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Voices of Trinity: Stefani Merki on Constitution Day

 
 

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day!  By law, colleges and universities must have some observance of this important day that reminds us of the legal foundation of our nation.  Here at Trinity, we are promoting Constitution Day all week with posters on the Bill of Rights, blogs and classes on legal rights, and on Wednesday, a special symposium on D.C. Voting Rights (thanks to Dr. Shelley Tomkin, this will take place at 10:30 am in O’Connor).

Additionally, this week I am very pleased to feature the voices of students on my blog.  Thanks to the collaboration of Dr. James Stocker, Trinity’s new International Relations professor, students in his class on Democratization have given permission for the publication of their essays this week on my blog.

The first essay is from Stefani Merki; I hope you will agree that this is an outstanding piece of student writing, very thoughtful and well-constructed, including the excellent use of footnotes as citations to her sources.  Thank you, Stefani!  Read on:

“The U.S. Checks and Balance System as a Model to Maintain Sri Lanka’s Fragile Peace”.
By Stefani Merki

On September 17, 1787 the U.S. constitution was signed, marking the birth of the U.S government. Therefore, every year on September 17, the U.S. celebrates Constitution Day. One important principle of the American constitution is limited government.[1] This means that the government cannot do whatever it pleases, but is regulated through a checks and balances system.[2] However, limited government cannot always be taken for granted. An example of a state whose constitutional practices stand in stark contrast to the U.S. is Sri Lanka.

The U.S. constitution creates executive, legislative, and judiciary branches. This division produces a separation of power, which in turn creates balance. The U.S constitution defines what the tasks of each branch are, and how they can protect themselves from any abuse of power by the other branches. The two chambers of Congress reduce the influence of the legislative power; the president has the power to veto and to control the power of Congress; the Senate has to agree on treaties issued by the president; and the courts review decisions made by the President and Congress. It is easily to comprehend how these elements of the constitution lead to a system of checks and balance. This ensures that power is not concentrated in any one branch of government.[3]

Sri Lanka’s constitution on the other hand promotes the accumulation of power in the hands of one single individual. In 2010 the 18th amendment to the constitution was passed. This amendment stated that the president is no longer limited to two terms of six years. The Sri Lankan president can now be the leader of the country for as long as the people elect him. Furthermore, and more importantly for this comparison, the 18th amendment revises the constitution’s 17th amendment, which stated that a constitutional council should observe the president’s actions.[4] The objective of the council was to “subject (the president) to a constitutional process where appointments, transfers, promotion and the disciplinary control of officers of key public institutions were to be placed under the authority of independent bodies.”[5] Hence, the latest amendment allows the president of Sri Lanka to choose the civil service employees, judges, and police forces without the approval of any other party.[6]

As the U.S. celebrates Constitution Day it is the perfect time to acknowledge variances in different governments around the globe. Americans are coming together to celebrate their constitution, which is a model of the checks and balance system. The lack of such a system in Sri Lanka puts a strain on the lives of its citizens’. Sri Lanka is a country prone to ethnic divisions and tensions. The majority Sinhalese are currently in power,[7] and due to the new amendment, they can now further expand their power. The Sinhalese president will only appoint fellow Sinhalese into civil service, court and military; thereby, strengthening the suppression of the ethnic minority groups.

I see this as a dangerous development. Sri Lanka’s 25-year long civil war only came to an end in 2009. The civil war broke out because the minority Tamils were tired of the Sinhalese majoritarian rule and wanted to become a sovereign state.[8] The 18th amendment may revive separatist sentiments of the minority and spur new uprisings and turmoil, therefore jeopardizing Sri Lanka’s fragile peace.



[1] “What is Constitution day?” http://www.constitutionday.us/ (accessed September 13, 2012)

[2] Johnson, P. “A Glossary of Political Economy Terms”. http://www.auburn.edu/~johnspm/gloss/checks_and_balances (accessed September 13, 2012)

[3] U.S. Constitution“ Find Law. http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/data/constitution/article01/01.html (accessed September 13, 2012)

[4] „Eighteenth time unlucky“. The Economist, September 9, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/16992141 (accessed September 13, 2012).

[5] “Sri Lanka: Bypassing the 17th Amendment is a Move Towards the Return to Absolute Pwer.” Asian Human Rights Commission, February 14, 2006. http://www.humanrights.asia/news/ahrc-news/AS-024-2006 (accessed September 13, 2012).

[6] „Eighteenth time unlucky. The Economist, September 9, 2012. http://www.economist.com/node/16992141 (accessed September 13, 2012).

[7] Wade, M. „Poll Result Shows up Sri Lanka’s Deep Ethnic Divide“. The Sydney Morning Harald, January 30, 2012. http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/politics/poll-result-shows-up-sri-lankas-deep-ethnic-divide-20100129-n49k.html (accessed September 13, 2012).

[8] Martin, M. “Sri Lankan Officials Kill Rebel Leader, End Civil War”. NPR, May 22, 2009. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104429492 (accessed September 14, 2012)

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Patricia A. McGuire, President, Trinity, 125 Michigan Ave. NE, Washington, DC 20017
Phone: 202.884.9050   Email: president@trinitydc.edu