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Thursday December 8th, 2022

UN rights boss unhappy over Sri Lanka’s attempts at addressing alleged abuses

FILE PHOTO – United Nations Human Rights Council/UNHRC.org

ECONOMYNEXT – The United Nations Human Rights chief on Monday raised concerns over Sri Lanka’s conduct over addressing past alleged human rights violations and said the world body will initiate maximum information gathering this year over said violations.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet received a mandate in March to collect evidence of crimes alleged to have been committed in Sri Lanka’s long civil war which ended in 2009 with the defeat of the separatist Tamil Tigers and an upsurge of civilian deaths.

The resolution allows the UN “to collect, consolidate, analyse and preserve information and evidence, and to develop possible strategies for future accountability processes for gross violations of human rights or serious violations of international humanitarian law in Sri Lanka, to advocate for victims and survivors, and to support relevant judicial and other proceedings.”

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s administration initially said it would not cooperate with the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), but the ruling nationalist Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has softened its stance after the European parliament also threatened to withdraw a trade concession amid the prospect of a recession and risk of sovereign default.

Bachelet on Monday addressing the 48th session of the UNHRC noted President Rajapaksa’s June statement in which he said the government is “committed to work with the UN to ensure accountability” and will implement “necessary institutional reforms.”

“I look forward to seeing concrete actions to this effect – in line with the recommendations that have been made in our reports and by various human rights mechanisms – and my Office stands ready to engage,” Bachelet said in her statement.

She listed a number of concerns over human rights in Sri Lanka, particularly under the government since Rajapaksa became the president in 2019.

“Against this backdrop, my office’s work to implement the accountability-related aspects of (March) Resolution 46/1 has begun, pending recruitment of a start-up team,” Bachelet said.

“We have developed an information and evidence repository with nearly 120,000 individual items already held by the UN, and we will initiate as much information-gathering as possible this year.”

Her oral update was delivered days after the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP), a rights group, documented alleged abuses in Sri Lanka and gave details in its report of 15 members of the minority Tamil community, who said they were beaten, burnt, suffocated and sexually assaulted by authorities over the past two years.

Bachelet said the current social, economic and governance challenges faced by Sri Lanka indicate the corrosive impact that militarisation and the lack of accountability continue to have on fundamental rights, civic space, democratic institutions, social cohesion and sustainable development.

She also criticised recently passed emergency regulations on essential food supply and said they are “very broad and may further expand the role of the military in civilian functions”.

Release Hejaaz, Ahnaf

Bachelet raised concerns over arrest and detain people and developments in judicial proceedings in a number of emblematic human rights cases while stating that the government has reaffirmed its intention to revisit “problematic Prevention of Terrorism Act”.

“However, I am deeply concerned about the continued use of the Act to arrest and detain people,” she said.

“Lawyer Hejaaz Hizbullah has now been detained for 16 months under the Act without credible evidence presented before a court.”

“Likewise, Ahnaf Jazeem, a teacher and poet, has been detained without charge since May 2020.”

“I urge an immediate moratorium on the use of the Act, and that a clear timeline be set for its comprehensive review or repeal.”

The government has said Hizbullah is allegedly has played a role in the Easter Sunday attach, which killed 269 people when Islamist militants targeted three luxury hotels in Colombo and three churches across the country.

With regard to the recent past, the UN human rights chief said human rights abuses are growing with continued surveillance, intimidation and judicial harassment of human rights defenders, journalists and families of the disappeared.

She also said such human rights abuses have “broadened to a wider spectrum of students, academics, medical professionals and religious leaders critical of government policies”.

“Several peaceful protests and commemorations have been met with excessive use of force and the arrest or detention of demonstrators in quarantine centres,” Bachelet said.

The government of Sri Lanka has said it has never used excess force over protestors, but local media have reported many protestors who agitated against a defence university bill were arrested by the police in an uncivil way.

In her speech, Bachelet raised concerns over developments in judicial proceedings in a number of emblematic human rights cases including the Attorney General’s decision not to proceed with charges against former Navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda in the case of the enforced disappearances of 11 men in 2008 and 2009.

She also raised concerns over the government’s delay to provide a full account of the circumstances that permitted Easter Sunday attacks despite various inquiries, the President’s recent pardoning of convicted murderer and a former MP Duminda Silva, further deaths in police custody and in the context of police encounters with alleged drug criminal gangs.

Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, the head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic church, has repeatedly said that the investigation into the Easter Sunday blasts was not being conducted properly. He has said he believes the real conspirators are still at large and has hinted at alleged attempts to shield the masterminds.

The cardinal last week said the church has already informed Vatican authorities as it was forced to take up the issue internationally and the matter is expected to be raised at the UNHRC meeting in Geneva.

President Rajapaksa’s government had denied any inadequacy in the investigations into the attacks.

The SLPP has said Silva, the former monitoring MP of the defence ministry when President Rajapaksa was the defence secretary, was framed by the former government with fabricated evidence.

The ruling party members justified their stance citing a raft of recordings between a former MP who is now jailed for contempt of court and some state officials including a police detective and judicial official.

She said the government actions on National Policy for Reparations, reparation payments and reconciliation programs, and Office of Missing Persons are continuing, “but it needs to inspire confidence among victims”.

“I stress again the importance of transparent, victim-centred and gender sensitive approaches, and that reparations programs must be accompanied by broader truth and justice measures.” (Colombo/Sep13/2021)

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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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