SRI LANKA: Serious Challenges Ahead Regarding Implementation of Sri Lanka’s RTI law

The Asian Human Rights Commission is pleased to witness the historic coming into being of Sri Lanka’s Right to Information (RTI) Commission with three Commissioners being appointed by President Maithripala Sirisena on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council on Friday, 30th September 2016.

The three Commissioners, namely retired public administration officer Mahinda Gammanpila (Chair), Attorney-at-Law & activist Somapala Punchihewa and RTI advocate Kishali Pinto Jayawardene who was a member of the drafting team finalizing the Right to Information Act 2016, collectively bring a wealth of extensive experience and commitment in regard to implementing the Act.

Even though three Commissioners are sufficient for the quorum of the Commission, two more Commissioners need to be appointed by the Constitutional Council (CC). It is hoped that the CC will exercise the most anxious care and consideration in deciding on the remaining members. It need not be specially said that the caliber of the Commissioners will directly impact on the manner in which the public perceives the RTI Act as a genuine effort by the Government to address Sri Lanka’s problems of obsessive secrecy in government and elsewhere.

The passing of the RTI law and the appointment of three of the commissioners follows long years of struggle by many people and groups. The law has been listed as within the top ten best RTI laws in the world. However, this achievement will not mean anything if the theory is not translated into practice.  The struggle for the people’s right to information is therefore not over yet. For the RTI law now confronts the greatest challenge that all progressive laws have to face in Sri Lanka: the challenge of implementation. If one were to go by past experience, many good laws have been defeated at the stage of implementation.

Perhaps the most unforgettable example is what happened to the 17thAmendment to the Constitution. Hailed as a significant step taken by a Government to correct the politicization of institutions, it was deliberately sabotaged not only by the political leadership but also by judges, lawyers and others who ridiculed this amendment and then later accepted compromised appointments to constitutional commissions by the (then) head of State in violation of the very Constitution. We need to be observant in identifying similar pressure tactics in regard to the RTI Commission, emanating from those who have vested interests in undermining the Commission and its Commissioners on political or personal agendas.

These are challenges that do not belong wholly in the past. Even regarding the 19th Amendment, there are many complaints about implementation including the provision of sufficient resources to the independent commissions established under its provisions. Very recently, one of the Commissioners on the Election Commission complained that even the allowances of Commissioners had not been paid for several months.  Members of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka and the National Police Commission appear to have also been suffering in silence. In fact, one major reason for the inefficacy of even the most important institutions administering justice, such as the judiciary itself, the Attorney General’s Department and the police, is the state’s failure to provide material and human resources for their work.

Therefore, it should be envisaged that the Right to Information Commission will face these same difficulties. The new Commissioners should be aware of this challenge. Their earliest efforts should be directed towards negotiations with the relevant state agencies to ensure that they are provided with the necessary resources for their work so that they can deliver their services, which are eagerly awaited. Perhaps one strategy could be for the Commissioners to keep an open policy relating to all matters regarding information on obstacles to the proper functioning of the commission. The public have a right to know whether a Commission has been properly provided for and if the requisite state will is evidenced. These are Commissions that are far too important to be set up to fail.

Thus, it would be a tragedy if the Commission is to say that, due to the absence of necessary resources, they are unable to deliver their services as expected. Those who have put up a long struggle for the RTI Act and the establishing of the Commission have a great obligation to be watchful and see if the relevant state agencies ensure that all necessary support is granted to the Commission. It would be unacceptable if the public, who know quite well the manner in which public institutions are crippled in Sri Lanka, were to wait passively and were to complain later that this Commission, too, suffers from the same defects as the others.

Eternal vigilance is the only solution for evolving a system of administration that is accountable to the people.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AHRC-STM-151-2016
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Democracy, Freedom of expression, Human rights defenders, Institutional reform, Rule of law,