Last year, we saw a number of social media posts sharing gruesome incidents that graphically portrayed acts of violence; the incident freshest in our minds being the stabbing and death of an Advanced Level student in Matara which was filmed from afar and shared on the internet.
Not only in Sri Lanka, but we see this on social media and on television all the time – someone films an incident, an accident, or a person being abused, and they continue filming, rather than opting to help.
As the viewer, you may have on multiple occasions, wondered how it is that this person who is so close to the crime in real time, possibly with the resources to come to someone’s aid, simply films instead of taking action to protect another. You may have also wondered if there is a legal obligation to come to the assistance of your fellow man and if you do not, could you be held accountable for their eventual plight? The simple answer is there is no such duty of care imposed by the law to help a stranger involved in an emergency or accident.
One could also argue that there is a widespread notion that aiding someone in such an instance would only eventually cause distress to the “Good Samaritan” who might get entangled in any legal proceedings that follow.
According to Shehara Herath (Attorney-at-Law), Founder – Foundation for Human Rights and Law, although not reporting a criminal offence is a criminal offence in itself, there is a moral and legal duty for all citizens to help investigative authorities to bring perpetrators to justice.
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In Sri Lanka, there is such a thing called the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act, No. 04 of 2015 under which the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses was established in 2016.
The Act mandated the new authority and its connected police division, established in the same year, to provide prompt redress and necessary protection to victims and witnesses and protect their rights while treating them with equality, fairness, and respect.
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However, according to U.R. de Silva PC, President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL), due to funds not having been allocated, the special authority is not legally functional.
“In the recent few months we observed that many citizens choose to remain inactive and silent in the face of crimes,” noted Herath.
It is no secret that the Sri Lankan legal system moves at a snail’s pace, and many of us prefer to keep a safe distance from it. The police system is no different; many prefer to bear costs than go to the police station to file a report.
About this reluctance, de Silva said: “It is not unwarranted. There is a fear of being harassed at the police station and the time-consuming nature of various procedures.”
He added however that: “It is the responsibility of the varying bodies in power to educate the public that, as someone who is executing their moral duty, they will be protected, and at the same time, we must educate the Police and other authorities to make such persons coming forward to feel that they are in fact protected and that their service is valued.”
He added that the BASL is currently involved in educating and spreading awareness of such rights that the public are entitled to.
“There is no legal obligation to assist or help a victim of a criminal offence; not doing so is a reflection of our society's level of empathy and value for human life,” added Herath.
Despite the presence of a civil duty, the legal duty is dependent upon the respective Act. For instance, the unloading of chemical substances by large scale producers may attract a penalty through the penal code.
Factories should essentially abide by the rules and regulations placed by the Central Environment Authority (CEA) and other relevant agencies. Attorney-at-Law Harshana Nanayakkara stated: “All large-scale factories are supposed to have a large-scale clearance amongst many other clearances. They must essentially possess an environment certificate to enable them to carry out such practices.” These necessitate conditions upon factories as to how they should be run. Provided the law is complied with, it is presumed that no harm to the environment is done.
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In order to properly report and or obtain assistance in remedying any environmental damage caused, the following government and nongovernmental organisations are available to the general public.
Central Environmental Authority 0117 877 277 and Environmental Foundation Limited 0112 890 984.
The incumbent animal cruelty laws are archaic, with some going as far back as the 1920s. Nanayakkara added: “For animal abuse, only a very few people actually act. Unless the law changes, the penalties and punishments in place are actually very small. Therefore, it’s important to bring about newer laws, including mandatory imprisonment for grave instances of cruelty such as the unfortunate event which took place in the recent past.”
While there are no proactive laws currently available for the protection of animals, there are varying private institutions established to bridge this gap such as Animal SOS Sri Lanka 0417 921 122 and the Animal Welfare and Protection Agency 0773 450 031 (Secretary).
Domestic violence cases, lovers’ quarrels, and household disputes
If a person is being harmed, whether it’s inside the house or outside, a civil-minded citizen has a duty to seek for help by alerting the authorities. According to Nanayakkara, when it comes to incidents of domestic violence, the victim sometimes shows reluctance to proceed with the case because of the repercussions of, for instance a police complaint against the husband.
Here too, U.R. de Silva outlined that many Lankans were reluctant to come to the assistance of someone in need for fear of getting entangled in a time-consuming legal battle and/or investigation.
“Any crime must be reported to the nearest police station and any incident of corruption or bribery must be reported to the Bribery Commission,” asserted Herath.
If you wish to report an incident please contact any of the following organisations – Women in Need 0112 671 411, National Child Protection Authority 0112 778 911, Ministry of Women and Child Affairs 0112 186 055, and the Women and Media Collective 0112 690 192.
All in all, doing the right thing at the right time with the right conscience, within one’s own integrity, is what it comes down to.
“Whether you become a Good Samaritan or not in the eyes of another person doesn’t matter; what matters is what you become in your own eyes and heart,” noted Nanayakkara.
By Dimithri Wijesinghe and Chenelle Fernando