People Called On To Play Direct Role To Sustain Democracy

By Jehan Perera –

Jehan Perera

The government has withdrawn its draft Anti Terrorist law (ATA), but only temporarily. The Minister of Justice has said that he has decided to provide more time for proposals for reform to be submitted to it. There have been a very large number of statements and protests made against the draft law from a wide swathe of society including the Bar Association, civil society organisations, trade unions and highest ranking religious clergy. The main cause of opposition to it has been its sweeping over-breadth which will enable the government to suppress public protests that are recognized as being democratic and legitimate the world over. When the reality of economic restructuring caused by the economic collapse strikes its likely targets who are the middle and working classes the agitation against the government is bound to grow. It appears that the government is preparing its security arsenal to meet the exigencies of public protests. The ATA will be one of its chief weapons.

The problem of governments that seek to use the law or break it to protect their power and positions is not peculiar to Sri Lanka. It can be seen in other countries as dissimilar culturally and politically from Sri Lanka as Pakistan and Israel. They are at different levels of development with Israel being at the higher end. Increasingly it seems that for the preservation of democracy people have to play a direct role. Citizens are taking to the streets non-violently to protect their fundamental right to speak, to be heard and also to be heeded in circumstances of great upheaval where the larger public feel that their wellbeing is of little consequence and is easily compromised.

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Pakistan is going through an economic crisis with inflation exceeding 45 percent and over a million Pakistanis emigrating in a year. Prof. Moonis Ahmar has written that in Pakistan, “There are growing concerns about the outbreak of a civil war due to deep rooted political polarization as well as a tug of war between the parliament and judiciary. The PTI Chairman Imran Khan’s warning that the government’s failure to hold elections to the Punjab Assembly on May 14 would compel him to hit the streets means all is not well.”  Just as in Sri Lanka the government is saying it has no money to hold the elections.

In a manner that suggests further parallels to Sri Lanka, Prof Moonis states, “For the first time in the history of Pakistan, there is a sharp erosion of ethics and values at the national level which is reflected in the deterioration of state institutions and indifference of those who matter. When the Prime Minister of a country is defiant against the Supreme Court Chief Justice and other judges and when the election commission is unable to comply with the orders of superior court in sheer violation of the constitution, the die is cast. When the parliament disobeys Supreme Court orders and elected representatives are not bothered about their unprincipled stance, the country’s survival is certainly at stake.”

Israeli Protests

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In Israel there is a people’s movement that reminded me of the Aragalaya. I visited that country last month at the invitation of the American Jewish Committee. Outside the hotel I was staying were young university students and their professors distributing leaflets urging those passing by to join in the protest that was going to take place that day. Israel has a government that is seeking to use its parliamentary majority to change the laws to its advantage. The Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is charismatic and much experienced. But he has now become a divisive figure. He has been indicted for corruption in the Israeli courts. So he has used his parliamentary majority to change the laws under which he may be found guilty. He is also trying to change the law in order to do away with the current independent process for appointing judges and instead give the government the power to appoint the judges.

The judicial reform plan would give Netanyahu, who is on trial on corruption charges, and his partners in Israel’s most hardline coalition in its history the final say in appointing judges. It would also give parliament, which is controlled by Netanyahu’s allies, the authority to overturn Supreme Court decisions and limit the court’s ability to review laws. In a manner that evokes memories of Sri Lanka last year, broad swathes of Israeli society, including leaders in business, have criticized the proposed changes. Military reservists threatened not to show up for duty if the plan is approved. They have said they do not wish to fight for a government that is not mindful of democratic principles such as checks and balances.

Over the past eighteen weeks, Israel has been witnessing mass protests like we once experienced and joined in Sri Lanka to protest against our sudden impoverishment and lack of accountability of our government that had wrecked the economy but continued to stay in power. Tens of thousands of people, largely secular, middle-class Israelis, have regularly joined mass protests against the plan. It is a sign of a democracy that its people feel they can come out on the streets to protest against their government. 

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Like we once had in Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of people have been protesting on the streets of Israeli cities. The Netanyahu government has the majority in parliament and has the power to pass laws that the protestors believe would undermine their democracy. The right to protest, even against the decisions of a majority, is a fundamental human right that is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Pakistan, Israel and Sri Lanka have all signed up to. So far the Israeli government has not infringed on that right to public protest. 

International Pressure 

The main problem with the draft Anti Terrorist Act in Sri Lanka is that it widens the range of offences to include the people’s democratic right to protest and even criminalise it. Power to the police, military and coast guards had been increased extensively in the process. The draft law is intended to give the government additional power to quell public protests including trade union action by claiming that such acts of protest threaten the stability of the government and economy and are the equivalent of terrorism. This was the position that the government took in suppressing the Aragayala last year. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (which the ATA is intended to replace) was used to arrest the protestors who demanded “system change” and that all the leaders responsible for the country’s economic bankruptcy should resign. However, the most recent analysis done by the World Bank indicates that the crisis continues this year as well and will persist into the next year and beyond.

According to the World Bank, Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis is estimated to have doubled the poverty rate from 13.1 percent to 25 percent and it is projected to remain above 25 percent for the next few years due to the multiple risks to households’ livelihoods. “The crisis reversed years of gains in poverty reduction and human capital development,” the update said, noting that the crisis had added an additional 2.5 million poor people. Vulnerability to income shocks has also increased with many non-poor households living close to the poverty line with 5.7 percent of the population living less than 10 percent above the poverty line and a further 5.6 percent living between 10 and 20 percent above it. All these households are highly vulnerable to falling into poverty in the event of a negative income shock, according to the report.

In these circumstances, there are bound to be public protests and trade union action in the coming months for which the government is preparing the Anti Terrorism Act. The government that destroyed the Aragalaya in a matter of days by utilizing the security forces and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, despite protests by the Bar Association, civil society organizations, trade unions and religious clergy, is unlikely to pay heed to their proposals for reform of the draft Anti Terrorism Act. 

Although Justice Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has invited interested parties to make submissions pertaining to the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill till May 31, it is unlikely that the government will be serious in listening to domestic parties, such as the Bar Association, civil society organizations, trade unions and religious clergy. Unlike in Israel’s democratic polity where people’s peaceful opposition is holding the government at bay, in Sri Lanka it will be international pressure such as the risk of losing the EU’s GSP Plus economic concession that will make the difference.


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