The tabling of two reports from domestic inquiries — the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances (commonly referred to as the Paranagama Commission) and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Alleged Serious Violations of Human Rights (Udalagama Commission) on the by-products of the protracted 30-plus year northern [...]


Justice can be done in SL


The tabling of two reports from domestic inquiries — the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances (commonly referred to as the Paranagama Commission) and the Presidential Commission of Inquiry to Investigate and Inquire into Alleged Serious Violations of Human Rights (Udalagama Commission) on the by-products of the protracted 30-plus year northern insurgency — raised a hornets’ nest this week. It was almost a prelude to things to come in the political terrain as the new Government grapples with the question of how best to handle the UN Human Rights Council resolution to investigate purported war crimes in Sri Lanka.

The Justice Maxwell Paranagama Reports and the Justice Nissanka Udalagama Reports were eventually tabled in Parliament though some of them were submitted to the Government months ago. The debate that followed gave a glimpse of — as predicted — the manner in which the emaciated Opposition that exists today (given the National Government concept now in operation) got a handle to attack the Government on the sensitive allegation of selling out the country’s Armed Forces to appease the so-called International Community.

The Government is only too aware of the dangerous consequences from a possible fall-out among the Armed Forces on this issue. Disgruntled soldiery is the worst possible thing in a democracy. The Government moved swiftly to say that the men and women in uniform will be protected at all costs. Such statements could attract the allegation that what is afoot is a sham war crimes trial. It might have been better, under the difficult circumstances the Government is in, had it reassured the Armed Forces that no injustice would be done to them.

The Paranagama Commission, in particular, has held that a judge-led independent investigation is required to go into allegations of war crimes. Exculpating the Army as a whole from wrongdoing, the report states that there is prima-facie evidence in individual cases that warrant further inquiry, and that a military tribunal cannot be expected to find fault.

The fact that the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner’s report asked for the disbanding of the Paranagama Commission betrays once again the blanket prejudice and distrust these international agencies have of the Sri Lankan judicial system. It was the same with the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) whose members were accused by this ‘International Community’ of being Government stooges only to welcome the LLRC findings thereafter. The Paranagama Commission in fact, it is being said, has gone even further than not only the LLRC but the UNHRC, and is calling for foreign adjudication, a sensitive issue concerning the independence and sovereignty of the nation-state, and involving the credibility of the country’s long standing, much devalued judicial system.

The Government is trying to test the waters, justifying the entré of foreign technical advisers, lawyers and judges while insisting that it is a domestic mechanism in place and that whoever foreign comes must do so with the Government’s concurrence. In Parliament, a minister quoted the example of The Gambia where the credibility of a similar tribunal was based on foreign participation, and justifying such a move in Sri Lanka. How far has this country fallen to be so compared.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has also jumped into the fray saying his Government got international legal experts to advise – not to sit as judges, a move the incumbent Government is contemplating. The once vociferous Bar Association is unusually quiet on whether to allow foreign prosecutors to practise in our courts, and the Supreme Court will certainly be tested on retrospective legislation and other constitutional contradictions in time to come.

The upshot of it all is that both the Udalagama and Paranagama Commissions have proved beyond any reasonable doubt that local investigative mechanisms do work. It is unfair to judge the country’s entire judicial system by the few politically motivated ‘bad eggs’ who were strategically placed within the judiciary. These two Commissions, and the earlier LLRC, are classic examples that there are the ‘great and the good’ who still can deliver justice in this country provided they are scouted for, and the political will exists. There will then be no need for foreign prosecutors or judges.

The previous Administration miscalculated the turn of events of the post-2009 era which precipitated the UN war crimes demand. Now the limpet Opposition is, as expected, raising the nationalism bogey and will win back some of the support it has lost in the country to the detriment of the new Government.

However nice the slogan that justice must be done to the victims of war sounds, the danger of opening old wounds in an endless ‘fishing expedition’ or a ‘voyage of discovery’ for perpetrators of war crimes in the ‘fog of war’, going back to the dark past rather than the sunshine future is a matter worth pondering, not just for this Government but those who were instrumental in bringing such pressure on it.

Govts may change, not the rogues
While the Government scrambles to get its act together on how to sell a virtual international war crimes tribunal to the people, many of whom voted it into office, it is a fact that the UNHRC resolution was softened as a result of a ‘friendly Government’ (friendly to the sponsors of the resolution) being in office.

Still, there are a host of other critical issues the Government will need to pay urgent attention to, not least the economy. One of the issues, no less important than others, is that of the expenses of an elected representative of the people during an election campaign. The European Union election monitors have rekindled debate on this matter with their recent report on the twin elections in Sri Lanka this year, but it is an issue that has already attracted the attention of political parties and the Elections Commissioner. The problem, however, is that the talk notwithstanding, will anything be done to change the status quo?

The relevance of this issue is because corrupt businessmen and their companies, people in the narcotic and illegal alcohol trade and those engaged in nefarious commercial activities with undeclared funds, bankroll politicians during campaigns and then want their pound of flesh by getting favours in return. Political parties that cannot afford to pay the telephone bill of the party office when in Opposition are able to hire buses for May Day rallies when in Government. Those who get short-changed are the ordinary people who vote a new Government in but find the same rascals are ruling the roost – and the Ministers, mere puppets on strings.

The EU observers, as usual holier-than-thou, speak of laws in Europe that curtail such slush funding, but in the UK peerages are given to campaign donors; in the US amnesties are given; and Europe’s Spain is rocked by scandal with the ruling Popular Party nabbed for accepting campaign donations from companies that won lucrative public works contracts. In Sri Lanka, Governments may change but often not the rogues. The Prime Minister’s attention has been drawn to this or so it seems by his criticism of the Finance Ministry on this score, but can he alone make the change?

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