Sri Lanka: Attach rule of law commitments to country’s bailout, urge experts

Rebecca L RootWednesday 10 August 2022

Miles-long petrol queues, empty shop shelves and fields that produce only half the crops they used to: these are the more obvious signifiers of Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis. The less visible are the meals citizens are beginning to miss as a result of unaffordable food and the time at school children are missing as the country tries to save power.

Sri Lanka is in the throes of an economic crisis that’s swiftly morphing into a humanitarian disaster and wreaking havoc on the rule of law. As a result, international support should come with the caveat of instilling democratic rule, experts say.

‘[We] want the international community to be in solidarity with us, promoting democracy, human rights and rule of law,’ says Dr Vinya Ariyaratne, General Secretary of Sri Lanka’s largest local non-governmental organisation (NGO), Sarvodaya. He calls the situation a ‘full social crisis’.

While the country’s foreign currency reserves had been running low for years – compounded by Covid-19, the wipeout of tourism revenue and economic difficulties – the crisis reached a tipping point earlier this year when insufficient funds meant the government defaulted on international debt and couldn’t afford to import necessities such as medicines, food and fuel.

‘[Elective surgeries] are being indefinitely postponed due to a lack of medicines, devices, and supplies and some doctors and health care workers aren’t able to reach the hospital [because of the fuel crisis]’, Ariyaratne explains.

Shortages, combined with the war in Ukraine, have also seen food inflation rise by over 90 per cent, making it difficult for some to afford to eat. ‘Even the middle class have found it increasingly difficult to survive’, adds Ariyaratne.

In March, the shortages triggered protests that eventually forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign in July. As a member of a political dynasty, he – alongside other family members – has been repeatedly accused of corruption, cronyism and incompetency.

It will be of utmost importance for any government which is taking charge under these given circumstances to ensure that the rule of law is re-established and upheld

Nusrat Hassan
Co-Chair, IBA Agricultural Law Section

Historically, the Rajapaksa family has had a ‘contempt for the rule of law and public oversight institutions,’ says Ambika Satkunanathan, a human rights lawyer and a former Commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka.

A ‘breakdown of law has a direct impact on the economy’, adds Nusrat Hassan, Co-Chair of the IBA Agricultural Law Section and co-managing partner at India’s Link Legal.

Ultimately, it’s an economic crisis underpinned by a political and constitutional crisis, explains Dr Sakuntala Kadirgamar, Executive Director of Sri Lankan not-for-profit the Law & Society Trust.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa and other members of his family have over the years denied the allegations, including of corruption, levelled at them.

As it stands, Sri Lanka’s government – under the leadership of new President and six-time Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe – is working with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a bailout plan while various UN agencies have launched appeals to address the humanitarian fallout of the crisis. Over 6.7 million people are thought to require humanitarian aid.

Countries should say they will only approve IMF support if the government commits to following basic democratic rules and strengthening rule of law institutions, says Alan Keenan, a senior consultant on Sri Lanka for the International Crisis Group, an NGO.

One of Wickremesinghe’s first orders of business when he replaced Rajapaksa in July was to forcibly remove protestors from their camp at the Galle Face site, near the presidential offices in Sri Lanka’s largest city, Colombo. The protestors, some of whom had been there for three months, had already agreed to disband and retreat.

Such measures shouldn’t be taken, Ariyaratne says, unless there’s a threat to public security. The protestors weren’t being violent, he explains, making the use of force unwarranted and a breach of human rights.

Wickremesinghe has also re-imposed a state of emergency, giving authorities additional powers.

‘They’ve used these powers to go after the protestors,’ explains Kadirgamar, who adds that this is in line with the country’s culture of impunity and violence whereby the rule of law is threatened. ‘We have on our statutes the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which provides for arbitrary detention,’ allowing people to be in custody for years without being charged, she explains.

Keenan believes Wickremesinghe’s actions thus far are designed to send a message to those tempted to protest in the future ‘that they will be putting themselves at risk of legal action and possibly worse’.

In late July, Wickremesinghe’s office stated that non-violent protests against his government will be allowed to continue, with a spokesperson declaring that ‘President Ranil Wickremesinghe has reaffirmed Sri Lanka's commitment to upholding the rights of peaceful, non-violent assembly’.

People may not be happy once it’s revealed what the Sri Lankan government is going to do to win IMF support, says Keenan. It could mean higher taxes, loss of government jobs, a reduction in military budget or the selling of state-owned enterprises. ‘None of those will be popular,’ he says, calling the situation dangerous because of the country’s history of violent uprisings and oppressive crackdowns.

The country was gripped by a civil war between 1983 and 2009 that began with a series of riots led by the Sinhalese Buddhist majority against the minority Hindu Tamil population, following the deaths of 13 soldiers at the hands of the militant organisation the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

Nobody has really reckoned with the country’s past of brutality, Keenan says, and now, Sri Lanka is facing its worst ever crisis.

For Hassan, these kinds of situations often mean human rights bear the heaviest brunt and that people are likely to witness a complete or partial breakdown of institutions. ‘In the coming days, it will be of utmost importance for any government which is taking charge under these given circumstances to ensure that the rule of law is re-established and upheld to provide confidence to the people and restore their faith in institutions.’

‘Failure to do so would lead to gross human rights violations and further lead to a deepening of the economic crisis’, says Hassan.

Image credit: andy/AdobeStock.com

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