Getting bogged down with language in the draft constitution should not become an insurmountable hurdle to enacting a new Constitution, one of the key pledges of the January 8, 2015 platform for change, legal experts said last week.
Speaking at a seminar organised by civil society at the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for Strategic Studies last Friday (8), President’s Counsel Dr Jayampathy Wickremaratne said the tussle over the words óttriachchi (one Government) or orumittanadu (one country) need not become a sticking point, since a better word may be suggested, especially by those who criticise the draft report.
While there have been various claims about the new Constitution putting a federal system in place, one of the arguments is that the word Orumittanadu, the Tamil word used to describe the Sinhalese word ekeeya with both words later specifically defined as “one, undivided, indivisible country” included in the draft Constitution will facilitate the creation of a separate state.
“Many politicians claim that the draft put forward by the expert panel is the final version of the Constitution, which it is not. Even I have certain amendments that I wish to suggest to the draft given by the expert panel. We still have a long way to go,” he said.
Debunking myths of a Federal Constitution Dr Wickremaratne reiterated that there was no provision in the new Constitution to facilitate a federal state. “Under the Constitution to be proposed, local government bodies will not have the power to even a change a comma of the constitution. This is just fear-mongering, used for political leverage,” he said.
Explaining that in the US, which is a federal state, any constitutional amendment needed the express approval by two thirds of all 50 states, Dr Wickremaratne also used the example of India to dispel the federal bogey. “India which has a partially Federal Constitution requires approval of state governments to change certain provisions of the Constitution but not all,” he said.
You and I may not have a wish to become the next president, but there are more than enough people with this ambition in Parliament who will use anything to maintain the power they have under this Constitution and under the Executive Presidency,” he said.
President of the Government Nursing Officers’ Association Saman Ratnapriya speaking at the event said the drafting of a Constitution which is considered the foundation of the country on which it is built should be a bipartisan effort for better results.”
Constitutional reforms or the call for a new Constitution like the Executive Presidency has been exploited by almost every political party that has come into power and wanted to come into power.
“Starting from the Premadasa era, to Chandrika Kumarathunga who entrusted Prof. G L Peiris to produce a new Constitution as a solution to the ethnic problem and also the APRC headed by Prof. Tissa Vitharana appointed by the former president Mahinda Rajapaksa , these were efforts to either bring in a new Constitution or propose amendments. This shows that every leader at some point has acknowledged the need of a Constitution,” he said.
President’s Counsel J.C. Weliamuna who also addressed the event highlighted the need for strengthening Human Rights as well as a complete abolition of the Executive Presidency, stating that the need for its abolition was made clear in the past several months. “During the past months we have come to realise how important it is to uphold the independence of the Judiciary. Therefore, we need to make sure that the independence of these institutions is upheld and that the Parliament cannot make any laws as they please and that they are subjected to judicial review,” he said.
Prof. Sarath Wijesuriya said that both Government leaders had failed in their promise to abolish the Executive Presidency and to introduce a new Constitution. “When power is concentrated in one person the result can be disastrous. We need to push for the abolition of the Executive Presidency more than ever,” he told the audience.
Prof Wijesuriya said the Prime Minister was not interested in seeing the new Constitution come to light even though they all ran election campaigns on this issue. “As civil society, we are taking the struggle forward, but without political leadership,” he said. Prof Wijesuriya recalled that this was the motivation for Sobitha Thera’s campaign and Yahapalanaya’s raison d’etre, but politicians had abandoned the process.