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Practice of Torture and Presidential Systems

| by Laksiri Fernando

( December 15, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Recently, some opted to recommend the continuation of the executive presidential system in Sri Lanka, based on the ‘majoritarian’ examples of the Security Council and BRICS member countries. The argument went something like the following.

A presidential system is a tightly knit system, and Authoritarian, internally and/or externally. The external authoritarianism in the case of the US is more prominent. The separation of powers and/or checks and balances are often exercised in the breach. This is particularly the case in ‘blatant presidential systems’ like in Sri Lanka.
Of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, a four (the US, Russia, China, France), except Britain, have executive presidential systems. Of the members of the emerging/pivotal powers represented in the BRICS, all (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) except India have presidential systems.’

Based on simplistic and erroneous characterization of constitutional systems, it was argued that a presidential system is ‘intrinsically superior’ to a parliamentary system of government. That is what I thought as the flaw of the argument initially.

But it appears that the protagonist/s do have an argument about the ‘intrinsic superiority’ of the presidential system, at least in terms of Torture!

Torture Reports

This December 10th was not only the commemoration of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (UDHR), popularly known as the Human Rights Day, but also the 30 years of the ‘Convention against Torture’ (CAT) agreed upon in 1984. The importance of the day was particularly marked by two reports came out on these so-called ‘superior systems’ in the US and Brazil on Torture.

The report on the US came from its own Senate’s Select Committee on CIA’s Detention and Interrogation Program. The Report on Brazil came from the country’s National Truth Commission. It appears that these countries are better than the Sri Lankan presidential system and at least there was some room for their own mechanisms to go through these abhorrent practices and report them to the public. Has this been the case in Sri Lanka? Not exactly.

The reason is that Sri Lanka has one of the worst types of executive presidential systems in the world.

Let’s talk about the reports first. The report on US came after four years of research. According to reviewers, only a fraction of the henious crimes committed are actually reported in this executive summary report. There is more to come. However, the following shocking methods have been used by the CIA as interrogation techniques: (1) frozen to death (2) rectal feeding (3) insect use on body (4) sleep deprivation (5) threat to families (6) prolonged standing and (7) water boarding.

While it is true that the CIA misled and even misinformed the White House about what they were doing, it is at the same time clear from the report the culpability of the White House or its neglect. The report states, “CIA officers and CIA contractors who were found to have violated CIA policies or performed poorly were rarely held accountable or removed from positions of responsibility,”

Most glaring was the defence that came from President, George W. Bush, who held office during the torture program. He calld the CIA officials connected to it “patriots.” Doesn’t it sound familiar? His vice president, Dick Cheney, has since called the report “full of crap,” a “terrible piece of work” and “deeply flawed.”

It is true that Brazil’s torture report relates to the period of military hegemony between 1964 and 1985. But the military rule was a byproduct of the presidential rule prior to that. Presidential rule also continued even under the military hegemony. There was also a continuation of the practice of torture both before and after, under the direct presidential rule, although the present commission has not investigated those periods. In many developing countries, military rule often is the other side of the presidential rule. The ‘doctrine of national security’ has always been the underlying justification for either presidential system or military rule deviating from democracy.

The report documents 191 killings and 210 disappearances. Compared to what actually happened in Sri Lanka in recent times or throughout years one may consider the Brazilian case as a child’s play. The belatedly appointed Missing Persons’ Commission in Sri Lanka is already dealing with over 19,000 cases.

The methods of torture reported in the report in Brazil are not dissimilar to the US. Most damning is the revelation that in fact some of the perpetrators of torture techniques in Brazil were in fact trained by the CIA. The use of insects on victim’s bodies in particular were used in both countries although the time periods were different.

US, Brazil and Sri Lanka

Let me come back to a brief comparison of Sri Lanka with US and Brazil in terms of ‘intrinsic superiority.’ In both US and Brazil, a term of a President is only four years. In Sri Lanka, it has been six years from the beginning. In the US, no person could hold office for more than two terms. In Brazil, no person is allowed to run for the presidency for a consecutive third term. It is like in Russia. In Sri Lanka, after the 18th Amendment, a person could hold office or contest for a third term consecutively or for life. What an absurdity of democracy!

The reason for the short duration (four years) and term limit (two terms) is to prevent the power entrenchment for longer periods. Yet in any presidential system, the propensity to abuse power is enormous even during a shorter period. This is particularly true in a developing and a volatile society like Sri Lanka. It may appear that a powerful president stabilizes this type of a country in the short term. However, in the long term, a presidential rule not only fails to stabilize such a country, but also becomes a source for instability. It becomes a vicious cycle. Brazil is a clear example for this predicament.

Torture Connection
Let us come back to the question of the possible link/s between torture and a presidential system. Presidential systems are by and large authoritarian states. The link between the state and the government is very close whether it is commanded by a While House, a Blue House or a Temple Trees!

A president actually does not need to give direct orders for torture or other human rights violations. They happen under the aura of a President. The perpetrators know that they would be protected under the presidential rule. ‘Patriots,’ as Bush characterized them. Especially when there is a volatile situation in a country, different arms of the security establishment would undertake the ‘punishments,’ what we call human rights violations or torture, for the opponents, competitively. These can happen and have happened under the circumstances of war or even under ‘normal conditions.’ Yet they are human rights violations.

Take the example of what happened five years ago, in 2009, on January the 8th on the streets of a suburb in Colombo. A prominent journalist, Lasantha Wickrematunga was killed in broad daylight. He was supposed to be a friend of the President. But that did not absolve him from becoming a victim. Still the perpetrators are not punished or even found! 

Take another example of what happened to Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra. He was a Senior Advisor to the President. Was he killed by the opposition? No. What happened to the perpetrators? They are protected within the presidential system. This incident not only revealed the ugly nature of the presidential system but also the rotten character of the electoral structure in Sri Lanka.


A presidential system is a tightly knit system, and Authoritarian, internally and/or externally. The external authoritarianism in the case of the US is more prominent. The separation of powers and/or checks and balances are often exercised in the breach. This is particularly the case in ‘blatant presidential systems’ like in Sri Lanka. However, I am of the opinion that the system should be abolished not only in Sri Lanka, but all over the world.

The world would be a better place to live with peace and harmony if the US is not a presidential system and governed by a parliamentary democracy. That system has been the mother of most of the world problems in recent past. This does not, however, mean that parliamentary democracy per se is the final solution. But it would pave the way forward for further democratization of the world.

Those who have recommend the continuation of the presidential system in Sri Lanka have given all bad examples like the US, Russia and China. Russia and China are more prominent for torture and human rights violations. These are the main culprits of world problems today. However, South Africa is not (really) a presidential system whether Sri Lanka takes that example or not.

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