A constitution for peace

On 10 February, International Alert facilitated a roundtable discussion in London with British Sri Lankans, to share insights and discuss inputs on the ongoing process of constitutional reform in Sri Lanka.

The meeting was headed by Dr Asanga Welikala, a constitutional law expert from the University of Edinburgh, who provided a detailed overview of the process and outlined some of the substantive challenges it will have to overcome if a new constitution is to be enacted successfully.

Following presidential and parliamentary elections in Sri Lanka in 2015, the new government has taken on the task of re-writing the country’s constitution and has asked for input from Sri Lankans both nationally and internationally. Some reforms have already been enacted by the nineteenth amendment to the constitution passed in April 2015. This is the first time since 1978 that a government has managed to cut down the powers of the president and establish independent institutions.

Yet, with many issues still unresolved following the end of the almost 30-year civil war in 2009, the renewed attempts to draft a new constitution have stirred up a lot of debate – nationally and among Sri Lankan communities abroad. So while the recent political developments in Sri Lanka give a lot of hope for a positive development of good governance in the country, much remains to be achieved.

The drafting of a new constitution is a challenging task for any government. In Sri Lanka, this process is taking place simultaneously with two other fundamental reform processes: economic reforms, which are far reaching and painful; and the transitional justice process.

It is therefore of great urgency that the constitutional reform process gets a good deal of support, to ensure that it delivers on at least the basic expectations of justice that one expects from a constitution in a plural society. However, taking into account Sri Lanka’s long history of conflict between ethnic and religious groups, it seems unlikely that the constitution will be either technically perfect or fulfil the claims of all communities.

One big contentious point raised in the discussions so far pertains to the devolution of power and the long-standing claim for autonomy by Tamils of the north and east. The present government says it is committed to the maximum devolution of powers within the unitary state, whereas the Tamil leadership demands federal autonomy. This longstanding division would have to be overcome in the new constitution, which would have to share power within the framework of a united country.

The sixth amendment to the constitution, which bans even the peaceful advocacy of secession, was also discussed. While in principle a violation of the freedom of expression, such a constitutional ban on secession may have to be contemplated as a reassurance to the Sinhalese that greater devolution will not lead to disintegration.

The current constitution also contains a clause giving Buddhism a "foremost place". This is a sticking point among the non-Buddhist minorities, who would prefer a secular constitution within which religious pluralism can flourish. While there is a great deal of sensitivity related to this clause and its symbolic value, as a legal principle it has been much less of a threat, as it is subject to the fundamental rights to freedom of religion and belief everyone has under the constitution.

Unlike previous constitutional reform processes in Sri Lanka, the government has opened up the current process for some input from the public. The Public Representation Commission, mandated to seek oral and written representation from members of the public on what they want in and from the new constitution, is active until April 2016 and will report in May.

This provides the opportunity for civil society and Sri Lankan communities overseas to influence the discussion. Any input to the draft constitution should therefore be highly encouraged. For individuals and organisations, any submissions can be posted through www.yourconstitution.lk.

Alert will be submitting a contribution based on the findings of this discussion.