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Thursday December 8th, 2022

Human rights situation in Sri Lanka further deteriorated in 2020: UK report

Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, UK

ECONOMYNEXT – The overall human rights situation in Sri Lanka continued to deteriorate in 2020, the UK’s annual report on human rights and democracy said.

Titled ‘Human Rights and Democracy: 2020 Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report‘, the document noted an alleged increase in surveillance and intimidation of civil society, limited or no progress with regard to accountability, militarisation and other issues.

“The government of Sri Lanka delivered free and peaceful parliamentary elections despite the COVID-19 pandemic, and maintained low numbers of COVID-19 cases compared to global figures. However, there was increased surveillance and intimidation of civil society, constraints placed on communities practising religious burial rites, a number of lengthy detentions without charge, and several setbacks on post-conflict accountability and reconciliation,” it said.

Noting Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) resolutions 30/1, 34/1, and 40/1 on post-conflict transitional justice, accountability and reconciliation, the UK report said there was no progress shown by Sri Lanka despite the government announcing its commitment to a domestic mechanism for reconciliation and accountability.

“The UK made clear its commitment to reconciliation and accountability in statements delivered on behalf of the Core Group on Sri Lanka at the HRC in February, June and September,” the report said.

In June 2021, the core group, comprising, Canada, Germany, North Macedonia, Malawi, Montenegro and the UK, expressed concern over what it called the lack of progress with regard to human rights, the rights of religious minorities and other issues highlighted in resolution 46/1.

Related: UNHRC core group concerned over Sri Lanka’s lack of progress on human rights

The UK report, dated July 08 2021, said Sri Lanka’s commitment to accountability was further called into question in March 2020 when President Gotabaya Rajapaksa pardoned and released former Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who was convicted in 2015 for the murder of eight civilians (including children) in Jaffna in 2000.

Ratnayake, who was attached to the long range reconnaissance patrol of the army, was sentenced to death by the Colombo High Court in June 2015 for his alleged involvement in the Mirusuvil massacre in 2000. The former soldier, who was the first accused in the case, was found guilty of the murder of eight civilians including three children. He was pardoned by President Rajapaksa on March 26, days after an island-wide curfew was declared to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Amnesty Intentional, too, said in May last year that in pardoning Ratnayake, the COVID-19 pandemic was exploited as an “opportunity to reverse justice

The Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office report further said the President continued to appoint controversial military figures accused of war crimes to government roles, while civilian functions such as the Secretariat for Non-Governmental Organisations were brought under the control of the Ministry of Defence. In October, the government passed the 20th amendment to the constitution, which the report said extended executive power over appointments to the judiciary and independent institutions, and reversed several important institutional checks and balances.

“In March, the President dissolved parliament ahead of elections, which were then twice postponed because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Although the government went on to deliver peaceful and democratic elections in August, the delay resulted in a lack of parliamentary oversight between March and August. The government instead formed several presidential ‘taskforces’ without parliamentary scrutiny, including to oversee the COVID-19 response,” the report said.

The report was also critical of the government’s widely condemned move in March 2020 to cremate Muslim victims of COVID-19 against the wishes of the community with little or no scientific basis to the decision. World Health Organisation guidelines had also permitted burials.

“This particularly affected Muslim and some Christian communities, for whom burial is an essential rite. In December, the Supreme Court dismissed several petitions that challenged this policy. The outbreak of COVID-19 also led to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, fuelled by hate speech and disinformation suggesting that Muslims were ‘carriers’ of COVID-19 and were violating prevention measures. In June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern over the clampdown on freedom of expression, noting an announcement made by the police in April to arrest those critical of the Government’s COVID-19 response,” the report said.

The report also made references to allegations that judicial medical officers and police had conducted invasive intimate examinations on LGBT+ persons without their consent, following which the Justice Minister Ali Sabry gave instructions to halt and investigate the practice.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has been a running theme in international pronouncements on Sri Lanka’s human rights record. The European parliament moved a resolution on June 10 calling for its release.

Related: EU parliament adopts resolution on Sri Lanka; wants PTA repealed, GSP+ withdrawn

The UK report on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation in 2020, too, noted that the government of Sri Lanka continued to use the PTA, despite a renewed pledge at the 43rd session of the UNHRC to review the legislation.

“In April, prominent human rights lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah was arrested by Sri Lanka’s Criminal Investigation Department under the PTA. Hejaaz was detained without charge or presentation before a court. International rights groups noted an increase in intimidation, surveillance and online abuse, including threats to lawyers, journalists, families of disappeared persons and individuals working on human rights and anti-corruption.”

Riots in Sri Lanka’s prisons in late 2020 were also highlighted in the report.

“In November, unrest at Mahara prison over COVID-19 concerns resulted in the death of eleven inmates and injury of over 150. A committee appointed to investigate the unrest concluded that the inmates’ demands had been reasonable, and autopsies revealed that all inmates had died of gunshot wounds. In November, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the Inspector General of Police to highlight an increase in deaths in custody, and released a prison study which noted that the treatment of prisoners fell below international standards,” it said.

Related: Govt takes full responsibility for Mahara prison riot: Keheliya

The UK will continue to press for progress on human rights, gender equality and protections for minorities and vulnerable groups in 2021, the report further said.

“We shall continue to invest in ambitious programmes which support conflict-affected communities, promote the role of civil society, facilitate social cohesion, and underline the critical importance of post-conflict reconciliation and accountability,” it added. (Colombo/July09/2021)

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Sri Lanka in deep talent drain in latest currency crisis

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka businesses are facing a drain of talent, top business executives said as the country suffers the worst flexible exchange rate crisis in the history of its intermediate regime central bank and people lose hope.

“We are seeing a trend towards migrating,” Krishan Balendra, Chairman of Sri Lanka’s John Keells Holdings told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“We have seen an impact mainly on the tourist hotels side, quite an exodus of staff (migrating) to countries we have not seen in the past. 

“We have seen people go to Scotland, Ireland. It has usually been the Middle East and Maldives. Australia seems like a red hot labor market at the moment.”

Sri Lanka’s rupee collapsed from 200 to 360 to the US dollar after macro-economists printed money to suppress rates.

Sri Lanka operates a ‘flexible exchange rate’ where errors in targeting interest rates are compensated by currency depreciation especially after the 1980s.

Classical economists and analysts have called for the power to mis-target rates and operate dual anchor conflicting monetary regimes should be taken away to prevent future crisis.

Currency crises are problems associated with flexible exchange rate central banks which are absent in hard pegs and clean floats.

“Something new we are seeing is that older people, even those in their 50s, which was a surprise, are looking at migrating,” Balendra said.

Businesses are trying to retain talent as real wages collapse.

Balendra said as businesses they see some stability returning and based on past experience growth is likely to resume, and they were communicating with the workers.

“We have a degree of conviction that the economy should get better, its the stability phase now and it will get better going forward so without the way our businesses are placed we should see good growth,” Balendra said.

“We can’t chase compensation that’s just not practical and we are not trying to do that especially if people are looking to immigrate but what we can do is show the career opportunities in the backdrop of the situation that people would rather stay here because its home.” 

Sri Lanka unit of Heineken says it is also trying to convince workers not to leave, with more success.

“We are all facing the effects of brain drain and it’s not just the lower levels… What we are doing is a balance of daring and caring,” Maud Meijboom-van Wel – Managing Director / CEO, Heineken Lanka Ltd told the forum.

“Why I say daring is, you have to be clear in what you can promise people, when you make promises you have to walk the talk. So with the key talents and everyone you need to have the career and talent conversations.

“I am a bit lucky because I am running a multinational company so my career path goes beyond Sri Lanka so I can say if you acquire certain skills here, then you can move out of here and then come back too, that is a bit easier for me but it starts with having a real open conversation with walking the talk – dare and care.” (Colombo/Dec7/2022)

 

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Despite losses, Sri Lanka to resume “park & ride” transport after complaints  

ECONOMYNEXT –  Sri Lanka’s state-run Transport Board will resume its loss-making City Bus service from January 15, 2022 Cabinet Spokesman Bandula Gunawardena said, after the service abruptly discontinued with the state-run firm’s director board citing losses.

The City Bus service was introduced in 2021, under the government of former President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, from Makubura to Pettah and Bambalapitiya.

The service was started to reduce the number of automobiles travelling to and from Colombo and suburbs by providing a comfortable, convenient and safe public bus transportation for passengers and riders who use cars and motorcycles as their means of transportation.

During the time period in which the service was initiated, there were 800 hundred vehicles that would be parked and would use the system, Gunawardena, who is also the Transport Minister, said.

The service was later collapsed due to inconsistencies in scheduling and it was completely stopped after

“Without informing the Secretary or the Minister of the relevant Ministry, the Board of Directors have come to a conclusion that this is loss making route and must be halted,” Gunawardena said.

“The users of the City Bus service brought to our notice and therefore I gave the Secretary to the Ministry of Transport the approval to start the City Bus service from January 15.”

“If we stop all loss making transport services then massive inconveniences will occur to the people in far parts of the island.”

The chairman of the state run Ceylon Transport Board has been asked to handover the resignation letter by the Minister Gunawardana citing that the head has failed to implement a policy decision approved by the government. (Colombo/ Dec 06/2022)

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Sri Lanka may see rates falling next year: President

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s interest rates are high and hurting small businesses in particular but interest rates are required to maintain stability, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said.

“One is, all of you want to know what’s going to happen to the interest rates?,” President Wickremesinghe told an economic policy forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“I wish I know. The governor has told me that the inflation has peaked. It’s coming down. You all understandably want some relief with the interest rates to carry business on.”

“I understand that and appreciate the viewpoint. It’s not easy to carry business on with such high interest rates. On the other hand, the Central Bank also has to handle the economy. So maybe sometimes early next year we will have a meeting of minds of both these propositions.”

Sri Lanka’s interest rates are currently at around 30 percent but not because the central bank is keeping it up. The central bank’s overnight policy rate is only 15.5 percent but the requirement to finance the budget deficit and roll over debt is keeping rates up.

Rates are also high due to a flaw in the International Monetary Fund’s debt workout framework where there is no early clarity on a whether or not domestic debt will be re-structured.

After previous currency crises, rates come down after an IMF deal is approved and foreign loans resume and confidence in the currency is re-stabilished following a float.

This time however there has been no clear float, though the external sector is largely stable and foreign funding is delayed until a debt re-structure deal is made.

Sri Lanka’s external troubles usually come because the bureaucrats do not believe market rates are correct when credit demand picks up and mis-uses monetary tools given in 1950 by the parliament to suppress rates, blowing the balance of payments apart.

The result of suppressed rates by the central bank are steep spikes in rates to stop the resulting currency crisis.

A reserve collecting central bank has little or no leeway to control interest rates (monetary policy independence) without creating external troubles, which is generally expressed as the ‘impossible trinity of monetary policy objectives’.

However, it has not prevented officials from trying repeatedly to suppress rates, perhaps expecting different results.

After suppressed rates – supposedly to help businesses – trigger currency crises, the normalization combined with a currency collapse leads to impoverishment of the population.

The impoverishment through depreciation leads to a consumption shock, which also leads to revenue losses in businesses.

The suppressed rates then lead to bad loans.

In the 2020/2022 currency crisis the sovereign default has also led to more problems at banks. Several state enterprises also cannot pay back loans.

“…[T]he bad debt that is being carried by the banks is mainly from the private sector or the government sector,” President Wickremesinghe said.

“Keep the government sector aside. We’re dealing with it. How do you handle it? Look, one of our major areas of are the small and medium industries. You can’t allow them to collapse, but they’re in a bad way.”

Classical economists and analysts have called for new laws to block the ability to central bank to suppress rates in the first place so that currency crises and depreciation does not take place in the first place.

Then politicians like Wickremesinghe do not have to take drastic and unpopular measures to fix crises and there will be stability like in East Asia.

Sri Lanka had stability until 1950 when the central bank was created by abolishing an East Asia style currency board. The currency board kept the country relatively stable through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

In 1948 after the war (WWII) was over “we stood second to Japan” Wickremesinghe said.

“But we started destroying it from the sixties and the seventies,” he said. :We started rebuilding an economy, which was affected by a (civil) war, and thereafter the way we went, is best not described here.”

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