Colombo Telegraph

Recognising Unsung Heroes

By Elmore Perera

Elmore Perera

TISL had selected ‘Integrity in the Public Sector’ as its theme for the year 2014. To-day is United Nations Anti-Corruption Day. To commemorate same TISL has, for the 11th time, arranged to recognise ‘unsung heroes’ who work silently and diligently towards eradicating corruption and contributing to good governance and a nation of integrity. It is indeed a signal honour and privilege for me to be invited as Chief Guest on this occasion. I am grateful to the Executive Director of TISL, Mr. Ranugge for inviting me and for his kind words of introduction.

It is said that “When you violate your own integrity, it’s hard to live in your own skin!” The more ‘thick-skinned’ one gets, the greater is one’s ability to survive violations of one’s own integrity.

What then, does the word, ‘Integrity’, really mean?. Way back, in 1967, as an Ambassador for the ‘Experiment in International Living’ in Moline, Illinois, I was privileged to share a pulpit with the late Dr. Carlton Zink of John Deere & Co. in Moline Illinois. I cannot remember a word of what I said in that, my very first sermon, but Dr. Zink’s definition of ‘Integrity’ was permanently etched in my mind. He defined integrity as ‘Obedience to the Unenforceable’. By ‘Unenforceable’, he clearly meant unenforceable in accordance with the Rule of Law. It certainly did not mean acting with impunity to please one’s masters, confident that even the most heinous crimes committed by him would not be enforced but swept under the carpet, and under one’s skin. In the present environment, the aforementioned ‘heroes’ are not merely ‘unsung’, they are also visited with harassment, torture and sometimes even death. Society owes these heroes a deep debt of gratitude which no award can fully repay.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow opined that:

‘Lives of great men all remind us,

We can make our lives sublime,

And departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time

Footprints that perhaps another

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main.

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother

Seeing, shall take heart again.

May the footprints left by these heroes inspire us to emulate them.

The father of a family who finds it difficult to live and feels insulted by the luxury of the dishonest rich, asks “Why have I been honest? Why are the wicked successful? It is more a scandal than a temptation when one sees the wicked succeed in everything!  The violent, the unscrupulous, those who have money and can corrupt, masters of deceit. With Mark Antony we are constrained to say “O Judgement! Thou art fled to brutish beasts and men have lost their reason.”

As stated by the eminent US Judge Learned Hand, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no Constitution, no Law, no Court can save it; no Constitution, no Law, no Court can even do much to help it.” It is, perhaps, to prevent the imminent extinguishing of that liberty that the ‘National Integrity System Assessment 2014’ Report of TISL strongly recommends the dismantling of the Executive Presidency and creating a more equitable balance of power among the Executive, the Legislature, and the Judiciary.

For the year 2015, TISL has selected as its theme “The People’s right to Information”. In a democracy, which Sri Lanka is struggling to be, Government is a trust and the trustee is given power for the benefit of the people. The beneficiary is entitled to know what the Trustee Government is doing with his or her assets. For this there should be full transparency and right to information in relation to public assets. E.g. if there is some big amount of public money being spent, the people are entitled to know how much was spent and for what it was spent. Likewise, if assets are coming in, what are the sources of these assets and on what terms and conditions do they come. Freedom of information is an essential element of any democracy. The ultimate governors are the People and they are entitled to know everything about their assets. What comes into the Public Treasury and what goes out are their concern. Democracy depends on knowledge. If there is no knowledge of what is taking place, one cannot make a proper decision. In the modern world ‘Right to Information should be considered as a basic right of every human being. The current decade should be called the information decade, as, in the present knowledge economy, information is king. Information needs are most important. Sri Lankans should, as a collective, take responsibility for not showing sufficient interest in exercising their rights.

The right to information is recognized as a fundamental human right in a number of international and national human rights instruments. Information is the oxygen of democracy. If people don’t know what is taking place in their society, they cannot take a meaningful part in the affairs of that society. Sri Lanka urgently needs to have a Freedom of Information Act that would be in accordance with democratic traditions.

Members of the public have certain rights of access. These include the right to access documents about the operation of government departments, and documents that are in the possession of government Ministers or Agencies. Certain documents are exempt from this, including (but not limited to) documents that could damage national security, defence or international relations. Whereas in any dictatorial form of government, little or no information is released to the public, there is no dearth of misinformation fed to the hapless public.

The traditional Westminster system of governance was fairly closed to public scrutiny. However, modern Freedom of Information Legislation was enacted in the U.S. in 1966.

In Canada, the Access Law was passed, primarily due to the push during the 1960s, and 1970s, from back benchers in Parliament via.  Private Members’ Bills and other Parliamentary and extra-parliamentary techniques. In 1979 the Liberal Government of Pierre Trudeau lost power but was returned to office within months. During the short period in the opposition the Liberals experienced first hand the difference between being ‘fully informed’ while in government, and, when out of office having to rely on the media for information. Having experienced closed government, they finally understood the necessity of providing citizens and opposition politicians with access to information. The central bureaucracy was upset and opposed it. However, by July 1980 an Access to Information Bill was introduced in Parliament and passed in June 1982.

In Australia, governments had no obligation to release information to the public. Between the 1960s and 1980s many enquiries were made regarding the transparency of the Australian government and public services. This led to “New Industry Law” reforms. The Freedom of Information Act 1982, which was one of the initiatives of these reforms, was considered a landmark in the development of Australian Democracy. The government agency or the Minister who receives an application was required to inform the applicant within 14 working days that the application for information has been received and also notify the applicant of their decision within 30 working days.

By 1983, the U.S., Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, New Zealand and Sweden had enacted modern Freedom of Information Legislation, permitting retrieval of information from government files, establishing what information could be accessed, and mandating timelines for response.

In India, the Right to Information campaign started in 1994. Workers and farmers in Rajasthan were not only denied minimum wages, they were also not receiving benefits from government funded developmental activities earmarked for the area. In 1996 a model Right to Information Law formulated by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Press Council of India was submitted to the Government. It was only in 2002 that the government finally introduced a watered down and weak Freedom of Information Bill in Parliament. This Act was passed by Parliament in December 2002 and received presidential assent, but never came into force. After the United Progressive Alliance Government came into power in April 2004, the NCPRI submitted amendments to the existing Act. The National Advisory Council endorsed most of the amendments and submitted a model Bill to the Prime Minister. On 22nd November 2004, the UPA Government tabled the Right to Information Bill 2004, with some key provisions watered down. It applied only to Central Government and not to the States and did not include penalties for non-compliance with the Law. Civil Society heavily lobbied the Government, to amend the Bill. In May 2005 the Act was amended to cover the whole Country (except the State of Jammu and Kashmir) and to add basic penalty provisions. The Bill passed through Parliament in 3 days. The statute was finally passed on 12th May 2005 and came into force fully, on 12th October 2005.

In Pakistan the promulgation of the Right to Information Ordinance 2002 by the caretaker government was the result of the Asian Development Bank insisting on this reform measure before disbursing a big loan.

In Bangladesh, Civil Society advocators persuaded the main political parties to include the promise of enacting Information Access Legislation in their election manifestoes. In 2008 the caretaker government promulgated the Right to Information Ordinance. In 2009 the Sheikh Hasina led Awami league government sent the Right to Information Ordinance for ratification by Parliament.

Other than Bhutan, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, governments of all South Asian Countries have accepted the Right to Information. Maldives is the most recent addition. Across the globe 103 countries have accepted Right to Information. 12 Countries are in the process of drafting laws for Right to Information.

If we consider the history of the RTI Act in Sri Lanka, it started in the first half of 1990’s. at which point media organizations, civil society and good governance advocates got together and signed on the need for greater access to information. Thereafter in the year 2002 Sri Lanka Editors Guild, Free Media Movement and Centre for Policy Alternative  together drafted a detailed RTI Act. This was approved by the then Cabinet in the year 2003 with a few amendments. The Legal Draftsman approved and forwarded same to the Parliament.  Sadly, Parliament was dissolved before it was debated.

In 2010 a draft was presented by the then Justice Minister Hon. Milinda Moragoda to His Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Executive President of Sri Lanka. The President’s response was that no RTI Act was necessary as he would readily furnish any information requested, (except of course those in the ‘files’  maintained by him). Thereafter a Bill was introduced into Parliament by Hon. Karu Jayasuriya, M.P. without success.

Citizens and civil society groups have a vital role to play in creating genuinely responsive ‘access to information’ regimes. Civil society organisations are effective at raising public awareness, entrenching the value of the right in the minds of the public, and breaking down resistance within government. In many Commonwealth countries, civil society has been solely responsible for getting access to information on government agendas. Unfortunately, though countries of the Commonwealth have often acknowledged the importance of civil society in a democracy, the potential value of civil society in the development of public policy, continues to be largely undervalued. Involving a broad spectrum of people in the law-making process generates not only legislation but also systems which are in tune with people’s needs. It also enhances the general level of awareness among citizens and helps create an environment of openness which gives real meaning to participatory democracy. Advocates of the right to information should not have to battle for space. Rather, their presence should be welcomed by governments as an affirmation of democracy.

As an organization working towards eliminating corruption and ensuring transparency and accountability TISL has identified the need for, and the impact of, the Right to Information. As a first step in order to bring all stakeholders to a common platform and initiate developing of an advocacy plan to create public opinion about the need to have  right to information as a practice and to have a law, TISL has already organized a two day workshop.

In closing I wish to share with you some “information”, which you have a right to know, the first part of which I shared with the LLRC on 10th November 2010.

Five years ago, to the day, on 9th December 2009, a plaque was unveiled by HE the President at Puthukuduirippu, stating:

MAY ALL BEINGS BE PROSPEROUS!

The victory memorial is a tribute to the glorious Forces and to the state leadership by His Excellency The President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Commander in Chief of Armed Forces, who was born for the grace of  the Nation, with the guidance and co-ordination of the Secretary Defence Honourable Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the operational command and military leadership of the Commander of the Army Lieutenant General Sarath Fonseka, who led the military for the greatest victory through a humanitarian operation where terrorism was entirely eradicated from the motherland, and restoring its territorial integrity and the perpetual peace.

These heroic efforts were ably supported by rest of the security forces which defeated the illusion of a separate state within Sri Lanka which history has never witnessed, destroying its cruel leader, subordinates and its bellicosity, whose lifestyles were opulent while creating an evil society for the people of his community and to the entire nation, forcing children into combat, killing democratically elected Tamil leaders of the country and overseas, brutally massacring innocents of  all communities, thus pushing the country and nation into the darkest period of its time for nearly three decades which came to an end on the 19th May 2009. This war memorial was unveiled to the nation on 09th December 2009 in order to mark the event of greatest victory.

“The Golden sun of the Peace of all the people”.

However, sometime thereafter it was replaced by the following:

The victory monument was unveiled to the Nation by his Excellency Mahinda Rajapaksa the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and Commander in Chief of Armed Forces with the participation of Honourable Lalith Weeratunge the Secretary to the President and Honourable Gotabaya Rajapaksa, RWP, RSP, psc the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Public Security and Law & Order, on the invitation of Lieutenant General J. Jayasuriya USP adu psc, the Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, on 09th December 2009”.

The paramount need for accurate Information is obvious.

We all wish TISL early success in its endeavours.

Thank you for your patient hearing.

*Address at the 2014 National Integrity Award Ceremony of Transparency International, Sri Lanka, on 9th December 2014

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