The Importance of Public Awareness and Participation in the Constitutional Process

Reform Watch is a video magazine program which aims to redress issues faced by marginalized communities through Constitutional Reform. Activist Herman Kumara explained to the Reform Watch team how public participation must be a part of the drafting process for a new Constitution.

 Consider a country which has a small ruling class and many downtrodden citizens, similar to what you might find in novels and tales of unjust kings. What prevents the majority from taking back the power wielded by a few people? The answer is oppression, and one way to be oppressed is to be unaware of your Constitutional rights.

Today, Sri Lanka has definitively shown the world that the people’s power is what elected officials wield and that people can always take that power back, as Sri Lankans recently did through peaceful means. But did it have to come to this? Couldn’t things have improved much earlier? And can a solid Constitutional Reform process help?

Expert Herman Kumara explains that simply put, a contract is an agreement between the people and the government on how they will be governed. “The rights of the people are the most important aspect of this agreement,” he says, adding that a Constitution can also be called a framework upon which other aspects of governance such as laws and regulations etc can be introduced. “When people aren’t aware of these basic facts and they start to say that the Constitution should be written by lawyers and that their views are not needed, this is dangerous,” he states, adding that awareness on the importance of public participation must be explained to the people to prevent future exploitation of power.

 

The Ideal Constitution

What does the ideal Constitution look like? “Imagine a farmer. The ideal Constitution will provide a good framework for this farmer to get all that he needs such as water and fertilizer and seeds, and not just for farmers but for all Sri Lankans – the ideal Constitution will set a framework where all of their basic rights have been identified,” says Herman, referring to the different Fundamental Rights which many experts say should be included in the Constitution such as the right to life and the right to a safe environment etc. Herman also stresses that if we do not have a Constitution which takes into consideration the democratic aspirations of all citizens, including all races, religions and other groups, there will be people who feel that they do not belong, and this will cause other issues. “If they see that just one group of people have made a Constitution and they start saying that it is not their Constitution, this is very dangerous,” he explains, adding that it will cause disunity.

 

How can your voice make a difference?

In any good drafting process of a Constitution, oral and written submissions are accepted by the Constitutional Committee. A reasonable effort is made to travel to all parts of the country in question and speak to as many diverse groups of people as possible, in the hopes that all of their concerns are recorded, understood, analysed and finally encoded in a Constitution in general terms. “The rights of all races and religions must be included in the Constitutional Reform process for everyone to feel that this is their Constitution,” stresses Herman, and for this, the participation of marginalized communities and different groups who have different aspirations and needs must take part and submit their needs so that they can be considered. If people do not make submissions and raise their issues, then their rights will not be considered in the new drafting process.

 

Raising Awareness

It is not in the interest of most politicians to raise awareness on this issue. Right up until the Aragalaya, people have not been aware of their power. Waiting until the next crisis strikes and then engaging in protests for months can all be avoided next time if people use this critical juncture in Sri Lankan history to make people aware of their rights. One way that this can be done is through the media. “The media can explain the importance of having a good Constitution and the role which people’s voices can play in enriching it – all of this can be explained to the people so that they understand the value of this process and they do not allow anyone to upset this process and create a constitution which doesn’t properly reflect the rights of the people,” explains Herman.

 

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