Killing of justice by commissions and committeesView(s):
The Sri Lankan Government’s deft recourse to Commissions and Committees of Inquiry to investigate extraordinary human rights violations in shifting the focus away from the penal thrust of the criminal law is truly villainous.
The political skill-set in play
The very latest is President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s appointment of a committee of inquiry this week to look into allegations by the British based Channel Four network of a ‘grand conspiracy’ by sections of the pro-Rajapaksa inclined intelligence establishment in manipulating local Islamists to launch terror attacks in Sri Lanka in 2019. Perhaps we may term this, the ‘Channel Four Commission’ forsooth?
Mind you, I am not being facetious in saying this. Very soon we will run out of names for these bodies, confuse them with one another, tangle up their recommendations and lapse into helpless if not hopeless fury. But that may be no bad thing given the sheer uselessness of these exercises, meant to obfuscate, fatigue and frustrate the proper working of the law. This is the single farcical objective, let us be quite clear.
The flair and the speed with which Presidents and Prime Ministers resort to the favourite face saving excuse of ‘Committees and Commissions’ showcases two factors. First, the contempt for the Sri Lankan public who are perceived as ‘gullible beyond measure.’ Secondly, the strongly held belief that they are impervious to legal accountability. Villainous is the only fitting word to describe these political skills practised with consummate finesse.
a powerful force
This is all the more evident when the full reports of such bodies on which public monies are expended are not publicly released. Effectively, this is engineering the ‘killing of Justice by Commissions and Committees,’ no more and no less. That has happened without pause to violations in Sri Lanka’s South as well as the North.
In the decades following Sri Lanka’s independence from colonial rule, killings and enforced disappearances of human beings by any one political regime (take your pick) at a given time in the pursuit of power has been the common factor evidenced across ethnicities. The result of that has been the cruel disempowering and reducing the ‘man and woman on the street’ who have no bargaining power.
If not undermined by cleverly vicious propaganda about the ‘master race’ and the ‘minor race(s),’ the collective anguish of victims and the blood that pitifully drenched Sri Lanka’s soil from the seventies onwards should have been a powerful unifying force. Employed strategically, that would have reformed the country’s deeply corrupted political establishment of which the non-political elite is unquestionably a part.
Going beyond rights abuses
to economic crimes
Taken at its crest, that unifying force would have led to not one but a dozen or more ‘aragalayas’ (protests) long before the nation was dragged into bankruptcy. While the 2022 peaceful protests by thousands of citizens across the country shook the political establishment to the core, its delegitimisation by complicit political actors coupled with the naivete of the movement or movements themselves, was inevitable.
We had politically compromised ‘civil society’ and religious leaders whose commitment in regard to challenging the State ebbs and flows with whoever sits on the ‘throne’ of the Presidency. This is nothing new. Even so, that pattern took on a more overt flavour during the ‘yahapalanaya’ fiasco during 2015-2019. That was when ‘Commissions and Committees’ were used not only in regard to abuse of civil liberties but also referencing heinous economic crimes.
The Central Bank ‘bond scam’ controversy is a prime example thereto. The criminal law was ‘manipulated’ in order to, as is now evident beyond question, let all culprits from Aloysious of Perpetual Treasuries fame to high flying Ministers of the United National Party (UNP), off the hook. Throughout, the public was enraptured with a ‘Commission’ drama, resulting as the Bard said very well, in a tale ‘told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’
That burden of state impunity
The scandal had its backlash at the following Presidential and General elections with the Rajapaksa Presidency being catapulted into power. But this unedifying combination of political chicanery and public gullibility continued, soon to become a key factor in Sri Lanka’s bankruptcy. Last week, we reminded that the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks cannot be isolated from the history of impunity which has been Sri Lanka’s tragic burden for decades.
That horrifying day reflected yet another manifestation of the capture of the Sri Lankan state by a politico-military nexus. This was the same creature which framed and formulated practices of extra judicial killings and enforced disappearances of minority (predominantly Tamil) victims. These abuses happened, we may add in many instances without the ‘justification’ of an emergency situation or active conflict.
The lists are long. They number the 2006 killings of students in Trincomalee and aid workers in Mutur, the kidnapping and killings of Tamil and Muslim men for ransom by identified navy personnel during 2008-2009 and the savage gunning down of Sri Lankan editors, journalists and dissenters. Treating those atrocities as distinct from and different to, the 2019 Easter Sunday attacks is unacceptable.
Enabling the Easter
To put it bluntly, it is the very same impunity systems that enable the committing of one extraordinary crime as much as the other. The head of the Roman Catholic Church Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith has rejected the appointment of yet another committee of inquiry and has called for an international investigation in regard to the Easter Sunday attacks. He is joined by politicians including a disgruntled former President (Maithripala Sirisena).
Certainly the Channel Four allegations have taken a scathingly ironic turn. But we cannot behave as if that barbarity occurred in a rare bubble. The sooner that the good Cardinal and his supportive flock recognises this fact, the better. This is why the political leadership has been able to escape unscathed in every instance that it has been challenged on its violation of the law and of the Constitution.
Perhaps the one (tough) exception to this trend in recent decades was the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) whose several recommendations addressed the country’s endemic ‘impunity problem’ before, during and after the defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). That report might have been a turning point for this country if it had been implemented.
Where is the criminal law?
But that was not to be. The LLRC report received scant attention from the President who commissioned it at the time (Mahinda Rajapaksa). Before long, that too fell into the dismal lot of Commissions of Inquiry that went nowhere. And not only were Commissions tasked with inquiring human rights violations many with overlapping mandates but we also ludicrously had Commissions looking into previous Commissions.
With all this history staring at us reproachfully through the ages, it is nothing short of remarkable that again and again, Sri Lanka’s political leadership resorts to shameful tactics of “Commissions and Committees’ without demur. Earlier last month, the Sri Lankan State submitted its initial report to the Committee on Enforced Disappearances under Article 29(1) of the Convention on Enforced Disappearances.
That reads like a (boring) litany of the law. Its fifty one or so pages describe constitutional provisions and various statutes including Act No. 05 of 2018. But what is missing are details of deterrent prosecutions and final legal outcomes of trials. Or are we to presume that there are no violators at all?
Where is the working of Sri Lanka’s criminal law in all of this?
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