Colombo, Sri Lanka
On the occasion of the International Human Rights Day on 10 December 2017, over 300 Sri Lankan youth from across the country gathered in Vavuniya, Northern Province, to ask questions – lots of questions – about constitutional reform. In a forum organised by Democracy Reporting International (DRI) in cooperation with partner organisation the AFRIEL Youth Network, political leaders and civil society representatives engaged with youth participants to drive home a key message: the youth of Sri Lanka have an important role to play in advocating for a new constitution which complies with human rights standards.
Since the election of the ‘National Unity Government’ (yahapalanaya) in 2015, Sri Lanka has initiated a participatory yet highly contested process of constitutional reform. Many segments of society, including youth, feel alienated from the process, seeing it as another political game. The forum gave participants, including 179 women and 150 men, an opportunity to re-engage with the reforms, and to openly discuss the constitution as a vehicle to guarantee their rights as citizens of the island nation.
Fielding the questions on constitutional issues such as safeguards for minority rights, the status of different religions and the power of the Provincial Councils were Mr. M.A. Sumanthiran, Member of Parliament for the Tamil National Alliance, and Mr. Mahinda Ratnayake and Mr. Lucian Bulathsingala, representatives of the Puravasi Balaya Citizen’s Power Organization.
In his keynote, Mr. Sumanthiran reminded the young participants of the weight of history. Information on the current reform process is available in the public domain, he said, inviting the participation of all Sri Lankans- a stark difference from Sri Lanka’s previous constitution-making processes in the 20th century. The speakers also confronted the common criticism that there are bigger issues to address than the constitutional reform, arguing the constitution itself is a means to solving these very same issues.
However, participants did not only get to quiz the experts: a peer-to-peer dialogue also helped to bring together perspectives from all over the island nation, bridging regional gaps and finding common grievances and requests for human rights reform.
The forum, the first in a series of events of its kind planned over the coming months, gave the youth participants the chance to discuss – and question – a crucial issue at a crucial time in Sri Lanka’s reform process. As Mr. Ratnayake stressed, “this constitution will not be perfect, but it will help us move in the right direction”.