Part II of the public lecture on “The Rise of Asia and Sri Lanka’s Role” given by External Affairs Minister Prof. G. L. Peiris at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi, India. The first part of the public lecture was published yesterday.
“On the economic side, the development of infrastructure has been important. You want to ensure in actual practice on the ground that the fruits of economic development are equitably shared; you have to focus very sharply on physical infrastructure; roads in particular. No government in Sri Lanka’s history has made this colossal investment in the development of physical infrastructure such as highways, railroad systems.
Just this morning I conveyed to the Government of India, our deep appreciation of what India has done within a very short period to develop and refine Sri Lanka’s railroad system which has greatly improved connectivity which has brought the North, which has been ravaged by the war, closer to the South of the Island in economic terms. What is produced in the North is marketed in the South and vice versa, and this has been greatly facilitated by the highly improved railway network which is a substantial contribution that the Government of India has made to the economic development of Sri Lanka at this time, Minister Peiris said.
“Politically, you have to ensure that the right decisions are made for the people. And the best way of ensuring that is representative institutions at the grassroots level which the Panchayat system in India and the Pradeshiya Sabhas of Sri Lanka fulfill. At the village level the people have the opportunity of electing leaders of their choice and the people have a direct impact on the formulation of the policies which govern them at the village level. I would identify that as the sine qua non for the achievement of progress of a kind which is genuinely beneficial for the people of any community.
“That has also brought into sharp focus issues relating to electoral systems. In many of our countries, certainly in Sri Lanka, it has been our experience that for those kinds of representative institutions operating at the grassroots level, the traditional first past the post system is the most effective method of choosing your representatives, because it brings about a direct nexus between the electors, between the voters on the one hand, and the people who are elected on the other. Complex systems of proportional representation tend to dilute the link between the village community and the person who is elected.
But accountability is enhanced by the simple method of first past the post because people are able to immediately identify their representative and hold him accountable. So as these developments go forward, legislators, policy makers in our part of the world have given considerable attention to other issues relating to the electoral system. For example, if first past the post is the best method at the village level what about Parliament? Should it be the same system or are policy considerations significantly different to make necessary the operation of different systems at different levels such as the Parliamentary level, the Provincial level, and the panchyats?
These are issues that are receiving considerable attention. Sri Lanka is a kind of legal museum in that regard. We have experimented with every possible form of electoral system. We had the benefit of universal adult suffrage even before we achieved independence. In 1931 we achieved universal adult suffrage; at that time we had the first past the post system. In 1978 we gave that up and adopted a particular form of proportional representation with which we find ourselves not entirely satisfied.
The problem with first past the post was that it tended to produce an imbalance between the number of votes polled by a particular political party and the number of seats to which it was declared entitled. If you win 50 seats with a majority of less than 50, the winning party has 50 seats and the losing party has zero.
That is not an accurate reflection of public opinion. We were disillusioned with that system and we exchanged it for a particular form of proportional representation. We now find that that system also suffers from very serious deficiencies and shortcomings. Principally, the lack of the nexus I spoke of earlier between the voters and the person who is elected because candidates are elected on a slate for the entire district.
There is no question of contesting a particular constituency, you have to contest sometimes 20 constituencies which means that people with limited resources are necessarily excluded from the electoral process. These are issues that our legislators and policy makers have had to contend with. As the economy widens and broadens, as greater prosperity is achieved, how do you make it possible for people to have the kinds of leaders, the kinds of legislators who respond to their aspirations? That is the rationale underpinning the importance of electoral systems.
“Then, if we want the analysis to be complete, we also have to consider the role of the judiciary. What should be the role of the judiciary? In particular, what is the ambit, the scope of fundamental rights litigation that is a feature of many of our systems in India and in Sri Lanka; what exactly is the dividing line?
Where does legislative authority end and where does judicial policy begin? One of the issues relating to fundamental rights is that a concept like equality before the law often enables the courts to encroach upon the legislative domain and to hand down decisions which impact upon the core of the legislative function.
For example, can you go to the Supreme Court of India and ask that Court to determine what should be the proper price of a railway ticket from Delhi to Allahabad? That came before the Supreme Court of India in one case and the argument was that the railways was a State monopoly and the State was making a unconscionable profit, so the Court was invited to take into account the necessary expenses of the State, leave a margin for reasonable profit and to determine how much should be charged for a ticket.
The Court said that this is not for us to do; institutionally we are not capable of doing it, these are matters of legislative policy and the Court should decline jurisdiction. There can be a very difficult conflict in these areas and these are matters which ought to receive deeper consideration than they have in fact received in many of our countries.
“I also want to make the point that impressive legal structures which are intended to benefit particularly the vulnerable segments of the community will not serve their purpose unless they are buttressed and fortified by an adequate system of legal aid. If you raise levels of expectation among the people, if you encourage them to believe that these rights are available to them but they find in practice that they cannot have access to those rights, the inevitable result is a large measure of disenchantment with the system which can be dangerous. So if you have these rights, if you tell people that the rights are available to them, and that they will be enforced by courts of law, you have to put at their disposal the resources which would enable them in practice to have the benefit of the rights which are supposedly or theoretically available to them. That also would be an important consideration.
“Then, since I am speaking to you here at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses I would also like to say a word about security. As people enjoy greater prosperity, as I said, the centre of gravity shifts from Western Europe to our part of the world and more and more people are able to be direct participants in this process where they can uplift themselves in society. What are the basic needs of people? One of the rudimentary needs would of course be security. For many of our countries we have the very serious challenge of terrorism and other forces which endeavor to destabilize society. In fact when the leaders of SAARC met a few years ago, we identified three priorities.
The argument was that everything cannot be dealt with at the same time so one has to prioritize; decide where we are going to start, and we came up with three priorities, counterterrorism, food security, and energy security, and the SAARC leaders set themselves a goal of achieving something tangible which would be appreciated by the people of their countries within a reasonable time span.
This means a conflict between people’s traditional rights and the imperatives of security. To what extent would our countries, would our governments be morally entitled to curtail the range of traditional liberties in the interest of preserving security? “Traditional rights which we enjoy, the right of assembly, the right to be secure in one’s private property and so on, to what extent can these be interfered with on grounds that the security of the community at large is involved?
Dean Roscoe Pound one of the famous law teachers that the world has ever produced; he was Dean of the Harvard Law School; said that in areas like this, all social policy is an exercise in social engineering, he used the metaphor of social engineering, there are no absolute values and at the end of the day, you have to balance all of this and come up with an equilibrium which adequately reflects the different facets of public policy involved; that is to achieve freedom on one hand and security on the other; not to sacrifice one for the other but to reconcile one with the other. Of course that is easier said than done, and many of our governments today are grappling with that very complex and challenging issue. “That is security in a domestic setting or in a national setting.
There is also the question of security at the international level. We have now very serious problems to deal with regarding piracy in international waters, people smuggling, gun running, and narcotics. In fact one of the three Agreements which were signed this morning between the Government of India and the Government of Sri Lanka had to do with counterterrorism and narcotics. This is a very serious issue and I would like you to reflect on one matter. I think institutes like yours need to play a vigorous role in trying to strengthen the mechanisms that are available today to combat the menace of international piracy.
The Indian Ocean is not afflicted with that problem to the same extent as waters in other parts of the world, but there are very serious problems like this. Let’s say a particular country apprehends a pirate, a pirate ship. What happens next is that the apprehending country has to bear the entire burden of the matter and there is no tribunal that is invested with jurisdiction internationally in respect of pirates.
That is a great lacuna in the system. We must also remember that much of this activity takes place on the ground and not on the water; all the planning is done on the ground. There is no machinery at the international level to take in all these different aspects of the problem. This is a hugely lucrative enterprise for the people who organize it; not for the people who execute the plan on the water, but for the people who organize this operation, incredibly lucrative as it is. Today the international legal system does not provide adequate means of following up the profits from this illegal activity. Restitution is very difficult. Money changes form very rapidly and people who extort that money very often are in a position to retain it because the international legal system is impotent to come up with adequate remedies to follow up that property and to take it back. So institutions like yours I think have a role in taking a closer look at problems of this nature and coming up with practical solutions which are absolutely necessary and to make a dent with regard to these activities which are becoming increasingly widespread.
“Then a word about diplomacy which I am sure you are concerned with in your institute. Many of the Ambassadors and High Commissioners representing our countries are told by their governments that there has been a shift in the emphasis which characterizes their work. When Sri Lanka and India received independence, at that time, diplomacy had a different connotation but today Ambassadors and High Commissioners representing even some of the most developed countries give priority to the economic dimension of their work. Matters connected with trade, with investment, with tourism, the economic dimensions of things have tended to dominate the work of diplomacy. That has become the most crucial element of diplomacy in the modern world. The economic aspect of things has become the overriding concern.
I also want to tell you a word about the need to restructure fundamentally some of the multilateral institutions which we all rely upon so heavily. Take for example the Human Rights Council. Many of you may be aware that the Human Rights Council came into existence because of widespread dissatisfaction with its predecessor, the Human Rights Commission. The General Assembly of the United Nations believed that the Human Rights Commission had become unduly politicized; that decisions were not being taken on their merits but on the basis of political alliances, and the international community was clamoring for a Tribunal that was more issue based, which would make its decisions on critical examination of the issues having a bearing on a particular case rather than on the basis of political affiliations. But regrettably it is our experience today that the Human Rights Council is just as politicized, in fact even more politicized than its predecessor the Human Rights Commission. And today, as a sort of palliative to that, to address that problem, there is increasing focus on smaller countries and their interests. For example, I had the pleasure of attending the United Nations General Assembly Session in September last year and there was a very interesting seminar in which the lead was taken by the Government of Singapore. It was a colloquium of small island States which have certain vital economic interests relating to what is called the blue economy: fisheries, shipping, leisure activities associated with the water. In other words, the economic significance of the ocean. That is particularly significant for countries like our own - Mauritius, Sri Lanka, Madagascar, Comoros, Maldives, Seychelles and there was a great deal of interest in the proceedings of the particular Seminar that was held in New York on the sidelines of the UNGA.
“A couple of points before I conclude. Many of our countries have experienced conflict. Conflict has also been a kind of concomitant of the economic developments which have been taking place in our region and in Sri Lanka today, after as I said a quarter of a century of conflict, we feel the need to prioritize as we achieve the transition from a society in conflict to a society reaping the full benefit of peace and stability. In our country, we have appointed a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and we have decided that you must start with the humanitarian concerns of people, for example, those who have been displaced by the conflict: identify the low hanging fruit, and if you are able to make progress in that area, you engender confidence that the more difficult issues will be addressed sufficiently as you go along. We have dealt with issues relating to Internally Displaced People, ex-combatants, demining and the resuscitation of the economy of the Northern part of the country which was ravaged by the war. Having done all of that, we then address in a slightly longer timeframe, issues such as land and language which by their very nature require a longer period to be addressed effectively.
Then we also believe that reconciliation is important, but we are convinced from our own experience that no reconciliation is going to succeed unless there is a certain threshold of economic satisfaction. In other words, people must have access to incomes and livelihoods and they must be able to look upon the future with some degree of confidence. If there is bitter disillusionment, no process of reconciliation is going to be successful.
A lot of people talk about accountability but they forget that different cultures have different connotations of accountability. It is a great mistake to argue and to analyze from the standpoint of one culture only. For example, the Buddhist scriptures contain a wealth of wisdom about accountability which in many ways represents a contrast with the traditional assumptions which are made in Western systems with regard to accountability. There are many paths to the summit of a mountain, not just only one particular way of doing it.
“Today we agreed at the Eighth India - Sri Lanka Joint Commission that what we have between our two countries is a very rich and satisfying relationship. In the picturesque words of one of my distinguished predecessors, the late Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar, in one of his speeches describing the quality and content of the relationship between India and Sri Lanka said, that this is a relationship which is ‘lost in the mists of time’.
He said that it is impossible to define the realm of that relationship, it straddles pretty much everything; almost every facet of public policy and it is indefinable because in his words, it is lost in the mists of time. I was looking at the Agreed Minutes which had been worked on by the officials representing the two sides and one is amazed at the range of issues enveloped in the relationship. Almost everything is part and parcel of the relationship.
Now one of the things that I found particularly encouraging is the fact that it is no longer a one way street. It is a matter of legitimate pride and satisfaction to us that there is today a very substantial Sri Lankan investment into the Indian economy.
Our leading companies are contributing in very significant measure to the economic and social development of India and we are very proud of it. We are also conscious of the fact that whatever issues may arise from time to time, and that is natural and inevitable in any relationship, there will be tensions or issues of one sort or the other from time to time, but the reservoir of goodwill and understanding between the two countries is so vast as to enable any issue, whatever its nature, to be resolved by dialogue and discussion. We have felt that happen in the most volatile situations.
It has happened that I pick up the phone and talk to my counterpart in the Government of India and we have been able to diffuse volatile situations by a process of discussions; and this is made possible by the strong foundation, which has been built up not just over the decades but indeed over the centuries.
“Another point that is worth mentioning is that this is not simply a matter of the relationship between two governments. What is particularly inspiring is people-to-people contact. A few months ago we had the sacred Kapilawastu Relics brought to the shores of Sri Lanka from India and 3 million people in our country were very eager to take advantage of the opportunity to venerate these relics of The Buddha.
Of course we have the belief that in the presence of the Relics of the Buddha you are actually in the living presence of the Gautama Buddha. So the demand to venerate these Relics was so great, was so insatiable, that eventually the Government of Sri Lanka had to make a request to the Government of India at its highest level, a request personally made to Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh to enable the Relics to be retained by Sri Lanka for a slightly longer period. We have more than 200,000 pilgrims coming from Sri Lanka to Buddhagaya, to Saranath, to Sanchi, every year;so it is a very rich and varied relationship between the people of the two countries.
This is what accounts for the robust, the vibrant quality of the relationship between your country and mine, and this why it give me particular pleasure to accept your kind invitation to be here with you and to share with you some thoughts about the nature and quality of our bilateral relations and how an economy like Sri Lanka can so arrange matters within our own polity as to be poised to derive the maximum advantage from the broader developments taking place in the region as a whole”.