Commonwealth Secretary-General’s Good Offices in Sri Lanka

kamlesh sharma   Part of the Commonwealth Secretary-General’s role is to work closely with member states, particularly during times when the Commonwealth’s shared political values and commitments are under stress.

Through his ‘Good Offices’ – as work of this kind is known – we offer Commonwealth advice and specialist technical assistance to advance Commonwealth values, which are set out in the Charter of the Commonwealth.  The focus always is on working constructively in a climate of trust and good faith, and with ownership by the member state of the objectives that underpin our collaboration, which is essential for sustainable progress.

The Secretary-General has made a number of public statements in the last year to highlight the Commonwealth’s collectively shared values and principles, and our commitment to work in collaboration with Sri Lanka in advancing its national plans that support those values and principles.  These statements are available on the Secretariat’s website: www.thecommonwealth.org.

Recent months have seen an intensification of the Secretary-General’s Good Offices in Sri Lanka to seek progress jointly in a number of areas.

Human rights

“We are committed to equality and respect for the protection and promotion of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development, for all without discrimination on any grounds as the foundations of peaceful, just and stable societies…..” [1]

We have worked on strengthening the independence and effectiveness of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka. The objective, supported by the Sri Lankan Government, is to prepare for a reaccreditation application and to have the Commission’s ‘A’ status restored by the International Coordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions.

One of the positive outcomes of our work is the Commission’s commitment to conduct the first national inquiry on torture by State forces, to which the Secretariat will provide support over the next 12 to 18 months. This support includes the establishment of a Commonwealth Advisory Group which will be supporting the inquiry through relevant expertise. The Commission has also established a hot-line to report human rights abuses, including torture.

In October 2013, the Chair of the Commission announced that it will be given more powers to take legal action against anyone who fails to implement the Commission’s recommendations within a two week timeframe. This followed approval by the Executive to amend the Human Rights Commission Act.

Tolerance, respect and understanding (reconciliation)

“We emphasise the need to promote tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies, and recall that respect for the dignity of all human beings is critical to promoting peace and prosperity…” [2]

In May 2013, we secured high-level Sri Lankan participation in a Commonwealth Roundtable on Reconciliation held in London, which included the Chair and Commissioners of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL), as well as the Secretary to the President who also heads the task force for the implementation of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission’s (LLRC) recommendations.  The objective of the Roundtable was sharing lessons from truth and reconciliation experiences and successful practices by Commonwealth countries that have previously experienced civil conflict.

Following the Roundtable in London, during which delegates heard about various transitional justice mechanisms including memorialization, from countries such as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, South Africa and the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland) the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka has expressed a further interest in the concept and practice of memorialization.   We are working with the HRCSL in this regard.

In September 2013, we convened a Roundtable in Vavuniya in the Northern Province, which sought to determine the role of the Human Rights Commission in national reconciliation efforts. One of the outcomes of the roundtable was an agreement that the Commission had a distinct and officially recognised role to play in promoting national reconciliation. A further outcome was a request from the Commission that the Commonwealth assist to develop a time-bound work plan which will guide its reconciliation efforts.

Discussions are ongoing with the HRCSL as well as the Government on areas where the Commonwealth Secretariat might develop a collaborative partnership in support of Sri Lanka’s national efforts to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The areas of focus are those where the Commonwealth has a recognised potential contribution, drawing on the experiences of its member states, and where a practical contribution is feasible.  This potentially includes institutional reform, freedom of religion or belief, strengthening rights protection and promotion of vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Discussions with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association have also begun with the aim of creating practical ways in which Parliamentarians can foster reconciliation efforts in the country.

Democracy (elections)

“We recognise the inalienable right of individuals to participate in democratic processes, in particular through free and fair elections in shaping the society in which they live…” [3]

In September 2013, a Commonwealth Observer Mission was in Sri Lanka for the Northern Provincial Council Elections. The unprecedented invitation from the Election Commission of Sri Lanka, with the agreement of the Sri Lanka Government, to observe these provincial elections* is an important demonstration of the potential for positive impact of our Good Offices work.

The Observer Mission reported that voting and counting arrangements for the election were “impressive” and commended the voters for the large turnout and for their commitment to the democratic process. The Mission found Election Day to be largely peaceful. However, the Mission also documented concerns: it found inadequate enforcement of existing laws that provide for a level playing field for all candidates; commented on the heavy presence and influence of the military; and, felt freedoms of association and assembly in the pre-election period to be constrained and the media environment also constricted. There is also reference to the misuse of public resources. Some of these conclusions are currently contested.

As usual, the Observer Mission was completely independent of the Secretariat, and the Secretariat itself stands ready to identify where it can help in implementing recommendations of the Mission.

Rule of Law

“In particular we support an independent, impartial, honest and competent judiciary and recognise that an independent, effective and competent legal system is integral to upholding the rule of law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice…” [4]

There has been serious concern expressed widely regarding the circumstances and manner of the impeachment and dismissal of Chief Justice Bandaranaike.

As agreed during the Secretary-General’s visit to Colombo in February 2013, we furnished the Sri Lankan Government with a compendium of practice in all member states, as well as an analysis of Commonwealth best practice pertaining to the appointment, tenure and removal of senior judges. The External Affairs Minister of Sri Lanka has responded positively and has advised that the compendium is before a Parliamentary Select Committee for consideration.

The Secretary-General reiterated his offer of Commonwealth assistance that would be available with any related legislative review and drafting to make changes required.

Sustainable development (public administration)

“We are also committed to building economic resilience and promoting social equity, and we reiterate the value in technical assistance, capacity building and practical cooperation in promoting development …” [5]

Structured and sustained technical assistance has been provided towards the reform and strengthening of public administration in Sri Lanka to enable effective public policy formulation and execution for successful delivery of an inclusive medium-to-long term development strategy. Our range of support has included:

Presidential Secretariat

Support provided by way of a short-term expert to assist in establishing a Strategy & Policy Unit.

Parliament of Sri Lanka

Support provided annually to build the skills and capacity of parliamentary officials. Forty-five officials have already received support and a further five are due to undertake a parliamentary internship.

Institutional Collaboration

Support in strengthening the Sri Lanka Institute of Development Administration (SLIDA) as a ‘centre of excellence’.

Public Policy Intervention

Two groups of 50 potential Sri Lanka Administrative Service Cadre Permanent Secretaries (SLAS) were exposed to a two-week practical learning and development programme which has resulted in changes towards a public policy system which encourages citizens to comment, criticise, investigate and influence rural development programmes. Similarly, the Ministry of Social Services is using the knowledge gained to improve social protection and security of underprivileged groups of society.

A project in strengthening local government capacity in the Northern and Eastern Provinces is being implemented in collaboration with the Commonwealth Local Government Forum (CLGF). The purpose of the project is to strengthen local governance and thereby enable a participatory and inclusive development approach throughout Sri Lanka.

Freedom of expression

“We are committed to peaceful, open dialogue and the free flow of information, including through a free and responsible media and to enhancing democratic traditions and strengthening democratic processes…” [6]

Discussions are ongoing to provide assistance in building the capacity and effectiveness of media institutions in Sri Lanka. We are working to encourage contact and collaboration between the Press Institute and Press Council which represent the interests respectively of the media and State.

We are also looking to bring to Sri Lanka other Commonwealth voices from the region on topical issues such as independent media environments and codes of conduct in peer-learning exercises. This will include the sharing of Commonwealth best practice in relation to respect for an independent media, regulatory frameworks and better rights protection and promotion.

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