The idea of independent oversight bodies to remedy the ugly party politicization of State institutions was first mooted by the 17th Amendment to the Constitution. It was a partially successful experiment as politicians refused to let go of power and the President at the time, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga even refused to appoint a nominee of the Constitutional Council as the Chairman of the Elections Commission as she disagreed with the nomination.
Under the Rajapaksa presidency the 18th Amendment did away even with those marginal successes. But now, we see important gains for the people as the necessary element of impartiality is brought into decision-making that directly affects the rights of citizens. Three years after a new government and a new president assumed office in Sri Lanka, most of the independent commissions are functioning strongly just as they ought to.
Last week, a global conference on Right to Information concluded with plaudits for the Right to Information Commission of Sri Lanka commending the past one year of impressive achievements. This was despite obstacles including the lack of funds for the Commission and delays posed by government entities not in favour of RTI for obvious reasons.
As editorially noted in our sister paper, the Sunday Times last week, the RTI Commission is ‘doing its work splendidly, delivering on the intentions of the law to the ordinary men and women of this country in search of otherwise elusive official information’. An interesting aspect of its functioning is its people-friendly and informal proceedings, despite lawyers appearing before it. That is important as ordinary people should not be frightened to appear before such bodies that are meant to hold the scales in a way that corrects the imbalance between a powerful State and a powerless individual.
The Commission’s many rulings, against State institutions including the Office of the President, the Sri Lanka Police, the Army, the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission and a host of other government ministries, have been complied with up to now indicating that the Commission has taken pains to be just and fair in its conclusions.
However, the Government must not act in a way that it gives with one hand and takes back with the other. The fact that the Audit Bill now before Parliament proposes to make some officials immune to RTI requests was not generally known till recently. This is not a positive development. Earlier, the Office of Missing Persons Act also had a similar clause. The Government must rethink these clauses and refrain from bringing in laws that chip away at the RTI concept.
Meanwhile, the older Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission has been vocally proactive in addressing issues of human rights violations. It has called upon the Government to be mindful of human rights obligations when drafting laws, it has courageously made its position felt in respect of matters as controversial as the death penalty and is now engaging in an inquiry in respect of recent violent incidents against Muslim citizens in the Kandy District. The Bribery and Corruption Commission is spearheading comprehensive law reforms and has conducted successful sting operations against high State officials including the President’s Chief of Staff and a former Head of the State Timber Corporation, rejuvenating a law which had earlier been used only against sprats. The Elections Commission has also performed creditably in recent elections.
However, while these gains are acknowledged, the National Unity Government must act swiftly and in one collective voice to address ‘bread and butter’ issues and provide relief measures to those struggling for survival. It must communicate better with the electorate. Consistency in policy is also important. Confusion continues to be seen in regard to implementation of the recent tax reforms. This must be avoided.
Otherwise, the achievements that we see, can all be swept away in a bitter tsunami of anger at the next elections. That would be indeed a pity.
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