Documents on Democracy

Issue Date April 2015
Volume 26
Issue 2
Page Numbers 181-185
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Documents on Democracy

Sri Lanka

In the January 8 presidential election, opposition candidate Maithripala Sirisena scored a narrow but surprising victory over incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa, who had been leading the country in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Sirisena, who resigned from Rajapaksa’s cabinet two months before the election, advocated a strengthening of the judiciary and the parliament relative to the executive branch. Excerpts from Sirisena’s campaign manifesto, “A Compassionate Maithri Governance: A Stable Country,” appear below:

Since 1994 up to date our country was ruled by alliance governments in which the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) was a principal part. We were able to solve many burning problems of the country during this period. I am quite pleased that I was also able to contribute to these achievements as the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party. The whole country is aware that these achievements include the elimination of terrorism, which was the most serious socio-political challenge that Sri Lanka faced during three decades in recent history.

Though five years have elapsed since that military victory, Sri Lanka has failed to successfully enter a path leading to the overcoming of other major social, political and economic crises that face it.

Actually what has happened is the unanticipated further aggravation of these crises. Our country cannot march forward without solving these new and more critical crises. A large number of deviations such as the total breakdown of the rule of law, fraud, corruption, wastage, inability to identify national priorities, environmental degradation, moral and spiritual degradation have emerged as obstacles to our country’s march forward. It is true that there was corruption and fraud always. However, the extent of corruption in Sri Lanka in the last few years is unprecedented and unheard of before. . . .

This robbery is taking place before everybody in broad daylight. Yet [End Page 181] the people were forced to be silent observers in the face of brute power. By now all hopes kindled in the year 2009 of making our country attractive have withered away. If this trend continues for another six years our country would become a colony and we would become slaves.

Today, when the law of the country is being manipulated by a few people, Sri Lanka’s image has been destroyed due to its incorrect and naïve foreign policy and strategies. Sri Lanka is rapidly getting isolated from the international community. Instead of becoming the Miracle of Asia, Sri Lanka is becoming the battlefield of world powers.

Our country is now entering a decisive juncture in its history. Whether the country would turn towards becoming a haven for peace, prosperity and reconciliation or whether it would fall into the abyss of degeneration, instability and anarchy depends on the way you act today. . . .

As the General Secretary of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party I decided to come forward as the People’s Common Candidate at this Presidential election in order to create a stable, prosperous Sri Lanka by solving during the next few years the great problems that face the country today.

Russia

On February 27, leading Russian opposition politician and former deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov was shot in the back several times in central Moscow. His murder came just two days before he was to speak at a rally against Russian involvement in the war in Ukraine and the financial crisis in Russia. Newsweek Polska interviewed him hours before he was gunned down. A brief excerpt from the interview appears below:

Newsweek: But it was the Russian authorities that warned against fascism in Ukraine.

Nemtsov: Someone once said that the future fascists will be ardent anti-fascists. Fascism in Ukraine? Nonsense! Let’s look at Russia. We have one party built on the cult of a leader, plus some irrelevant satellite parties. Every few years there is a pathetic parody of an election. We have a chauvinistic and aggressive foreign policy, a reheating of imperial complexes, the militarization of society. These are the characteristics of a fascist regime, aren’t they? But Putin is not a fascist. He just cynically uses some elements of the past, mixes them with others—for example with Soviet traditions—and the hybrid is born, the contemporary hybrid fascism. It’s like the war in Ukraine. The war is going on, Russian soldiers are there, but the Kremlin denies it and pretends [the government] has nothing to do with these tanks and regiments in Donetsk. The same is true of fascism—it exists in Russia, but the authorities say that we are fighting the fascism in Ukraine. If we do not stop this madness, the consequences for all of us will be devastating. [End Page 182]

Malaysia

On February 10, following an appeal by former deputy prime minister and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the Federal Court of Malaysia upheld his sodomy conviction and five-year sentence. He had been acquitted of these charges in 2012, but the acquittal was overturned by the Court of Appeal in 2014. Following the Federal Court’s decision, Anwar released a statement reaffirming his innocence. Excerpts appear below:

I maintain my innocence of this foul charge—this incident never happened. This is complete fabrication—coming from a political conspiracy to stop my political career. You have not given proper consideration to the case presented by my counsel from day one—that this incident never happened at all. I can go on and on, but I see from your statement today that it will be fruitless. . . .

In bowing to the dictates of the political masters, you have become partners in crime for the murder of judicial independence and integrity. You have sold your souls to the devil, bartering your conscience for material gain and comfort and security of office.

You had the best opportunity to redeem yourselves—to right the wrongs of the past and put the judiciary on a clean slate and carve your names for posterity as true defenders of justice.

But instead you chose to remain on the dark side and drown your morals and your scruples in a sea of falsehood and subterfuge. . . .

Yes, you have passed judgment on me—and I will, again for the third time, walk into prison, but rest assured my head will be held high. The light shines on me. . . .

Students of law and professors of jurisprudence will scrutinize your judgments, and as they dissect your reasoning and your decision, your credibility and integrity will be torn to tatters. And you will be exposed as fraudsters who don the robe of judicial power only to pervert the course of justice.

Do not forget that, as all of us will have to, you too will have to answer to your Maker. You will have to answer why you turned your backs on the principles that you had so solemnly sworn to uphold. . . .

Going to jail, I consider a sacrifice I make for the people of this country. I have fought most of my life on behalf of the people of this country—for the people I am willing to go to jail or face any other consequence. My struggle will continue, wherever I am sent and whatever is done to me.

To my friends and fellow Malaysians let me thank you from the bottom of my heart for all the support you have given me. And Allah is my witness. I pledge and I will not be silenced, I will fight on for freedom and justice, and I will never surrender! [End Page 183]

Kazakhstan

On January 27, Maina Kiai, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, issued a statement at the conclusion of his visit to the Republic of Kazakhstan. Excerpts appear below:

Kazakhstan’s population is ethnically and culturally diverse, adhering to various religions but all living in relative harmony. I applaud the Government’s efforts to ensure stability and cohesion, particularly in relatively challenging and complex geopolitical circumstances.

It is nevertheless crucial to emphasize that maintaining stability is often misused to wrongfully curtail the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. This approach is misguided. The robust exercise of human rights and the maintenance of peace and harmony are mutually reinforcing goals. Indeed, the best guarantor of stability is ensuring that all people living in Kazakhstan fully enjoy their rights as endorsed by the Government through its voluntary ratification of international human rights law.

Various government officials that I met with mentioned the necessity of limiting peaceful assembly for fear of a revolution such as the recent Maidan events in Ukraine. While I understand the significant challenges that facilitating an assembly as large as Maidan may pose, I do not accept this as a legitimate ground for restricting the right. The circumstances in Ukraine were vastly different from those prevailing in Kazakhstan, which has a government that enjoys significant popular legitimacy and approval.

It is, in fact, in the Government’s interest to allow freedom of peaceful assembly as a safety valve that protects against more serious turmoil in society. People who are not allowed to air their grievances peacefully are more likely to air them violently, or find succor in extremist ideologies.

The free exercise of peaceful assembly and association rights presents authorities with unique insights into the challenges that people are facing. This is especially important in a country as large as Kazakhstan: There is no better way to understand the needs of people far from Astana, and no better check and balance to local authorities.

Human rights and in particular the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association foster Government accountability, ethnic equity, cultural diversity, tolerance, participation and good governance. I have no doubt that more tolerance and openness to free expression, especially of criticism, dissent and opposition, will serve to build a more just and stable society and strengthen the foundations of the vision of development espoused by the people and Government.

I would like to highlight some persistent challenges that I have identified [End Page 184] with respect to the rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association. There is very limited space for the expression of dissenting views. There is a general fear of engaging in oppositional political activity or expression within the population for various reasons, including through legislation that seeks to control the civil society sector, imposes serious punishments for organizing and participating in peaceful assemblies, stigmatizes and criminalizes dissent, facilitates the imprisonment of opposition political figures, and in general perpetuates a narrative that portrays critical political expression as threatening the stability of the State. There is a distinct lack of confidence and trust in the judiciary.

Although authorities repeatedly make reference to the “rule of law,” the practice in Kazakhstan reflects strong adherence to “rule by law,” perhaps a holdover from the past Soviet era. Law is meant to serve people, rather than people serving the law, with the guiding spirit being one that supports the dignity of the person as the key subject of the law. I strongly urge the government to not only pay attention to the technical requirements of its human rights obligations, but also the conceptual framework that informs these obligations.

Indeed it was remarkable that in many of the meetings I had with Government officials, the emphasis was on the restrictions to the rights rather than the rights themselves. This is a misconstruction of human rights, where the focus must be on facilitating and enjoying the right first and foremost, before restrictions which need to be interpreted narrowly. . . .

The Constitution of Kazakhstan protects the right and freedom to form associations. However, from my observations and discussions with various interlocutors, this right is severely constrained by various laws that affect the establishment and operation of associations and also in practice. This is true for political parties, public associations, trade unions and religious associations. . . .

Although the right to freedom of peaceful assembly is guaranteed by Kazakhstan’s Constitution, the Government’s approach to regulating assemblies deprives the right of its meaning. First, all assemblies must be authorized by local authorities. Second, these authorized assemblies can only be held at specific designated sites, preventing organizers and participants from choosing venues they consider appropriate to express their views and grievances. . . .

In rationalizing these restrictions, authorities frequently cited traffic issues and concerns about assemblies being disruptive and impairing “the rights of others.” These are legitimate concerns, but should not supersede the right. To be sure, the right to freedom of peaceful assembly may be subject to certain limitations. But international human rights law is clear that limitations on this right cannot impair the essence of the right itself. The right must come first before the limitations, and only narrowly then. Unfortunately, in Kazakhstan today the freedom of assembly is treated as a privilege, or a favor, rather than a right. [End Page 185]

Copyright © 2015 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press