Pictorial warning: It should be 100%

24 August 2014 06:30 pm - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian and a Presidents Counsel lawyer, is a vociferous critic of smoking and has been campaigning for 100 percent pictorial warnings on cigarette packets. Speaking to Dailymirror he expressed his views on the tobacco menace and the best way to eradicate it. He also spoke about the country’s political situation, the upcoming elections and the formation of the Common Opposition.

Let’s start of with one of the most widely discussed topics in the country – the tobacco issue. You are someone who is in very much favour of the 80 per cent pictorial warning on cigarette packets but the Supreme Court has ruled that the pictorial warning should be up to 60 per cent only. What are your thoughts on this?

Of course my campaign is for 100 percent pictorial warnings on the packs because even developed countries have adopted the 80-100 percent pictorial warnings as a method to discourage smoking. We were happy when the parliament decided that it should be 80 per cent because within the recent past there were only very few legislations that have been brought for the benefit of the general public and this was one such. This was in fact due to the endeavour of the Minister of Health.

If you take into consideration the number of deaths due to smoking and also the number of people affected by passive smoking, it has to be definitely more than 60 per cent. Ninety per cent of the smokers in our country get in to the habit of smoking and continue it due to their lack of knowledge about the negative consequences of smoking. Even with laws that dictate that cigarettes cannot be advertised through public media, a large number of cigarettes are consumed daily and millions of rupees are wasted on cigarettes. Furthermore, a large proportion of the health budget is used up to treat people with diseases due to smoking. So it is very bad for the health of the nation and is also very bad for the economy of the country.



"If you take into consideration the number of deaths due to smoking and also the number of people affected by passive smoking, it has to be definitely more than 60 per cent. Ninety per cent of the smokers in our country get in to the habit of smoking and continue it due to their lack of knowledge about the negative consequences of smoking"




Governments in the country did not do anything to reduce the cigarette consumption because they are happy with the tax revenue collected through the cigarette trade.
Of course a complete ban would be the perfect solution for this menace but our society is still not ready for that kind of radical change. You can understand by the struggle we have to go through even to introduce the 80 per cent pictorial warning.
In addition to the tax collecting purpose, there are also some vested interests in the government. That is why Maithripala Sirisena, the Health Minister said, “while presenting this bill, I am risking my life.”

Like I mentioned in my Parliamentary speech, in this country, there cannot be a threat from the Opposition; that is from the government. That is enough to show that the government has a vested interest in protecting and enhancing the sale of tobacco companies.

What do you think the best if not the better way of fighting the tobacco problem?

The better way to get rid from this menace is to have some awareness programmes. Then at least the people around the smokers will band together to stop the habit. Now, if the father is smoking and the child sees the pictorial warning, at least the child will try to influence his father to stop smoking. Likewise, we have to resort to different means. Pictorial warnings are one such mean that has been universally adopted to combat the Tobacco menace.

Another important point that needs to be highlighted is that when the Minister of Health presented the regulation, the Parliament unanimously passed it. That was a rare instance when all the members got together and passed a regulation that was for the benefit of the people. And that decision was intercepted by the Courts which decided that 60 per cent was the reasonable amount for pictorial warnings.

Then the question arises, in the law making process whether the Supreme Court is above the Parliament or vice versa. This is a tricky legal situation because the Supreme Court’s decisions are final and there is no forum to challenge them. The best solution now is to incorporate the 80 per cent warning to the Tobacco Act itself so that the question of interpretation by the Courts doesn’t arise.



This govt. is not legitimate




Switching topics, recently the UNP undertook several fact-finding missions (Gaveshana Charika), almost all of which were blocked by thugs and mobs. Is any legal action being taken regarding the issue or is the UNP keeping very silent about it?

Several UNP members who went to visit these projects in the public interest have been subject to harassment. It is not the job of the UNP to go on these missions. But since there was no other option, the UNP has undertaken the mission to expose the truth to the people and make them understand the reality.
The important question is why they blocked us and the direct answer is that the government is trying to suppress the truth being exposed; that is very clear. The truth is, in this country all the big projects have been given to companies without calling out for tenders. Therefore, transparency and accountability cannot be answered by this government. That is why they have gotten scared.



"This government only wants to remain in power not for the party but for the benefit of a few privileged families in the country"




Basically this should give an indication to the public about the reality of this government. It is up to the people finally to decide about this government.

The issue of why this government is neither transparent nor accountable and as to how much money has been wasted through corruption was raised not only by the Opposition but also by their own members. This is a different era in our political history. Even Government Ministers who openly criticise the government for massive corruption remain in the government. The government is not concerned about those allegations.
This government only wants to remain in power not for the party but for the benefit of a few privileged families in the country.

 

sn’t it because that there is not a strong Opposition in the country to challenge to government that they are able to do whatever they want, whenever they want?

That is a myth. In our country we have the Executive Presidential system and our president is the one with most amount of power in the world. Neither the American President nor the French President has this much of power in their hands.

Secondly, during the last few years, all the political values and the democratic values and norms have been eroded. The government doesn’t respect any of these values. Thirdly, the majority of the politicians are opportunists and hypocrites who will bend to any side if it benefits them. They are so greedy for power and money.

The present government is not a legitimate government. They never had two-thirds and they got so many people from the UNP to get the 160. People have not given a mandate for that. By using that manipulated and artificial two-thirds they brought in the 18th Amendment.

That is unconstitutional and we were surprised that the Supreme Court approved that without referring to have a referendum. That is why people think that the Opposition is weak. The Opposition is not weak; the government has no discipline. In this corrupt government, all the corrupt people get together. Any corrupt politician is willing to join hands with the present President. That is the reason.
 

Uva will be the turning point




It is believed that Presidential Election will be held soon and Mahinda Rajapaksa will be running for a third term. As a Constitutional lawyer, could you explain the legal perspective of this matter?

There is an argument that when people pass their vote in 2010, people cast their vote for Mahinda Rajapaksa understanding that by law that is his last chance to run for President.

He was elected for the second time prior to the 18th Amendment. In Constitutional law there is a legal principle that if you bring a law, with a retrospective effect, then that law must clearly state so.

The parliament must specifically pass the law stating that the effect is retrospective. In the 18th Amendment there is no such retrospective provision. It is a Constitutional requirement that when a law is passed it has to be prospective (unless stated otherwise). This means that the law will apply only from the day it comes into operation; it cannot be retrospective.


"The biggest eyesore for this government is an independent Court of Appeal and an independent Supreme Court"



Now, when this mandate was given to Mahinda Rajapaksa, people exercised it for him for the second and last time. When he was elected, the 18th Amendment was not in operation. And therefore, any subsequent amendment to remove any restriction regarding running for presidency has to be applied to the presidents who will come in the future; not for the existing incumbent. That is the argument. The former CJ Sarath Silva also holds this kind of view.

But our issue is who will interpret it? It has to be interpreted by the Supreme Court. But as for allegations, the Supreme Court has no independence. Looking back to how the former CJ Shirani Bandaranayake was sacked, the people can see what kind of independence – or lack thereof – exists in the Supreme Courts. The biggest eyesore for this government is an independent Court of Appeal and an independent Supreme Court.
In January 2014, I presented a bill to regulate the impeachment and prevent the government from removing judges in an ad hoc manner and to restore independence and impartiality to the judiciary of the country. However, to my knowledge, in the recent past, that was the only bill that was thrown out at the time of the presentation. It did not even make it to the agenda to be debated. The government used their majority to throw out the bill before it was even discussed in the parliament. This shows how this government is so keen to stifle the independence of the judiciary.

So Mahinda Rajapaksa might come as a candidate again but it is up to the people to decide whether he should be given the leadership of the country again.


How is the formation of the Common Opposition coming along?

Rather than a Common Opposition, what we are really discussing is a common platform, just to agree on a common agenda. Too much of prominence have been given to a Common Candidate. What we have discussed so far with all the parties is a common agenda – first to win the presidential elections and then to abolish the executive presidency and bring back a system that is somewhat similar to the Westminster System.


There were candidates in the past who promised to abolish Executive Presidency but once they came to power they chose not to do so. So what guarantee do you have to say that the common candidate will definitely abolish the Executive Presidential system?


In July last year, the UNP being the main Opposition presented a Constitutional proposal. In the past the candidates spoke of bringing in a new constitution but people had no clear idea what they were going to bring. Then once they got the mandate, they adopted whatever the Constitution they had in mind. Both Sirima Bandaranaike and J.R. Jayewardene did that.



"The government's corruption has reached the highest level. In addition to that there is a family bandism. Actually corruption is a qualification to join this government. With all that, the people have no reason to tolerate this government any more"




There was no clear idea about the proposed new Constitutions then. But now, for the first time in the history, there is a very clear proposal for a new Constitution which we have given to all the political parties as well as all Mahanayakes and religious dignitaries.

In fact there is an awareness programme going all over the country about our proposal. So once we win we have no escape; we will have to adopt the proposal.
Also practically, even more than the Opposition, the members of the coalition government is thoroughly disgusted with the Executive Presidency. They continue with the system because they have no fall-back. Even with all kinds of injustices and harassments they continue because they are career politicians and have no other profession.


Do you believe that the Common Candidate should be from the UNP?


The question is whoever the common candidate is – from whichever party - if we have to go for a presidential election, out of the votes given to the opposition candidate, who can harness the most votes. We are definite that the UNP candidate – even if that person comes as a Common Candidate with the support of the minority parties – will harness the most votes and 90 per cent of the votes will be UNP votes.


How can you say that when UNP has been defeated in so many elections including the most recent PC elections?


In 2005, even with the war, the ruling party with all provincial councils under their belt and also the Executive Presidency and all that, Mahinda Rajapaksa won with a majority of 180,000 votes.

The UNP got 40 lakhs votes. That is because all the Tamil votes, about 600,000 votes which were meant to be UNP votes, was prevented by Prabhakaran after taking a ransom from this government.

Even with that Ranil Wickremesinghe got over 40 lakhs of votes. We got the same amount while fielding off Fonseka in the subsequent election.


"The question is whoever the common candidate is – from whichever party - if we have to go for a presidential election, out of the votes given to the opposition candidate, who can harness the most votes. We are definite that the UNP candidate – even if that person comes as a Common Candidate with the support of the minority parties – will harness the most votes and 90 per cent of the votes will be UNP votes"



That was soon after the war and we never expected to win because at that time people had formed an opinion that rightly or wrongly Mahinda Rajapaksa won the war.

But now, five years after winning the war, people are thoroughly disgusted and disappointed that no benefits have come to the people.

The government's corruption has reached the highest level. In addition to that there is a family bandism. Actually corruption is a qualification to join this government. With all that, the people have no reason to tolerate this government any more.


Then why did the people still vote for the UPFA at the recent Provincial Council elections?


We knew that it has to be because in Sri Lanka when the government is held by a particular party, no local council can be won by any other party. In 2001, when UNP came into power, while the Executive Presidency remained, the UNP won the PC elections even though the all the previous councils were held by the coalition.

At the local council and provincial council level people don’t want any change unless it comes to a crucial stage like in 1993 when people in down-south defeated the UNP and that was a turning point. We expect that this time the turning point will be Uva.

Now, we must also not forget that in the Western Province the government got only 45 per cent. With the 45 per cent you cannot win a Presidential Election.
So, even though the UNP has not won at the local council level, I am definite that when it comes to a crucial stage as the presidential elections, there will be a serious burst within the government itself. It is because people take decisions when it comes to a crucial point. Rightly or wrongly, that is the political culture of this country.


There is some controversy about Ranil Wickremesinghe leading the UNP. In that context, do you believe that he is the best person to lead the Common Opposition and become the Presidential Candidate?

These are common criticisms. In 1974-75, there was a strong opposition to J.R. and he was even sacked from the UNP. But in two years’ time, he faced the election and not only won but also set a record. Similarly, when Mahinda Rajapaksa contested for the first time, almost all the SLFPers were certain that he would never win. Some of his closest supporters in the government now, at that time were campaigning against him. So, these are common things that don’t mean much in the large context of presidential elections.


How is the UNP preparing for the Uva elections?

During the last so many years, even though we contested in the elections, there was no proper machinery, no proper organization capacity due to various reasons. But because we anticipated these elections at the end of 2014 or beginning of 2015, since January 2013 we started our reorganisaition of the party. We have formed branch offices, youth and women branches, organizing committees, etc. We are well-equipped to get two to three thousand people into one place. We launched our propagandas for the elections. In that sense, we are ready to face any election at any time.

We have put an additional strength in the Uva Province. All members of the parliament as well as the local councils are involved in that election. From my personal experience in Monaragla and Badulla, people are desperate with this government. And the poverty level in the Uva has increased to 22 percent from the 13 percent earlier. This clearly shows that this government has neglected the Uva Province and therefore people are frustrated.
 

 

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