Oct 08

Evil triumphs when good men decide to look the other way and remain silent. This has been the case with the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) for many years. Its members have shown little concern at the inexorable deterioration in the Rule of Law and governance – except in instances when one of their fellow members happened to be adversely affected. Informal inquiries made from a number of lawyers over the years have revealed that even the more civic-minded of our lawyers do not bother to raise matters of public interest at BASL meetings because virtually every matter put up for discussion there is supported or opposed in a politically-partisan way. That is, SLFP lawyers would protest strongly against any proposal which might reflect poorly on their party and UNP lawyers would be just as difficult in dealing with issues that could be interpreted as anti-UNP.

This conflict is what is believed to contribute to the virtually complete muteness of the BASL regarding the increasing violations of the Constitution and other important laws pertaining to the Peoples rights in our supposedly democratic society. The BASL has not preceptibly endorsed the dogged efforts made by a few individuals and groups to establish the principle that the Constitution and other laws have to be obeyed, however imperfect they may be, and that any shortcomings should be addressed by persuading Parliament to bring in the requisite amendments, after thorough public discussion. The BASL should know better than anyone else that it is utterly dishonest to argue that the Constitution can be violated because certain Articles in it require amendment.

The BASL very properly takes a strong line on the shocking bomb attack against Mr J.C.Weliamuna and his family. It wants the Police and related authorities to carry out vigorous investigations to find the criminals responsible for this outrage and is prepared to use its powerful position in society to pressure the relevant authorities to do what they should be doing anyway. The Citizens Movement for Good Governance (CIMOGG), on the other hand, did not rush in to deplore the cowardly bomb attack on Mr Weliamunas residence because it would have been water off a ducks back as there are manifestly potent forces which are determined to protect certain groups of criminals who have the assurance that they can break the law with impunity. Whether anything will come of the Police investigations is in considerable doubt when we see how lethargically the IGP and DIG-CID have been moving in respect of the orders of the Supreme Court in the recent Lanka Marine Services Ltd judgment. The BASL should reflect on this and, at least from now on, put its weight, authority and energies to strengthen the Rule of Law.

Lawyers belong to the only profession which has been given a special place in the Constitution. Hence, what CIMOGG wishes to remind all lawyers is that if they had, from the outset, used their considerable clout to support the 17th Amendment and the Independent Commissions established under this Amendment, there would be no need for the BASL now to plead with or flex it muscles against the authorities to take effective action in matters where its members are affected. Professionally neutral police officers, working under the protection of a truly independent National Police Commission, would not be frightened to carry out investigations, without fear or favour, in the interests of injured members of the public.

The assault on Mr Weliamuna was clearly intended to frighten not only him but also other lawyers, civil society activists, affected parties and witnesses against launching fundamental rights and civic rights challenges against the powerful coteries which have increasingly got used to treating the rights of the People with contempt and in total disregard of the Rule of Law. What we seek from the BASL is that it should even now agitate for the 17th Amendment to be implemented without passively accepting any further devious excuses from unscrupulous politicians. It should also call for the Right to Information Act, which has been ready for some years, and for all international covenants which Sri Lanka has ratified to be passed explicitly and clearly into Sri Lankan law. BASLs backing for these proposals will go a long way to prevent our citizens, obviously including members of the BASL, being subjected to unlawful deprivations of their fundamental, civic and professional rights.

CIMOGG asserts, like the celebrated Father Niemoeller in Hitlers Germany, that not doing anything because you are not directly affected now will eventually result in your own downfall because there will be no one left to fight for you if you do not fight for others when they are under attack. There may come a day when the BASLs failure to protect non-lawyers proactively may leave its own members friendless. What happened in Pakistan recently has some lessons for us, if only we are willing to learn.

We are sincerely and deeply distressed at the fear and worry that Mr Weliamuna and his family must be undergoing, and hope that the BASL will act vigorously on the matters raised above so that members of the legal profession may to go about their work without fear, let or hindrance. Other citizens, too, can share in the protection thus provided.