icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
Sri Lanka’s Judiciary: Politicised Courts, Compromised Rights
Sri Lanka’s Judiciary: Politicised Courts, Compromised Rights
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past
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

A supporter of Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP), former secretary to the Ministry of Defence and presidential candidate Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, holds election posters at the party's election office in Biyagama, in the outskirts of the capital Colombo. AFP/ISHARA S. KODIKARA
Commentary / Asia

Sri Lanka Election Sparks Fear of Return to Violent Past

Sri Lanka’s powerful Rajapaksa family appears to be making a political comeback, and presidential front runner Gotabaya Rajapaksa has a troubled, violent history with Tamils and Muslims. These groups and others worry Gotobaya’s election will leave them more vulnerable, and threatens fragile democratic progress after decades of war.

As Sri Lankans head to the polls to elect a new president on 16 November, Gotabaya Rajapaksa stands as the widely acknowledged front runner. As defence secretary during his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long presidency ending in 2015, he was a leading figure in a government that many minority Tamils and Muslims, as well as opposition politicians, blame for terrible political violence and repression. During that period, dozens of journalists were killed or forced into exile, prominent Tamil politicians were murdered, and thousands of Sri Lankans were forcibly disappeared; no one has since been held accountable for those crimes. Gotabaya is expected to name his brother prime minister, as Mahinda is constitutionally term-limited from seeking the presidency. The last Rajapaksa administration became increasingly authoritarian over its tenure, and the family’s political reprise would likely to bring more of the same.

Gotabaya’s main challenger is Sajith Premadasa, the standard bearer for the United National Party (UNP), headed by current prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe. Premadasa is currently Cabinet Minister for Housing, Construction and Cultural Affairs. Although Premadasa is more popular with average voters than the aloof prime minister, private polling, the largely pro-Rajapaksa media, and past voting patterns all suggest that Premadasa is the underdog. Although widely seen as having run a strong campaign so far, Premadasa is also competing against smaller party candidates who could take a significant block of the anti-Rajapaksa vote.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order.

Gotabaya Rajapaksa is campaigning on promises of security and order that appeal to many ethnic majority Sinhalese, especially in the wake of ISIS-inspired bombings last Easter that left more than 250 dead and at least 500 wounded. He announced his candidacy within days of those attacks, seizing the opportunity to position himself as the nation’s protector. Promising to eliminate all forms of terrorism, he has argued (with little evidence) that the government’s arrest of key intelligence operatives based on allegations of abductions and murders weakened security and paved the way for the Easter attacks.

Gotabaya has emphasised his central role as defence secretary in the 2009 military victory over the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist organisation that fought for a Tamil homeland in the country’s north east for more than 30 years. Promising voters technocratic, military-style governance, led by professionals rather than politicians, Gotabaya also draws on middle class voters’ appreciation of the redevelopment projects he spearheaded as head of the Urban Development Agency and the general impression that he “gets things done”, albeit ruthlessly at times. Gotabaya has pledged that his government will instil “discipline”, and argued forcefully that love of country is more important than individual rights and that security is paramount.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists.

The prospect of a new Rajapaksa presidency has heightened ethnic tensions and raised fears among minorities and democratic activists. They worry electing Gotabaya, a strong Sinhala nationalist, would deepen already serious divides among the country’s ethnic communities and threaten its recent modest democratic gains. Sri Lanka’s Muslims are among those most fearful of a Gotabaya presidency. They worry about his support for militant Buddhist groups that attacked Muslims with impunity in 2013 and 2014, when Gotabaya was in charge of the police and army. Evidence that politicians from the Rajapaksas’ Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna party (SLPP) were involved in anti-Muslim violence in March 2018 and May 2019 has strengthened these fears, as has the backing of prominent nationalist monks promoting anti-Muslim attitudes for Gotabaya’s candidacy.

Posters of presidential candidate Gotabaya Rajapaksa next to rubble from burned-out Muslim-owned shops in Minuwangoda, Sri Lanka. CRISISGROUP/Alan Keenan

Gotabaya has always denied any links with militant Buddhists, and along with others in the SLPP has courted Muslim voters. Although some Muslim businessmen back Gotabaya hoping for business-friendly governance, most Muslims are expected to maintain their traditional support for the UNP. Many worry, however, that this will make their community vulnerable to retribution if Gotabaya wins. In a widely circulated video, Gotabaya’s personal lawyer and a prominent Muslim member of the SLPP articulated the bind in which many Muslims find themselves: telling his Muslim audience that Gotabaya is certain to win, he then asked them how they were likely to fare if Muslims were not seen to have supported him. When one audience member chuckles nervously and says they would get a “massive thrashing”, the lawyer laughs along, agrees and says Muslims would be wise to support Gotabaya to avoid increased harassment and even violent retribution. Smaller pro-Rajapaksa Tamil parties in the multi-ethnic north and east have appealed to Tamils to vote for Gotabaya in order to protect themselves against the perceived threat of Muslim extremism and economic power.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win.

Almost certainly, reconciliation and accountability for atrocities and human rights violations will be losers should Gotabaya win. Under the Rajapaksas’ watch, thousands of Tamils disappeared in the final years of war – including hundreds who surrendered to the army on the last day of fighting in May 2009 and were never seen again. When asked at a 15 October press conference about their fate and how he would respond to the continued appeals of their families for the truth about what happened to them, Gotabaya denied anyone was unaccounted for after surrendering. When pressed, Gotabaya asserted there was no point in looking to the past and said he was running to be “the president of the future Sri Lanka”. At the same press conference, Gotabaya announced he would not recognise or honour commitments on post-war accountability and reconciliation the current government made to the UN Human Rights Council in 2015.

For Tamils especially, but also Sinhalese and Muslim victims, being asked to forget is both painful and impossible. The current government’s failure to investigate or press the army to provide answers about the disappeared has kept families’ wounds fresh. The Office of Missing Persons, established in 2018 to fulfil a government’s pledge to the UN, is still struggling to become effective. The police and army, whose assistance is necessary to establish the truth, will likely continue to resist the Office’s work under any scenario. Many expect Gotabaya will formally dismantle the Office of Missing Persons should he be elected.

The last five years represent a lost opportunity to help Sri Lanka recover from the war that ended a decade ago. The broad, multi-ethnic and multiparty coalition that came to power in presidential and parliamentary elections in 2015 promised to strengthen the rule of law and tackle the culture of impunity engendered by the nation’s long history of political violence. They restored a degree of independence to the police and judiciary, and journalists as well as civil society activists have made the most of their increased freedom. Chances for more lasting reforms, however, and for prosecutions of the many high-profile cases of corruption, murder and disappearances during the Rajapaksa period, were frittered away in partisan battles between President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. The government’s failure to make decisive changes has left Sri Lanka’s citizens – and its still-fragile institutions – at risk.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past.

A Premadasa win is no guarantee of turning the page on Sri Lanka’s violent past. His election manifesto contains some positive proposals – including the creation of an independent prosecutor – but his career has not suggested a deep commitment to accountability or reconciliation. His popularity derives from his single-minded focus on the many housing developments his ministry has built and the sense that he cares about average and poor Sri Lankans. During the campaign, he has attempted to match Gotabaya with vows to “eradicate terrorism” and impose the death penalty on drug dealers. Despite this posture and widespread disappointment with the UNP-led government among minority voters and democratic activists, many of them see a Premadasa victory as essential to keeping open Sri Lanka’s fragile space for dissent and pluralism. With the backing of the main Tamil and Muslim parties, Premadasa has also challenged Gotabaya on the crimes and abuses committed during the Rajapaksa years, warning voters of the risks a new Rajapaksa government would carry.

Whether Gotabaya or Premadasa wins this next election, building the independent institutions needed to end impunity will be essential to ensuring lasting peace in Sri Lanka. For external supporters of human rights and democratic freedoms in Sri Lanka, their main leverage will be found in Sri Lanka’s need for help from the International Monetary Fund and other multilateral and bilateral agencies with its struggling economy and dangerously high foreign debt. Vulnerable human rights defenders and opposition politicians will also need political support from outside the country as they continue their quest for truth and justice for past atrocities.

This article first appeared in The Interpreter, published by the Lowy Institute