On the eve of the long-awaited and crucial visit of the United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Navaneethan Pillay, President Mahinda Rajapaksa acted fast to set up a new Ministry of Law and Order.
The gazette notification issued on August 16 said the Police Department would function under the new ministry while the Minister would be the President himself. However the Secretary to the Ministry would be a former top military officer, retired Major General Nanda Mallawarachchi.
Earlier the Police Department had been under the Defence Ministry and though the President is also the Defence Minister, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development is Gotabaya Rajapaksa.
The proposal to bring the police under civilian instead of military control was one of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission and the move comes amidst an unprecedented crime wave of killings, rapes and robberies, abductions and widespread allegations that the Police Service - intended to be a friend and refuge of the people—has virtually degenerated into a party political force.
Civic action groups and most independent political analysts said that to a large degree the police service had lost its independence and was unable or unwilling to act impartially or independently. They alleged that ruling party politicians from top to bottom were manipulating the police service and all sorts of criminals or underworld gangs could act without fear if they found the favour of ruling party politicians.
Thus the question that most civic action groups and independent political observers are asking is whether the change of ministry will bring about an effective change to make the police a service which acts independently and impartially to maintain law and order.
They believe the more effective solution would be the restoration of the 17th Amendment and the appointment of an independent Police Commission which will be appointed by the President on the recommendation of an all-party Constitutional Council.
Besides ensuring that the police maintain law and order impartially, the independent Commission could act effectively to curb corruption in the Police Department. At present the Police Department is known to be the most corrupt state institution. Most people complain that little or nothing could be done in a police station without giving bribes.
Thus most self-respecting people do not go to a police station when something happens and find some other means of sorting out the issue, while others are often left with no option but to resort to street justice where the solution is often worse than the problem.
With the independence of the judiciary also being seriously affected or distorted, the rule of law also has broken down to a large extent. Thus the President needs to rise to the level of a statesman and take an important step towards restoring democracy and good governance by reviving a police service that is able to act independently and impartially while not being polluted by bribery or corruption.