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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Sri Lanka: Putting the Lankan state on notice post CHOGM

As the nation catches its breath following an extravagantly useless Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting 2013 (CHOGM), the only way in which Sri Lanka can avoid evident international pitfalls ahead is to put our internal democratic systems in order.

TRC another procrastinating tactic

It is time and more that we stopped wasting energy protesting double standards followed by Western nations where accountability for human rights abuses is concerned. Such fierce gnashing of teeth in regard to historical as well as present injustices may raise some hurrahs and may certainly be justified. But justification matters little when measured against the harsh realities of international realpolitik. That much is evident.

And the way ahead is not through the appointment of a South African style Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as reported recently. This move speaks to an increasing desperation of the government in finding yet another way to procrastinate and delay, to not deal with the inevitable and let go its authoritarian hold on power.

The TRC was suited to South Africa in a particular post-apartheid context under the visionary leadership of Nelson Mandela. It was meticulously planned and carefully executed by the country’s leading clergy, judicial figures and public personalities of unimpeachable integrity. Importantly this was accompanied by a gradual crafting of workable democratic structures, an advanced Bill of Rights and a proudly independent South African judiciary.

The TRC was not conceived out of the blue as it were and dropped down into the country as an excuse to avoid dealing with the general democratic process of government while everything remained dysfunctional elsewhere. It was peculiar to South Africa. Similar models have not worked elsewhere, even in the African region as we have well seen. Where Sri Lanka is concerned, suggesting a TRC without any conception of what this actually means but as another procrastinating tactic seems so childishly simplistic that it truly beggars belief.

No practical implementation of LLRC report

And we hear talk of a TRC even as the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), which is the Rajapaksa Presidency’s loudly boasted ‘homegrown’ Commission, remains shamefully bypassed in large measure. During CHOGM, glib excuses were advanced by government spokesmen that there had been fifty percent implementation of LLRC recommendations. This is patently untrue.

The deterioration of the Rule of Law was a core focus of the LLRC report. We have not seen the government’s adherence to that LLRC focus so far. On the contrary, the ‘soft’ recommendations of the LLRC have been reluctantly implemented while its ‘hardcore’ recommendations that go to the dismantling of this Presidency’s authoritarian and militaristic power structure remains glossed over.

One classic example is the cosmetic creation of a new Ministry of Law and Order under which the Department of the Police has been placed. However, to all intents and purposes, the militarization of the police continues, the secretary to this so-called new ministry is a former army man and the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence who is the President’s brother, evidently continues to exercise command responsibility in regard to the police.

The enactment of a Witness and Victim Protection law where the police are apparently given the task of protecting victims even though the police themselves are very often the very source of the threat is another example. Meanwhile, we do not hear even a whisper regarding the enactment of a Right to Information (RTI) law. The government’s fear of an RTI Law being wielded as a formidable weapon to expose its monumental corruption is crystal clear.

Reversing post-war militarization of the State

It is ironic that even while diplomats boasted on international news channels during CHOGM that the emergency regime in Sri Lanka has been withdrawn, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) continues to be in force and is used against dissenters and critics of the government. One recent example was the detention orders issued against Muslim politician Azath Salley including one ridiculous charge that he had been ‘humiliating the government.’ Here as in several other instances, the power of the Presidential pardon was used to take the case out of the consideration of the court and into the province of presidential or monarchical magnanimity.

Over and above everything else however, Sri Lanka’s judicial and legal processes must be freed from executive control

The judiciary itself must engage in vibrant protection of civil liberties of the Sri Lankan people, similar to what the Sri Lankan Supreme Court was during the mid 1990′s, before the disastrous Silva decade. This country has had entrenched traditions of judicial stubbornness in resisting government abuse even though the constitutional framework did not permit a sweeping exercise of judicial powers as much as, for example, the Indian Supreme Court. Despite past ravages, there are brave and good judges still in this country. They must be allowed to exercise their judicial role without fear of consequences from the political branch and the destructive consequences of the 2012-2013 witch-hunt impeachment of a sitting Chief Justice must be reversed.

Promise of dire consequences post CHOGM

Where the criminal justice system is concerned, the office of the Attorney General needs to be restored to at least a modicum of independent functioning. Patchwork indictments in respect of extraordinary human rights violations that should have been properly investigated and prosecuted with perpetrators punished years ago will not suffice.

But in all probability – and barring an ecstatic miracle – none of these will happen. And the consequences for Sri Lanka, in terms of being outlawed from the community of nations despite our gleaming expressways and rising city skylines, are dire indeed. CHOGM made that perfectly plain, even to the palpable idiots in our midst.


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