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Stopping systemic failures

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Governments are complicated things, with State machinery and the public service usually bogged down by red tape, corruption, and mismanagement. Over decades, this can calcify into large-scale inefficiency with serious consequences, as was seen in the Easter Sunday attacks. Now that Sri Lanka is probing its conscience as to how this terrible attack took place, even when prior information was known, there is a genuine need to see this process through to the end, and ensure that changes are made to institutions so they share information competently, and top officials are held accountable for their lapses.      

The Inspector General of Police (IGP) Pujith Jayasundera and former Defence Ministry Secretary Hemasiri Fernando, who appeared before the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) looking into the attacks on Thursday, were of the opinion the Easter Sunday bombing could not be averted due to systemic failures within the security establishment, caused by lack of communication and coordination between different agencies tasked with national security, as well as a lackadaisical attitude towards security by the political leadership.

The officials painted a picture of national security being heavily compromised, with the IGP kept out of National Security Council (NSC) meetings for nearly six months, and Council meetings held erratically at the whim and fancy of the President. The IGP, in his evidence, said he had been excluded from the NSC meetings since October last year, over a trust issue that had come up over the transfer of a Police inspector. Previous testimony by the head of State Intelligence Service Sisira Mendis had shown that there had been warnings of the attacks, even naming Zaharan Hashim and his associates. The lack of action is damning, and the politicisation of the system incredibly disappointing. But one thing is clear: the only way forward is to drag all the details into the daylight, so the public can know what really happened and pressure can be applied to remedy the situation. 

In the US, after the infamous 9/11 attacks, the government carried out an evaluation on how there institutions failed. Even in that instance, it was found that there was some intelligence available before the attacks, but that the institutions, key officials and politicians had failed to act on the information they had. One of the key recommendations that came from the evaluation was that the different government and State departments and institutions had to find more efficient ways to share information and coordinate with different wings of the administration. It is clear a better framework has to be formulated with the knowledge of the masses, so that such lapses do not happen in the future.  

In Sri Lanka, there are too many political appointments at the top level. The PSC process is vital, not just for the public to find out what happened, but also to formulate new regulations, including possibly legal boundaries that will ensure that key positions such as the Defence Ministry Secretary post are not dished out on Presidential whims, but given to a professional who comes from a defence background, and has a deep understanding of Sri Lanka’s defence structure. International experience on this front would also be a plus, given that Sri Lanka is now combating global terror. The same should be done for other top security positions, and they should be thoroughly vetted for integrity and competence. 

Transparency is most effective when it is linked to reform, and the end goal of the PSC should be reform of these State structures, as well as accountability beyond the reach of voters.

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