SRI LANKA: An epidemic of lawlessness

[A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission]

After observing the situation of the rule of law in Sri Lanka for several years and meticulously observing recent developments, the Asian Human Rights Commission is compelled to announce that what Sri Lanka is facing now is a situation of lawlessness of epidemic proportions.

Such lawlessness is manifested by the ongoing abductions and forced disappearances, the spate of crime in all areas of life, the increase of violence in civil society where even entire families are wiped out and the use of direct violence against alleged criminals where some citizens take the law into their own hands and kill them by such methods as stoning.

In the areas of public life corruption has reached levels which have never been witnessed before. The insecurity that is experienced by everyone including those who hold powerful positions and even high ranking police officers for their own safety has reached colossal heights.

What makes this picture even bleaker is the fact that even the limited action to bring about some corrective measures such as the enactment of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution has been abandoned. Furthermore, the government has virtually abandoned the responsibility for the maintenance of law and order and seemingly does not even have the capacity to control the situation.

A spokesman for the Civil Monitoring Commission speaking to the BBC recently mentioned a further three cases of abductions. When asked about their role in trying to prevent such abductions the spokesman said that “All we can do is to report the complaints we receive to the authorities and also to get the victim’s families to make similar complaints to the police. This has been done. However, there is a failure in investigations by the police.”

For almost a ten year period the Asian Human Rights Commission has consistently pointed out that there is a fundamental failure of policing in Sri Lanka. After many years of study we also charaterised the policing system as being dysfunctional. The dysfunctionalism that affects investigations into such matters as abductions and disappearances has also affected the civilian police supervision over minor domestic disputes resulting in the wiping out of whole families and this was glaringly demonstrated last week with an entire family being killed by a prisoner who returned home form jail. The disputes in the family for the period immediately before these killings had been heard by neighbours and the neighbours complained about this to the police and other authorities. However, no action was taken to help them and the result has been the gruesome destruction of the whole family. In recent weeks there have also been two instances where alleged criminals have been killed by mobs who have taken the law into their own hands. There are reports of theft and robberies everywhere which even included a theft from the house of the Chief Justice himself. Quite close to the Chief Justice’s neighbourhood, on a property belonging to the local government even rare and valuable trees have been stolen. Such an incident as the stealing of enormous trees could not have taken place without serious planning and organisation. In all such allegations hardly anyone is arrested and if there is an arrest, often it is a substitute for the actual perpetrators just to create the impression that something has been done.

The Inspector General of Police and the higher ranking police officers such as the DIGs and the National Police Commission no longer hold themselves responsible for maintaining the policing system in a functional state. Even these authorities accept the dysfunctionalism of the policing system as a fait accompli. There is no one that the people can complain to about this situation and to bring about any change. The knowledge of the systems dysfunctionalism encourages the criminal elements to engage in their activities with impunity. What makes things worse is that the criminal elements today can rely heavily on police officers themselves, including some high ranking ones as their partners in crime. The police syndicate in crime has become entrenched within the system. Not to realise that the problem has reached catastrophic levels will continue to harm the Sri Lankan society in ways beyond imagination.

In relation to law and order the government seems neither willing nor capable of dealing with crime. The unwillingness seems to be due to several factors. In doing away with the implementation of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution the present government has demonstrated that the use of the police in illegal ways and outside their ambit of authority is necessary for the government for political purposes such as elections and in dealing illegally with political opponents. The political killings that have happened in Colombo itself, such as the killing of a Tamil member of parliament, Nadarajah Raviraj and the abuse of the Criminal Investigation Division to harass dissident politicians and journalists has been demonstrated in many well known incidents. Even transfers of capable officers have allegedly been carried out to encourage a more conniving attitude in the CID for the abuse of authority by some government officers. On the other hand the government is also unwilling to deal with any crimes that are attributed to the military and paramilitary sections. Such attempts can create serious problems for the political authority of the government itself. The government is also incapable of dealing with the present situation having removed the limited constitutional means it once had by stopping the proper operation of the institutions created by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution.

When a government proves unwilling and incapable of dealing with law and order situations it looses its legitimacy to rule and also fundamentally destroys the sovereignty of the people.

Today as there is a popular discussion on dealing with Sri Lanka’s situation by local groups such as the opposition parties and civil society movements the issue of lawlessness which has reached epidemic levels should be of prime consideration. Dealing with epidemics requires drastic strategies and if that fails the whole society can suffer in ways beyond imagination.

The Asian Human Rights Commission is unable to suggest any comprehensive solution to the present problem except by raising it to the attention of everyone. The minimum solution is the appointment of the Constitutional Council and to pave the way for dealing with dysfunctionalism within the policing system. This is not to suggest that this alone is the solution, but that the appointment of the Constitutional Council can create the authority that is needed to take responsibility for dealing with the present situation. The international community that has shown some keenness to discuss the Sri Lankan issues in recent times must deal with the issue of the Constitutional Council and the lawlessness which has reached epidemic proportions as a matter of prime importance.

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation monitoring and lobbying human rights issues in Asia. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

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