SRI LANKA: New government lacks credible strategy for eliminating corruption

One of the promises of Mr. Maithripala Sirisena, as common candidate at the last presidential election, was the elimination of corruption, i.e. something the last government was steeped in. Elimination of corruption is therefore a major objective of his newly elected government. His catchwords were Yaha palanaya (good governance), which itself implies radical elimination of corruption. Today, 75 days into his palanaya (rule), there is hardly anything that the government can claim as an achievement, save for announcements of some inquiries initiated and some restrictions imposed on a few persons to prevent them travelling overseas.

There is nothing to be surprised about this outcome. The new government did not have and does not have a well thought out strategy on the elimination of corruption. It has merely attempted ad hoc actions and broadcast a lot of public statements, rather than work on an overall strategy that can lay the groundwork for the elimination of corruption.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) pointed this out to the new Finance Minister, through a letter written on the very day of his appointment. The relevant portion of the letter dated 13th January 2015 to Hon. Ravi Karunanayake M.P., Minister of Finance is quoted below:

“…The establishment of a genuine commission against bribery and corruption

That, in the post-independence period, Sri Lanka never made a genuine attempt to establish an effective commission against bribery and corruption is beyond dispute. Even the British, by the time they left, had not taken steps to ensure the existence of such a control mechanism. However, in Hong Kong the economy began to develop, the British did differently. By the time the British colonial rule ended in 1997, there was already in existence a solid, established, Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC). The decisive step was taken in 1974 and, within a few years, it achieved its aim. Today, Hong Kong is a society with very limited bribery and corruption.  The greatest strength that provides stability for Hong Kong is the existence of this effective corruption-control mechanism. By now, it has sunk into the consciousness of the people of Hong Kong that corruption is the most destabilizing factor in society, and that it should never be allowed to raise its head again. Despite Hong Kong’s political sovereignty being handed over to the Chinese in 1997, the efficiency of the Commission not only remains; it is, in fact, improving. The ICAC is able to prosecute officers holding the highest positions and some of the richest company owners too.

Once again, the key difference between talk of ending corruption and condemning the colossal corruption of the Rajapaksa family and the action needed to establish an effective corruption control system is the provision of the necessary budgetary allocations for the functioning of an effective commission. An effective commission should have its own investigating capacity, which means that recruitment of police officers on secondment basis to the commission should be brought to an end. This is one of the critical factors to the success of the ICAC in Hong Kong. The control of information leaks in ongoing investigations cannot be achieved as long as the staff of the anti-corruption commission is not independent of and delinked from the policing system. The control of bribery and corruption in the policing system is the first step towards the establishment of the rule of law and the expansion of corruption control to other sectors, including the private sector. A further requirement of an efficient system of corruption control is highly trained investigators and the availability of forensic and other technological facilities. It follows that the establishment of such a commission is not possible without considerable investment by the government through budgetary allocations.

The resources are now available for effective corruption control. What is needed is the transfer of this know-how to Sri Lanka, taking practical steps to achieve this transfer. While the change in attitude requires the political will of the government, the Ministry of Finance can make it possible to take these practical steps. If, in the coming years, the corrupt tradition, which permeated the last regime, were to continue, part of the blame would have to be accepted by the Ministry of Finance. On the other hand, if this great task were to be achieved, it would be to the highest credit of the foresight and political will of the Ministry of Finance….”

It is time for the new President and the Prime Minister, and all their advisors, to take a hard look at the nature of the institution called the Commission against Bribery and Corruption in Sri Lanka. This Commission, by its very structure and design, is outdated. The model it follows is one that has been abandoned in every country where there are successful results in the area of elimination or reduction of corruption. Sri Lanka’s Commission is just a bullock cart and such a vehicle cannot produce results in this age of space travel and rapid communication.

Leaking of information

The greatest weakness of the Sri Lankan Commission against Bribery and Corruption is the huge space available within this set up for leaking information on actual investigations. Particularly when the “big fish” are involved, leaking of information is inevitable. The remedy adopted to plug leaks in successful models of corruption prevention is to remove the anti-corruption body from having any links to the police. The Sri Lankan Commission against Bribery and corruption employs police officers in their investigative functions. No doubt there are efficient and honourable members of the police who also do their job efficiently. However, within the overall framework, even these good officers have to work with other officers and that is the manner in which information leaks can occur.

Basically, the AHRC’s criticism is that the new government has not yet seriously contemplated an effective strategy that could achieve the successful results some other countries have achieved. As Albert Einstein once said, it is foolish to do the same thing and expect different results. However, this is exactly what the new Government is engaged in.

Once again, the AHRC urges the new President and the Prime Minister to take a serious look at the strategy they have been following and to make the necessary changes that will enable the government to do the job of eliminating corruption in an effective manner.