New book: The other Lanka

Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong

The other Lanka, Meryam Dabhoiwala & Rob Hanlon (eds), Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong, May 2006, ISBN-10: 962-8314-29-7; ISBN-13: 978-962-8314-29-14, 192pp.

In recent years the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) and its sister organisation the Asian Legal Resource Centre have published a considerable amount of material on Sri Lanka’s legal and justice systems, as well as its human rights abuses. Most recently, the AHRC published An x-ray of the Sri Lankan policing system and torture of the poor (September 2005), which documents 65 cases of police torture. Other books include The right to speak loudly: Essays on human rights (March 2004) and An exceptional collapse of the rule of law: Told through stories by families of the disappeared in Sri Lanka (October 2004), covering the stories of over forty families whose loved ones were forcibly disappeared. Two special reports in article 2 have also focused on torture and other human rights issues in Sri Lanka (‘Torture by the police in Sri Lanka’, vol. 1, no. 4, August 2002; ‘Endemic torture and the collapse of policing in Sri Lanka’, vol. 3, no. 1, February 2004). Besides this, many articles written by the AHRC on human rights issues in the country have been published in Sri Lanka and abroad.

The other Lanka, the latest publication in this series, is a collection of AHRC materials that have been reproduced in Sri Lankan newspapers and other periodicals, together with articles from a weekly column in the Sunday Times by journalist Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, and published articles by Basil Fernando, executive director of the AHRC.

The book’s abiding concern is with the collapse of the Sri Lankan justice system, which has fallen to a point where it is unable to benefit those seeking justice, but instead serves those committing crimes. This collapse is linked to Sri Lanka’s failure to modernise its policing system, to address delays in its courts and to ensure accountability in its public institutions. Inevitably, corruption is rampant. Rather than halting this collapse, the ruling elite has in recent years taken steps to undermine all measures initiated previously to shore up the few remnants of the rule of law in the country.

The most significant damage in recent times has been caused by the utter degrading of the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. This amendment, while limited and incomplete, was a genuine response to the unlimited power given by the 1978 Constitution to the executive president. The amendment enabled several commissions to supervise the functioning of key public institutions, including by way of powers over appointments and disciplinary control of employees. Commission members were to be selected by a Constitutional Council, appointed with agreement by all parties in order to prevent the government from making political appointments. Due to the failure of the president and government to ensure that appointments have been made to the Constitutional Council, none of the 17th Amendment commissions are functioning at present. The abandonment of the 17th Amendment ends independent supervision of key public institutions and returns absolute power to the executive president.

Sri Lanka is no exception to the rule that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the auditor general is now being attacked for carrying out his duties, on the premise that his audit reports of public institutions may create a wrong impression.

Earlier this year, two Supreme Court judges resigned from the three-member Judicial Service Commission as a matter of conscience. Despite strong local and international demands for the judges to voice these matters of conscience, silence prevails. It is clear the judges fear the repercussions of speaking out. This fear of repercussions is very real. It prevails throughout all aspects of life in Sri Lanka.

Through statements and articles published in 2005, The other Lanka illustrates the expectation that every attempt to assert independence or to reveal wrongdoing may lead to serious threats on life, employment and property. Many persons living outside Sri Lanka see ethnic conflict as the only–or main–problem facing the country. For people living in Sri Lanka however, there is another reality: the reality of authoritarianism, which affects everyone and everything. The AHRC has always held that the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka is itself a product of the breakdown of governance in the country, especially after the introduction of authoritarian rule through the 1978 Constitution. It is this “other” Lanka that needs study and understanding if the present catastrophic situation is to be resolved.

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