Accountability has generally been an elusive element in Sri Lanka’s governance. When injustice or an illegal activity is believed to have taken on a large scale there is a general public consensus that it needs to be addressed. In this context appointing a Presidential Commissions of Inquiry (PCoI) has become a tool that has been deployed multiple times over the last few years. But they have had mixed results.
Perhaps the best known PCoI was the one appointed by former President Maithripala Sirisena to investigate allegations of irregularities in bond transactions. The Commission was also historic as it allowed the media to report on the proceedings and thereby ensured that questionable actions of several well-known people were brought to the limelight and eventually led to the resignation of a Cabinet Minister.
The legal action that materialised from the PCoI is still ongoing and it has remained stubbornly in the public eye partly because of the transparency that was introduced from an early stage. Other similar commissions including in SriLankan Airlines and a later one appointed to investigate corruption from 2015-2018 have not had has much success in pushing for accountability because they have remained undisclosed to the public. Last week President Gotabaya Rajapaksa appointed two Commissions of Inquiry (COI), one to inquire into alleged wrongdoing, irregularities and malpractice in connection with ETI Finance Ltd. (ETI) and the role of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) in this respect and a second COI to inquire into alleged instances of political victimisation against public officials by the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), Financial Investigations Divisions (FCID) or the Special Investigations Unit (SIU) of the Police.
If the PCoI are to benefit public interest it is then necessary to ensure transparency. PCoIs are generally long drawn out affairs and prosecutions can be difficult given the complexity of the law enforcement process. Justice is a long road anywhere in the world and it is important that the public are aware of why a commission exists and the work being done by it.
Accountability is also integral to strengthening institutions. Investigations into existing law enforcement bodies could throw up details of politicisation and bias but this should not be used to undermine and destroy the principle of why those entities were established in the first place.
Institutions are peopled by humans and humans err but it does not necessarily mean that automatically makes the institution useless. One bad decision or even several does not negate the work done in an entire sphere and in discrediting the work does not mean the entire judiciary and law enforcement framework should be dismissed offhand. Building such a narrative could have a multitude of dangers.
One arm of Government should not be allowed to step into the functions of another. Institutions such as CIABOC are needed to provide transparency and accountability. In some instances when the institutions were being set up they were done so with constraints that make them vulnerable to political interference. But even with flaws they are nonetheless valuable.
It is hoped the relevant PCoIs keep this point in mind and make an effort to protect and strengthen the institutions they are investigating rather than opening the door to unmitigated political expediency. Ultimately the PCoI and the institutions serve the public. That should be the end goal.