SRI LANKA: Will and capacity to curb corruption, true test of independence

The 67th anniversary of the declaration of independence will take place as a hopeful event. The defeat of the repressive and corrupt Mahinda Rajapaksa regime and the resolution of the crisis of judicial independence that was caused by the illegal removal of Dr. Shirani Bandaranayake from the post of Chief Justice have created this environment. That the downslide caused by the 1978 Constitution is being challenged in the government’s 100-day programme makes this day and the event even more meaningful.

However, if independence is to become a word that carries a dynamic political message to all Sri Lanka people once again, the new government must address the challenge of law enforcement. As long as the fallen rule of law system remains, stability, security, development, and prosperity will remain words that evoke cynicism rather than hope.

In the weeks that followed the people’s victory in ousting the Rajapaksa regime, an energetic environment has emerged among the people, who are eagerly absorbing all the details of corruption, mismanagement, and incredible abuse of power being revealed to them by the new government. All private conversations in homes, among friends, and in social gatherings are about Rajapaksa extravagances. Stories about the ex-President’s dogs, about deals involving exchanges of elephants, about sharks that were kept by some members of the Rajapaksa family, about horses, and about Lamborghinis cars are among those that have caused not merely popular amusement but also popular anger. Such intense conversations on corruption and abuse of power have never taken place in Sri Lanka before, ever. Adding to this are the mountains of complaints that are being lodged at the Commission against Bribery and Corruption.

However, people expect something more from the new government than merely information about scandalous misuse of power. One question that comes up over and over in various television interviews and also in ordinary conversation is when and how the government will arrest and prosecute the offenders who are the villains in the stories published. Mere vilification does not satisfy an angry public. They want to see culprits being brought to courts and justice being done.

However, on that score, the public is not convinced that the government has the will and the capacity to ensure that the law will be impartially and strictly enforced. Some participants in media shows argue that the alleged culprits are too powerful and the government may allow these sharks to escape. The slowness with which the allegations about extreme crimes are being investigated has been seen as an indication of unwillingness on the part of the enforcement agencies to do what the law mandates.

Others argue that the investigative mechanisms in the country have deteriorated during the last few decades due to the political climate created by the 1978 Constitution, which weakened all the public institutions. They also argue that one of the adverse consequences of the internal conflicts, characterized as “war”, was the displacement of criminal investigative branches and enhancement of the military approach to deal with threats to the State.

No one has any illusions about the genuine possibility of investigation into corruption through the existing Commission against Bribery and Corruption. This Commission is seen as an obstacle to genuine enforcement of criminal justice and seen more as an institution that knows all the tricks to allow the sharks to escape. In public imagination, it is only perceived as being capable of prosecuting some sprats.

An independent observer would have little doubt that the criminal investigative capacity existing in Sri Lanka is weak and primitive; it is not adequate to even deal with ordinary crime such as murder and rape. However, the type of crimes being revealed now require investigators capable of handling sophisticated financial transactions and unearthing highly organized crime being conducted with the patronage of the politically powerful.

The new government has, so far, not indicated an understanding of this problem. And, the 100-day programme does not include this aspect of strengthening the Sri Lankan criminal justice mechanisms. It is no exaggeration to state that resolving this problem has not become part of the political agenda of those directing Sri Lankan political destinies today.

Independence means little when the people cannot enjoy security and criminals enjoy impunity. A weak state, incapable of enforcing the law, cannot achieve any significant development or social justice objectives. A state that does not have capacity, by way of an efficient criminal justice mechanism, is a weak state.

For decades, the Asian Human Rights Commission has pointed out this problem: the unwillingness and the incapacity of the Sri Lankan state is the cause for all the human rights problems that exist in the country. It is this weakness that is exploited by so many unscrupulous persons and groups in order to intensify internal conflicts and create unstable situations. This in turn creates favourable conditions for corruption and every other forms of lawlessness to thrive. The mountains of scandals associated with the Rajapaksa regime were achieved due to the prevalence of this lawless environment.

The newly elected President, the government, and all the new forces that energetically support the government with the hope of achieving significant changes, must not ignore the fact that their own ambitions can only be achieved if the terrible problems associated with lawlessness are addressed. In a lawless situation there can be no real independence.

This is an opportune time to squarely face this problem. One of the manifestations of the government coming to grips with this problem would be when adequate resources are made available to enable effective law enforcement and an effectively functioning mechanism for investigation into bribery and corruption.

People will be convinced about good governance only when the sharks are brought to justice. For this, a legal network that is capable of catching the sharks must be created. Without it the new President’s promises of good governance cannot be achieved. And, this would be tragic, as there is, at the moment, energetic support from the population for measures to achieve significant changes in the country.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-026-2015
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Right to life, Right to redress, Right to remedy,