At first blush, recent actions of the Mahinda Rajapaksa administration on Sri Lanka’s abysmal governance front may cause some who are apt, (or at least pretend thereto), to wear rose coloured lenses to proclaim that there appears to be glimmerings of hope on the horizon.
A misplaced optimism
One specific development cited in that regard is the indictment of twelve Special Task Force (STF) personnel for the crime of extra-judicial executions of five students in Trincomalee in 2006. Another oft quoted reason is the holding of provincial council elections in the North and the apparent discarding (for the moment) of government plans to dilute the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
In the background, other promises including a proclamation that more recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) will be included for implementation, jostle each other for a place at this eminently farcical game.
Yet this rhetoric only amounts to engaging in elaborate exercises of smoke and mirrors, designed to obscure an adamant and unchanged government will which refuses to genuinely change for the good of the country, minorities and majority alike.
There is no shift in extraordinarily regressive government policy. Instead, there are isolated reactions merely designed to form a propaganda backdrop for several events prioritized by the Government. Foremost among this is of course, the forthcoming Commonwealth summit which this administration desperately wishes to hold with Indian blessings. As analysts concur with little dissent, this is the sole reason why elections are being held in the North under the 13th Amendment which is hanging on by a thread, as it were.
Hard core LLRC recommendations un-implemented
And as was observed in last week’s column, the indictments in the Trincomalee killings are a mockery as to what the actual prosecutorial process in that case should have been. The perpetrators were clearly identified not long after the incident but were protected since then. The indictments of these twelve individuals do not promise justice. Investigations into the killings of the sixteen aid workers in Mutur that same year do not promise any better. These incidents merely signify the start of a farcical process at the close of which, even if some convictions are arrived at, the conclusions will do little to dent the corrosive pattern of impunity for state abuses which this administration enjoys in perpetuating.
What will actually bring about a change is implementation of the hard-core recommendations of the LLRC which includes de-linking the Ministry of Defence run by the President’s brother from the Department of the Police and the enactment of a Right to Information law. Both of these recommendations are however scrupulously ignored by this administration which prefers to focus on the flakier aspects of the LLRC report.
This is for good reason. Taking away the Defence Ministry control over the police would deprive government henchmen from enforcing their political will on the police. The recent killing of a senior planter in Deraniyagala, allegedly after being assaulted by a government politician and his goons, has raised huge concerns among the planting community leading to unprecedented public statements. Members of the victim’s family have alleged that the killing took place with the collusion of area police officers. The victim was killed due to his protests at illegal activities being engaged in by the politician. Perhaps he should have kept quiet like many Sri Lankans now are wont to do. But clearly this was a man who thought differently and paid for it with his life.
Waste of unproductive commissions
What the public sees however in this case is a mere routine transferral of the police chief. Ludicrously, the National Police Commission (NPC) which was busy this week celebrating its moving to spanking new premises, which we would assume would also have involved considerable financial allocation, could only announce that it needed a complaint to intervene in the matter as the daily newspapers reported this Saturday. This was purportedly according to be on their guidelines.
The absurd nature of this excuse can only be deplored. The NPC is the master of its own procedures and if its guidelines prevent it from taking suo moto action on newspaper articles, then those guidelines ought to be amended. Wide ranging Rules of Procedure for Public Complaints were put into place by an NPC, which was not as emasculated as its current successor, (Gazette No 1480/8 – 2007 January 17). And if one recalls correctly, these Rules did indeed provide for instances where suo moto powers could be invoked by senior officers of the special unit established for that purpose. Despite all that effort however, the Rules remain a waste of the paper on which they were gazetted. As stated previously in these column spaces, it would be better to disband a useless NPC following the 18th Amendment to the Constitution rather than continue to waste public funds on its puerile functioning.
Similarly the members of the Bribery or Corruption Commission, which has tied its own hands in regard to the gargantuan corruption in government ranks but chases after an impeached Chief Justice veritably as if their very lives depended on the same, would be better advised to stay at home. Meanwhile the less said the better of the National Human Rights Commission which is now engaged in a mirth provoking dance with the Commonwealth Secretariat to hold trainings in the hope of regaining its lost accreditation at the international level. Sri Lanka may have fooled some for a number of years with this nonsensical parade of useless commissions but that time is long gone now.
We are worse off now than in 2010
Apart from the Commonwealth summit, preparing for other equally important eventualities such as re-application for the European Union GSP Plus scheme during the coming year comes equally high on the government agenda and significantly so given the dire straits that the Sri Lankan economy is plummeting to. Yet, if this administration is intending to re-apply for EU GSP Plus for next year, we are far worse off than in 2010 when the GSP Plus facility was refused, sending the country’s garment sector in particular into the doldrums. Then, Sri Lanka lost this facility because it failed to demonstrate effective implementation of its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the Convention against Torture (CAT) and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
Specifically, the failure to effectively implement the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, the lack of independence of the constitutional commissions, the demonstrated ineffectiveness of the criminal justice system and the politicization of the police investigative function were in issue. Can we honestly say that any of these matters have been resolved? In fact, they have only got worse with the enactment of the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Emergency legislation which overrode the Constitution and created vague criminal offences undermining fair trial rights was a key negative issue then. This has not changed now. The lapsing of the emergency laws has made no difference as the prevention of terrorism regime continues, applying to even ordinary penal offences as we saw in the arrests of policemen Vass Gunewardene and politician Azath Salley.
Loss will continue to be on the people
The earlier GSP Plus review found that Sri Lanka’s national laws did not satisfy international standards not only in theory but also in practice. Our judicial and administrative infrastructure was found to be neither adequate nor effective. Three years later, the impeachment cum witch-hunt of the country’s 43rd Chief Justice and the consequent profound instability of Sri Lanka’s judicial and legal institutions has only made that situation far worse. There is no escaping that fact, however much welcome ribbons are cut by the incumbent at official functions amidst spine chillingly hypocritical rhetoric on safeguarding the Rule of Law.
Then, the Government could have gained much more in the interests of the country and the apparel industry by genuinely putting its house in order and not losing a valuable privilege which the EU was only too willing to give on the barest of practical guarantees. But the Government refused to do so. This time around and apart from engaging in these games of smokes and mirrors, no such genuine intention appears to be evidenced, yet again. The loss will only be to Sri Lanka and this unfortunate citizenry no doubt.