A most discomfiting sight witnessed in Sri Lanka post the January 2015 ‘yahapalanaya’ elections was this week’s less than coherent public haranguing of the country’s Inspector General of Police (IGP) and his officers by the new Government’s Public Security Minister John Amaratunga.
Lack of political will manifested
The general theme appeared to be that government politicians are lily white while the apparent inability to catch the big time criminals of the Rajapaksa regime lie fairly and squarely at the feet of law enforcement officers.
Indeed, it appears as if this is becoming the convenient refrain of the Government. On Friday, Cabinet spokesperson and a frontline Minister Rajitha Senaratne expressed dissatisfaction at the failure of state agencies including the Department of the Attorney General, the Department of the Police together with the Bribery and Corruption Commission to speedily act against major corruptors.
This is however a story that only the credulous will believe. First the Government must itself show political will to put its institutional house in order. In the close to two months that have passed, the conduct of the President and the Prime Minister has been, by and large, in conformity with the minimum of good governance. But actions of their ‘Maithri’ Ministers have not been so encouraging. From the appointments of heads of corporations to matters as mundane as retaining lawyers as counsel for state institutions, old and bad practices of political favouritism over merit have prevailed.
Astoundingly naïve stand to take
Where the police is concerned, this has long been the favorite whipping boy of politicians who perform the incredibly acrobatic feat of undermining the police command structure and then standing piously apart, washing their hands of any guilt while blaming the police for bad law enforcement. Minister Senaratne was part of the same Mahinda Rajapaksa Presidency which ferociously deprived the Department of the Police of even its remaining independence, forcing the IGP to a vulnerable position as his subordinates took control at the whim and fancy of powerful politicians and their lackeys.
Does this Government expect the disgraceful undermining of the law enforcement command hierarchy for well over ten years to miraculously disappear overnight just because they preach of ‘yahapalanaya’? That is an astoundingly naïve stand to take. This is, of course, the most positive interpretation that we can give of these ministerial antics. The darker and more dangerous side involves direct allegations leveled, for example, by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) against the Government itself, alleging dubious backroom deals aimed at saving corruptors.
All this is not to say that the police are lily white either. Over the years, this column has been unrelentingly critical of failures by the Department of the Police to carry out their due and proper statutory function. This position has not changed. Each day, we have evidence to that effect, most recently being when two senior police officers, including a Senior Superintendant of Police were arrested in connection with the 2012 murder of a hotel owner in Biyagama. But complex dilemmas of restoring the independence of Sri Lanka’s law enforcement function cannot be resolved by publicly hanging the IGP out to dry. In fact, it is of public note that this particular IGP has been commendably striving to maintain basic law enforcement functions and enforce discipline within his Department even during the darkness of the Rajapaksa days. Moreover, it is peculiarly ironic that this moralising comes from those who have less than perfect ministerial records themselves.
The need for proper witness protection
Moreover, even good laws cannot automatically change a seriously subverted institutional culture. For example, Sri Lanka’s Convention Against Torture Act of 1994, which was one of the best anti-torture laws in the world, miserably failed to live up to expectations due to lack of political will to investigate, prosecute and punish torturers. This month, Parliament enacted the 2015 Act on Assistance and Protection to Victims of Crime and Witnesses. Its positive aspects relate to the expanded definition of a “witness”, the extension of protection to witnesses testifying before quasi-judicial and non-criminal proceedings and the provision of protection before, during and after testimony is given.
Yet the enacted law (which still remains to be disseminated properly) appears not to have taken note of the imperative need for the establishment of an independent Protection Division based outside the Police Department with dedicated and specially trained law enforcement officers. There is well established international precedent for this.
The commonsensical point is that state agents are often blamed for violations. Consequently entrusting the protection of victims and witnesses to the very persons wearing the same uniform is unrealistic.
Solid institutional reform must replace rhetoric
Generally assessing this Government’s performance, there is an impression of its collusion with racketeers of the previous regime and their powerful political backers. If this perception is to be corrected, merely blaming state agencies will not suffice. Even though the space of 100 days that the Maithri Government set for itself remains a classic case of unabashed electioneering overreach, there are basic issues that the Government can address.
It has not strengthened the Bribery and Corruption Commission which it should have done by immediately resorting to the parliamentary method stipulated for the removal of Commissioners including the Chairman who stands accused of bribery himself. Merely changing the Director General will not do, as was observed in these column spaces earlier.
The argument that constitutional impeachment of the Bribery Commissioners would have been too long and too unwieldy is sheer nonsense. Indeed, in the first blush of its spectacular election victory, this method would have been the most impeccable response to the crisis of the (purported) Chief Justice as well as the Bribery Commissioners. Rather than that, what we see now is a stalemate with politicians blaming state agencies in distasteful public displays.
As Minister Senaratne’s latest outpourings seem to indicate, this Government may go beyond the 100 days to fulfill its promises even though this has been contradicted by others on his own side. If so and at least now, solid institutional and policy change must replace political rhetoric and dramatic media performances.
[Orginal Caption: The police, witness protection and ‘Yahapalanaya’]
– Sunday Times