SRI LANKA: The Impeachment Motion against the Chief Justice Is an Opportunity to Address the Crisis in the Justice System

Seventy-seven legislators in Parliament signed a resolution to impeach the chief justice of Sri Lanka, Mr. Sarath Nanda Silva, on June 6, 2001. The number of legislators required to file a petition of this type is 75 members of the 225-seat legislature. The signatories to the motion are from the two opposition parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) [People’s Liberation Front].

Fourteen charges are contained in the impeachment resolution relating to the following offences: obstruction of justice, violation of the Constitution and abuse of power. The charges also include inappropriate personal behaviour relating to the status of a Supreme Court justice. The charges against the chief justice have received extensive publicity in Sri Lanka even before this motion was filed on June 6.

A surprising move on the part of three Supreme Court justices is their decision that the speaker of Parliament does not have the authority or the power to appoint a parliamentary select committee to probe into the impeachment motion. This move has brought added concern to this issue. This judgement has been heavily criticised for its potential to trigger an unprecedented conflict between Parliament and the judiciary and thus the possibility of creating a constitutional crisis. Although the chief justice was not one of the three judges who made this ruling, the chief justice selects the panels for hearing cases. A former Supreme Court justice, K. M. M. B. Kulathunga, in an interview with the BBC Sinhala service stated that “this sort of thing only happens in Sri Lanka. The Constitution clearly states that no other institution can question the procedures of Parliament, which is the sovereign legislative body.”

In recent years, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) has drawn attention to the fact that the entire justice system in Sri Lanka is facing an enormous crisis and that this crisis contributes to the large volume of human rights violations that have occurred in the country. The crisis in the justice system also makes it impossible for the victims of human rights abuses to attain redress. In addition, the crisis in the justice system also contributes to the protracted civil conflict related to the ethnic issue. The inability of the components of the justice systemthe police, the prosecution and the judicial branchesto effectively enforce the law has resulted in a massive loss of faith in the justice system as a whole. This loss of faith in the justice system has created doubts about the enforcement of any of the agreements that may be reached to resolve this conflict. This lack of faith is thus a contributory factor that retards the negotiating process of the conflict. The president of the Court of Appeal in Sri Lanka in a recent speech summed up this problem by stating, “I decided it opportune to draw your mind to a burning issue in the current legal and social scene: the emergence of the ominous sign of a breakdown in effective law enforcement and the rule of law.”

The impeachment motion provides the opportunity for the Parliament of Sri Lanka to probe the allegations against the chief justice. Such power residing in the Parliament is essential for the effective intervention of the legislature to ensure that the basic constitutional principles are safeguarded and that the justice system performs the functions it is supposed to perform within the democratic framework of governance. What is at stake is not just a matter of privilege of the Parliament but the very principles of a liberal democracy itself.

The critical situation faced by the democratic institutions in Sri Lanka, particularly since the introduction of the 1978 Constitution, has so far gone without a proper examination by the highest legislative body in the country. The impeachment process provides an opportunity for the legislature to probe into these matters and to create a precedent for the future. It is to be hoped that the legislature will face up to this task and create the opportunity for Sri Lankan society as a whole to participate in this much-needed process of examining the crisis in its justice system.

Bruce Van Voorhis

Asian Human Rights Commission



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Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-06-2001-01
Countries : Sri Lanka,