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Concepts for decentralization of government [December 13, 2002]

By Ranjit J. Perera

The third session of peace talks between the Government and the LTTE which concluded in Oslo, December 5, has revived public interest in the substance of the negotiations.

In a statement issued at the conclusion of the talks, the Royal Norwegian Government said, “The parties agreed on a working outline defining the objective as well as a number of substantive political issues for negotiation.”

“Responding to a proposal by the leadership of the LTTE, the parties agreed to explore a solution founded on the principle of internal self-determination in areas of historical habitation of the Tamil-speaking peoples, based on a federal structure within a united Sri Lanka. The parties acknowledged that the solution has to be acceptable to all communities.”

Exploring Federalism

Head of the Sri Lankan Government's negotiating team, G.L. Peiris, was quoted by BBC saying that ‘federalism had been proposed before - but this time the rebels had confidence in the government and had actually entered into the process of negotiations,’ and that ‘federalism was just the outer structure within which the two sides would now work.’

Although the concept of federalism as a means for peaceful co-existence in Sri Lanka has caused concern in several quarters, that the government and the LTTE, which have waged war for nearly twenty years, should explore the concept is indeed positive.

A key feature is that it envisages a solution within a politically and territorially united Sri Lanka.

Earlier devolution unsuccessful

Devolution of power was in fact used in an effort to resolve the conflict fifteen years ago. Provincial Councils were established after the enactment of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution and the Provincial Councils Act of 1987. This followed India’s intervention and the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987 when Sri Lanka’s armed forces were poised for a decisive victory over the rebels in Jaffna.

The Provincial Council is an autonomous body, which derives its authority and power from the Constitution and Acts of Parliament and undertakes activities, which had earlier been undertaken by the Central Government.

Despite the failure of the Provincial Councils system to usher in peace, the Northern and Eastern Provinces, which were temporarily merged in terms of the Accord, continue to remain so. The continuation of the war after the Indian Peace Keeping Force left in 1990 and the LTTE stepped in to fill the vacuum, has left the North-East Provincial Council with no elected representatives, limited area to administer and less of a mandate.

Yet, throughout the rest of Sri Lanka, seven Provincial Councils continue to function even as they extend the country’s political polarization from the Central Government to the periphery.

A new system of governance for the Northern and Eastern Provinces could also result in confusing and confounding the administration in the other Provinces.

Alternative to federalism – war?

In this backdrop, it is interesting to delve deeper into forms of devolution considering that the Government’s Chief Negotiator Professor Peiris has stressed that outright rejection of the idea of federalism would leave no alternative but war.

Decentralisation – How the World Bank sees it

The World Bank which together with the United Nations, in September promised Sri Lanka $65m in aid to rebuild the war-ravaged north east, says that decentralization includes political, administrative, fiscal, and market decentralization.

“Centralization and decentralization,” says the World Bank in a section of its website dedicated to the subject, “are not "either-or" conditions. In most countries an appropriate balance of centralization and decentralization is essential to the effective and efficient functioning of government. Not all functions can or should be financed and managed in a decentralized fashion. Even when national governments decentralize responsibilities, they often retain important policy and supervisory roles. They must create or maintain the "enabling conditions" that allow local units of administration or non-government organizations to take on more responsibilities.”

“Central ministries often have crucial roles in promoting and sustaining decentralization by developing appropriate and effective national policies and regulations for decentralization and strengthening local institutional capacity to assume responsibility for new functions. The success of decentralization frequently depends heavily on training for both national and local officials in decentralized administration. Technical assistance is often required for local governments, private enterprises and local non-governmental groups in the planning, financing, and management of decentralized functions.”

The World Bank also addresses the need for identifying the levels of local government, the borrowings by the local government and the capacity to repay, local government laws and decentralized functions, the need for citizens to have a voice and participate as against a voting democracy and the terms of office for local political leaders and the issues of authority and accountability.

The Government and the LTTE would therefore do well to explore not just federal systems of government in foreign climes, but the concepts essential to ensuring that the basic human rights and freedoms of all people are safeguarded in a manner that subscription to an ethnic minority or majority would not be necessary to ensure progress in life.

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