An Eminent Jurist Looks at Sri Lanka’s Current Problem

 An essential characteristic of governance would be that equality of opportunity is recognized as a fundamental human right, where social and cultural rights of every component section of the community are protected and fostered. Incitement of violence and hatred and violators of peace and acts of violence should be rigorously punished.

by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne in Montreal

The body politic and almost all national institutions are today more than ever before wracked by corruption. This takes many forms ranging from blatant bribery to nepotism.~ C.G. Weeramantry, A Call for National Reawakening (2005)

Although written in 2005, the message conveyed in this book and its contents ring true at the present time in Sri Lanka arguably at an even worse level if one is to go by the current island wide protests and unprecedented unrest in the country. The Prime Minister of Sri Lanka has announced that there is petrol in the country for just one more day, not to mention that there is no electricity, no gas, and in fact nothing basic to sustain the lives of the people. 

Justice Weeramantry went on to say in his book that “Sri Lanka continues to pile up a massive amount of foreign debt.  Statistics of the extent of this indebtedness are not released in a manner which will enable the public to know its full extent.  More and more attractive schemes are announced from time to time without the public being informed of what is involved.  What has happened in effect is that the wealth and resources of the country have been mortgaged for generations to come”.

A disturbing side trend identified by the late Justice in 2005 gives a glimpse of how the country was progressively misused by a certain class of people until it finally blew up: “Unfortunately a tendency has grown up in recent times to flaunt one’s wealth and possessions.  There is a love of display of status symbols.  Mercedes-Benz cars, palatial buildings, opulent parties, foreign artifacts – all these are displayed in a manner that invites envy and class hatred, for in Sri Lanka we live in a growing disparity between the rich and the poor.

Children of wealthy families think nothing of spending up to a hundred thousand rupees in a hotel for one night’s entertainment of their friends and their parents are knowing and willing parties to this for it gives them as well a sense of glamour”. 

Shifting to the older generation in control, the learned judge alludes to multibillion dollar deals conducted in public administration without the necessary transparency;; ministerial interference with the administration of justice; blatantly political appointments to high positions and even assassination of public figures.  There is no accountability let alone a register maintained on these practices which are “swept under the carpet”.

Referring to extravagant election promises not kept, Justice Weeramantry notes that the candidate usually makes promises of prosperity for all at elections at times of crisis instilling fear into the minds of the populace that they are in dire straits, and, disturbingly, these promises are made without there being any means of monitoring or enforcing them: “Once you are in Parliament you have a job, a position and a series of valuable perks.  All members of Parliament have a vested interest in the system”.

The compelling value of the book is in the suggestions of the author: “The whole system needs rethinking and revision.  Moreover, whoever stands as a candidate for such an august office as membership of parliament should have some achievement already notched up in his or her own right.  There must be a track record.  One must not be able to offer oneself as a candidate on an empty slate of achievement…it is useful to ask how many members of parliament qualify in this regard”.  In 1983, Justice Weeramantry, in his work A Plea for National Unity and an Undivided Sri Lanka asked for education planning and a trilingual system that would effectively preclude contentious elements from sowing pernicious discord among the communities of Sri Lanka.  In another document (A New Human Rights Dispensation for Sri Lanka - One of the Paths to the Solution of the Communal Conflict, 1984) he adumbrated principles for the legal system of the country saying  that the government should be required to affirm and resolutely enforce in the administration of the country for every citizen of Sri Lanka the principle of equality before the law.  Additionally, he advocated that the government should condemn and visit with the appropriate inquiries, procedures, and punishments every violation of the principle of equality. 

An essential characteristic of governance would be that equality of opportunity is recognized as a fundamental human right, where social and cultural rights of every component section of the community are protected and fostered. Incitement of violence and hatred and violators of peace and acts of violence should be rigorously punished.

Here’s my take.

There should be true application of the Rule of Law.  Laws should be intelligible.  They should not be couched in a plethora of pages in convoluted language and expanded to hundreds of regulations.  Nor should they be orally delivered  through speeches and pronouncements.  Any written amendment to a law should be brought to the attention of the people.  A society should be governed by law and not by discretion granted to or assumed by public officials.  Additionally, they should be equally applied.  To expand further, laws should not favour a particular category of individual. 

Arguably, one of most important principles of the Rule of Law is that powers should be exercised by those on whom specific powers are authorized by statute or law and not by any other claiming some kinship or liaison with those in power.  Dispute resolution should be by the tribunals, or courts appointed for that purpose and not by those who assume power that has not been granted. 

Human rights form an essential component of the Rule of Law and the basic principles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights of The United Nations must be adhered to.  Finally, the State should perform its obligations under international law, particularly in the context of the treaties that the State has ratified, and not subjugate  the principles of a ratified treaty below any conflicting domestic laws of that State. Lord Bingham, one of the most authentic scholars on the Rule of Law, says in his book published in 2010 that the fundamental postulate  of the Rule of Law is that “all persons and authorities within the state, whether public or private, should be bound by and entitled to the benefit of laws publicly and prospectively promulgated and publicly administered in the courts”. This brings to bear not only the fundamental principle of liberal  democracy i.e. transparency of law, but also the compelling need for laws to be clear, accessible and above every individual of society whatever their station in life is, whether gained by election or appointment.

There should neither be oral decrees, nor feckless insouciance toward the welfare of the public.

Dr. C.G. Weeramantry was a Justice of the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka from 1967 to 1972, whereafter he was Sir Hayden Starke Professor of Law at Monash University.  Professor Weeramantry went from Monash to become a Judge of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) from 1991 to 2000 and served as its Vice-President from 1997 to 2000. See