One-off strikes in essential services put public in dilemma – justice minister
The government recently paid Rs. 100 million as reparations to those affected by the terrorist battle under the Ministry of Justice’s Access to Justice Scheme. Minister Ali Sabry, speaking to the Sunday Observer, underlined the success of this program as well as the reconciliation of the government, including the position to be taken at the next session in Geneva in March.
Regarding his recent statement on the introduction of new laws to control industrial action, the Minister said that this was wrongly reported and was not a statement aimed at restricting freedom of expression. However, taking examples around the world, he said he was in favor of introducing restrictions on sudden and one-off strikes in the essential services sector. “It’s about the public, not the government; people suffer from it,” he said.
Here are excerpts from the interview:
Q: What is the Access to Justice program and its objectives?
A: The Access to Justice program aims to raise awareness of the services offered by the Department of Justice throughout the island. It aims to reach them, to know their problems and to support them. By doing so, ministry officials and the public will both benefit. Ministry officials will understand the real situation on the ground rather than trying to solve problems from Colombo. So the goal is to reach people, find out their problems and solve them.
Q: What are the activities of the Access to Justice program?
A: There are several activities. We have several areas under the Ministry of Justice, such as courthouses, the Legal Aid Commission – which goes there and provides legal aid to people, etc. We have the ONUR (Office of National Unity and Reconciliation) which aims to create centers of unity and cultures where people come together. Also, OR (Office of Reparation) is another method where we pay reparation or compensation for people to start their life over. For example, during my visit to Jaffna last week, we paid around Rs 1,000 to people. 100,000 each, totaling Rs. 100 million. The Office for Disappeared Persons (OMP) advises the families of missing persons and inquires about their needs. Thus, all the institutions that come under our control are part of the program.
Q: What is the objective of the recent program in the North within the framework of Access to Justice?
A: The very idea of the Reparations Office is to support families who have suffered because of civil unrest and terrorism. We know that many families from the North and East were displaced during this period. It is our responsibility to discover their problems and support them. We’ve been doing it for a long time. But this time, we managed to find around 1,000 families who deserve this support and handed out checks worth around Rs. 100 million. So it was a massive program.
Q: What are the other strengths of reconciliation work within the framework of national mechanisms?
A: ONUR carried out several activities. For example, at Kokuvil Hindu College, we built a three-storey building with 12 smart classrooms. In 2018, about 70 students from this school went to Galle in the South during the floods to help them out. So we want to recognize them and help build bridges between North and South. ONUR also organized a meeting with about 50 ex-LTTE cadres who were rehabilitated to assess the rehabilitation program and its progress.
We also had a discussion with students and scholars from Jaffna University to get their views on how reconciliation could be encouraged. Regarding missing persons, we have had about 400 inquiries and are helping to resolve their issues. I have personally had the opportunity to speak to several parents who have lost their children and wanted to know how we can help them. So it was a good program to understand the real issues and try to help people and build bridges.
Q: How is the government preparing for the HRC session in Geneva to be held in March and what will be the government’s position?
A: If you look at the end of the terrorist battle, we have fixed the main issues. The only thing now is to look back and see how we can mend the wounds and help each other move forward.
Our position is that national mechanisms exist and that they work. These must be used to heal the wounds rather than third parties from the international community interfering. This would have a negative impact on true reconciliation and would aggravate the situation, instead of healing the wounds. Therefore, our position is that a lot of progress has been made, and we are making further progress. We will tell the truth. For example, in the North and East, there were problems and steps were taken to solve them. The OMP, ONUR and OR are strengthened and the Sustainable Development Goals are achieved. So we just want to show our progress to the world and ask them to recognize these changes taking place.
For example, we are amending the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Yahapalanaya could not do that. Under the PTA, several people were pardoned. So overall we’ve made good progress.
Q: What measures are taken to improve the judicial system in Sri Lanka?
A: We have taken several measures. For example, during my visit to the North, we officially inaugurated four major new court complexes: Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mankulam and Mullaitivu. Likewise, we are developing the infrastructure, increasing the number of judges, changing old laws, hiring more people in places like the Ministry of the Attorney General, etc. We are also digitizing the system. So, we are trying to overhaul the Sri Lankan judicial system, starting with the Supreme Court to the Court of Appeal, and now the High Courts and other courts.
Q: What are the main legal reforms in sight, in particular with regard to the drafting of the new Constitution?
A: In fact, we have to wait for the draft to arrive. Fundamentally, we envision a more viable and solid Constitution; a separate electoral system with electoral reforms. We gave them a mandate [committee drafting the Constitution] review previous attempts, consult with various stakeholders and propose a draft.
Q: Regarding your recent statement on the introduction of new laws to restrict trade union action, how do you respond to criticism that this is unconstitutional and violates freedom of expression?
A: No, we didn’t say that. This is misreported. No one wants to restrict freedom of expression. But in other parts of the world, there are restrictions on sudden, one-off strikes in the essential services sector.
It’s about the public, not the government; people suffer from it. Public transport, electricity, water, energy and the port are the nerve centers of the economy. When they suddenly strike without notice, the audience is seriously affected.
Many countries have different levels of protection for this. Some countries completely ban strikes. In other countries, all members must be consulted before industrial action and the majority must vote in favour. Then the union must give 14 days’ notice so that the government has time to fix the problem. Some countries have a special court before calling essential service strikes.
They will assess whether this should be allowed. There has to be some kind of balance between meeting people’s basic needs and workers’ rights. Now, this is not a government decision. This is my opinion, having seen unjust strikes in the country.
Recently there was a clash between a doctor and someone on the road in Kurunegala. For this, the whole hospital went on strike.
A few weeks ago, a train carrying some 300 tourists from Colombo to Badulla suddenly decided to go on strike without warning. Tourists had to be sent back to Badulla by sending buses from Colombo.
Tourists said they would never come back to our country. So it destroys our economy and our image.
While legitimate labor grievances must be addressed, they cannot be allowed to hold the public to ransom. So, like any other country, these laws need to be reviewed.
Everyone must understand our country’s challenges and economic obstacles. Unions, government, civil servants and everyone else must work together for our recovery.