Early this month, Sri Lanka along with three other nations, had the dubious honour of dominating the agenda of the first ever Global Asset Recovery Forum held in Washington.
All four countries featured in the Washington forum are going through some form of regime transition: Sri Lanka, Ukraine and Tunisia recently got rid of elected or otherwise autocrats and the Nigerians denied a second term for incompetent Goodluck Jonathan. Initiatives by the new governments, since then, to trace stolen public money stashed abroad during previous administrations have little success, perhaps except for Nigeria, which got hold of a fraction of former kleptocratic dictator Sani Abacha’s loot through an agreement with Switzerland.
It may also not be reassuring that in some countries, old thieves, usually anti-American ones, have only been replaced by the new pro-American ones. (Former Georgian President and fugitive of his native country Mikheil Saakashvili who was earlier appointed the governor of Odessa by the President of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko was later sacked and stripped of his Ukrainian citizenship after he allegedly began investigating people close to Poroshenko.)
In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, corruption is much less a problem due to people and culture, than due to lack of institutions. People after all cannot be trusted in the absence of institutional mechanisms and laws that hold them accountable.
In the wake of disturbing revelations of the Central Bank bond scam, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could well have learnt the hard way. Successive governments in Sri Lanka have paid scant regard to build that institutional framework, instead, they opted to play a political game. This government has not done better. So much for the promise of passing a National Audit Bill within the first 100 days of the government, the bill had been delayed and amended over 25 times in the Cabinet.
The rare consensus in the government and opposition is that the bill confers too much powers to the Auditor General. On the other hand, arcane laws in the country embolden crooks. It does not inspire confidence in the legal process, when those
found guilty are let go with a pat on the back. Early this month, Sajin Vas Gunawardene, former monitoring MP of the Defence Ministry who pleaded guilty for the non-declaration of assets and liabilities while he was serving as a Parliamentarian, was ordered to pay a fine of just Rs. 1000.
He is the third politician who was convicted under the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law, and let go after paying a nominal fine. These laws need to be revamped to reflect the gravity of the offence, failing that they remain a mockery on the rule of law.
Sri Lanka’s asset recovery effort itself is hamstrung by an ill-fitting domestic legal framework. According to the current Sri Lankan law, the government needs to secure a criminal conviction in order to start the asset recovery process. This is a catch 22 situation, and a really tight one, that the investigators would find hard to overcome.
The failure of the government’s investigation into a Dubai bank account allegedly belonging to a son of a VVIP was a case in point. The Dubai court refused to freeze the bank account which allegedly had 500 million dollars, on the ground that the young politician was not convicted in Sri Lanka or had a case filed against him in any court of Sri Lanka. A government that genuinely seeks to recover the stolen public funds, should first reform the local law to remove those handicaps.
" In Sri Lanka and elsewhere, corruption is much less a problem due to people and culture, than due to lack of institutions. People after all cannot be trusted in the absence of institutional mechanisms and laws that hold them accountable. In the wake of disturbing revelations of the Central Bank bond scam, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe could well have learnt the hard way"
The progress of domestic investigations are equally disappointing. The failure is blamed on the delay in the legal process and heavy workload at the Attorney General’s Department. There are proposals to expedite the process, such as Trial at Bars at High Courts and appointment of a special prosecution authority under the Attorney General, enabling anyone to appeal to the Supreme Court directly against the rulings by the High Court. However a sense of urgency to implement those measures is lacking; the tendency still is to fight corruption with words, rather than deeds.
The anti-corruption exercise so far is more about manufacturing political slogans than securing convictions. If the government is to conduct any meaningful anti-corruption hunt, it should also draw a line between the party-politics and the national interest. The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABAC) and Financial Crime Investigation Division (FCID) should conduct monthly media briefings to update the public on the progress on their investigations. When politicians make statements on behalf of the CIABAC, that does not reflect well on the Commission.
On the eve of the Global Asset Recovery forum in Washington, the United States offered the expertise of a Resident Legal Advisor in Colombo to provide anti-corruption and asset recovery training to the Bribery Commission. Auditor General Gamini Wijesinghe has described Sri Lanka’s current predicament as a ‘slur on every honest Sri Lankan’. He is genuinely aghast at the delay in the National Audit Bill and government MPs who slander the Auditor General’s reports.
However, the failure of successive governments has brought the country to where it is now. It is advisable to swallow up the pride and get whatever assistance in order to put the house in order. But, whether the government’s acceptance of a resident advisor was a sign of its commitment to fight corruption, or a sycophant gesture to be seen with America, is a still a moot point.