SRI LANKA: Bypassing the 17th Amendment is a move towards the return to absolute power

Recent reports speak of significant reorganisation within Sri Lanka’s police department, bringing it under the control of the Secretary of Defence (SD), who will now attend to all police appointments, transfers, promotions and disciplinary control. In this way the Secretary of Defence seems to be taking the place of the National Police Commission. He is assisted by the Advisor to the Defence on Policing while his orders are carried out by the Inspector General of Police (IGP). 

The reorganisation includes the transfer of senior officers instrumental in successfully carrying out anti-crime drives. Some reports state that these senior officers are being transferred for offending powerful figures through their strict enforcement of the law. This is contrary to the initial expectation that those within the police force collaborating with drug lords or otherwise involved in organised crime would be brought under stricter control by officers who had nothing to fear in doing their duty, and the improved crime control would lead to the arrest of drug lords. In fact, a key contribution made by the National Police Commission was to create the impression among law abiding police officers that they would have the protection of the commission in enforcing the law. Now however, the message is that no such protection is available and more powerful persons may regain their strength in negating the drive to control crime. Ironically, it was Sri Lanka’s IGP himself, who not so long ago stated that the primary obstacles to eliminating drug related crimes were the persons within the police force who collaborated with criminals.

Apart from the transfer of these senior officers, a reported 350 officers and Officers-in-Charge of 401 stations are also being transferred. This rapid and large scale transfer is seen as an attempt to politically manipulate the police for electoral and other purposes. The result will be further chaos within the police department, and the impression that officers-in-charge and their subordinates are expected to enforce the will of the politicians, not the rule of law.

The reorganisation of the police force is occurring while the 17th Amendment is being bypassed through the government’s refusal to appoint the Constitutional Council. This refusal has in no way been affected by massive local protests and international criticism against the non-appointment of the council. 

Bypassing the 17th Amendment will take Sri Lanka back to its position in 2001, at which time the amendment was unanimously introduced as a way out of the debilitating politicisation of key public institutions. This politicisation began from 1978, when an attempt was made to concentrate all power with the individual holding the post of Executive President, by way of the 1978 Constitution, which removed all checks and balances against absolute power. In fact, under this constitution, the Executive President of Sri Lanka, like Louis XVI, could easily say “I am the State”. Under this constitutional structure, chaos and violence spread into all areas of public life. It was this absurd situation that the 17th Amendment was meant to change. It was to take away the arbitrary power of the Executive President and to subject him, in the exercise of his power, to a constitutional process where appointments, transfers, promotions and the disciplinary control of officers of key public institutions were to be placed under the authority of independent bodies. 

Without these independent agencies, power will once again be placed in the hands of the Executive President. This will make it possible for him, together with others, to manipulate the political system and public institutions without any respect for the norms and standards required for good governance. Under these circumstances the Ministry of Defence among others acquires enormous powers, which it grossly abused prior to the enactment of the 17th Amendment. One area in which this was most noticeable was the holding of elections. There was hardly any protection for government dissidents or opponents. These persons had no defence against assassinations, death threats or other forms of harassment. The manipulation of power created a fear psychosis that paralysed all attempts to struggle for democracy and human rights.

The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), which has closely followed Sri Lanka’s political and legal developments, therefore sees the need to issue an early warning–the bypassing of the 17th Amendment is an attempt to return to the days of the Executive President exercising absolute power. Sri Lanka is on the verge of a period of intense repression, as experienced during the first two decades of the 1978 Constitution.

To prevent the return to repression and absolute power, the AHRC urges all freedom minded people to consider the bypassing of the 17th Amendment as a matter of the utmost importance. While this amendment may not be a complete solution, it has been a partial measure in obstructing the absolute power concept contained in the 1978 Constitution. While it may need to be further improved, at this moment the amendment needs to be preserved from the serious attack being made against it.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-024-2006
Countries : Sri Lanka,