COMMISSIONS are established to promote law and order, but two key institutions in Sri Lanka, namely the Bribery Commission and the Human Rights Commission (HRC), have long needed strong powers to fulfil the public’s expectation of them. Presently the latter has taken the step to ask the President for increased powers in what could be a landmark development for the country.
According to reports, HRC Chairman Priyantha Perera has said a request has been forwarded to the President to amend the laws that govern the Commission to vest it with more powers. He has explained that laws should be amended to enable the Commission to bring in high-ranking police officers who violate the law since the current laws do not permit it.
The Chairman has noted that the implementation of 95 per cent of the HRC’s recommendations was up to the police and therefore it was important to ensure that the police officers follow the Commission’s advice.
According to Perera, the President and the Inspector General of Police have both responded positively to amend the HRC laws. Recommendations to amend the Commission’s laws have been sent to the Legal Draftsman’s Department.
Hopefully this will result in more grievances being addressed competently and quickly. The HRC has over the years received numerous complaints, not only from the north and east, but also on national issues such as abuse of migrant workers and recently the much-publicised z-score fiasco. As such it has a massive responsibility in investigating and ensuring that justice is provided for the thousands of people who seek its assistance.
Likewise for the Bribery and Corruption Commission, there have been strong calls for an increase in power as well as resources so that they can go after the “big fish” while providing protection for the complainants. As an incident reported in Monday’s papers attests, the sons and close contacts of high-powered politicians enjoy almost complete immunity within the current system. Even when their victims are public officials who have lodged complaints with the Police, no arrests have taken place.
With witnesses and complainants unable to protect themselves, there is a huge role for these two commissions to play to bring about transparency and good governance. They also have the capacity to protect people, ensure better management of public resources and above all else, dispense justice for vulnerable groups of society.
These commissions together with the Commission on Public Enterprises (COPE) were created with lofty goals in mind. Akin to many other commissions that were established afterwards, they have not lived up to their full potential. As maintaining law and order becomes a stronger challenge, there is a grave need to empower these commissions so that they can genuinely become stakeholders in providing justice to the people.
During times of stress, people turn to the HRC, which has documented many disappearances and other crimes during and after the war. Yet it is questionable whether it has the capacity to investigate and bring to book State officials who are guilty of wrongdoing. Institutions that were set up as a counterbalance to State power have also over the years become politicised.
To regain lost respect and relevance, real empowerment of such institutions is essential.