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Sri Lanka’s Judiciary: Politicised Courts, Compromised Rights
Sri Lanka’s Judiciary: Politicised Courts, Compromised Rights
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka
Report 172 / Asia

Sri Lanka’s Judiciary: Politicised Courts, Compromised Rights

Sri Lanka’s judiciary is failing to protect constitutional and human rights.

Executive Summary

Sri Lanka’s judiciary is failing to protect constitutional and human rights. Rather than assuaging conflict, the courts have corroded the rule of law and worsened ethnic tensions. Rather than constraining militarisation and protecting minority rights, a politicised bench under the just-retired chief justice has entrenched favoured allies, punished foes and blocked compromises with the Tamil minority. Its intermittent interventions on important political questions have limited settlement options for the ethnic conflict. Extensive reform of the judicial system – beginning with a change in approach from the newly appointed chief justice – and an overhaul of counterproductive emergency laws are essential if the military defeat of the LTTE is to lead to a lasting peace that has the support of all ethnic communities.

At independence in 1948, Sri Lanka had a comparatively professional and independent judiciary. New constitutions in 1972 and 1978, however, cut back on the judiciary’s protection from parliamentary and presidential intrusions. The 1978 constitution vested unfettered control of judicial appointments in presidential hands. Unlike other South Asian countries, no strong tradition or norm of consultation between the president and the chief justice developed. Nor did predictable rules immune from manipulation, such as promotion by seniority, emerge.

The Seventeenth Amendment, enacted in October 2001, attempted to depoliticise a range of public institutions, including the judiciary, by establishing a constitutional council. The council limited the power of the president to make direct appointments to the courts and independent commissions. Since 2005, however, Presidents Chandrika Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa have wilfully ignored this constitutional limit by refusing to convene the constitutional council. An increasing proportion of President Rajapaksa’s appointees to the higher court have been from the attorney general’s office. The result is benches stacked to favour the government. The 1978 constitution’s system for removing judges is also broken. Vested in parliamentary control, impeachment is only ever threatened on thinly veiled political grounds against judges who have broken with a ruling coalition. No effective mechanism exists to sanction corrupt or abusive judges.

At the same time, the recently retired chief justice, Sarath N. Silva, chose to exercise his powers in ways that further sapped the independence of the lower courts and the Supreme Court. Through the Judicial Service Commission (JSC), he controlled appointments, transfers and removals of lower court judges. He used those administrative powers to punish judges out of step with his wishes and to reward those who toed the line. Police and other politically influential constituencies used their close ties to the chief justice to influence judicial decisions. Fear of sanction by the JSC has undermined judges’ willingness to move aggressively against the police or the military, particularly in cases involving the rights of Tamil detainees. Entrenching this problem are informal local networks of contacts and collaboration between police, judges and the bar. In part as a result of these ties, there are no effective checks on endemic torture in police custody.

Formal constitutional and statutory rules further undermine judicial independence, deepening Sri Lanka’s political and ethnic crises and compounding harms to human and constitutional rights. Most importantly, Sri Lanka has two sets of emergency laws – regulations issued under the Public Security Ordinance, No. 25 of 1947, and the 1979 Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) – which impose severe limits on courts’ jurisdiction and authority to prevent abusive detention and torture. Emergency regulations and the PTA are used disproportionately in Tamil areas and against Tamil suspects. Without the repeal or radical reform of these laws, continued political alienation of Tamils is virtually assured.

Neither the local magistrate courts nor the provincial high courts provide remedies for illegal or abusive detention under either the emergency laws or the criminal code. Threshold review of detention decisions by magistrates is superficial. The “habeas corpus” remedy putatively available in the high courts rarely succeeds in gaining releases. Some relief can at times be found by filing a “fundamental rights” application in the Supreme Court. But distance, the difficulty of travel, especially for Tamil litigants, and the cost of hiring one of a limited pool of Colombo-based Supreme Court lawyers create impassable barriers for most litigants.

The Supreme Court under Chief Justice Silva did little to alleviate this deficit of justice. To the contrary, its recent opinions tried to cut off options for raising claims in international forums. Silva’s court also intervened at crucial moments in the political process to strike down negotiated agreements designed to address Tamil concerns, thereby strengthening political hardliners among Sinhala nationalist parties and deepening the ethnic divide. While the court has been lauded for recent judgments protecting some rights and invalidating corrupt government contracts, these opinions do not pose a substantial challenge to excessive power of the executive presidency. Judicial interventions against corruption have been sufficiently unpredictable that they provide no real incentive to future office holders to refrain from misusing state resources.

The June 2009 retirement of Sarath Silva and the appointment of the most senior member of the Supreme Court, Asoka de Silva, as the new chief justice offer an opportunity for urgently needed reforms to begin. The new chief justice should take immediate steps to depoliticise the JSC, press for a speedy resolution of the constitutional council case currently pending before the court and begin to establish a more favourable climate in the courts for fundamental rights cases and for those challenging detentions under emergency laws. The JSC, chaired by the new chief justice, should order magistrates in areas where LTTE suspects are being held to use their wide powers to visit and monitor the conditions of the more than 10,000 surrendered or suspected members of the LTTE now in state custody. For any reforms to have lasting impact, however, they will need political support from an empowered bench and active bar willing to resist an executive that has shown little commitment to an independent judiciary.

Colombo/Brussels, 30 June 2009

Op-Ed / Asia

Time to seize the moment in Sri Lanka

Originally published in Inside Story

The bloody end of Sri Lanka’s long civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam has been marked across the country this month in very different ways, highlighting both the tentative progress made over the past year and the profound divisions still be overcome seven years into peacetime.

Across the north and east, Tamils held public events to remember the victims killed during the final weeks of the government offensive in May 2009. While officially sanctioned on a much wider scale than last year, these commemorations often took place under the watchful, often intimidating, eyes of the military or police.

In Colombo, meanwhile, president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe sponsored a War Hero commemoration alongside the armed forces, police and civil security. But the commemoration’s cultural program, the Reminiscence of Reconciliation, represented a notable shift from the triumphalist, military-led Victory Day celebrations presided over by former president Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose administration criminalised all Tamil remembrance activities.

Despite the welcome change in tone and moves to improve relations between the majority Sinhalese community and Tamils, who represent 15 per cent of the country’s population, the “national unity” government needs to redouble its efforts to promote reconciliation. In fact, much more work remains to reverse the damage done to all communities in Sri Lanka by the decade of Rajapaksa’s authoritarian rule.

Addressing the painful legacy of the war is just one aspect of an extremely ambitious agenda that includes drafting a new constitution, strengthening the rule of law and rebuilding democratic institutions. But it remains unclear how far the government is willing and able to go to tackle the hardest reforms, particularly justice for wartime abuses and greater devolution of political power to deal with the ethnic conflict.

Worryingly, the government appears to be backtracking on vital plans for transitional justice. The enormity of the crimes committed makes them impossible to ignore, yet difficult for the military, and most Sinhalese, to accept responsibility for.

Both sides committed atrocities throughout the many years of war, which lasted from 1983 to 2009. In September 2015, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented a detailed report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, documenting a “horrific level of violations and abuses” by government forces, pro-government paramilitaries and the separatist Tamil Tigers. The long list of crimes included indiscriminate shelling, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, recruitment of children, and denial of humanitarian assistance. The report confirmed victim and survivor accounts of systematic war crimes committed during the final months and immediate aftermath of the civil war.  

The new government – brought to power by elections in January and August 2015 – was prepared for these explosive findings, and announced its ambitious reform agenda at the start of the Human Rights Council session. It agreed to the Council’s groundbreaking resolution on promoting reconciliation and accountability, which was adopted by consensus. Key commitments included the creation of a truth commission, reparations and missing persons offices and, most controversially, an independent special court for war crimes with “participation of Commonwealth and other foreign judges, defence lawyers and authorised prosecutors and investigators.”

The resolution was potentially transformative, yet the government has missed a series of deadlines for its implementation and is sending mixed messages about its overall strategy for justice and reconciliation. Doubts about the government’s political will are growing domestically and internationally.

Dealing honestly with the legacy of the civil war is hard and painful work, complicated by Sri Lanka’s internecine political rivalries. President Sirisena is struggling to counter a faction of his Sri Lanka Freedom Party that remains loyal to his predecessor. Meanwhile, strains are growing within the unity government coalition.

The government is also fearful of angering the military and security services, which maintain a dangerous degree of autonomy. Recent arrests of Tamils under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act – which the government promised the UN it would repeal – and continued reports of the torture of detainees have sown concern about the government’s ability to rein in abuses. Many Tamils and rights activists are growing increasingly discouraged by what they see as slow progress.

Changing attitudes on all sides will be difficult. Sinhala nationalism remains entrenched within the state and society, and this in turn feeds Tamil nationalism and, for some, continued dreams of a separate state. Frustrated by the slow pace of reform, there is little public acknowledgement by Tamil political activists of the lasting pain caused by Tamil Tiger atrocities.

Despite the deep obstacles, though, now is the best opportunity in Sri Lanka’s recent history for the country to work together to build a lasting peace. To seize the moment, the government must reinvigorate the “good governance” agenda that won it popular support in the first place.

Measures to address the war’s legacy need to be pursued and presented as an essential aspect of the broader agenda to strengthen the rule of law, end impunity and tackle corruption and abuse of power. These issues resonate across the country, from the Tamil-majority areas of the north to the Sinhalese heartland in the south. The government should launch a coordinated outreach campaign to educate communities about the value of transitional justice and its links to other reforms, while giving stronger backing to the nationwide public consultations on designing reconciliation and justice measures.

Continued international support is essential to keep the reform process on track – both by building Sri Lanka’s technical capacity for reforms and reminding the government of its promises when politics threaten to win out over principle.

In the end, though, it is Sri Lankans who will lead the ongoing effort to make a more durable peace. There is no better place to start than by acknowledging the suffering and injustice experienced by all communities – and the equal right to remember and mourn.