President’s takeover of the Police to face repercussions

By Easwaran Rutnam

President Maithripala Sirisena’s decision to take over the Police is to face repercussions on the human rights front.

Human rights groups, NGOs, and civil society have raised concerns over the move saying that it goes against the principles of a democracy.

Sources at the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, who wished to remain anonymous, said that, generally speaking of democracies, the President’s decision to keep the Police under the Ministry of Defence would be a problem.

“Internal and external security are two different issues, which are dealt with differently. The methods used and the laws that govern etc. are different. Militarisation of the Police is something that has caused problems in countries like the US.

For instance, the military, when involved in armed conflict, would use force as a norm, whereas that shouldn’t be the case in law enforcement,” sources said.

While the President’s decision is not necessarily a human rights violation per se, it is a violation of good governance principles that can lead to rights violations if the Police becomes more violent and uses excessive force or military techniques.

“There are guidelines on democratic policing such as the OSCE guidelines,” the source added.

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has a comprehensive approach to security that encompasses politico-military, economic and environmental, and human aspects.

It addresses a wide range of security-related concerns, including arms control, confidence and security building measures, human rights, national minorities, democratisation, policing strategies, counter-terrorism, and economic and environmental activities.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said that the President’s decision was unacceptable, though it cannot be challenged in court.
CPA Executive Director Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu told The Sunday Morning that the decision to allocate departments under a ministry is in the hands of the President, so he cannot be challenged for taking the Police under him.

However, he emphasised that the decision clearly goes against how a democracy must function.

Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) stated that it was important to recognise the distinction between defence – primarily focused on the national military – and the subject of the Police – concerning civilian law and order.

TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeyesekere told The Sunday Morning that the Constitution is clear in stipulating that President Sirisena is restricted to holding the portfolios of Defence, and Mahaweli Development and Environment.

“Given the highly contentious matters being investigated by the Police at present, no matter which line ministry the subject of the Police is assigned to, it will lead to inevitable allegations of political interference. It is at this juncture that the Police must seek to build public trust through demonstrating their impartiality,” he said.

The need to maintain this trust and to protect human rights was why the Police service was taken out of the Ministry of Defence in 2013.
The President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa established the Ministry of Law and Order and Major General (Retired) Nanda Mallawarachchi was appointed as the first Secretary to the Ministry.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) appointed by Mahinda Rajapaksa after the war had also proposed that the Police Department be de-linked from the institutions dealing with the armed forces.

“The Police Department is a civilian institution which is entrusted with the maintenance of law and order. Therefore, it is desirable that the Police Department be de-linked from the institutions dealing with the armed forces, which are responsible for the security of the State,” the LLRC had noted.

The Ministry of Law and Order has a separate section on its website which links to the LLRC recommendations and also gives a breakdown of the recommendations implemented by the Police.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has been pushing for security sector reforms in Sri Lanka and has been focusing a lot on the Police.

Human Rights Watch South Asia Director Meenakshi Ganguly told The Sunday Morning that the Government must remain committed to its domestic and international pledges.

“We have long called for security sector reforms and human rights training to ensure that the Police operate as a civilian law enforcement agency. We hope that the Government will remain committed to its domestic and international pledges,” she said.

Meanwhile, when contacted by The Sunday Morning, some diplomatic missions in Colombo said that they did not want to comment on the President taking over the Police Department.

They said that it was for the Sri Lankan institutions and judiciary to assess if the move was constitutional.