SRI LANKA: Failure to govern not failure of state, and its implications for human rights

The AHRC is issuing this statement to coincide with a meeting organised by a group of citizens in Sri Lanka on the theme ‘Saving Sri Lanka from the brink of disaster’, to be held on May 27 at Colombo.  For details see AHRC FS-012-2006

The state’s protection of human rights is dependent on the government’s capacity to govern.  When a government is incapable of governing, society descends into anarchy and violence. In a new book Disorder in Sri Lanka, former Supreme Court judge KMMB Kulatunga captures the failure of governance and resulting anarchy within the country.

The primary responsibility for governance lies with Sri Lanka’s executive president and his cabinet, which includes the prime minister. Together, it is their duty to ensure that all institutions and departments making up the governing structure function effectively and smoothly. In fact, this is their day to day work. The heads of these departments and institutions are responsible for their functioning and are to report progress directly to the government.

The key institution that keeps the country running is its civil service. This service ensures that the public authorities needed for people’s daily routines are functioning. In order to be effective, the civil service must be organised according to the rule of law. The agency responsible for law enforcement is the police, which also needs to be strictly organised with a clear command structure. With regard to crime control, proper policing reduces crime through effective investigations and the enhancement of court functions. There is a clear relationship between the police and court systems. Where policing fails in its functions, the courts cannot succeed in theirs. In democratic countries, where goods and services are exchanged through the enforcement of contracts, the police have a wider function than mere crime control. Law enforcement is also essential for maintaining a proper electoral process, without which no democracy can be genuine.

Sri Lanka is at present facing the failure of its civil service, law enforcement and electoral process. This is commonly accepted by all persons within the country. In fact, the popular reference to a ‘failed state’ in reality is a failure of governance. States cannot fail or succeed, as the ‘state’ is an abstract concept. It is the governance that either succeeds or fails.

To turn back this failure, effective governance must be reestablished within the departments and institutions as earlier described. In order to identify precisely where governance has failed, close study should be made of these institutions. In particular, such study should note the command structure of each institution, the relationship between the different institutions and departments as well as their relationship with the government.

When failed governments are unwilling to engage in such detailed study, they require external enemies to deflect attention to. These enemies may also become scapegoats for all internal problems. Government leaders and representatives then engage in propaganda, creating excuses for their failures. They increasingly become occupied with propaganda activities rather than with addressing basic problems of administration.

This failure of governance was realised by all political parties in 2001, at which time the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was introduced. While the amendment has its limitations, it is of historic importance. It was the first step taken to address the collapse of public institutions, which had a detrimental effect on the daily lives of ordinary citizens. It introduced supervisory mechanisms for these institutions, as well as procedures by which promotions, transfers and discipline were to be maintained within the institutions. The amendment should not be seen as an end, but rather as a beginning of closely studying the problems and attempting to solve them. To abandon the beginning is to return to the failed system of governance, which is what has happened at present.

There can be no protection of human rights when the system of governance itself has failed. Any reports stating otherwise, made to the UN Human Rights Council and other bodies by a failed government are nothing but propaganda. The recent appointments to the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka are indicative. The government’s attempts to create a functioning Commission while violating the constitutional process is a mockery of human rights promotion.  The Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) urges all those concerned with human rights in Sri Lanka to address the issue of failed governance, upon which the possibility of human rights implementation rests.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-119-2006
Countries : Sri Lanka,