The government was placed in a dilemma in Parliament over its business scheduled for the current sitting week as the Supreme Court ruled that the process of presenting the Value Added Tax (Amendment) bill was rendered null and void due to non adherence to procedure.
Speaker Karu Jayasuriya announced the Supreme Court ruling in the House on Tuesday. By that time, the government had listed the debate on the VAT bill for Wednesday and Thursday. So, it called for a meeting of the Parliamentary Business Committee to reschedule its business for the week as the VAT bill ceased to exist on the Order Paper.
The government, by co-sponsoring the resolution, has accepted the concept of ‘universal jurisdiction’. The evidence gathered by the OMP can come from anonymous sources
It also tried to advance the debate and enactment of the Office of Missing Persons Amendment Bill as part of implementing its commitment to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva. The Bill, after being presented to the House, ran into controversy as some political parties in the opposition together with some organisations backing them, were against it being enacted in Parliament.
The bill sought to set up the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to deal with cases where persons disappeared during the war time. The government was committed to the UNHRC to pursue such matters for reconciliation in the country. Already, it had announced that the bill would be passed into law by the end of this month. In the absence of the VAT bill, the government sought to advance the OMP bill.
The representatives of the OP and the JVO sought more time to study the implications of the bill. The government decided not to take up the bill yesterday. Instead, yet another meeting was to be conducted to discuss fresh dates for the debate.
The Joint Opposition, a key critic of the bill, said there was a great danger inherent in the draft legislation.
“This legislation contains totally unacceptable features. Section 27 declares its provisions are applicable only to the North and Eastern provinces. What is the justification for this differentiation? Why should the North and the East be differentiated from the rest of the country? Human lives are of equal value throughout the country. Section 21 names the seven persons appointed by the Constitutional Council to raise funds from governments and persons outside the country. Section 11 gives the right to enter into agreements with foreign organisations including the NGOs on forensic or other matters. This provision will enable the OMP to enter into agreements on any subject.”
GL sees danger
“ Section 12 can be used to allow foreign organisations that contract with the OMP, fund it, have access to military camps and other sensitive military installations. It says that police and officers of the OMP will be empowered to search premises. Foreign organisations that fund the OPM and enter into agreements with them will be able to send their personnel to access camps and other military installations. Section 13 says that no civil and criminal liability arises from findings, and a danger remains that evidence gathered by the OMP can be used to the detriment of the armed forces even in prosecution outside the country. The present government, by co-sponsoring the resolution, has accepted the concept of ‘universal jurisdiction’. The evidence gathered by the OMP can come from anonymous sources. Evidence Ordinance has no application. Nor will the provisions of the Right to Information Bill apply. . The result will be total confusion and uncertainty. This is Sri Lanka’s own resolution’; its contents are unbelievable. The operating paragraph one of the resolution ‘notes with appreciation ‘the report submitted on Sri Lanka by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and calls for the implementation of that report. This report says that there is reasonable ground to believe that SL armed forces were responsible for the large scale massacre of civilians, disappearances of large number of persons, rape. other sexual offences and the deliberate starvation of the people. Incredibly, this is the report which the government of Sri Lanka notes with appreciation and requires to be implemented. Whatever be said now by the government, paragraph 6 of the resolution commits the government of Sri Lanka to a judicial mechanism which includes foreign judges,” former External Affairs Minister Prof. G.L. Peiris once said in an interview with the Daily Mirror. He was speaking on behalf of the Joint Opposition.
Mangala counters criticism against OMP
However, Foreign Affairs Minister Mangala Samaraweera , responding to critics said, “The Office of Missing Persons will not be a part of Sri Lanka’s law enforcement and justice system, but an independent body incorporated by Parliament which gives its members the power to function outside the normal rules and regulations that guide state institutions.”
The bill outlines four main functions for the OMP: (i) searching and tracing of missing persons, (ii) clarifying the circumstances in which such persons went missing and their fate, (iii) making recommendations to relevant authorities in order to reduce incidence of missing and disappeared persons, (iv) identifying proper avenues of redress. As such, it is not a law-enforcement or judicial agency but a truth-seeking investigative agency,created by Parliament, like the Bribery Commission and Human Rights Commission which responded to specific needs in society.
The salient features of the legislation include:
- The findings of the OMP shall not give rise to any criminal or civil liability.
- Like in the other independent commissions, the OMP’s seven members will be selected by the Constitutional Council.
- The members of the OMP and the officers and staff of the OMP, shall be deemed to be “public servants” for the purposes of the Penal Code, the Bribery Act and the Evidence Ordinance.
- The salaries of OMP members will be determined by Parliament and will be charged on the Consolidated Fund.
- The OMP must be audited by the Auditor General in terms of Article 154 of the Constitution
- The OMP must submit annual reports to Parliament, and those reports will be made public.
“Even though it is described as an ‘office’ the proposed OMP will be a tribunal for all practical purposes which can examine witnesses, issue summons and hold hearings. Its officers can enter without warrant, at any time of day or night, any police station, prison or military installation and seize any document or object they require for investigations. Anyone who fails or refuses to cooperate with the OMP may be punished for contempt of court.”
The Office of Missing Persons is a truth-seeking investigative agency. It does not make judgements on disputes. In fact, the legislation states that “the findings of the OMP shall not give rise to any criminal or civil liability.” Its primary function is to establish whether a missing person is dead or alive and, if they are dead, discover when, how and where they died.
JO fails to challenge OMP bill in Court
Despite criticism levelled at the provisions of the draft bill, the Joint Opposition failed to challenge its constitutionality in the Supreme Court. It has to be done within seven days upon the bill concerned being presented to the House. The Joint Opposition failed in this exercise. If the bill is inconsistent with the Constitution, it has to be passed with two-thirds majority in the House. Also, if the entrenched provisions of the Constitution are violated, it has to be approved by people at a referendum in addition to the two-thirds majority in Parliament. Legal luminaries believe that a determination could have been obtained from the Supreme Court had the bill been challenged during the stipulated time. Yet, it is a missed opportunity for the Joint Opposition or any other critic.
TNA supports OMP bill, plans for amendments
Alongside, the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) is supportive of the bill. It is learnt that the TNA is planning to bring a few more amendments to the original bill during the committee stage of the bill in Parliament.
It is learnt that the TNA is planning to bring a few more amendments to the original bill during the committee stage of the bill
President seeks to accelerate Port City Project
The government has, more or less, finalised all fundamental work for the resumption of the Colombo Port City Project, a Chinese real estate project on a landmass to be reclaimed from the sea adjacent to the Colombo Port.
The new tripartite agreement is to be signed shortly involving the parties concerned. In the meantime, an official of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) made a detailed presentation with eye-catching, colourful graphical images of how the project would look upon completion. President Maitripala Sirisena, who listened attentively, appeared to have been inspired by the presentation with graphical images. He asked when the project would be completed and whether it was possible to accelerate the work. The official replied that land filling would be completed by 2020.
Kabir against tax on beedi
The Cabinet devoted a great deal of time to find measures to boost tax revenue in the wake of the delay of the VAT bill. The need to increase tax on cigarettes also cropped up. Yet, Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake said illicit cigarettes were smuggled into the country, and a disproportionate tax hike of authorised cigarette brands would give rise to the smuggling of unauthorised brands.
Another suggestion was made to tax ‘beedi’. However, State Enterprise Development Minister Kabir Hashim objected to it. “It is a cottage industry providing livelihood for poor people. If we tax them, it will affect their livelihood,” he said.
If the bill is inconsistent with the Constitution, it has to be passed with two-thirds majority in the House
Bandula , Mahindananda cut short Korean visit
A Joint Opposition delegation led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa is currently on a tour of South Korea. But, MPs Bandula Gunawardane and Mahindananda Aluthgamage cut short their visit and returned to the country, to participate in parliamentary debates on the VAT bill.