SRI LANKA: Human Rights Concerns for Reforming the Judiciary

With the Speaker of the House deciding to place the impeachment motion before a select committee and reject the order of the Supreme Court to the contrary, on one hand, and with the government losing its majority in Parliament due to the withdrawal of its coalition partner, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC), on the other, an unprecedented political situation has broken out in the country. This situation has tremendous implications for the human rights of the people of Sri Lanka and the country’s human rights community in particular.

The Speaker’s decision was inevitable, given the unreasonableness of the Supreme Court order that was rightly seen as interference with the functioning of the legislature. The ensuing open confrontation between the legislative and judicial branches of government is a challenge that the three Supreme Court judges have brought upon themselves. That the direct issue was the impeachment of the chief justice himself makes the situation worse as the chief justice selects the panels to hear Supreme Court cases. In addition, the allegations against the chief justice included arbitrariness in deciding some cases.

Popular dissatisfaction against the judicial institutions in Sri Lanka is sadly common and is even reflected in the speeches of some judges. In a country which has acquired a reputation for massive human rights violations, such as disappearances, torture, war crimes, extrajudicial killings, etc., judicial intervention to protect human rights has been negligent. The increase of crime everywhere has undermined the people’s belief in the rule of law, and the judiciary has not responded to this deterioration in law and order in any visible way. Moreover, the delays and inefficiencies of the system discourage people from availing themselves of it.

In fact, the degeneration of the judiciary has been rapid since the promulgation of the 1978 Constitution. With the promulgation of this Constitution, Sri Lanka broke away from the liberal democratic tradition while keeping only the façade of democracy. The executive presidency introduced by this Constitution could survive only with a subservient judiciary. The conflict with the judiciary at an early stage was inevitable. However, with time, as the judiciary gave in to the situation, friction has become less and less until the recent developments which led to the impeachment. The political factionalism among some judges has even earned comments from some reporters in the international press.

Judicial reform, including changes at the highest judicial levels, has now become a primary need for the recovery and survival of the democratic process, basic justice and the rule of law. Without judicial reform, the reforms of other aspects of the justice system, such as the police and prosecution system, is not possible. (In past statements of the Asian Human Rights Commission [AHRC], the need for reform of the police and prosecution system have been pointed out and specific suggestions have been offered.)

However, neither the government nor the opposition is facing this issue seriously. The absence of a serious approach to the issue can contribute to a further degeneration of the situation and the development of further anarchy. Such developments will have a negative impact on all aspects of the country, including the peace process.

The primary responsibility for initiating reform of the judiciary and other aspects of the justice system in circumstances like this rests with the community. It is for the community to intervene responsibly and decisively. The judiciary is too precious of an institution for the community not to take action, and it is the most important instrument for the defence of human rights and democracy. Consequently, this institution needs the community’s scrutiny and the community’s critical support. The community must now make its suggestions for reform and get these suggestions heard and discussed. If society does not keep watch over its guardians, then the guardians may become its worst enemies.

The political crisis which has come into the open is likely to last for quite some time. This offers an opportunity for the community to make its presence felt. It is time for the community to create its own moral, ethical and legal foundations for a justice system that is capable of returning democracy to Sri Lanka and of protecting the rights of the Sri Lankan people.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-05-2001
Countries : Sri Lanka,
Issues : Judicial system,