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Consolidating the Military Victory through Restoring Rule of Law

“Liberty is the right to do as the law permits”    — Montesquieu 

The military victory against the LTTE is now complete. As the people savour this triumph and celebrate the end of the war, the government has the crucial responsibility of ensuring that this moment marks not merely a transient rhetorical change but a real and sustainable transition to democracy and the exercise of fundamental freedoms for all citizens of this country.

As President Rajapakse has pointed out in a public speech last week, the alibi and excuse of the conflict can no longer be invoked by political leaders to justify the denial of fundamental rights, basic freedoms or the fruits of development to any segment of the population. It is only if the restrictions and constraints imposed on society in the name of combating terrorism are lifted and the writ of the rule of law restored throughout the country that the sacrifices made by all sections of society can be vindicated.

While the systematic denial of democratic rights and freedoms to certain sections of the Lankan polity even during the height of the conflict cannot be justified, the continuation of this selective discrimination has absolutely no moral or instrumental basis today. The rationalisation of the war, which cost so many lives and created so much suffering for so many people caught in the middle, becomes a cruel hoax if it is not followed by the immediate restoration of confidence in the constitution and legal system of this country. 

The Rajapakse administration has, therefore, the urgent task of re-establishing public faith in the system of governance and the institutions of public security to ensure respect for fundamental rights and due process to all citizens, irrespective of ethnicity, language, gender, religion, location, political perspective and personal ideology.

The targeting of political opponents and those with alternative views must stop. Nurturing diversity of opinions and respecting dissenting positions lies at the heart of the democratic process, and the government has to demonstrate its clear and unequivocal commitment to these values. To seek to stifle alternative points of view through labelling them “unpatriotic” or “treasonous” is to create the very conditions that led to terrorism in the past. If we don’t learn from history we are doomed to repeat its tragic mistakes.

Democratically expressed views of all kinds should be permitted, even if these contradict the avowed policy of the current regime and appear radically different from majority perspectives. Upon rational examination and careful analysis, if some views are found to be seditious and inflammatory, appropriate legal action may be taken against the perpetrators, but under no circumstances should the government or its supporters take the law into their own hands.

Justice cannot condone short-cuts and vigilante groups operating with tacit state patronage. If punishment for opposing the ruling dispensation’s ideology takes the form of abductions, threats, even disappearance and murder, if the regime relies on goons and paramilitary groups to enforce its edict, then the end of the war is merely a hiatus and harbinger of greater repression and suffering to come.

To continue down this path is to ensure the resurgence of armed movements and bloodshed since the complete and irrevocable loss of faith in the political, social and legal system to deliver justice is the one common factor that unites violent insurgencies across the world.

In this context, very troubling is the sharp increase of killings in police custody “when prisoners attempt to escape” which appears to be flourishing in a climate of impunity that makes a mockery of the rule of law. The cancer of the war has created secondaries in the south, which must be treated immediately by bringing the culprits to book, whatever their rank and extent of political influence.

Just as no one should be above the law, even the most lowly and humble should benefit from due process. If we’re to learn from the carnage of this war as we reap its benefits, we must rebuild our society through strict adherence to the norms and standards of civilised society. These include the enshrinement of fundamental freedoms as well as the creation of an enabling environment where people exercise their rights without fear of arbitrary arrest and detention or worse.

This country is emerging from a period marked by the systematic and often brutal repression of the freedom of expression, as well as the impunity of individuals and cabals with political influence and power operating outside the law who have wreaked havoc on the body politic. While much of the breakdown in the rule of law can be attributed to crude corruption and rent-seeking perpetrated with different levels of state collusion, the rationale and logic invariably invoked in their defence was the elimination of terrorism and the rapid pursuit of the war.

Though such justifications are ultimately specious, even this lame excuse is no longer valid. The bogey of individual LTTEers skulking among civilians cannot provide a credible basis for the continued denial of rights to the general population, nor for the perpetuation of arbitrary arrests and intimidation of legitimate opponents as well as the stifling of divergent views.

We are at a crucial moment in our collective history today. Our challenge is to begin afresh by restoring respect for the rule of law and due process by encouraging, not strangling, plurality and principled dissent, by ensuring the inclusivity and participation of those who have been marginalised and traumatised by the war, by redressing the damage caused to individuals and institutions that have been targeted by various shadowy elements within and outside the state apparatus.

Moreover, this democratisation and restoration of rights and freedoms for all citizens must happen immediately if this country is not to re-enact another dark chapter of its troubled history.









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