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qrcode.30826356In my book on Political Principles and their Practice in Sri Lanka, which Cambridge University Press in Delhi published a decade or so back, I wrote that ‘Undoubtedly, the most important function of a government is to ensure the security of its people.’ People needed to ensure their safety from external threats, and they also needed security from others within the community. For the latter they needed laws to govern relations internally, with mechanisms to defend against attacks from outside – though initially these were not subject to law.

Among the most essential functions of government then are security (external and internal) and justice. So in many countries amongst the most important members of the cabinet are the minister of defence and the minister of justice. The former looks after the armed forces and sometimes the police as well, although in some countries there is a separate Ministry for this purpose.

The Ministry of Justice regulates the courts and ensures that those who break the law are brought before the law. In certain exceptional cases, as in the United States, where the doctrine of Separation of Powers is implemented thoroughly, the courts are independent of the cabinet and come under a chief justice. However, there too, there is an attorney general in the cabinet who has to ensure that the laws are implemented and those suspected of criminal acts prosecuted in the courts.

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qrcode.29948785Although cases have to be brought to court when the law is breached, ideally a society should maintain law and order without having recourse to the courts. Crucial in this respect are the forces of internal security. Chief among these are the police, whose primary duty is vigilance to ensure that criminal activities are prevented or limited. With increasing criminal activity, the police find it difficult to fulfill this function, and are instead involved more in crime detection. In such cases, it also falls to the police to prepare evidence and present it in the courts, under the guidance of government lawyers wherever necessary.

Meanwhile, some of the functions carried out by the police at a stage when society was less complex have now been handed over to private security organisations. These hardly existed half a century ago, but now many government officers, private firms and even private houses, have security guards on a scale which was not thought of as necessary some decades ago. We can see then that internal security, which was considered primarily a function of government, is now perceived as a joint responsibility.

It should be noted that the preventive role of the police has increased in other respects. For instance, some years ago traffic control was not a major responsibility of the police. Now, with increased movement of people and greater use of vehicles, ensuring adherence to traffic regulations, and interpreting them in difficult situations, has become a primary responsibility of the police. Though this may seem a far cry from the security-related functions of the police, maintaining order in this area is vital for the smooth functioning of society.

There are many other government agencies that also contribute to security. Customs and excise officials have always been an integral component of financial and legal security, and their role has expanded with the expansion of criminal activity in areas such as narcotics and terrorism. But there are also agents of other ministries and government departments, such as the Consumer Protection Authority or the Public Health Department, who have a vital role to play in maintaining security. With the development of society and the need for security in new areas, the work of organisations such as environmental protection agencies will increase in importance. It will be necessary for governments to strengthen their preventive role.

Finally, all over the world in the last few decades, greater attention is being paid to what is known as Community Policing. This is connected with the idea I began with in this section, that the police, as the guarantors of law and order in a community, should also play a part in forstalling problems. This can be done through greater involvement in society. Working together with leading members of the community, and also the vulnerable, will help to establish a set of norms, which will not be easy for individuals to violate.

Judicial Independence

Of the institutions and individuals noted above, some clearly belong to the government in the narrow sense of the term, that is, the executive. For instance, in addition to the police, the attorney general, the legal draughtsman and their departments fulfill executive functions, and therefore, they usually come under the authority of the executive head of government or his or her representative. Read the rest of this entry »

Amongst the agencies that I have worked with over the last year to encourage movement on the National Human Rights Action Plan, the most important from outside the government sector has been the Institute of Human Rights. They have been the most regular in attendance of the groups that come together in the informal consultative mechanism I set up together with the Consortium of Humanitarian Agencies, even before I was appointed to convene the Task Force of the Inter-Ministerial Committee responsible for implementation of the Plan. Ironically, given the absence of a Ministry with direct responsibility for Human Rights, sometimes I feel the informal committee we have does more work.

The Institute of Human Rights has done yeoman service in ensuring attention to those victims of human rights violations who fall through the net. The unfortunate obsession with War Crimes spun out by those determined to attack the Sri Lankan State sometimes takes away from the real issues we face. These relate not so much to the victims, direct and indirect of terrorism, which we have now overcome (unless the motives of the less innocent of the War Crimes brigade triumph), but to the naturally vulnerable, who are not of concern to the vast majority of their fellow human beings.

The most appalling example of these are the Women and Children swallowed up through the punitive system we inherited from the British for those considered socially inferior. The British have long moved on from the Victorian systems of incarceration Dickens so graphically condemned, but we still have a Vagrants Ordinance, and government claims that it will be amended have fallen prey to the lethargy of officials with regard to anything they are not compelled or personally motivated to pursue actively. Worse, they seem unashamed of the callousness with which it is implemented.

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As this series draws to a close, bringing with it perhaps intimations of mortality, I thought of engaging in reflections relating to the death anniversaries of some people I admired tremendously. Closely connected to a range of human rights issues was the murder of Richard de Zoysa, 13 years ago this week, undoubtedly by government para-military forces.

At the time of his death government papers engaged in a campaign of disinformation and vilification, but the case resonated, and I believe it contributed to the disbanding of the forces that had been used to quell the JVP insurrection. Memories of those events have returned, with the discovery of a mass grave in Matale, but I am not sure that it would make sense to revive inquiries into the subject now.

That was a brutal period, with the initial provocation coming from a government that had completely subverted the democratic process. However the violence the JVP engaged in was disproportionate to the provocation, and lasted beyond the removal of the principal cause of despair. When elections were finally held, at the end of 1988, the JVP should have re-entered the democratic process, but the excesses that followed, directed also against the opposition party that had suffered so much from UNP violence, led to even greater violence on the part of the State.

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Though the National Human Rights Action Plan is now available in all three languages on the web (at http://hractionplan.gov.lk/), we still have a long way to go in getting information across about progress. The reports that have been received have not been uploaded, which is essential if ownership of the plan is to be extended to the public – which is essential for a National Plan.

This is not the fault of the officials in charge. Though I have drawn comparisons with the LLRC Action Plan, the monitoring report of which is available on www.priu.gov.lk, that Task Force has all the resources of the Presidential Secretariat at its disposal. With a capable Additional Secretary in charge of collating reports, and bright youngsters familiar with web technology at his service, he has now been able to provide clear information of what the many Ministries involved have achieved. Some of the Ministries which had failed to report when I checked previously have now sent in their accounts, and the Plan currently seems well serviced.

Far different is the situation at the Ministry of Plantation Industries, which is supposed to coordinate work on the Human Rights Action Plan. The Minister is supposed to chair the Inter-Ministerial Committee that is tasked with implementing the Plan, and he has set up a Task Force to expedite this, but neither body has power or even influence to ensure that things move quickly. Though the government agencies involved have all been extremely positive at the meetings that have been held, we still do not have effective means of coordination, and the classic government approach to action means that there is no sense of urgency.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

May 2018
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