By Jehan Perera
The government has withdrawn its draft Anti Terrorist law (ATA), but only temporarily. The Minister of Justice has said that he has decided to provide more time for proposals for reform to be submitted to it.
There have been a very large number of statements and protests made against the draft law from a wide swathe of society including the Bar Association, civil society organisations, trade unions and highest ranking religious clergy. The main cause of opposition to it has been its sweeping over-breadth which will enable the government to suppress public protests that are recognized as being democratic and legitimate the world over.
The problem of governments that seek to use the law or break it to protect their power and positions is not peculiar to Sri Lanka. It can be seen in other countries as dissimilar culturally and politically from Sri Lanka as Pakistan and Israel. They are at different levels of development with Israel being at the higher end. Increasingly it seems that for the preservation of democracy, people have to play a direct role. Citizens are taking to the streets non-violently to protect their fundamental right to speak, to be heard and also to be heeded in circumstances of great upheaval where the larger public feel that their wellbeing is of little consequence and is easily compromised.
In Pakistan, the government has refused to hold elections, defied the Supreme Court and now arrested the opposition leader, Imran Khan, on corruption charges. Over the past eighteen weeks, Israel has been witnessing mass protests like we once experienced and joined in Sri Lanka to protest against our sudden impoverishment and lack of accountability of our government that had wrecked the economy but continued to stay in power. Tens of thousands of people, largely secular, middle-class Israelis, have regularly joined mass protests against the plan. It is a sign of a democracy that its people feel they can come out on the streets to protest against their government.
Like we once had in Sri Lanka, tens of thousands of people have been protesting on the streets of Israeli cities. The Netanyahu government has the majority in parliament and has the power to pass laws that the protestors believe would undermine their democracy. The right to protest, even against the decisions of a majority, is a fundamental human right that is protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to which Pakistan, Israel and Sri Lanka have all signed up to. So far the Israeli government has not infringed on that right to public protest.
The main problem with the draft Anti-Terrorist Act in Sri Lanka is that it widens the range of offenses to include the people’s democratic right to protest and even criminalize it. Power to the police, military and coast guards had been increased extensively in the process. The draft law is intended to give the government additional power to quell public protests including trade union action by claiming that such acts of protest threaten the stability of the government and economy and are the equivalent of terrorism. This was the position that the government took in suppressing the Aragayala last year.
According to the World Bank, Sri Lanka’s ongoing economic crisis is estimated to have doubled the poverty rate from 13.1 percent to 25 percent and it is projected to remain above 25 percent for the next few years due to the multiple risks to households’ livelihoods. “The crisis reversed years of gains in poverty reduction and human capital development,” the update said, noting that the crisis had added an additional 2.5 million poor people.
In these circumstances, there are bound to be public protests and trade union action in the coming months for which the government is preparing the Anti-Terrorism Act. The government that destroyed the Aragalaya in a matter of days by utilizing the security forces and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, despite protests by the Bar Association, civil society organizations, trade unions and religious clergy, is unlikely to pay heed to their proposals for reform of the draft Anti-Terrorism Act.
Although the government has invited interested parties to make submissions pertaining to the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill till May 31, it is unlikely that the government will be serious in listening to domestic parties, such as the Bar Association, civil society organizations, trade unions and religious clergy. Unlike in Israel’s democratic polity where people’s peaceful opposition is holding the government at bay, in Sri Lanka it will be international pressure such as the risk of losing the EU’s GSP Plus economic concession that will make the difference.
Jehan Perera is Executive Director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka (NPC) which works in all parts of the country with networks of partner NGOs and inter-religious groups. NPC focuses on building public support for a political solution to the ethnic conflict.