Serious questions are being asked in both the legal and human rights community about the conflict of interest arising due to member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka lawyer Saliya Pieris applying and obtaining the honorary title of ‘President’s Counsel’ from President Maithripala Sirisena in recent weeks.
In terms of the Constitution, the President is given the entire discretion as to whom he may name as ‘PC” once applications are made to him. The PCs List is chosen on the arbitrary executive preference of some lawyers over others. Outrage arose in regard to this years’ list which listed several ‘yahapalayana lawyers’ to whom the conferral of the honour was seen as a political reward. The selections were also gender discriminatory. Not a single woman lawyer was listed among the several new PCs who were appointed.
Pieris was already serving as a member of the HRCSL at the time that he made the application for PC and President Sirisena appointed him. Earlier, he had been appointed a member of the HRCSL after submitting his application to the Constitutional Council and upon the CC recommending his appointment to the President. The HRCSL has a statutory mandate to monitor the compliance of government bodies with constitutional protections on fundamental rights and to inquire into and investigate, complaints regarding infringements or imminent infringements of fundamental rights by state actors. The executive arm of the State is a key focus of that monitoring process.
Questions have therefore arisen as to how can a member of the HRCSL which is supposed to act as a fetter to prevent abuse of power by the executive could be seen as applying for a favour for the conferral of ‘silk’ from the very executive which the body of which is a member, is supposed to monitor? This leads to an obvious conflict of interest and puts the very legitimacy of the HRCSL in doubt, a senior lawyer said. Is there not an inference that the member of the HRCSL would thereafter be beholden to the President for the ‘honour’ conferred upon him, he questioned.
When asked for his opinion, a human rights activist pointed out that Pieris should step down from his role as a member of the HRCSL. This is a matter that is not only morally improper but amounts to a conflict that lessens the independence of the HRCSL as a body and affects its functioning, he said. The members of HRCSL should not only be above suspicion but must be seen to be above suspicion as well, he observed.