Slighting the democratic process to undermine the rule of law in Sri Lanka

By suspending parliament and calling the police and military onto the streets this November 4, the President of Sri Lanka has undermined ongoing efforts to restore the rule of law to the country by way of institutional reforms.  The victims of this arbitrary action will be the people of Sri Lanka. Their security has suffered a great blow.

In recent years there have been some attempts to address the militarisation of Sri Lankan that has taken place continuously since the 1970s. As a direct result, civilian policing in Sri Lanka has been thoroughly undermined. All sectors of society have condemned the collapse of the civilian policing system and have demanded immediate reforms. One result has been the appointment of the National Police Commission. The Commission promised to depoliticise the police force and restore discipline. Its Chairman pledged to eliminate torture from police stations, where it is still endemic. For its part, the National Human Rights Commission has also on several occasions within the last few months condemned the practice of torture and even declared its elimination would be a top priority in its strategic plan for the coming three years. It has designed a poster to be displayed in all police stations detailing the rights of arrestees. In a recent hearing at the United Nations Human Rights Committee in Geneva, the problems of policing in Sri Lanka were also raised, and the need for developing human rights protection mechanisms underscored.

Apart from policing, a strong public movement has also grown demanding judicial accountability.  The premature resignation of Justice Mark Fernando from the Supreme Court drew unprecedented public concern and calls to examine the state of the country’s judiciary. The case of Michael Anthony Fernando also drew local and international condemnation, including from the then UN Special Rapporteur for the independence of judges and lawyers, Dato’ Param Coomaraswamy, who stated that the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka has done an “act of injustice”. Public criticism has been concentrated on the conduct of the Chief Justice Sarath Nanda Silva. A 560-page book published in English and Sinhala entitled “An Unfinished Struggle” exposes his alleged misconduct. An impeachment motion has been pending against him for a long time.

The Department of the Attorney General too has come under severe pressure during the 30 years of civil unrest in the south, north and east of Sri Lanka. Its inability to deal with the impunity of perpetrators of large-scale violations of rights—including disappearances, extra-judicial killings, torture and corruption by state officers—has been condemned locally and internationally. Under these circumstances serious crimes have spread and there is a public outcry against them. However law enforcement agencies have been unable to address this situation.

The suspension of parliament has come under these circumstances. By putting the police and military in charge of law and order without the control of the parliament the President has all but declared a state of emergency. This move will seriously disrupt efforts to demilitarize the police. It will set back all initiatives to restore normal policing and end abuses of power. It is very likely that lawless elements will take advantage of this situation. People will have less protection from the police against crime. Torture is likely to increase. The lives of many civilians are now in grave danger. Meanwhile, basic commercial transactions are likely to be heavily affected by the deterioration of the rule of law.

We call upon all civil society organisations in Sri Lanka and the international community to urge the President to return the country to parliamentary rule without delay, lest a dangerous situation deepen into a renewed crisis. 

– Asian Human Rights Commission

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-43-2003
Countries : Sri Lanka,