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Are we adherents of the Rule of Law?

| by Pulsara Liyanage

( June 15, 2014, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The discourse on the lack of the rule of law in Sri Lanka is deafening. Yet, are we, Sri Lankan citizen, upholders of the rule of law?

The concept of the rule of law is as old as democracy itself. Its centrality in democracy was seen in the history of ancient Athens and the concept was formulated not much later by Aristotle himself. It’s second coming, as it were, was in the Middle Ages in Europe. In the mid 1970’s the Marxist historian E.P. Thomson observed that the rule of law was an unqualified, universal good. (The Origin of the Black Act, 1975, N.Y.) Almost a quarter century later the historian Paul Johnson observed that the great undertaking of the last millennium was the establishment of the rule of law within nation states. He further identified the building of the rule of law on the international level as to be the project of the new millennium. ("Laying Down the Law" by Paul Johnson, Wall Street Journal, 10th March, 1999). Brian Z. Tamanaha in the Introduction to his On the Rule of Law, published in 2004 writes that,

In the early 1990s, the western funded World Bank and International Monetary Fund began conditioning the provision of financial assistance on the implementation of the rule of law in recipient countries. This imposition was justified on economic grounds as a means to provide a secure environment for investments, property, contracts, and market transactions.

Today the rule of law has been endorsed by so many states and governments that it is even said that no other single political ideal has ever achieved global endorsement. (Tamanaha, 2004.3)

If in the 1990s the rule of law had many interpretations, today, the principles of the system have been made clearer by the World Justice Project which was established in 2009 as an independent non-profit organization. Several of its strategic partners also have their chapters or their representatives in Sri Lanka, such as the International Chamber of Commerce, International Trade Union Federation and the International Bar Association.

The World Justice Project (WJP) views the absence of corruption as a hallmark of a society governed by the rule of law. Their definition of corruption is the use of public power for private gain. Equally interesting is that it views public enforcement of government regulations as a method to induce proper conduct to ensure rule of law. Furthermore, while identifying the importance of civil justice as yet another indicator of the rule of law, the WJP goes on to describe this as ordinary people being able to resolve their grievances and obtain remedies in conformity with the laws through formal institutions of justice. Thus the rule of law evolves in the 21st century not only to be global but also to emphasise the involvement of ordinary people (civil society?) for they too have a role to play in the implementation of the rule of law. This is the relevance of my opening question.

How many of us, when given a traffic ticket for speeding, for being on the phone while driving, cutting double lines, etc, calls a friend of a higher rank in the constabulary to get off the charge? Not only have we already broken the law (hence the ticket) but we go further to induce a public official to go against the law for our personal benefit. That is also a breaking of the rule of law.

Let’s face it; it is not only the politicians who enjoy undeclared wealth or dodge paying taxes by various means. All of those actions too are violations of the rule of law.

On the other hand we, in our capacity as public officials, enlightened and upright citizen, must take strength from the new practices of the rule of law to enforce the law and withstand pressures from politicians, friends, relatives or neighbours. We had an admirable example of this most recently in one of our key public officials: the present Commissioner of Elections. He probably stood against many pressures to uphold the rule of law in the holding of elections. He stood firm on the strength of the laws of this country and he got all politicians to comply. I am glad there was only a single politician who thought Mr. Mahinda Deshapriya deserved to be called names for his conduct. I hope we will not have such individuals winning at elections as political leaders in the future.

The might of the rule of law was demonstrated to the public (long before the WJP) by one frail old lady in a most repressive period in our recent history. The year was 1982. The country was governed under emergency rule. The president at the time held a referendum to lengthen the period of his governance without holding elections. It was a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ vote. The symbol for affirmation was the lamp and that which opposed the proposition was a pot. Violating the election laws, there were lamp symbols tied to and pasted all over the streets. The late Dr. Florence Ram Aluvihare who lived on her own along Park Road, Colombo 5 at the time, removed such a symbol which was tied to a lamp post close to her home with the aid of a hair pin. No, she did not do it surreptitiously under cover of darkness: she did it and wrote about it to the press! Her simple letter telling just that and urging others to do the same was published. (I think it was The Island) Her appeal to all right-thinking people was to stand for justice. I am certain she did inspire a few.

Upholding the rule of law and not allowing anyone to violate it is the responsibility of all of us!

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