By Mohamed Harees –
‘What I fear most is power with impunity’ – Chilean writer Isabel Allende
The 2012 report, prepared by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated that impunity for past and present human rights abuses, economic crimes and corruption were the underlying causes for the island nation facing a devastating economic crisis. It suggested fundamental changes to address the current challenges and to avoid the repetition of the human rights violations of the past. Unfortunately, the same set of rogue actors with different labels and election tunes are being ‘allowed’ to continue ruling the nation again, despite clear proof that the same corrupt clique, has been polluting the political landscape over the past 7 decades. The change of presidents of Sri Lanka in 2022 did not lead to any improvement in the country’s human rights record, as Human Rights Watch said in its World Report 2023.
Sri Lanka indeed has been facing a crisis of impunity. As part of the protest movement, Aragalaya protestors criticized the government for perpetuating endemic corruption, citing it as one of the reasons for the country’s deteriorating economic situation. Impunity appears to be an elephant in the room since the country’s ‘so-called’ Independence and no amount of public pressure seems to force the present country’s rulers to punish the economic and political criminals, as they are in the same boat. It is increasingly difficult, in fact nearly impossible, for people who have suffered this economic disaster and serious violations of their human rights to receive justice and accountability. Victims and survivors do not receive redress, and perpetrators are not brought to justice.
International Commission of Jurists(ICJ) in one of their reports said, ‘It has become a cliché to speak of a ‘culture of impunity’ but the phrase is entirely apt in describing the situation in Sri Lanka, where impunity has over the years become institutionalized and systematized: mechanisms to hold state actors to account for their actions have been eroded; checks on the arbitrary use of power have been diluted, if not dissolved; institutions to protect the independence of the judiciary have been eviscerated..’. The governments both present and the past have taken no or minimal steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, and punish politicians and officials who committed human rights abuses or engaged in corruption, and there was impunity for both.
Laws are there aplenty, but implementation is the key and the missing ingredient. The country’s laws provide criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government does not appear to implement the law effectively. There were numerous reports of government corruption even during the past few years for example. Corruption remained a significant and continuing problem, including at the highest levels of government. International companies frequently reported requests for bribes on matters ranging from customs clearances to government procurement.
There are many with criminal records and dubious conduct who are in the Parliament. In February 2022, the Colombo High Court alleged that the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery of Corruption (CIABOC) often made contradictory statements and did not act independently. The High Court judge recently sentenced Minister Ranatunga to two years imprisonment, suspended him from his ministerial position for five years, and ordered him to pay a 25 million rupee fine. But, he is still a government front bencher. Cases against Johnston Fernando and Basil Rajapaksa are two others, which are left untouched. There are many robber barons in the House by Diyawanna Oya and all people hear is that they are being acquitted from time to time on various legal loopholes. It is extremely concerning there is a seemingly collapse of many corruption cases filed by CIABOC either due to technical errors or insufficiency of evidence. Both these reasons are troubling. Combined, the successive collapse of key cases paints a negative picture about Sri Lanka’s commitment to fighting corruption, and to accountability. It certainly also raises concerns about the rule of law. There were also many scandals arising out of exemption provided by the government too, used to abuse to ‘legitimise’ money earned through illicit means. No prosecutions there too!
Another lot ‘enjoying’ blatant impunity which has escaped the attention of rulers has been the perpetrators of crimes against the minorities. The common thread for all acts of communal violence in Sri Lanka has once again been a culture of impunity that has persisted in the island from the time of Independence. Sri Lanka has been unable to hold accountable the perpetrators of these spate of violence, riots or the war that ended in 2009, despite its continued commitments to international organizations – a lack of substantive movement towards accountability pervaded specially in the past decade.
Known as Black July, Anti-Tamil violence of July 1983 in Sri Lanka, was a watershed in its’ contemporary history, which altered the course of ethnic tensions in the country. L. Piyadasa or CR Hensman in his book “Sri Lanka” The Holocaust and After”, described the July 1983 violence as a pogrom and made a solid case against the JRJ Regime for it. It was in-fact not a spontaneous riot but a planned pogrom indeed; anti-Tamil violence became institutionalised and legitimised as an integral component of the war which later solidified into ‘anti-other’ State attitudes. The Black July riots were indeed well-planned and organized (Yogasundram 2006:310). What happened in 2009, after the defeat of the Tigers militarily showed that Sri Lanka demonstrated that it lacked the political will to change the course of history or address serious allegations of abuse or to end impunity .It did not have the courage to identify government personnel alleged to be responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law allegedly committed in the final stages of the armed conflict, let alone initiate steps necessary to ensure that justice is served.
Post-war discourses produced fresh tensions and fault lines, thus starting off another war- this time a religious one, thereby fostering an environment in which attacks on religious minorities, including Muslims and Christians, took place with impunity. Muslims particularly became the next target of the racist lobbies with visible support from the higher ups in MR government. It was crystal clear during Aluthgama, Ampara and Digana anti Muslim communal violence that they were a ‘set-game’, a well organised plot, meticulously carried out by hate groups, to achieve the ends envisaged by their political masters of different colours and facilitated by a biased and conniving law enforcement arm. Thus, 1983 ghosts who were responsible for the anti-Tamil pogrom (majoritarian political class and their racist cat-paws/forces) were seen in 2014 and 2018, and will still continue to hover over the country, which cannot be eradicated by changing a government or having discussions with a government/authorities with tainted hands. Impunity at its worst! No accountability and no desire to hold those responsible and involved in the communal riots to account!
The fiery racist monk Gnanasara whose hate speech clearly led to the 2014 Aluthgama anti Muslim riots during the time when Gotabaya was the Defence Secretary, not only escaped prosecution, but was even glorified later by being made Chair of ‘One country- One law’ commission, Gotabaya when he became the President. Laws and law enforcement authorities are indifferent and go soft when those connected to the higher echelon of power and those in saffron clothes are involved in hate speeches and racist crimes. Rajapaksa dynasty’s authoritarian reputation and pseudo Sinhalese Buddhist credentials made Tamils and Muslims fear for their future. The lack of transitional justice to the Tamils and the ban against burials for those who died from COVID-19 — a policy that especially traumatised Muslims — confirmed their fears. Todate there is no mechanism even on their drawing boards to punish those responsible for the State sponsored racist forced cremation policy!
Today, it is clear that there was a political agenda behind the 2019 Easter Sunday terrorist bombings that killed around 270 people. Allegedly forces close to the Rajapakas helped orchestrate the event to promote Gota’s election prospects, which has denied the Christian community with the justice they deserve. Many attempts are being made to deflect public attention from the actual masterminds who planned and executed this despicable tragedy, but like Emperor’s clothes, those will fail and truth will manifest in all its forms.
The government continues to shield the perpetrators from any form of accountability. As Sri Lanka stands in its own shadow, it should reflect on the harm that impunity has caused to its’ international image and the gradual erosion of confidence of its’ people in the process of rule of law .Failing to hold those accountable for their actions, and inactions that lead to harm and loss, and compensate the victims adequately, fails humanity as a whole. Thus, almost 14 years after the end of the war, Sri Lanka is still grappling with its recent past and many challenges remain unresolved and many of the physical, emotional and psychological wounds of war and communal violence remain unhealed.
The people of Sri Lanka deserve peaceful times and social justice. This necessitates fresh thinking and open-minded initiatives, ably promoted by progressive political forces, intellectuals, and religious leaders as well as a well-planned strategy to educate the grass-root levels of our society about the need to live and let live as equal dignified citizens, without begging around the world for handouts. Specially, the peace loving majority community should be made to realize the vicious plans of the political class hell-bent on exploiting their emotions based on their race and religions for petty gains making other minority communities demons who are all out to destroy them. With many past missed historic opportunities under failed rulers and more bleeding in the future, Sri Lanka will surely join the ‘Failed States Club’ while the internal and international conspirators will have a last laugh at the expense of the nation. India has meanwhile joined the Space club while Sri Lanka is searching for many millions lost under Rajapaksa son’s wild rokcet adventure.
With growing instances of impunity and rulers turning a blind eye, such systemic issues cannot be rooted out with the status quo being maintained. The system needs to be reset or rebooted and the people of this country have the power to do that if they take a long hard look at who are ruling them or. they elect to power. If people unite and demand greater transparency and accountability from the government and the public sector, demand an end to corruption and impunity at all levels and ensure that they vote with their heads and make the right choices, they can truly make Sri Lanka a country worth its widely boasted ancient civilization.
But then, living in a world where double standards are reigning high with the likes of criminal of Bush and Blair calibre roaming scot-free and imperial superpower masters protecting Zionist Israel’s heinous crimes with impunity, little hope ‘pearl drop’ Sri Lanka will fall in line with international law. But public activism can make wonders happen! Optimism is essential to achievement!they say!.