President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s admonition during the 2013 November Commonwealth heads of Government (CHOGM) meet, aimed primarily at United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, that other countries should ‘respect Sri Lanka’s systems’ raises several interesting questions.
Balancing systemic independence no longer possible
Do Sri Lankan politicians respect Sri Lanka’s systems? Indeed, does the common man or woman demonstrate such respect? Fundamentally, what is meant by our ‘systems’ in the context of the Rajapaksa administration post 2009?
For example, a decade and a half ago, these questions would have been relatively easy to answer. ‘Systems’ would have meant a functioning judiciary, bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission, the National Police Commission, the Public Service Commission, prosecutorial and police departments, all of which certainly struggled with the politicization of ‘systems.’ Yet, at that time, these institutions had not been undermined to the extent of negating their own constitutional and statutory roles.
But such careful balancing acts are no longer possible. Instead we are beset with curious happenings which, in a different era, would have made many decent Sri Lankans squirm. Thus, the Prime Minister and his son (who incidentally did spectacularly well in the Central provincial polls) remain embroiled in allegations of assisting as well as benefiting through drug –dealers. However they continue merrily in their political lives.
Should we be surprised at this? Not really, considering the fact that a drug-dealer cum parliamentarian was charged with the murder of a senior in his own party and still retains his parliamentary seat. Examples of such nefarious behavior on the part of ruling party politicians are legion in recent years. So where exactly does the respect for ‘our systems’ come into play on the part of this government?
Being reduced to veritable mockeries
When a sitting Chief Justice is crudely insulted by government parliamentarians, impeached in a parody of justice in the face of contrary judgments of the Supreme Court as well as the Court of Appeal and when the state media ceaselessly taunts her, is this the ‘respect’ that is shown for ‘systems’?
The fate of the constitutional commissions is no better. At least one member of the Human Rights Commission (HRCSL) is apparently confused about his statutory role which mandates him to be independent. Rather, he is an unashamed advocate for the government. The HRCSL’s authority has been negligible when serious abuses of rights occur. An HRCSL Commissioner, unable to resign himself to this profound loss of integrity, resigned a few years ago.
And as much as the Bribery and Corruption Commission delights in prosecuting grama niladharis and Chief Justices who have fallen from favour while ignoring massive political corruption, the HRCSL excels in going after hapless mid-level public servants while turning coyly away from the arbitrary operation of anti-terrorism laws.
One wonders as to what happened to its inquiry into the Weliweriya incident where three innocent bystanders were killed when the army shot with live ammunition into a crowd of villagers asking for clean water? In such a context, its loudly touted proposed amendments to the HRCSL parent law (1996) to make its recommendations more efficacious can only be met with skepticism.
Protected by powerful political influences
On its own part, Sri Lanka’s Bribery and Corruption Commission has been crowned with the ultimate ignominy of its Chairman being accused of corruption. Meanwhile, the National Police Commission expends colossal public funds but frankly admits that it has no actual supervisory powers over the police subsequent to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Indeed, what is the credibility of this government, one may ask, when a Director of the Accounts Division of the Department of Census and Statistics went on record recently alleging that he had been put under pressure by his superiors to ‘massage’ or change Sri Lanka’s economic growth rate from 5.4% to 6.0%?
And what of the formerly war displaced Tamil people of the North and East who are not given any relief when their lands are taken away from them and when they are subjected to intimidation and harassment post-war? In the past seven years, the percentage of cases on human rights abuses investigated and prosecuted under the Penal Code or other statutes such as the Convention Against Torture Act (1994) is close to non-existent. Further, women of all ethnicities are seriously at risk with exponentially increased incidents of rape and sexual harassment even as a clownish politician continues to hold the portfolio of Womens’ Affairs while exposing his distasteful sexism to all in full view.
Even in cases as horrendously clear-cut as the Trincomalee killings of Tamil students and the murder of a British humanitarian worker together with the rape of his girlfriend on Christmas Day at a resort in the deep South, perpetrators were protected by powerful political influence. It was only the pressure of outside intervention which prompted some indictments. Meanwhile extremist Buddhist groups continue to attacks mosques, churches and kovils with the law being rendered irrelevant.
Sound and fury signifying nothing
So when President Rajapaksa and his faithful parroting minion, the Minister of External Affairs keep protesting quite unconvincingly that we have our ‘institutions’ in place to handle problems of our people, this is mere sound and fury, signifying absolutely nothing to the Sri Lankan people.
Perhaps it is time that this government learns to respect Sri Lanka’s ‘systems’ first before calling upon foreigners to do so. We can then wag our fingers at others.