SRI LANKA: Lack of police discipline a threat to Sri Lanka’s national development

May 4, 2005

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission 

Lack of police discipline a threat to Sri Lanka’s national development

Some of the views expressed by Inspector General of Police (IGP) Chandra Fernando, at a discussion with Professor Carlo Fonseca over the national radio (SLBC) on Monday, 3 May 2005, were alarming in their attempt to justify police shootings of civilians. Spelling out a Lee Kwan Yu doctrine of ‘discipline, development and democracy’, Mr Fernando explained the killings as acts of self-defense; the victim either tried to flee or harm the police officers, who then had to shoot them, leading to their deaths. The defense of such acts–also termed as cross-fire or encounter killings–by the highest police authority is tantamount to the encouragement of such behaviour. This comes at a time when there are reports of numerous civilian deaths after arrest. 

The earlier defense against police acts of violence was the use of ‘minimum force’. This minimum force led to a spate of deaths in police custody through grave injuries such as skull fractures, kidney damage and the like. Two of the latest cases involving such use of minimum force are the death of Wijaratne Munasinghe at the Maharagama police station and a husband and wife assaulted at the Ambilipitiya Police Station, as a result of which the wife gave birth prematurely, being five months pregnant.  

Hundreds of cases of police violence have been submitted to the IGP and other Sri Lankan authorities. Everyday more cases are added, clearly indicating a total breakdown of discipline within the police force. Under these circumstances, the IGP would do better to promote discipline within the department and ensure that the law is enforced according to established procedures, rather than discussing political ideology. The guide for the police is the law that exists in the country, not ideology. This law is made by the people through their elected representatives in the parliament. The duty of the law enforcement agency is to enforce the law according to the procedures established. The duty of the head of the police department is to ensure that the department enforces the law of the land.

To the credit of the IGP, he admitted during the radio discussion that the rule of law in Sri Lanka has broken down. It must be said however, that this is not the first time the present Inspector General of Police as well as his recent predecessors have admitted this fact. Merely admitting and repeating this is not enough; the leader of the law enforcement agency must undertake to end this collapse of the rule of law. To this end, he should clearly spell out a programme of action proposed by his department on ways to reinforce the rule of law. The Sri Lankan public is unaware of any such plan proposed or published by the police department. From the view of law enforcement, the IGP and his senior colleagues would make a more useful contribution to Sri Lanka by examining why the police department is failing to enforce the rule of law in the country.

When the IGP speaks about discipline as a component of development, he should above all be concerned about the discipline in the police force that he commands. It is publicly admitted that there is a complete collapse of discipline in the law enforcement agency, particularly in the recent decades. Mr Fernando’s writings themselves acknowledge this collapse. As for the cause of this collapse, in passing the 17th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution almost unanimously, all political parties in the country attributed it to the politicisation of the police force. The proposed solution was a de-politicisation process, under the strict supervision of the National Police Commission.

The 17th Amendment further provides for the establishment of a public complaints procedure ensuring prompt and thorough inquiries into all acts of police misbehaviour to reinforce discipline within the police force. This constitutional provision has not been complied with however, and the old provisions of internal disciplinary inquiries are still in place, which hold no public confidence; officers who have been indicted in various high courts are still serving within the police department. No attempts have thus been made for strict compliance of the law within the department itself, whose function is law enforcement. If the IGP is genuinely advocating discipline, then he should understand that discipline is respected through the strict enforcement of disciplinary procedures; anyone committing disciplinary violations must be punished according to the law. When law enforcement agencies get away with such violations, what credibility do its officers have in their attempt to enforce discipline elsewhere? 

The link between discipline and the development is no other than the link between development and law. A lawless society cannot produce the discipline needed for the functioning of basic economic and social institutions, which deliver the required services for a vibrant economy. With a breakdown in law, corruption becomes widespread and inevitably affects the economy. Sri Lanka is a glaring example of this trend. The failure to enforce discipline within state bureaucracy remains the primary cause for Sri Lanka’s failure in the economic sphere.

Discipline only becomes a part of civilian life when it prevails within state agencies. Lawless agencies create an obstacle to the establishment of discipline within society. This obstacle cannot be overcome in any way but through attempts to reinforce discipline within the state bureaucracies, particularly the police department. The transformation of law enforcement in Hong Kong since the 1970s is a clear indicator that any reinforcement of discipline must begin in the policing system itself. When proper discipline is enforced within the policing system, other government bureaucracies, the private sector and the population at large follow a similar course. The belief that errant law enforcement officers with the freedom to shoot at will can bring about a disciplined society is misleading and irrational.

The Asian Human Rights Commission has consistently communicated with the IGP in the past, emphasizing the exceptional collapse of the rule of law in the country and underlining its primary cause as the failure of discipline amongst the police. We once again urge the Inspector General to take up the task of restoring discipline within the police force through serious attempts at reforming disciplinary procedures. This task requires courage, as there is bound to be great resistance from those within the institution who benefit from the present state of indiscipline. However, this is the price that anyone who talks of discipline in a serious manner should be willing to pay.  Any form of encouragement for acts of violation, including torture and extrajudicial killings, can only make the situation worse.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-48-2005
Countries : Sri Lanka,