Domestic Solutions For Domestic Problems: Lessons From John Kerry’s Visit

Basic CMYKThe arrival of United States Secretary of State John Kerry ignited mixed reactions from the Sri Lankan public. President Maithripala Sirisena echoed his supporters’ sentiments when he considered this visit as one that will revive Sri Lanka’s development by re-establishing ties between the United States and Sri Lanka. However, those on the opposite spectrum of politics were wary of his visit, perceiving it as a western or foreign threat aimed at destroying the national sovereignty of the nation.

Whatever his reasons for visiting Sri Lanka, or the potential benefits of his venture, the observations John Kerry made regarding the prevailing situation in Sri Lanka were noteworthy. He stated that Sri Lanka was in urgent need of a panacea for reconciliation. He further stated that this issue is an internal one, compounded by many contributing factors, and thus needs an internal mechanism and thorough discussion to remedy it. In that spirit he stated that it is not the intention of the United States to engage directly in this reconciliation process but to provide any necessary technical assistance based on Sri Lanka’s call.

To the TNA, the political party representing the interests of the Tamil community, his advice was to work in unison with the present government to find a domestic solution based on national consensus. These sentiments proved that the Secretary of State has been quite observant and had critically thought of the situation in Sri Lanka and steps needed to be taken going forward.

10678640_732681696802609_2218721532253055532_nOne significant area that had not been given the consideration it deserves since the end of the war was national reconciliation and building a national identity for Sri Lankans. It has now been 28 years since Provincial Councils were legally established around the ssland under the 13th Amendment, edging now on its third decade of existence. In commemoration of their 20th year, all Provincial Councils around the island gathered in a momentous and historic occasion to discuss in length the issues they face and created a report addressed to the central government as to what they proposed would be remedies to their issues, and this writer had the honor and privilege of assisting them. An excerpt of this report is provided below:

PROVINCIAL COUNCIL COMMON FINAL RECOMMENDATIONS

TWENTY YEARS OF EXPERIENCE: ISSUES & ALTERNATIVES

Constitutional Issues

ISSUES:

Non-implementation of powers devolved on Provincial Councils by the Thirteenth Amendment

1. Concurrent List

2. Replication

3. Need for Attorney General’s advice / approval on provincial legislation

ALTERNATIVES:

●  Transfer and fully implement powers devolved on Provincial Councils

●  A Memorandum of Understanding in respect of devolution until constitutional amendments and statutory changes are introduced

●  Abolition of central government ministries which replicate the functions of Provincial Councils

Administrative Issues

ISSUES:

1. Central government consent is required for provincial level recruitment and appointments.

2. Removal of Divisional Secretariats

3. Central government circulars on functions that have been devolved on Provincial Councils without consultation or consent

ALTERNATIVES:

  Chief Ministers to be made legal members of the central Cabinet of Ministers

●  A Legal Department to be established for each Provincial Council

●  Appointment of more officials and ministers required for Provincial Councils through full implementation of Thirteenth Amendment and the Concurrent List functions.

●  Converting the offices of Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson of Provincial Councils to the provincial Speaker and Deputy Speaker, respectively.

●  Standardising criteria for the recruitment of officials and making required appointments of each province through the respective Provincial Public Service Commissions.

●  Bringing Provincial Council Management Services under a Director.

●  Devolving powers over the transfer and location within provinces of seconded officials from the national administrative service.

●  The central government should not intervene in functions devolved on the provinces.

Financial Issues

ISSUES:

Powers are vested with Provincial Councils for the provision of public goods and services. However, the corresponding powers to generate income and taxation revenue have not been devolved. Therefore an alternative framework for financing the Provincial Councils needs to be devised.

Functions of the Finance Commission

●  No provincial representation in the Finance Commission.

●  The Finance Commission is unable to enforce recommendations based on provincial needs and preferences.

●  The central Treasury subjects Finance Commission recommendations in respect of provincial allocations to cuts.

●  Provincial Council allocations as recommended by the Finance Commission are not released on time by the central Treasury.

● Limitations on Provincial Council tax raising powers.

● Lack of Provincial Council powers to attract foreign aid and loans.

● No national policy on funding Provincial Councils.

ALTERNATIVES:

 ● Annual financial allocations to be made as a single block grant.

● Funds allocated to Provincial Councils should not be re-allocated to line ministries of the central government replicating devolved functions.

● Establishing a Finance Commission that is accountable to both the central government and the Provincial Councils. It should have provincial representation.

●  Vesting adequate tax raising powers to each province so that provincial fiscal policy can be determined according to provincial needs.

●  Provincial Councils should have full powers over the implementation of foreign-funded projects.

●  Foreign funds to be directly allocated to Provincial Councils with the concurrence of the central government.

●  Policy-making function on subjects to be strictly divided between provincial and national spheres.

Source ‘Strengthening the Provincial Councils System; by Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2008

 However, it is rather disappointing to note that at the very least the fundamental issues faced by the most active Provincial Councils have not even been discussed let alone addressed by the Central government. This is a classic example of how power has not been appropriately devolved.

mahinda-and-singh4Suffice to say, the present government as well as all governments predating them have, by default, abetted the slow and natural death of Provincial Councils in Sri Lanka. Perhaps now would be the most advantageous time to spare some critical thought into this phenomenon and view its implications in a far broader manner than it has been previously conceived. As important as it is to foster ties with our international allies, it should not be for their benefit that we look into this matter but for the benefit of our fellow people; and in this regard, the present government as well as any other government that follows has an imperative responsibility to respond to this without paying heed to a handful of civil society that stand in the way of true reconciliation.

The most prominent matter in need of attention when discussing Provincial Councils is the Concurrent list. In the attempt to provide equal value to both central and provincial level politics, much of its efficacy has been lost. As vital as it was to pass the 19th Amendment, the curbing of executive powers of the president does nothing for the equal devolution of powers to all tiers of governance in Sri Lanka. The Provincial Councils were established for the purpose of assisting and representing the citizenry from the bottom up, and in this regard it is imperative that they be given due consideration failing which the lay citizen will have nothing to fall back on.

1188More than a year has passed since the establishment of  Provincial Councils (PC) in the North and the East. However, we must agree that the political system in those areas function at a district level. The issues faced in the Northern and Eastern provinces are distinctive to those areas and are not transmitted adequately to national levels. Therefore the best course of action is for PCs in those areas to take the maximum advantage of the powers provided to them by the 13th Amendment and construct a plan that is sensitive to the needs, development, and culture of those citizens, by way of statutes and regulations.

PC members in the North and East themselves are unsure of the powers vested in them and instead request greater police powers and finances when they already have the means to enforce all this without requesting them from the central government. The unfortunate result of this is a state of ambiguity within Provincial Council members regarding the powers vested with them and what powers are beyond their jurisdiction. By educating themselves about their powers and jurisdiction, they can then enter a meaningful debate about the powers they are not entitled to and the causes for such an event. It is evident however that dispersion of power throughout the nation has not been conducted accurately and it is currently in a state where absolute power is absorbed mainly by the Central Government.

The reason for this discussion is because if one was to divert attention to other districts beyond the North and East provinces, they will find a different political structure. Whereas Provincial Councils in the North and East provinces conduct provincial level politics, other provinces work on a more national level, due to the representation of political parties. In these provinces the power of provincial councils was championed by leading political parties such as the UNP, UPFA or SLFP. As these were the leading political parties of the nation, their work was aligned mainly with objectives on a national level and therefore overlooked provincial level politics. The status quo that prevails as a result of this is a clear discrepancy between provincial councils in the North and East provinces and other provinces, and the unfortunate victims of this inevitably becomes the villagers in these provinces. Another byproduct of this inconsistency is that provincial level government services have had to play second fiddle to central government services, which by law of the Concurrent list should not be occurring.

Therefore the most urgent recommendation that can be made in this regard is for the current government in power or whatever government is elected in the upcoming elections pay special attention to this serious lack of accurate implementation of the Concurrent list. Politicians should not be awakened to this reality only when Western or Indian allies pay a visit; if politicians are to serve this nation with pure intentions they must first resolve the internal issues Sri Lanka faces primarily with national interests and the interests of its people at heart before they appease international interests. This must take place without succumbing to pressures from pockets of civil society collectives that allow their personal prejudice and discriminatory ideals to govern their policy recommendations.

The North and East provincial councils on many occasions have received recommendations (via lobbying efforts) that are detrimental to building unity and trust amongst the people in the North and South; the pressure applied to bring an international Human Rights commission into the country was one such example of topics that will harm national unity and trust between diverse groups of Sri Lankans. Instead of exhausting our efforts on such ventures, we must work towards an understanding between the citizens of the North and South that the issues people face in these areas are different to theirs and therefore build a more compassionate and understanding citizenry aimed at assisting one another.

The leading political parties in Sri Lanka must be more mindful of this fact and apply more time and effort into fostering this understanding. It is true that people with national and ethnic motivations exist in both the North and the South and their sentiments are sometimes viewed to be injurious to national unity; as much as they have been given a broad platform to voice their opinions it is now time for political parties to also give its alternative view an equal platform. In this regard the greatest succor at a time like this is for the central government to be wary of this fact and distribute power into levels of governance in a more meaningful way. The end result of all this and what the government must always strive to achieve is the dismantling of the myth that Sri Lanka is two separate nations and that all factors that contributed to terrorism in the past has been done away with.

The devolution of power as stated in the Concurrent list is a national requirement; no politician may escape it. With every election, every government that succeeds the other will have to face this reality and provide for all its citizens without discrimination. Whatever name is used to refer to this system; be it federal system or even the rose revolution, the importance lies not in its terminology but its effectiveness. The citizens of Sri Lanka must have unity to face the rest of the world, and in order for this to occur we must all understand this raw reality and work for our betterment instead of waiting for international actors such as John Kerry to remind us.