By Basil Fernando
The debt crisis, or what is known better as the US dollar crisis, is what is threatening the stability of Sri Lanka right now. In a very clear message to the nation, given by way of a press interview, Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe on 11 May has expressed, in no uncertain terms, the danger the nation is in. Within just one or two weeks, the country could sink further into a situation where there can be power cuts as long as 12 hours a day and queues much longer than those being experienced. The rescue time is short. The usable reserve available for use for essential imports is inadequate to meet the demand for basic necessities.
He clearly stated that everything depends on the restoration of law and order and political stability. He quite succinctly stated as to why political stability is an essential condition for carrying out the work that is being done by the CBSL in the recent weeks after his appointment and also what political stability means. He said that in order to put into effect the essential plans for dealing with this critical situation, there is the need for political support for the technical work that is involved.
There is work to be done by the relevant political authorities like the Finance Minister and also certain legislations, which are necessary in order to implement the economic plans proposed by the CBSL. For example, there is an urgent need for change relating to taxation, because one of the immediate causes for the present catastrophic situation was the removal of certain taxes after the present Government came into power.
There is work for the CBSL and the economic experts to do, but getting the necessary administrative and political approval depends on the capacity of the political system to support these moves.
He expressed that the events which started with the killing in Rambukkana and which then escalated due to the attacks on demonstrators on 9 May has virtually upset all these plans that they were working on.
In an answer to a question from the press, he stated that he had, in fact, made an earlier statement that if within one or two weeks law and order is not stabilised and political stability not restored, there would be no point in him remaining in this position because nobody, whether it be him or anyone else in this position, would be able to do anything to prevent the country’s serious economic collapse for a long time. It was under those circumstances that he had stated that he may have to resign if these conditions are not immediately addressed.
Thus, respect for all the rights that the people want to achieve and those that institutions like the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) need to decide to assist, may go through a dramatic downfall unless law and order is restored. For that, political stability that is capable of providing the necessary support and taking the necessary measures for the implementation of the CBSL’s plans to proceed with the negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and others, must be put in place.
This comes to the very core of the mandate of the HRCSL. The HRCSL’s basic mandate, in terms of the Paris Principles, is to promote and protect human rights, and that cannot be done unless law and order remains stable.
The implication of this is that unless the implementation mechanisms of the law are functional and able to carry out their legal mandates effectively, it is not possible to create conditions for the recovery of the situation relating to the economic crisis. What this directly refers to is the capacity of the State institutions, which are supposed to maintain law and order, being able to investigate all violations of the law, and a system of prosecution that is trustworthy and able to contribute to the proper implementation of the law. Thus, the function of the policing and the prosecutorial systems are essential aspects of restoring law and order, and therefore contributing to creating the environment necessary for the recovery from the deep economic crisis that the country is faced with.
The work of these two institutions must be supported by the strong, effective, and independent Judiciary that is the ultimate foundation of a functioning system of the administration of justice. It is a fundamental principle of the rule of law that the overall control of the system of justice must be the Judiciary itself. Thus, judicial function, role, and independence are essential aspects of maintaining a stable society.
It is in this area that the HRCSL should try to contribute in the immediate future. The HRCSL should be willing to assist the Police to achieve certain institutional reforms which are essential for those institutions to be functional and continue forward. Several years of the neglect of this institution has brought it to disrepute and its capacities have been seriously undermined.
The deterioration of the institutional capacities of the Police is connected to the political interference into the institutions that are working. The principle that no one should be allowed to interfere with the administration of justice has been lost to a great extent in Sri Lanka. Without the restoration of this principle in an effective manner, it is not possible for the policing institutions to carry out many of its essential tasks.
These tasks are: maintaining law and order by quick responses to possible violations; investigating violations which could lead to successful prosecutions; and co-operating with the prosecutors and the Judiciary in order to ensure that the law is enforced and respected.
It is well known that in all these areas, policing institutions in Sri Lanka have suffered enormous setbacks. Had it not been for these setbacks, the events of 9 May, where attacks on peaceful demonstrators led to nationwide violence, could easily have been avoided. The evidence now available shows that several Policemen assisted the commission of acts of crime on the peaceful demonstrators by directly or indirectly co-operating with and giving cover to the perpetrators of these crimes. On the other hand, omissions on the part of the Police, including the Inspector General of Police (IGP), also contributed to the further degeneration of the situation.
Like the policing institutions, the Attorney General’s (AG) Department too has run into great distrust due to its compliance with criminal elements, whether these criminal elements happen to be in the political establishment or outside. The politicisation of this once-prestigious department is a great national tragedy. This has to be stopped forthwith if the expectations of the Governor of the CBSL and those who are dealing with the difficult task of trying to recover from the catastrophic economic downfall, are to be achieved.
What the HRCSL can do in this aspect is manifold. First of all, the HRCSL must seek the support of volunteer groups of lawyers and other experts and thoroughly study the defects of the existing system of law enforcement and make recommendations to the Government on the urgently needed reforms. Of this aspect, the HRCSL can develop co-operation with the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and also others willing to assist the HRCSL develop a quick set of recommendations, which could guide politicians to take quick actions to strengthen the nation’s law enforcement capacity.
This will require a change in the pattern of work at the HRCSL, to be able to get assistance, which is very likely to come in an overwhelming manner, if the HRCSL opened its gates and welcomed such assistance.
Accompanying a thorough understanding of what is practically required to improve these institutions should be the work of the HRCSL in order to educate the public of these needed reforms. Mere general education on human rights or purely conducting some inquiries into a few cases will not suffice at a critical time like this.
The HRCSL can seek the help of television and other media outlets, which are very likely to offer free space to the HRCSL to present their message to the nation, on the needed reforms of the law enforcement agencies which are essential to the protection of human rights.
To fulfil this educational function, the HRSCL would need to improve its media and pedagogical capacity. Here too, it is very likely that there would be many who would be willing to voluntarily assist the HRCSL, to work under its guidance to carry out a nationwide education programme on the needed reforms into the law enforcement agencies in Sri Lanka as well as needed judicial reforms.
If the ideas proposed here are discussed openly, many others would join to help the HRCSL to open up a dialogue on how to respond to the CBSL Governor’s request for the quick restoration of law and order and a greater co-operation from the political establishment to the work of the CBSL at this most crucial moment.