Commission is built with their participation and consultation, shaping this transformative mechanism and ultimately paving the way for sustainable peace and national unity….”

 

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