At the turn of last year, much goodwill was manifested by the Sri Lankan people towards this Presidency and this Government. Consequently an honest approach could have been adopted in implementing the 2015 United Nations Resolution committing Sri Lanka to a credible justice process in respect of war time atrocities. Ideally this should have been coupled with a strong law centered focus on bringing corruptors to justice so that both aspects may have been part of one process, putting to right the evils of the past. Public support for this would have been overwhelming.
There is an important common point in both processes. This is the cleansing of the formidably defiled Augean stables of the country’s police and prosecutorial agencies. In that regard, I do not use the term ‘defiled’ lightly. This is not to say that there are no honourable individuals serving in these agencies. On the contrary, it is that the system is structured in such a manner that honour and dignity have no place in the mechanics of decision making.
Then again, these aberrations are not limited to the period of the Rajapaksa presidency. But the new drivers of power last year (and their supporters in other spheres) refused to see this obvious truth. Instead, the politically convenient refrain was that with the Rajapaksa Presidency over, a new era of democracy would automatically dawn.
Isolation of honourable state and judicial officers
This was an unforgivable mistake to make. As we saw very well last year, the entrenched nature of systemic impunity became clear when state officers who attempted to act in accordance with the law were compelled to retreat in disorder under the ‘yahapalanaya’ (good governance) establishment. When state counsel demanded answers from the army in inquiries of gross human rights abuses of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims (examples therein are Ekneligoda, Thajudeen and the several enforced disappearances of Tamil civilians), outrageous pressure was brought to bear on them. We hear publicly of the few officers who stood their ground. But what of the others, we may question?
Comparably, several brave magistrates distinguished themselves in their stubbornness to yield to bullying and crude pressure. This is exemplified by the Homagama magistrate who meted out appropriately severe treatment to the leader of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), following the arrest of this unruly monk for contempt in threatening the magistrate, the lawyers and the wife of the victim in the Ekneligoda disappearance case. The plight that this judicial officer was subjected to was evidenced when he publicly lamented the pressure that he had been subjected to. These were unprecedented statements when assessed against ordinary standards of judicial behavior that compel judges to observe the highest rectitude on the bench. The point is that honourable state and judicial officers should not be isolated in this manner.
Credibility of the political authority
And above all the political authority which stands in an immediately supervisory position to these agencies, including most importantly the Ministries of Justice and Law and Order need to be, like Caesar’s wife, not only above suspicion but seen to be above suspicion as well. Undoubtedly this is an important consideration which must govern the administration’s recommendation of a new Attorney General which is now pending.
But let us be quite clear about this. The Wickremesinghe-Sirisena coalition government has not succeeded very well on this ground. Indeed, it has failed quite spectacularly in this regard. President Sirisena’s recent denial to the BBC that the army high command was obstructing inquiries into highly controversial cases is an example in point. By scornfully dismissing concerns raised by family members and even by the court as ‘wrong’, the President does himself an injustice, however much this may be a pandering to the domestic politics of the day.
If more decisive political leadership was evidenced in handling these fundamental accountability dilemmas, President Maithripala Siridena would have been justified in claiming as he did in recent weeks to foreign news agencies, that Sri Lanka has sufficient local independent mechanisms to ensure accountability. But his administration’s performance during the past year has not proved that point in any sense whatsoever. Mere claims to that effect do not lessen skepticism in that regard.
Fundamental challenges before us
Indeed, this task should have been prioritized over and above esoteric constitutional reforms which are always rendered helpless when confronted by structural impunity. As much as we may want it, Constitutions alone cannot solve the country’s problems. And we appear to have perfected the art of impeccably drafted laws in theory which defy all practical considerations of justice in their practical workings.
Certainly it does not help that contradictory messages are being conveyed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It must be recognized that the report of the Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) on which the 2015 United Nations Resolution was based was not of such a gentle nature as is airily sought to be made out. The OHCHR concluded that horrific crimes of a systemic nature had occurred both during conflict and afterwards which ‘if established in a court of law, may constitute war crimes and crimes against humanity, and give rise to individual criminal responsibility.’
These are not conclusions that can be shrugged aside with a wave of a Presidential hand. While symbolic gestures such as the national anthem being sung in Tamil on Independence Day is well and good, these are not the ‘hard’ questions that the Sri Lankan State is compelled to answer. Indeed, the very fact that there is even a debate on this is due to the monumentally racist idiocies of the Rajapaksa support base. Energy need not be wasted overmuch on the same. There are far more serious tasks in hand which cannot be glossed over by the arrest of a Rajapaksa sibling or two.
Undoubtedly the key challenge for this Presidency and this Government is how to meet public expectations if it is to avoid a deepening crisis of credibility, North to South. In the alternative, Sri Lanka will be once more swamped by internal crisis and external pressure which the country can ill afford.
– Courtesy The Sunday Times