Amid a crisis where many independent analysts are warning that the proposed 20th Amendment could be a death certificate for parliamentary democracy in Sri Lanka, the United Nations this week marked the International Day of Democracy with Secretary General António Guterres saying that as the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, democracy is crucial in ensuring the free flow of information, participation in decision-making and accountability for the response to the pandemic.
Most analysts say President Gotabaya Rajapaksa did an excellent job in controlling the Covid-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka but it involved team work with the pro-active participation of the health sector including medical doctors, nurses, attendants and even the hospital cleaners who risk their lives in caring for those who were afflicted by Covid-19. We also saw committed participation by the military and civil defense forces, the police and others. We saw transparency and a free flow of information.
Despite this creditable achievement, the proposed 20A has blown into a full scale crisis. Most analysts say even prime minister Mahinda Rajapaksa was not aware of the full contents of 20A which gives the Executive President almost absolute power in appointing cabinet ministers, and ministers of state, key officials such as the Attorney General and the Auditor General while dissolving independent bodies such as the Constitutional Council. The Executive President will also have the power to dissolve Parliament after one year of general elections while the 19th Amendment prevented the executive president from dissolving parliament for four and a half years of its five year term. Last week the Prime Minister appointed a committee to review the draft 20A which had been gazetted. The committee was chaired by Minister G.L. Peiris and comprised Ministers Udaya Gammanpila, Ali Sabry, Nimal Siripala De Silva, Wimal Weerawansa, Susil Premajayantha, and Dilan Perera, Premanath C. Dolewatta and S. Viyalendran. After the cabinet meeting last Wednesday there was some confusion with some ministers saying the Prime Minister’s committee report was discussed, others saying it was not. Amid this controversy, a co-cabinet spokesman claimed that the President took full responsibility for the draft 20A and changes could be made during the committee stage of the 20A debate in Parliament.
According to the UN the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has resulted in major social, political and legal challenges globally. As States around the world adopt emergency measures to address the crisis, it is critical that they continue to uphold the rule of law, protect and respect international standards and basic principles of legality, and the right to access justice, remedies and due process. The UN Secretary General has urged governments to be transparent, responsive and accountable in their COVID-19 response and ensure that any emergency measures are legal, proportionate, necessary and non-discriminatory. “The best response is one that responds proportionately to immediate threats while protecting human rights and the rule of law,” he says. The Secretary-General’s policy brief says States must respect and protect, among other rights, freedom of expression and of the media, freedom of information, freedom of association and of assembly.
Concerns in many countries in the context of COVID-19 include measures to control the flow of information and crackdown on freedom of expression and media freedom against an existing background of shrinking civic space; arrest, detention, prosecution or persecution of political opponents, journalists, doctors and healthcare workers, activists and others for allegedly spreading “fake news”; aggressive cyber-policing and increased online surveillance; postponement of elections is raising serious constitutional issues in some cases and may lead to rising tensions.
The crisis raises the question how best to counter harmful speech while protecting freedom of expression. Sweeping efforts to eliminate misinformation or disinformation can result in purposeful or unintentional censorship which undermines trust. The most effective response is accurate, clear and evidence-based information from sources people trust, the UN says. Around the world civil society organisations have answered the UN’s call to action to address and counteract the wide range of ways the Covid-19 crisis may impair democracy and increase authoritarianism.
We hope this will happen in Sri Lanka also and that responsible citizens will remember that democracy down the centuries has been a delicate balance between the executive and the legislature, the judiciary and the free media. As philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr says, “ The people’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but the people’s inclination to injustice makes