Government puts Anti-Terrorism Bill on the backburner
Will the X-Press Pearl be Wijedasa’s eventual waterloo


Are we heading for tumultuous times? It is difficult to be certain, but it appears the current social, economic, and political climate is a precursor to a period of turmoil. The instability of the global economic situation means that anything can happen, and we must be prepared for the worst.

It is evident that against this backdrop, a perilous time has stubbornly engulfed the country, with no sign of relief in sight as far as the cost of living is concerned. The cost of living is increasing at a rapid pace due to the rising costs of food and other everyday necessities. Many people struggle to make ends meet as wages remain stagnant and food inflation rises.  

Since the government removed concessions given to flour and sugar, the price of these two popular consumer items have increased in the market. The result is that bread prices and all wheat flour-based products will jump up in price, causing hardships for the common man and daily wage earners. Although petroleum and cooking gas prices have reduced somewhat, electricity and water bills have reached high proportions, notwithstanding which the government is threatening to raise these costs further. This makes it difficult for people to live with less encumbrances. There is a need for the government to address this issue and provide sufficient relief to its citizens. They could implement policies to control the prices of essential commodities, provide subsidies to people in need, or create more job opportunities through self-employment.

Since the tourism industry has improved over the past two years, such opportunities could be created in the coastal belt and the hinterlands of the country, where tourists are inclined to visit. This, in turn, could provide an impetus to the local economies, help create jobs, and boost the livelihoods of the local people.

Nevertheless, it is imperative that the government help them with capital expenditure by way of loans disbursed by state banks. This will help the otherwise helpless people who live below the poverty line without much income at all. The tourism industry is one of the most thriving industries and contributes significantly to Sri Lanka’s growth in foreign reserves. It is estimated that tourism accounts for over 10% of the country’s GDP and provides jobs for over 1 million people. The industry has seen steady growth over the past two years and is expected to continue in the coming years.

Tourism revenue indicates an incremental trend since this is an important indicator of economic activity. It is also one of the most important sources of foreign exchange for the country. As a result, the government has taken several measures to promote and develop the sector.

Accordingly, tourism revenue generated in January 2023 amounted to USD 161.80 million, while it increased to USD 169.90 million in February.

In 2021, 194,495 tourists arrived in Sri Lanka. In 2022, it will increase to 719,978. The increase is 270.2% as a percentage.

However, it is doubtful whether it has relieved the rural masses, who are reeling under the stress of uncertainty in their lives due to poverty. In many cases, poverty has increased, and rural dwellers have not had the same access to resources, education, and health care as those in urban areas. This has caused a widening gap between the rich and the poor and has created a cycle of poverty and inequality.

In its recent bi-annual report on Sri Lanka, the World Bank estimated the poverty rate to have doubled from 13.1 percent to 25 percent because of the country’s ongoing economic crisis. It noted that the result was another 2.5 million people had become poor.

In this fast-developing scenario, it is incumbent upon the government to look at the plight of estate workers who demand a daily wage of a thousand rupees. It is a reasonable demand since they help the plantation sector earn the much-desired foreign exchange for the country, of which a certain amount would be retained elsewhere in a foreign bank. The government must take the necessary steps to ensure that estate workers receive a fair and just wage. This will help reduce poverty and improve the standard of living for these workers. It will also help to ensure that the plantation sector benefits from their hard work. This will create a better working environment and increase morale, leading to improved productivity and better working conditions. Additionally, it could help reduce the exploitation of estate workers, as they will have greater bargaining power and security in their work.

The estate workers’ unions have asked for a wage increase, but to date their demand has not been resolved. However, it has gone through wage board proceedings where the estate-owning companies are adamant that such an increase would leave them in the lurch for want of funds.

Most of the estate union leaders ride on the backs of poor workers to secure political power.But, they have not delivered anything for the benefit of estate workers. The union leaders often make promises to the workers that they cannot keep and use their power to gain more power and influence. Instead of focusing on improving workers’ wages and working conditions, their obsession is with their own political agendas. This has resulted in a lack of trust between the union leaders and the workerswho are now finding other ways to express their grievances. Estate workers now voice their concerns about their rights in other ways, such as through social media platforms and grassroots campaigns. Though the estate sector has voiced its grievances, they and others know the economic difficulties the country is living through, which bring misery to their lives.

Against this backdrop, donor countries met via zoom to discuss and restructure Sri Lanka’s debt. Japan, India, and the Paris Club took the lead, and the biggest lender, China, participated as an observer on the invitation extended by Japan. The meeting ended with a debt restructuring agreement that will reduce Sri Lanka’s debt burden over a period of time. This will provide much-needed relief for the country. This agreement is expected to be a milestone in Sri Lanka’s economic recovery. Apart from this, the government also envisages restructuring local debt, but there is no time frame set since it could spell disaster for local banks. According to the banking sector, it may not happen since the rupee is in a precarious position against the US dollar. The government is also looking at other options, such as introducing new foreign exchange trading regulations and increasing taxes on imports. In addition, the government is discussing the possibility of raising foreign borrowing to help stabilise the nation’s economy. The government is also looking at reducing public spending and encouraging overseas investments to boost the economy.

In this scenario, the government may be forced to call off the introduction of the proposed Anti-Terrorism Bill which is facing stiff resistance across the spectrum of society and internationally.  Widely seen as a ruse by the government to clamp down on dissent, the Bill does not plug the deficits identified by international human rights law and is not fully and comprehensively aligned with Sri Lanka’s international obligations. ‘The Bill is lacking in its definition of terrorism, said Human Rights Watch which also identified lacunae in provisions to prevent arbitrary detention,  measures that adhere to the absolute prohibition of torture and due process and fair trial guarantees including judicial oversight.  The government should have broad consultations on the Bill with the people before including it in the statute book, if at all, with a number of amendments that would ensure the fundamental freedoms of the people. If the government attempts to pass the current draft, Sri Lanka may lose the GSP+, a 500 million-dollar annual concession granted by the European Union. because it could be in direct violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory. This would likely lead to the EU, already under pressure from the likes of Human Rights Watch to leverage the GSP to stop the Sri Lankan government from passing abusive counter terrorism legislation, to withhold the GSP+ concession, thus depriving Sri Lanka of a major source of revenue and have dire consequences on the economy. Therefore, before passing it, it is important that the government carefully consider and amend the Bill to ensure that it is in line with the ICCPR. It is essential that the government take the necessary steps to protect Sri Lanka’s international standing and economic interests and reconsider the Bill to prioritise formulating and implementing urgent economic policies.

Sri Lanka’s parliament debated the X-press Pearl cargo vessel disaster which caused an environmental disaster near the Colombo port. The ship wreaked ecological mayhem and destroyed marine life, and fishermen were rendered helpless in the face of a major disaster. The government promised to investigate the incident and take legal action against those responsible. The incident highlighted the need for better regulations and stricter enforcement of maritime safety laws. It also highlighted the need for sustainable fishing practices. At the outset, Minister of Justice Wijedasa Rajapakshe raised a point of order in parliament. He stated that parliament should not debate the matter when there is a court case pending. Rajapakshe crossed swords with Samagi Jana BalawegayaMP Thushara Indunil when the alleged bribe of $250 million was brought up. The MP questioned the legality of the transaction and requested a proper inquiry to be conducted. He also urged the government to take action to ensure such incidents do not occur in the future. Rajapakshe responded by insisting that the court case should conclude before parliament debates the matter further. The Speaker, taking cognizance of the point of order which was raised, adjourned the sitting for ten minutes to decide whether the debate should be allowed to proceed.

The Speaker summoned a party leaders meeting, which exceeded the time limit but ultimately decided to debate.

Justice Minister Rajapakshe justified the action of the Attorney General to file the case in Singapore stating that if the case was filed in Sri Lanka, notices would not have been able to be served on the respondents and that the ship’scompany has already declared bankruptcy. He said if we obtained a judgment from a Sri Lankan court we wouldn’t be able to get any money. Now the judgement against the company can be used against the insurer.

Professor G.L. Peris demolished the arguments of Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe and Minister Ali Sabry. He wondered whether a court in Singapore hearing the case would pay attention to a debate elsewhere. The professor said it was all nonsense and that it was a major effort to hush up the $250 million US bribe that the house would discuss. The professor argued that the government ignored the Marine Environment Protection Authority’s (MEPA)valuable advice and went to Singapore. The MEPA had advised against going to Singapore. He asked why the government was running away from the issue when it should be addressed in parliament. He also questioned why the government was brushing the whole issue under the carpet. There are suspicions everywhere that the MEPA’s advice was to file the case in Colombo. This could have been done with less expense and legal fees. The Attorney General has made a blunder. By implying theAttorney General has the sole power to decide on the course of action Minister Ali Sabry has also tried to paint a different picture. This is like a surgeon operating on a patient.

Meanwhile, Minister Sabry said that it is the surgeon who should decide what should be done with the patient. He also said it was the Attorney General’s decision what to do with the X-Press Pearl case.

Professor Pereis argued and said there is no absolute power vested in the AG in any matter. He rejected Ali Sabry’s argument, claiming it didn’t hold water. Professor Pereis said there was only a limited period for a civil suit. In spite of the fact that the case has to be filed within 24 months, the government did not do anything for 23 months, leaving the public wondering what the big idea behind this was. Professor Pereis also referred to the Cambridge professor cited by Ali Sabry and explained that the particular professor had taught him. He also explained that Sabry’s interpretation was not in line with its meaning. He further pointed out that maritime law limits our claim in Singapore.





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