Bribery and Corruption Commission on right track
Eight years after the Permanent Commission on Bribery and
Corruption was set up in Sri Lanka, it is an irony that passes all
comprehension that the most persistent complaint of the Commissioners
continues to centre on a lack of experienced and qualified staff.
The 2000 annual report of the Commission, which was released early
this month states that out of a total of fifty nine officers attached
to the Commission (which is about 90% of the approved cadre), thirty
eight officers are 'total strangers' to the field of investigation
in bribery and corruption. Astonishingly therefore, only forty officers
can actually be employed for investigation while the rest are engaged
in either guard duty or administration chores. Not surprisingly, this
has resulted in an over burdening of the cases entrusted to each officer
and a consequent decline in the efficacy of the work of the Commission.
It is clear,
however, that the overhauling of the Commission, if it is actually
to make an impact on an acknowlegedly corrupt system in this country,
involves far more than the assigning of qualified staff. In recent
years, we have seen the extreme politicisation of the Commission
and its activities in a manner that almost brings to despair, the
hope that Sri Lanka would have a Bribery and Corruption Commission
worthy of the high expectations with which it was set up in 1994.
Now, we have a situation where the public impact of the Commission
is limited to instances of politicians rushing to the Commission
to highlight allegations against opposing party rankers and very
little beyond that. Not a very healthy situation for what once promised
to be the country's premier graft fighting body.
years had, of course, not been particularly happy for the growth
of an efficacious Commission. The setting up of the Commission in
1994 was traceable back to the earnest commitment in the manifesto
of the People's Alliance to rid the country of the damning scourge
of bribery and corruption. To quote "
.it is evident
that the office of the Bribery Commissioner, as constituted at present,
is unacceptably vulnerable to pressures, both covert and overt,
and indeed to victimisation at the hands of the incumbent administration.
It is for this reason that the PA advocates that the power of appointment
of the members of the Permanent Commission should reside not in
the government of the day but in a Constitutional Council, the composition
of which guarantees its non partisan nature". The law bringing
the Commission into being was thereafter passed by consensual agreement
need to carry on a consensual spirit in the functioning of the Commission
however, the first appointments of the Commission in 1994 were by
Presidential fiat only, effectively putting into motion a disastrous
trend of politicization of the Commission. Subsequent events were
not all that reassuring either. Inquiries held by the Commission
into activities of several frontrankers of the previous government,
including a former UNP Minister, were conducted in a manner that
appeared to be perfectly acceptable to the ruling People's Alliance.
It was only some three years later, when personal differences of
opinion erupted between the Commissioners and its Director General
Nelum Gamage, that the Government opted to alienate itself from
the Commissioners. This saw an about turn in political alignments
with the UNP taking on the role of defender of the Commissioners
amidst a publicly furious correspondence between the Leader of the
Opposition and President Kumaratunga.
The year 1999
accordingly saw a tarnished Commission whose five years in office
had been plagued by vicious infighting, culminating in a Resolution
being brought against its key officers, its Director General being
moved out to the Justice Ministry and the functioning of the Commission
itself suspended for well over a year. While public confidence in
the Commission hit zero level, the Parliamentary Select Committee
process inquiring into allegations of "misconduct and/or incapacity"
against its Chairman T.A.D.S. Wijesundera and member Rudra Rajasingham
dragged itself on to its painful and inevitably politicized end.
that time on the need to rebuild public faith in the institution
of the Permanent Commission, this column pointed out that certain
vital changes are needed both in the substance and the working of
the Commission law. Importantly, it was pointed out that the process
of removal of Commissioners should be re scrutinized, preferably
taken out of the hands of Parliament and entrusted to an independent
tribunal which has both the time and the capacity to come to legal
findings of " misbehavior and/or incapacity" against impugned
Commissioners. In the meantime, the law should also make provision
for an interim body that could deal into pending complaints during
have occurred since then only reinforce the need for amendments
of this nature. A continuing tussle over the removal of one (part
time) Director General and the appointment of another to the Permanent
Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption
again brought into public focus fundamental defects in the law under
which the country's premier graft fighting body functions. At that
time, the outgoing Director General charged that his removal was
due to his "determination to go ahead with investigations when
evidence was available and reluctance to do so when there was no
evidence." His successor retorted that he would continue with
all investigations presently before the Commission and denied that
his appointment was prompted by "political reasons." The
questions however remained unanswered. What are the actual achievements
of the Commission in the convictions that it has brought about,
notwithstanding part time or full time Directors General? Its annual
reports may give statistics of the number of cases prosecuted or
investigated but that is not the question in issue. Has the Commission
proved to be a significant deterrent force in curbing graft in the
At this moment
in time, we have future appointments of the Bribery Commission thankfully
being handed over to the Constitutional Council, though the process
of removal is still problematic. However, other deficiencies in
the functioning of the Commission stand in need of immediate correction.
The secrecy clause that is meant to prohibit personnel of the Commission
from divulging details of confidential proceedings has proved to
be obviously ineffective.
should be tightened. Anonymous petitions against persons should
be treated with great caution and stiffer punishments prescribed
for persons making false allegations. Specific legal provision meanwhile
should be made to allow persons appearing before the Commission
to have legal representation in the face of allegations. But this
is not permitted as a matter of course. Other functional problems
remain. The Commission should be given an independent investigative
unit, like anti corruption units in Hong Kong and Singapore instead
of relying on police officers assigned from the regular police force.
Likewise, the Commission ought to exclusively employ its own team
of legal officers. Retention of legal personnel from the Attorney
General's Department which is the main state law arm, sits basically
at odds with the goal of the Commission which should be to expose
corruption within the Government ranks as well as without.
In the year
2002, one still hopes that effective changes to the existing law
and practice would minimise the trauma that the institution of the
Permanent Commission on Bribery and Corruption has been subjected
to in the recent past. Leaving personalities aside, this should
be the primary task of our policy makers if we are to rescue the
Permanent Commission from the morass of inefficiency that it is
now reduced to.