SRI LANKA: Understanding what governance means in a democracy

Phrases like ‘good governance’ are often used in less developed countries without attaching a specific meaning to them. The experience of the present government in Sri Lanka is a clear example of this. Since the January 2015 election victory, ‘good governance’ has been used to talk about everything. In actual fact however, the country has no governance at all. Even the limited governance prevailing previously has now been abandoned, resulting in widespread lawlessness and chaos everywhere. This chaos has affected everything, including the country’s currency and banking practices.

In critiquing Sri Lanka’s bad governance and the resulting chaos, it is essential to remind people what governance in fact means. It is the duty of everyone engaged in promoting and defending democracy not to use political terms in the broadest possible way, but rather to articulate things in a specific and practical manner, enabling people to demand for effective change.

Governance in essence means law enforcement. A democracy differs from a monarchy or an authoritarian regime through the regulation of laws that apply equally to all. The concept of equality before the law makes sense only when there is a system of just laws, and when that system is equally enforced. If a government is unable to enforce the law, then it is failing its primary objective. It is no longer engaged in governance, but in something else in the name of governance.

Law enforcement can only be done through the institutions created for that purpose. Law enforcement is not primarily a function of politicians, but of officers whose duty it is to ensure that the law is equally implemented for the benefit of all citizens, without any political influence. This requires capable institutions, in particular, the police, the judicial system, the prosecution, and the civil administration. These institutions spread their arms into every aspect of social life in a country, and maintain equilibrium. When they do not function as intended, they serve to undermine the entire system.

Let us take the case of the police in Sri Lanka. There is a common admission that the Sri Lankan system of policing has collapsed, and that reliable service cannot be expected of it under the present circumstances. That of course does not mean that there are no good officers left, and that some small sections of the government structure do not keep performing, while the rest has gone chaotically rotten. Overall however, there is an admission that the police is unable to carry out its tasks of enforcement within a democratic system of law. This poses a fundamental threat to the existence of an organized and peaceful society. When the very system that is supposed to ensure law enforcement becomes an obstacle to it, it is the primary duty of the government and other leaders to ensure that the illness affecting the policing system is scrutinized and addressed.

The same thing can be said about every other institution. When these institutions are sick, the whole organized system of cooperation within a particular society is seriously threatened. In such a society, no individual can live or sleep in peace until the illness is treated. When it is not treated or addressed, corruption and abuse of power is enabled within the institutions. Gradually corruption can become so massive and shocking, leading to the development of a resistance which begins to expose and condemn all those who are corrupt. The demand that all such people should be brought to justice and sent to jail can become the hue and cry of a nation. Unfortunately, the mere condemnation of corruption will not result in its elimination. On the contrary, everyday discussions on corruption can become a normal part of political life, with new scandals replacing old scandals, and these scandals worsening as time passes.

The only counter strategy to this rhetoric is a conscious struggle against the institutions mired in corruption. This requires public education and awareness, as well as a vocal expression for the rebuilding of these institutions. This must become the key point of the conversation about corruption. If the conversation is only on corruption and catching the thieves and robbers, then it begs the question, ‘who is going to catch them, and who is going to bring them to justice?’ Without functioning law enforcement institutions, bringing them to justice is simply not possible, even with a good amount of political will.

It is therefore essential for society to realize this problem, and begin working towards solutions. Society must realize how vital these institutions are for the nation’s well-being, and then begin curing the illness that has beset them. Healthy institutions will ensure a healthy life for all.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-051-2018
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Administration of justice, Corruption, Democracy, Freedom of expression, Rule of law,