ECONOMYNEXT – Civil Society organisations are expressing grave concern regarding the establishment of a spate of Presidential Task Forces in the last few months which they say are usurping the powers and functions of the Cabinet of Ministers.
The statement signed by 16 Civil Society organisations and 49 individuals says that the Task Forces have “broad, ambiguous mandates, bypassing existing channels such as the Department of Archaeology, and at a time when there is no sitting Parliament that can exercise oversight in respect of their functions and the exercise of their powers.”
It adds that they were appointed at a time when the country was under lockdown due to the COVID -19 pandemic and citizens were unable to make inputs to express their concerns regarding their establishment. “The exercise of extraordinary power during a crisis should be supported by strong reasons. Why matters such as archaeology and heritage were prioritised amidst unprecedented health, economic and social crisis is cause for concern.”
The Three Task Forces were appointed by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. One has extensive powers to direct, coordinate and monitor the delivery of continuous services for the sustenance of overall community life, another relates to Economic Revival and Poverty Eradication and one concerns Sri Lanka’s Education Affairs.
The statement is more concerned about the two most recently created Task Forces on June 2, one to build a “Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society” and the other for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province.
The first Task Force has drawn all its members from the military and police while the second one is made up of all Sinhalese with a significant number of Buddhist Monks in it. This “ignores the fact” that the Eastern Province is equally populated by Muslims and Tamils.
“It is likely that the interests of these communities will be neglected by the Task Forces and will reflect the majoritarianism espoused by this government,” it observed.
The statement went on to say there is a steady militarization of civil functions within Sri Lanka’s health and educational sectors, development, public administration and judicial processes after the Presidential Elections.
“This does not bode well for Sri Lanka’s long-established parliamentary democracy,” the statement warned.
“Sri Lanka’s democratic mechanisms must be made to work efficiently without politicization or resort to militarization. These new Task Forces are structures that are solely accountable to the President and are staffed, not by professional civil service personnel, with the required experience, but by security personnel with no experience in civil functions. They are expected to ‘police’ the civil service and are usurping the powers and functions of the Cabinet and Ministries, which are vital in a parliamentary democracy. Rather than these Task Forces, the Sectoral Oversight Committee system in Parliament established under the 19th Amendment and populated by Members of Parliament from all political parties is a much more independent and efficient oversight mechanism that can respond to the exigencies faced by the country at this time. It is also unclear how the work of these task forces will be financed, to what extent they will duplicate functions of ministries, and the extra costs and expenditures that this will entail at a time when the need for cost-cutting should be a primary concern of the government.”
“The crisis is not an excuse for militarization and militarization is not the solution to the challenges of this crisis management. Nor is it the solution to bypass the Prime Minister and the cabinet of ministers, and the Parliament in a functioning democracy.” (Colombo June 15, 2020)
Reported by Arjuna Ranawana