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October 1, 2022

Criminalising Public Protest Will Only Delay The Inevitable

Last Updated on September 13, 2022 by Lankae Cast

The pursuit of those who gave any measure of leadership to the public protest movement that peaked in July continues steadily. The most recent victim has been an award-winning actress who entered the presidential home when it was under occupation by public protestors. She had also been an active speaker at the public protests outside the presidential buildings. The hunting down of those who took part in the protests is an ugly feature of current governance that has evoked both national and international opprobrium. But the crackdown continues not because those in power are irrational but because they are rational in their self-interest. They are able to see the deterrence of future protests as key to their long stay in government. They also want to get back to the business of governing as soon as possible.

The appointment last week of 37 state and deputy ministers by the president will supplement the 21 cabinet ministers already holding office. Notably, many of them stand accused of engaging in corrupt actions and abuse of power. From their perspective, it is a remarkable comeback for them. Just three months ago, the protest movement was at its height, they were driven out of office. The former president was agreeable to an all-party government with no more than 15 ministers and for an interim period until elections were held. The number of ministers under the new dispensation is likely to be more than 60 and the great majority of them will be from the ruling party with the balance being defectors from other parties, making a mockery of an “all party government.”

Indeed, it appears that all major parties are acting in their self-interests, except for those in the protest movement. It is they who got caught up in the emotion of that time caused both by economic hardship and the prospect of quick change. They are now paying the price, one by one, for having thought of the national interest and demanded the ouster of corrupt political leaders and system change. They made these demands despite the fact that the government held both legal power and military power in their hands. The government, on the other hand, is thinking of its own interest and in keeping its parliamentary majority intact by means of patronage politics. The appointment of the large contingent of ministers by the president is due to self-interested pressure from the ruling party. They include those who resigned from the government during the height of the Aragalaya and the defectors from other political parties breaching their own party discipline who have no moral right to accept ministerial positions.

Criminalising Protest

With their continuing majority in parliament it is the ruling party that holds the reins. There have been fissures in their original 2/3 majority, but the breakaway groups have not coalesced into a parliamentary opposition with a majority to defeat the government. There is anticipation of more ministers to be appointed in the near future as many parliamentarians who have not yet been offered such position are aggrieved. Each of them costs a lot of money due to the plethora of privileges, including vehicles, housing and recruitment of personal assistants. This will be a significant drain on the national budget at a time when the government is hard pressed to reduce the budget deficit due to the fall in national income.

In the context of the continuing crackdown on those who participated in the protest movement, there is no visible mass opposition to the government any more. This has created an impression of political stability. The government has been effective in its efforts to quell the public protests. It has done this by using the full force of the law on those who have engaged in it. The main legal weapon in the government arsenal is the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which was brought as a temporary measure in 1979 to use against the burgeoning Tamil insurrection in the North. The government has used it against some of the protest leaders and disregarded both national and international protests by human rights groups and by the UN system itself. The PTA has not defined the meaning of terrorism and the government seems to have added unarmed protests in defining terrorism.

The criminalizing of public protest by the government may explain why there is no sign of the protest movement coming to the fore again at this time even though the economic conditions of the masses of people continue to steadily deteriorate. The government’s targeting of protest leaders is likely to deter future public protests by unorganized and spontaneous public groups as occurred six months ago. As many as 4000 persons connected to those protests and to the acts of violence during those protests are in government custody. This includes a significant number who participated in the protests without engaging in violence.

With those who gave leadership to the protest movement behind bars or out on bail after being charged, there is little possibility of public protests in the future on the scale that drove the previous president out of office and forced the resignation of the former government. The only check on the government at the present time is going to be international pressure. The advance draft statement of the UN Human Rights High Commissioner in Geneva gives an indication of the legal and economic sanctions that are possible. It will be difficult for the government to deflect the international pressure by either citing constitutional restrictions or the need to prioritise the revival of the economy.

International Sanctions

The High Commissioner’s statement recommends that the international community should “(d) Cooperate in investigating and prosecuting perpetrators of international crimes committed by all parties in Sri Lanka through judicial proceedings in national jurisdictions, including under accepted principles of extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction, through relevant international networks and in cooperation with victims and their representatives; (e) Explore further targeted sanctions such as asset freezes and travel bans against those credibly alleged to have perpetrated gross international human rights violations or serious humanitarian law violations; (f) Support Sri Lanka in the investigation of economic crimes that impact on human rights and the tracing and recovery of stolen assets. ”

An unexpected development is the possibility of a new resolution to be passed against Sri Lanka at the 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council later this month. The Sri Lanka government delegation to Geneva has been lobbying with African and Asian countries to prevent this resolution from being passed. Their plea is that Sri Lanka needs the understanding and support of the international community, and not its sanctions, if it is to meet the economic challenges that have plunged the majority of people into borderline or real poverty. However, it is reported that the UK and US, along with Germany and Canada, which are the main sponsors of this resolution have a majority of countries lined up to support the passage of the resolution.

The focus of the resolution is to help provide legal and other guidelines to countries that want to exercise universal jurisdiction permissible under their laws and try those against whom there is credible evidence. The draft resolution also recommends action against political leaders and state officials responsible for economic crimes that have adversely impacted on human rights in Sri Lanka. The international strategy appears to be to target key individuals guilty of violations rather than adopt sanctions that will impact negatively on the country as a whole. This can be seen in the US, which is sponsoring the resolution on Sri Lanka in Geneva, also pledging to support the government in negotiations with the IMF and allocating USD 60 million as support to farmers and for other welfare purposes.

In this context, where the country needs international assistance, the government is unlikely to be able to whip up nationalistic opposition against the UN resolution on this occasion as it did successfully in the past to win elections. Many would endorse holding to account those who have been responsible for the downfall of the economy and are now seeking to suppress dissent. The new UN priorities as spelt out in the High Commissioner’s report and the draft resolution will spare the country and target those who are wrongdoers. Repression that delays development and prolongs the sufferings of the people often explodes at the end to the detriment of all. Unfortunately, political leaders though are well aware of it may wish to play the game to its end, stretching the margins, to the national detriment.

By Jehan Perera, Executive Director, National Peace Council