A New Constitution in the Offing
The Constitution is foremost, the highest law and provides the basis for governance in a country and the repeated call for one that would accommodate all communities in Sri Lanka and would further uphold rights of citizens rather than merely strengthening the powers vested in the supreme law is justifiable. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa recently reiterated the pledge to bring forth a new Constitution prior to the end of 2022.
This comes after the 20th Amendment that was criticised by many including those who backed the Government on the basis that it seeks to strengthen the powers vested in President. For the very first time in history, there were over 39 petitions against this Amendment illustrating the disappointment of the masses.
In an attempt to silence the continuous criticism, it was claimed that there were issues in the 19th Amendment to the Constitution as to who was the Head of Government. It was stated that this had prompted the Cabinet to advice the Legal Draftsman to draft the 20th Amendment to the Constitution as a temporary measure to avoid the shortcomings faced by the previous UNF-led Government appointed in 2015 to be effective until a new Constitution is promulgated. The significance given to the Constitution seems to have deteriorated over the years while it has also made the public lose confidence in the application and implementation of its provisions.
While looking into the much debated shortfalls in the 20th Amendment, the questions as to whether such shortfalls will be addressed and rectified also arises. What the Government is attempting to achieve by way of a new Constitution as emphasised by them is that it should strengthen the unitary status of the country, empower the citizens, simplify the governance, and strengthen the Government to face any future adversities, while empowering both the people and the Government.
While these appear to fulfil the purpose of a Constitution, whether or not it would be drafted in such a manner is yet to be envisaged. The current 1978 Constitution in the country which is the second Republican Constitution has already been formally amended over 20 times, while the need for a new Constitution is noted to be vital in our contemporary society and the much needed difference is upholding the rights of all communities in Sri Lanka, while uniting and easing any differences. While a nine-member Expert Committee was appointed to prepare preliminary drafts for a new Constitution headed by Romesh De Silva PC, the final draft is said to be ready by the end of November 2021.
According to the ruling party, the Constitution seeks to embrace diversity among communities, while creating an all inclusive long lasting new Constitution. Details pertaining to Articles concerning the country’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, Buddhism, the National Anthem and the National Flag would be retained in the new Constitution due to their significance.
The public had also been called to make submissions under 12 topics which include the nature of the State, Fundamental Rights, Language, Directive Principles of State Policy, the Executive, the Legislature, Franchise and Elections including Referendum, Decentralisation, Devolution of Power and Power Sharing, the Judiciary, Public Finance, Public Security and any other area of interest.
This could be viewed as a crucial step towards ensuring that the needs of the public are also being addressed by way of the Constitution. The proposals of the political parties representing different communities in Sri Lanka is crucial for the formulation of the new Constitution and the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) previously made submissions to the Experts Committee proposing for Sri Lanka to be recognised as a free, sovereign, independent and United Republic comprising the institutions of the Centre and of the Regions, which shall exercise powers of governance as laid down in the Constitution.
One of their proposals was that one of the Regions shall be for the territory predominantly occupied by the Tamil-speaking people in the North and the East, while stating that the Constitution shall recognise Sinhala, Tamil, and English as the official languages throughout Sri Lanka, and the languages of administration in the entire island.
Meanwhile, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) repeatedly noted that what is required is not an additional amendment to the Constitution, but rather a new Constitution, while the proposals of the SLMC differ from that made by the TNA. It is thereby understood that the main aim of the new Constitution should be that of strengthening the highest law in the country to address long standing issues, while ensuring that democracy and sovereignty vested in the people are upheld.