By Skandha Gunasekara
The Presidential Task Force (PTF) for the “one country, one law” initiative took heavy flak ever since its appointment, with many asserting that it would be counterproductive in the aim of uniting communities.
On 27 October, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed a presidential task force chaired by Ven. Galagodaaththe Gnanasara Thera and comprising 12 other members.
Gnanasara Thera, speaking to The Sunday Morning, said the goal of the task force was to bring about one Sri Lankan identity and that the views of all communities would be garnered in that effort.
“We have to somehow make this country united and have a national view. We must bring the Muslim community into the conversation. They are now separate and in different camps. We must get their views as well. We will make sure that no group is treated unfairly, but we must bring the communities together. The country cannot go forward in the current state it is in,” the Thera said.
While noting that no new laws would be drafted by the task force, he said it would make suggestions on which laws should be carried forward into the new constitution, adding: “What we would do is get the views of those not being represented, in the process of forming a new constitution. When it comes to the existing laws, the task force can make suggestions on what is appropriate to be brought into the new constitution.”
He pointed out that division among communities could be observed as early as within the education system and stated that children should learn all the languages and about all religions instead of there being separate schools for a particular religion.
“There is division from the start. There should be a national view at least through the education system. So, it’ll be good if everyone learns Islam or Buddhism – that is how our national identity is formed.”
Civil society objects
However, as Gnanasara Thera’s past actions were in contradiction to communal unity, the inclusion of four individuals of the Islamic faith in the task force could be viewed as a smokescreen tactic.
National Peace Council Executive Director Jehan Perera was of the view that the Thera’s chairmanship of the task force deprived it of any credibility.
“The task force appears to be targeted at the Muslim community; the personal laws of Muslims,” he claimed, adding: “The Government has been trying to reform Muslim law in the recent past. Given the fact that the chairmanship of this (task force) was vested with Ven. Gnanasara, who has a track record of being anti-Muslim, in particular, and was also a proponent of Sinhala-Buddhist interests – which is his main focus – the minorities would feel very apprehensive and they may tend to see whatever this committee comes up with as being a means of benefitting the Sinhala-Buddhist community at the expense of the minorities.”
He then pointed out that the task force also lacked proper representation of all communities and peoples of the country, adding: “The task force has no women, Christians, or Tamils. So, it’s a very lopsided body.”
He went on to explain: “The task force is to look at two aspects. One is to ensure that laws are applicable to everyone and the other would be with regard to personal laws. For the latter, there should be representation of all groups in our country. Without women, it will only consider a male perspective on the law; similarly, if evaluating the Thesawalamai law (personal law of the Jaffna Tamils), there must be Jaffna Tamils to offer their perspective.
“If there are laws that violate international standards on human rights, then they should be changed, but I don’t think this task force is the body to do that, as it is a lopsided task force headed by an individual with low credibility in the eyes of the people who are going to be affected by the law.
“However, I do not mean that the laws should not be changed, revised, or upgraded, but the best institution for that would be the Ministry of Justice,” Perera explained.
Perera opined that this task force could also be used to challenge the provincial council (PC) system and promised devolution of power.
“There is also the possibility that this ‘one country, one law’ initiative would be used to discredit the PC system. This is because PCs have the power to legislate, and they would have their own laws for various things, in terms of their natural resources, the problems they face, culture, religions, etc.
“What could happen is the powers of the PCs could be withdrawn and they would become decentralised bodies like the district secretariats, which are under the central government.”
Potential threats to pluralism
Constitutional lawyer and Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) Senior Researcher Bhavani Fonseka also questioned the purpose of the task force and raised concerns over its appointed chairman.
“I personally don’t see anything positive coming from this exercise, but I think it depends on who you ask. My point is, why do you need a task force for this kind of exercise when the Government already has a committee looking at constitutional reforms and the Ministry of Justice has various other committees? What exactly is the purpose of this?
“My worry with this particular task force and Gnanasara Thera is that it seems to be pushing a very particular agenda – which is a very ethno-majoritarian policy that they want to bring about. Therefore, I don’t see anything positive. Also, Monday’s (1) press conference shows that the Government is giving a lot of prominence and legitimacy to this individual, who is a very divisive person. He is also convicted of contempt of court.”
She went on to say that the implications and actions of this task force could have permanent effects on the nation and its communities.
“There are different aspects to this exercise that raise concerns: the purpose of the task force, the individual that is heading it, and the long-term implications. The task force seems to be based on the notion that one identity is going to be effective for a country that has minorities and is a multicultural, multireligious entity. To me, it is hugely problematic. We have to see what they come up with by February, but I fear this whole concept of ‘one country, one law’ pushes the notion that there is only one identity in this country and that pluralism would be lost when you push this particular concept.
“The task force, coupled with the statement that a new constitution is going to come about by early next year, is hugely worrying. Therefore, I don’t think they are working in silos; I think they are all moving towards one dimension, which is pushing a very particular narrative.
“However, Gnanasara Thera has said he is going to have consultations and invite proposals, and I would like to see what comes from that process even though I’m very sceptical about it. It is also important that we, civil society and interested individuals, raise concerns. My other concern is that there’s still a silence from a large section of the society who should be worried. The Government is able to push this agenda because there is also limited pushback from the Opposition and civil society, and I think that is also worrying.”
BASL letter to President
Meanwhile, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), in a letter to President Gotabaya Rajapaksa that was made public, asserted that there were already legal bodies in place to bring about legislative changes such as the sectoral oversight committees of Parliament, standing committees, and select committees, which can be constituted according to the standing orders of Parliament.
In addition, the BASL pointed out that the Ministry of Justice had appointed a number of committees in the last year to propose reforms and changes to a number of laws and that the Attorney General’s Department was also part of the law-making process.
In such a backdrop, the BASL opined that the PTF for the “one country, one law” initiative was not within the framework of proper law-making.
“In these circumstances, the appointment of a task force to oversee the work of the Ministry of Justice is, in view of the BASL, improper and outside the accepted framework for law-making. Any alienation of proper functions of the duly elected legislators and proper legally mandated executive functionaries, by relocating their functions elsewhere, involves erosion of the sovereignty of the people.
“The BASL further observes that the task force itself is not a representative body, given that it has no female representation nor representation from several ethnic groups and religious groups in the country. Serious doubts also exist as to the qualifications, expertise, and suitability of the Chairperson of the task force and of many of its members, to engage in the functions described in the Gazette.
“Whilst there is no doubt that the concepts of equality, fairness, non-discrimination, and the protection of the law and nationally and internationally recognised humanitarian values are all laudable principles, it is doubtful if the process set out in the Gazette and the creation of the task force can make any meaningful contribution in upholding these values,” the BASL stated.
The BASL charged that authorities had failed to uphold the law, resulting in a number of fundamental rights violations in the recent past without any consequence to those responsible.
“What is of utmost importance at present is that the State and the organs of the Government, including the Executive, of which Your Excellency is the Head, upholds the rule of law and moves to protect and safeguard the fundamental rights of the people as described in Article 4(d) of the Constitution. In fact, the best way to ensure the objectives set out in the proclamation, is by upholding the rule of law and respecting the fundamental rights of the people.
“In the past few months, the BASL, which is committed to the rule of law, has drawn the attention of Your Excellency and the Government on several instances where the rule of law and the fundamental rights of the people have been violated. However, the BASL notes with regret that no remedial measures have been taken in this regard.”
The BASL then stated that the PTF would be of no use under the circumstances.
“In the above circumstances, the BASL is of the view that no useful purpose would be served by the creation and appointment of the aforesaid task force, which, in view of the BASL, would usurp the functions of many institutions established under the Constitution and the law, including Parliament and the Ministry of Justice.”