Judiciary – ‘a sleeping giant’?
I stumbled upon an article published by Verite Research. It stated that the number of days it takes to enforce a contract through the court system in Sri Lanka was 1,318. That is in excess of three and a half years. The information was drawn from a World Bank study on the ease of doing business, with enforcing contracts being one of the metrics. A contract is one of the basic means of legal recourse. The article also showed that in Vietnam and Malaysia, time taken to enforce a contract was around 400 days. In Singapore it was 150 days.
You might safely assume that successive administrations since 2013 would have moved mountains to improve this most basic indicator. Especially considering that Sri Lanka was touting itself as a frontier economy in the region, in 2013, enforcing a contract ought to have been made much easier and quicker in the interim six -seven years.
Well, in 2013 it was 1,318 days and today, in 2020, the latest report from the World Bank shows that the number of days taken to enforce a contract is still 1,318 days! I dare say this may have something to do with inadequate reporting or a lack of data. I urge anyone to use the tools at hand to research this further.
Whatever these indices say about Sri Lanka, the lived experiences of many Sri Lankans are as good a measure as any. All Sri Lankans today, in 2020, know very well to avoid the legal system at any and all costs; as the expense, the time taken and the virtual harassment that the inefficiencies of the court system inflicts on ordinary citizens, are simply not worth the trouble. Even an employee that wants to seek redress for being unfairly treated by his or her employer will have to wait many years to obtain compensation, despite stringent labour laws. This shows that having strict laws in place is futile unless they can be implemented in a speedy manner.
During my career, I recall many instances where actions of competent officers were undermined by their organizations. I am aware of a specific instance at a foreign bank where there was a case of deferment of revenue by a senior officer, without formally advising the customer. This exposed a systemic failure of the bank’s internal systems, yet officers higher up the ladder were scapegoated. This allowed the bank to not only cover-up the deficiencies of their systems but to also conceal the incompetence of its expatriate CEO.
The expatriate CEO in question was conveniently transferred out of Sri Lanka, while the local officers are still in court, five years later. The expatriate CEO was allowed to take early retirement with full benefits, while the local officers even had their contributions to their own gratuity payments frozen by this foreign bank. The loss of earnings besides the effects on their reputations and the stress of the process is one thing. Yet to have an international organization use all of its financial and legal might to delay, block and mislead legal proceedings is shocking. What is downright disgusting is that the system is built for this type of delaying tactic, where justice comes after many years of court dates and many millions in legal fees.
Whether you are involved in a car accident or you have had a personal item stolen or you have been verbally abused, the most common course of action taken by you would be to shrug your shoulders and move on. Going to the police and resorting to legal action would basically be the utmost last resort, no matter what crime has been committed.
For reference, in the late 1980s, I met with a car accident while working in the Middle East; another motorist carelessly scratched my vehicle. There was a police officer nearby, who immediately intervened and took down my details. Within one week, I received a cheque from my insurance company to pay for the repairs. No going to the police station to record a statement, no prolonged wait for an insurance agent.
In Sri Lanka, if you are a business owner and you need legal recourse, you face a multi-year wait. Can we call this a fair judicial SYSTEM? Can something that is so clearly stunted, so obviously unfit for purpose, be described as a system? It you do so you must affix the word BROKEN, before the word, ‘system’. Is it broken beyond repair? Within this broken system, can there be justice? Without justice, can we be a truly democratic society?
There also seems to be a process of never-ending interviews and investigations. Witnesses and others related to an investigation are interviewed by the police for six or eight hours sometimes. I shudder at the thought of pages upon pages of unnecessary notes and records taken at these interviews. Another example of a lack of efficiency or intentional time wasting. The time taken to collect evidence after an offence has been committed simply allows those accused more time to escape punishment.
Sri Lanka has had a Ministry of Justice since 1947. Ministers of Justice throughout the years have included luminaries of public service such as Felix Dias Bandaranaike, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, Nissanka Wijeyeratne in the past. More recently, W. J. M. Lokubandara, Rauf Hakeem and Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe have held this cabinet position. Yet, we see a shocking lack of attention paid to this issue which affects all Sri Lankans, of all walks of life.
By the Justice Ministry’s own latest available statistics, as at end 2016, about 725,000 cases were pending in courts, with the largest number, 535,000 cases, pending in Magistrates’ Courts. Consider what this number actually represents; in human terms. How many people must feel helpless at the lack of action? A wait that could last several years would be bad enough for the owner of an enterprise or an entrepreneur or even a simple shopkeeper.
Yet consider those waiting for justice for serious crimes; murder, rape, theft or even harassment. How desperate must someone feel to have been robbed, or had a loved one assaulted, but then wait years upon years for redress, with no guarantee and no definite time-line. How many people will watch the best years of their lives wither away in courtrooms around the country? The almost machine like process of taking a day off your job to attend a court date, only to be given another court date three-six months later, is simply dehumanizing. Let us call it what it is; an inhumane system, completely unfit for purpose.
If there are over 700,000 cases pending in our system, do we even dare consider how many cases never make it into the system at all? Such an estimate, if attempted would certainly be multiple times more and would perhaps be the most depressing statistic of all. Usually, what is most insidious is what the numbers do not show as well as the situations for which there are no numbers.
Sri Lankans seem to have internalized this notion of helplessness, perhaps this is ingrained in our psyche by design. We simply do not want to risk our precious time, energy, money, well-being and job security to take a case to the courts. The countless, faceless millions of Sri Lankans over the years that have had to simply grin and bear whatever misfortune befalls them, deserve better.
Worse still, this system allows those with even a modicum of power, to abuse it, as they know they will not be tried in a court of law, anytime within the next five years. The room this leaves for corrupt practices in every sphere of life is a blot on our society. The vacuum of law and order that this creates will necessitate desperate measures by Sri Lankans. We read many stories of Sri Lankans taking matters into their own hands, most times out of sheer desperation.
To gauge how bad the situation is, you need only revisit the infamous “Yahapalanaya” government, and its efforts (genuine or not) to litigate cases involving political corruption and abuse of power. President Maithripala Sirisena at the time decided to form special courts to hear such cases. This too seems to have been an abject failure, similar to the five year stint of that administration.
The people should also note that if certain cases need to be expedited, for political reasons, it can sometimes happen. Political expediency is the number one priority, not the needs of the common man. Yet another indication that the political class and elites of the country play by a different set of rules.
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Take Human Rights seriously, not so much the council or office
By Dr Laksiri Fernando
The 46th Session of the UN Human Rights Council started on 22 February morning with obvious hiccups. The Office, to mean the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, finally decided to hold all sessions virtually online, only the President of the Council and the assistants in the high table sitting at the UN Assembly Hall in Geneva. The President, Ms. Nazhat Shammen Khan, Ambassador from Fiji in Geneva, wearing a saree, was graceful in the chair with empty seats surrounding.
In the opening session, the UN General Assembly President, UN General Secretary, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and Head of Foreign Affairs, Switzerland (as the host country), addressed remotely the session. In fact, there was no need for Switzerland to have a special place, as the UN is independent from any host country. Switzerland is fairly ok, however, if this tradition is followed, the UN General Assembly may have to give a special place to the US in New York.
UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres’ address could have been quite exemplary if he gave a proper balance to the developed and developing countries. He talked about racism and fight against racism but did not mention where racism is overwhelmingly rampant (US and Europe) and what to do about it. Outlining the human rights implications of Covid-19 pandemic, he made quite a good analysis. It was nice for him to say, ‘human rights are our blood line (equality), our lifeline (for peace) and our frontline (to fight against violations).’ However, in the fight against violations, he apparently forgot about the ‘blood line’ or the ‘lifeline’ quite necessary not to aggravate situations through partiality and bias. He never talked about the importance of human rights education or promoting human rights awareness in all countries.
His final assault was on Myanmar. Although he did not call ‘genocide,’ he denounced the treatment of Rohingyas as ethnic cleansing without mentioning any terrorist group/s within. His call for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and other civilian leaders undoubtedly should be a common call of all. However, he did not leave any opening for a dialogue with the military leaders or bring back a dialogue between Aung San and Min Aung, the military leader. With a proper mediation, it is not impossible. Calling for a complete overhaul as the young demonstrators idealistically claim might not be realistic.
High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet’s address was brief and uncontroversial this time without mentioning any country or region. It is clear by now perhaps she is not the real author of the Report against Sri Lanka, but someone probably hired by the so-called core-group led by Britain. Her major points were related to the coronavirus pandemic trying to highlight some of the socio-economic disparities and imbalances of policy making that have emerged as a result. The neglect of women, minorities, and the marginalized sections of society were emphasized. But the poor was not mentioned. As a former medical doctor, she also opted to highlight some of the medical issues underpinning the crisis.
Then came the statements from different countries in the first meeting in the following order: Uzbekistan, Colombia, Lithuania, Afghanistan, Poland, Venezuela, Finland, Fiji, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Equatorial Guinea, Vietnam, Belgium, and Morocco. The obvious purposes of these statements were different. Some countries were apparently canvassing for getting into the Human Rights Council at the next turn perhaps for the purpose of prestige. Some others were playing regional politics against their perceived enemies. This was very clear when Lithuania and Poland started attacking Russia.
But there were very sincere human rights presentations as well. One was the statement by the President of Afghanistan, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani. He outlined the devastating effects that Afghanistan had to undergo during the last 40 years, because of foreign interferences. The initial support to Taliban by big powers was hinted. His kind appeal was to the UN was to go ‘beyond discourse to practice’ giving equal chance to the poor and the developing countries to involve without discrimination.
China’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Wang Yi, made his presentation almost at the end of the first day. This is apparently the first time that China had directly addressed the Human Rights Council. Beginning with outlining the devastating repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic he stressed that the world should face the challenges through ‘solidarity and cooperation.’ He broadened the concept to human rights solidarity and cooperation. His expressed views were quite different to the others, particularly to the Western ones.
He frankly said that what he expresses are the views of China on human rights without claiming those are absolute truths or forcing others to believe or implement them. There were four main concepts that he put forward before the member countries. First, he said, “We should embrace a human rights philosophy that centres on the people. The people’s interests are where the human rights cause starts and ends.” Second, he said, “we should uphold both universality and particularity of human rights. Peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom are common values shared by all humanity and recognized by all countries.” “On the other hand,” he said, “countries must promote and protect human rights in light of their national realities and the needs of their people.”
“Third,” he said, “we should systemically advance all aspects of human rights. Human rights are an all-encompassing concept. They include civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights.” He then emphasized, “Among them, the rights to subsistence and development are the basic human rights of paramount importance.” Fourth, “we should continue to promote international dialogue and cooperation on human rights. Global human rights governance should be advanced through consultation among all countries.”
It was on the same first day before China, that the United Kingdom launched its barrage against several countries not sparing Sri Lanka. The Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, delivered the statement from top to bottom attacking alleged violating countries on human rights. But there was no mentioning of Israel for the repression of Palestinians or the systemic racism rampaging in the United States, including the 6 January attacks on the Capitol by extremist/terrorist groups.
His first sermon was on Myanmar without acknowledging the British atrocities or mismanagement of this poor and diverse country during the colonial period. He was quite jubilant over implementing sanctions and other restrictions over the country. Many sanctions, in my opinion, are extortions. Undoubtedly, Aung San Suu Kyi and other leaders should be released, and democracy restored. This is a task of the whole council and when one or two countries try to grab the credit, there can be obvious reservations of others.
His further scathing attacks were against Belarus, Russia, and China. Some appeared factually correct but not necessarily the approach or the motives genuine. The following is the way he came around Sri Lanka. He said,
“Finally, we will continue to lead action in this Council: on Syria, as we do at each session; on South Sudan; and on Sri Lanka, where we will present a new resolution to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.”
‘Action’ to him basically means repeatedly passing resolutions, of course imposing economic and other sanctions. He said, “as we do at each session”; like bullying poor or weak countries at each session. Can there be a resolution against Russia or China? I doubt it.
What would be the purpose of presenting a resolution against Sri Lanka? As he said, “to maintain the focus on reconciliation and on accountability.” This will satisfy neither the Tamil militants nor the Sinhalese masses. But it might satisfy the crafty Opposition (proxy of the defeated last government). This is not going to be based on any of the actual measures that Sri Lanka has taken or not taken on reconciliation or accountability. But based on the ‘Authoritarian and Hypocritical Report’ that some anti-Sri Lankans have drafted within the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. This what I have discussed in my last article.
In this context, successful or not, the statement made by the Sri Lanka’s Minister of External Affairs, Dinesh Gunawardena, in rejecting any resolution based on the foxy Report of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, in my concerned opinion, is absolutely correct.
President’s energy directives ignored by the Power Ministry: Another Point of View
Dr Tilak Siyambalapitiya
Dr Janaka Rathnasiri laments (The Island 19 Feb 2021) that the Power Ministry has ignored the President’s directive to draw 70% of energy from renewable sources by 2030. I saw the approved costs of electricity production for 2019, published by the Public Utilities Commission (PUCSL).
PUCSL has also approved the prices to sell electricity to customers. Although various customers pay at various “approved” prices, the average income from such “approved” prices in 2019 was Rs 17.02 per unit. It is not only the Ministry, according to Dr Rathnasiri, ignoring the President; PUCSL is also breaking the law, which says prices and approved costs should be equal.
So there is already an illegal gap of Rs 21.59 minus 17.02 = Rs 4.57 per unit of electricity sold. If electricity prices are not to be increased, as stated by many in the government and PUCSL, let us say the following: Distribution costs should decrease by 0.57 Rs per unit. Generation costs should decrease by Rs 4.00 per unit.
PUCSL also published the approved cost of purchasing or producing electricity from various sources for 2019. The actual energy values were different to what was approved, but let us stick to PUCSL approved figures:
I suggest Dr Rathnasiri fills-up the following table, to show how much electricity will cost in 2030 to produce and deliver, if the President’s 70% target is to be achieved and for PUCSL to abide by the law. Let us assume that electricity requirement in 2030 will be double that of 2019.
Since PUCSL has to save Rs 4 from 13.92, the average selling price for energy should be Rs 13.92 minus 4.00 = Rs 9.92. With a target network loss of 7% (in 2019 it was 8.4%), the average cost of production has to be Rs 9.27 per unit. Eight cages have to be filled-up by Dr Rathnasiri.
In 2012, PUCSL approved the energy cost of electricity produced from coal power to be 6.33 Rs per kWh. In 2019, PUCSL approved 9.89 (56% increase). For renewable energy, it was 13.69 in 2012, and 19.24 in 2019 (a 40% increase, but double the price of electricity from coal fired generation). In 2012, rooftop solar was not paid for: only give and take, but now paid Rs 22, against Rs 9.89 from coal. There seems to be something wrong. The price reductions of renewable energy being promised, being insulated from rupee depreciation, are not happening? Either Sri Lanka must be paying too little for coal, or it may be renewable energy is severely over-priced?
On coal we hear only of some corruption every now and then; so Sri Lanka cannot be paying less than it costs, for coal.
Enough money even to donate
Another reason for the Ministry of Power to ignore the President’s directive may be the Ministry’s previous experience with similar Presidential directives. In 2015, the President at that time cancelled the Sampur coal-fired power plant, and the Ministry faithfully obliged. That President and that Prime Minister then played ball games with more power plants until they were thrown out of power, leaving a two-billion-dollar deficit (still increasing) in the power sector. Not a single power plant of any description was built.
Where is this deficit? You do not have to look far. In the second table, replace 24.43 with 9.89, to reflect what would have happened if Sampur was allowed to be built. The value 12.79 will go down to 8.55, well below the target of Rs 9.27 per unit to produce. Not only would CEB and LECO report profits, but the government too could have asked for an overdraft from CEB to tide over any cash shortfalls in the treasury. All this with no increase in customer prices. Producers of electricity from renewable energy could enjoy the price of 19.24 Rs per unit. And that blooming thing on your rooftop can continue to enjoy Rs 22 per unit. The Minister of Power, whom Dr Rathnasiri wants to replace with an army officer, would have been the happiest.
In the absence of Sampur (PUCSL’s letter signed by Chairman Saliya Mathew confirmed cancellation and asked CEB not to build it), PUCSL approved electricity to be produced at Rs 21.59 and sold at Rs 17.02 per unit. The annual loss would be Rs (21.59 – 17.02) x 15,093 = Rs 69 billion per year of approved financial loss. Sri Lanka has a Telecom regulator, an Insurance regulator, a Banking regulator, who never approve prices below costs. Sometime ago the telecom regulator asked the operators to raise the prices, when operators were proposing to reduce prices amidst a price war. But the electricity industry regulator is different: he approves costs amounting to 27% more than the price, not just once but, but continuously for ten long years !
That is 370 million dollars per year as of 2019, the economy is spending, and for years to come, to burn oil (and say we have saved the environment). Did the Minister of Health say we are short of 160 million dollars to buy 40 million doses of the vaccine? Well, being a former Minister of Power, she now knows which Presidential “order” of 2015 is bleeding the economy of 370 million dollars per year, adequate to buy all vaccines and donate an equal amount to a needy country.
Prices are the production costs approved by PUCSL for 2019. The selling price approved by the same PUCSL was Rs 9.27 per unit.
Confusion on NGOs and NSOs in Sri Lanka
If you listen to politicians and journalists here, you will hear of that curious creature rajya novana sanvidane, a Non-State Organization (NSO). Where do you get them? In the uninstructed and dead minds of those who use those terms. In the real world, where politicians and journalists have developed minds, there are Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO). The United Nations is an organization set up by state parties, not by governments. It is true that agents of states, governments, make the United Nations work or fail. Governments may change but not the states, except rarely. When Eritrea broke away from Ethiopia, a new state was formed and was so recognised by the United Nations. However, the LTTE that tried to set up another state was crushed by the established state that it tried to break away from, and the UN had nothing to do with them.
This entirely unnecessary confusion, created out of ignorance, is so destructive that organizations completely loyal to the existing state, are made to be traitorous outfits, for they are ‘non-state organizations’ within the state. There are citizens of each state, but no citizens of any government. Government is but an instrument of the state. In most states there are organizations, neither of the state nor of government: religious organizations including churches. But none of them is beyond the pale of the state.
Those that speak of rajya novana sanvidane give that name partly because they have no idea of the origin of non-governmental organizations. NGOs came into the limelight, as donor agencies, noticed that some governments, in East Africa, in particular, did not have the capacity and the integrity to use the resources that they provided. They construed, about 1970, that NGOs would be a solution to the problem. Little did they realize that some NGOs themselves would become dens of thieves and brigands. I have not seen any evaluation of the performance of NGOs in any country. There was an incomplete essay written by Dr. Susantha Gunatilleka. NGOs are alternatives to the government, not to the state.
Our Constitution emphatically draws a distinction between the government and state, and lays down that the President is both Head of Government and Head of State (Read Article 2 and Article 30 of the Constitution.) It is as head of state that, he/she is the Commander of the Armed Forces, appoints and receives ambassadors and addresses Parliament annually, when a prorogued Parliament, reconvenes. He/she presides over the Cabinet as head of government. The distinction is most clear, in practice, in Britain where Queen Elizabeth is the head of state and Boris Johnson is the Prime Minister and head of government. However, in principle, Johnson is the Queen’s First Minister appointed by the sovereign, and resigns by advising her of his decision to do so.
In the US and in India the term ‘state’ has special significance. In India there is a ‘rajya sabha’ (the Council of States) whose members represent constituent States and Union Territories. Pretty much the same is true of the United States. In the US, executive power is vested in the President and heads the administration, government in our parlance. The Head of State does not come into the Constitution but those functions that one associates with a head of state are in the US performed by the President of the Republic. The US President does not speak of my state (mage rajaya) but of my administration, (mage anduva). Annually, he addresses Congress on the State of the Union. Our present President must be entirely familiar with all this, having lived there as a citizen of the US for over a decade. It is baffling when someone speaks of a past state as a traitor to that same state. It is probable that a government was a traitor to the state. ‘Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their (States’) enemies, giving them aid and comfort’. That a state was a traitor to the same state is gobbledygook.
Apart from probable confusion that we spoke of in the previous paragraph, it is probable that a president and other members of a government, including members of the governing party here, find it grandiloquent to speak of his/her/their state (mage/ape rajaya), rather than my government (mage anduva) or Sirisena anduva’ and not Sirisena state; it was common to talk of ‘ape anduva’ in 1956; politicians in 1956 were far more literate then than they are now.
When translating from another language, make sure that you understand a bit of the history of the concept that you translate. A public school in the US is not the same as a public school in the UK.