SRI LANKA: Dangers to life posed by the collapse of the rule of law

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission
Aug 15, 2007August 14, 2007
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In recent months spokesmen for the Sri Lankan government have become quite aggressive towards the country’s critics. The Attorney General severely attacked the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) regarding its two reports; the president and other spokesmen have attacked the report by Human Rights Watch and now Action Contra La Faim is being attacked and accused of being responsible for the deaths of their 17 aid workers last August, about which no successful investigation has been carried out and no one has been prosecuted. The government fearing that international reports on violations of human rights may lead to the sending of UN human rights monitors or other forms of intervention, rather believes that silencing critics is the way to avoid the situation. Thus, aggressive rhetoric has become a characteristic of spokesmen for the government.

However, what no amount of aggressive rhetoric can erase is the people’s frustration throughout the country with a state that has failed to perform its basic functions. One of these basic functions is to provide security for the people and this requires that the investigations into crime and gross abuses of human rights are carried out promptly and efficiently. This is not simply possible, not only for politically loaded incidents, but even for ordinary crimes. Sri Lanka’s system of criminal justice is at its lowest depths and this has been widely acknowledged. In 2001, on the acknowledgement of this fact the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was adopted. By now even the operation of this limited measure to restore the rule of law and to make the dysfunctional apparatus of the state function, has been given up.

None of these government spokesmen talk about the state of Sri Lanka’s constitution. When yesterday, the 14th August, the 60th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence was celebrated, the Chief Justice, Mr. Iftekhar M. Chaudry highlighted the need to uphold the supreme law of the land, which is the Constitution. What had begun as the erosion of democracy in Sri Lanka through constitutional means by President J.R. Jayawardene has now reached a point of ruling without reference to the constitution at all. The 17th Amendment was buried and all attempts to exhume it have been brushed aside.

In a country such as Sri Lanka now, what is it that the government finds fault with in the criticism relating to human rights? The real situation is worse than anything any critic might portray. Every citizen in the country has within themselves a far bleaker image of the situation than what any external critic might aptly portray. One criticism that is being vilified is the statement by Sir John Holmes, United Nations Emergency Relief Coordinator and Under Secretary General of Humanitarian Affairs, to the effect that for aid workers, Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places in the world. This is no exaggeration since Sri Lanka is one of the most dangerous places to live for anyone.

The criterion of whether a place is safe to live or otherwise is the prevalence of the rule of law; a place where the rule of law has collapsed is not a safe place to live.

What the government of Sri Lanka should try to do is what any government is expected to do, which is to investigate crimes irrespective of who the culprits of such crimes might be. However, this has not been proved possible except in a few rare instances in Sri Lanka since 1971. The killings by security forces and the police during the decades beginning from 1971 go into the tens of thousands. However, if these were to be investigated it would cause a serious political crisis. Whether any government that would try to investigate the human rights violations by the military and the police could survive is perhaps one of the most crucial political questions that need the attention of anyone who is seriously concerned with the improvement of human rights in Sri Lanka.

The strategy needed by concerned persons within Sri Lanka itself and others in the international community who are concerned with the human rights situation in the country, is to address the complete failure of both the justice and political systems. The problem about justice in cases like that of the 17 aid workers is that such investigations risk serious repercussions. A government that is unwilling to face up to such repercussions will neither be willing or capable to deal with such a situation. A solution to the human rights problems in Sri Lanka requires a strategy that absorbs the totality of the crisis that the country is immersed in. It is this reality that the aggressive spokesmen for the government are trying to divert attention from.