The importance of strengthening independent institutions has been borne out by recent judgements of the superior courts. In a landmark judgement delivered last week, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of protecting the interests of wild animals over those who had illegitimately obtained them. The court quoting Lord Denning in an English case stated with approval that “It is settled in our constitutional law that in matters that concern the public at large the Attorney General is the guardian of the public interest. Although he is a member of the government of the day, it is his duty to represent the public interest with complete objectivity and detachment. He must act independently of any external pressure for whatever quarter it may come.” The need for such independence was highlighted in yet another case last week when former Governor Azath Salley was released by the High Court, after spending 8 months in remand prison and all charges against him by the Attorney General were dismissed as they lacked merit.
Unfortunately, the government appears to be a house divided against itself with some members seeking to promote reformist and human rights-oriented programmes of work while others act in contradiction. We note that the government is engaging in discussions with civil society members to reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and make it less prone to abuse. One of the salutary features proposed by the government is to have magistrates visit the place of detention of anyone arrested under the PTA to ensure their safety and wellbeing. Even though having detention centres away from prisons is not welcome this move would mitigate the impact on the detainees. At the same time, we note that persons in police custody are being killed on shallow justifications, such as trying to escape or shoot the police while in handcuffs, which have earned them the denunciation of human rights groups and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.
The National Peace Council sees the government’s pledge of a new draft constitution before the end of the year as providing an opportunity to reform the system of governance and put an end to the multifarious violations and weaknesses in it. In particular, we call for the reintroduction of the salutary scheme of appointment of higher officials of state on the lines of the now-defunct 17th and 19th constitutional amendments. These established a multi-partisan constitutional council consisting of members of government, opposition and civil society to jointly select the most appropriate persons to high offices of state and to insulate them from politically motivated interference. We believe that the present deterioration in the integrity and quality of decision making at multiple levels and in multiple institutions highlights the need for a strong governance system based on checks and balances. This would also include the practice of vetting draft acts by the Supreme Court.
The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka