The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) is deeply perturbed by the recent events involving shocking acts of abuse of authority by officers of the Sri Lankan Police. The cases involving the son and associates of Colombo Crimes Division SSP Vaas Gunewardene and the extra-judicial executions of two youths allegedly by members of the Angulana Police have no place in a civilised society, let alone one that claims to be a democracy under the Rule of Law.
While under strenuous public and media pressure the authorities have taken some action in these cases and we uphold the right of any suspect to the benefit of an impartial investigation and a fair trial, we are appalled that the interim measures taken seem to be so innocuous as to offend public sentiment. The primary example of this is that SSP Vaas Gunewardene has only been transferred to Police Head Quarters rather than being immediately suspended from service pending investigations. This does nothing to assuage the public outrage and distrust generated by these cases. It appears that, notwithstanding political statements from the President and Prime Minister downwards, the authorities are resorting to the usual insensitive and complacent responses to abuses that we have seen in the past, and which have mainly contributed to the institutionalisation of a culture of impunity with regard to even grave allegations of human rights violations by the Police and security forces.
We note that in democracies such as India, there are strong traditions of democratic government whereby incidents such as these would have led to the assumption of responsibility and consequent resignations.* Sadly, these traditions are non-existent in Sri Lanka, and contribute significantly to the erosion of public confidence in important institutions of the State such as the Police.
While it is critical that justice is meted out in these individual cases, the broader institutional weaknesses that facilitate the commission of these abuses must not be forgotten. This therefore highlights once again the need to implement the legal framework established by the Seventeenth Amendment, especially in this respect, the appointment according to procedure established by law of the Constitutional Council and the independent Police Commission. It is only through the implementation of these provisions of the Constitution that we can hope to ensure policing in Sri Lanka that is characterised by independence, impartiality, integrity and professionalism. Without the necessary seriousness of purpose with regard to the implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment, all other promises of action remain merely hortatory rhetoric.
Aggravating the non-implementation of the Seventeenth Amendment are the alarming calls for closer integration of the Police with the security forces and defence apparatus being made in some sections of the media and defence establishment. We firmly believe that what is needed, particularly in the context of post-war Sri Lanka, is the opposite whereby the Police Department’s role as the civil institution of preserving law and order in the community is restored, rather than the further consolidation of the insalubrious role it has assumed over the years of armed conflict as yet another adjunct of the National Security State.
We hope, but are not optimistic, that the Vaas Gunewardene and Angulana cases provide the impetus for instituting the reforms that are so manifestly needed to ensure the professionalism and integrity of the Police, and indeed, for urgently implementing the legal provisions aimed at those objectives already in place.
20th August 2009, Colombo, Sri Lanka:
* Editorial Note
While totally supporting and stressing the need for sterner action against such open abuse of law by the law enforcement personnel themselves and the need to implement the legal framework established by the Seventeenth (17th) Amendment, as noted very clearly in the CPA statement, we beg to disagree on the point ” that in democracies such as India, there are strong traditions of democratic government whereby incidents such as these would have led to the assumption of responsibility and consequent resignations.” which is far from the truth and should not be given such undue credit for.
India is one country that can not even whisper against “custodial killings” for that is too common a topic to be talked about. For torture under detention is an accepted practice that often leads to custodial killings.
“India and Indians are not immune to torture. Neither is the act of torture a crime in India. In fact, thousands of individuals fall prey to torture each year in the country. It is practiced inside police stations and other centres of law-enforcement. Torture is so common in India that it is no more a highly secretive act practiced in hidden locations. Torture is viewed as an acceptable mode for criminal investigation and is condoned by jurists and policymakers alike.” says the AHRC in its statement not too long ago, but issued on 26 June, this year.
A case study done by a team of researchers for the South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) in Jammu & Kashmir during the period 1990 to 2004, published under the title “In Search of Vanished Blood” records “….In a climate where impunity is the norm, and where it is routine to perpetrate flagrant violations of human rights on a mass scale, the Court must be deemed to be aware that its remarks are likely to be construed by the police, and other agencies engaged in internal security duties, as a continuing license to carry out custodial killings and enforced disappearances, in the name of the people and of the State.” (page 10)
Thus to highlight India as a country with a strong tradition of democracy that would question such human rights violations is not only a lie, but it also greatly undermines and insults the work of Indian HR activists who are also up against a huge challenge as the CPA and others are, in SL.