Sri Lanka shows the will to fight corruption

bribeSpeaking to a packed house of who’s who in Colombo business, senior Attorney-at-law, human rights and good governance activist J C Weliamuna said that South Asia has no strong tradition and history of fighting grand corruption, and encouragingly for the first time, Sri Lanka is showing the political will needed to fight such corruption.

Weliamuna made these observations while delivering a speech titled “Fighting Grand Corruption-Sri Lanka’s Post Presidential Election Challenges” at the Members’ Day Luncheon Meeting held at “On the Golder Pond”, Taj Samudra, earlier today.

Describing the governance climate that prevailed prior to the 8th January presidential election, Weliamuna stated that all the powerful institutions were captured by a clique of few people at the highest level of power. The institutional framwork was politicised and weakened. Hence, people felt it was vain to resort to legal remedies. Instead, people felt political interference would be the way to bring swift and decisive solutions, however undemocratic such measures were. This was an unprecedented challenge to the rule of law.

Against this backdrop, at the presidential election people exercised their franchise to eliminate rampant corruption and abolish the executive presidency. People wanted their freedom and civil liberties back, and upholding of the rule of law.

Weliamuna observed corruption to be an abuse of power for personal gain. He did not make a distinction between the government and civil society. “Abuse of power for personal gain” in any sphere of society would be an act of corruption.

Grand corruption is what prevades at the highest level of a national government. This includes abusing entrusted power at the highest level to manipulate policy and government machinery for personal gain. Such corruption affects the whole nation and leads to the erosion of public confidence.

While the general public is impatient to see the wrong doers brought to book, Weliamuna said taking legal action faces significant challenges due to the nature of grand corruption.

Grand corruption and all its manifestations are not always visible to the general public.

Also, grand corruption, at times, takes place while the populace benefits from some of the government activities. So even when some people live a life of luxury due to grand corruption, the general public is less enroughed to take action against them.

Grand corruption is also complex in nature. Unlike petty corruption – such as granting minor favors and providing preferetntial treatment in exhange for relatively small amounts of money- grand corruption is not a stand alone act. It is a networked activity involving a number of participants, each playing a different role.

Grand corruption also tends to be cross-border. Often large sums of money are involved and they need to be hidden or invested outside borders.

Given the above characteristics of grand corruption, Weliamuna identified the challenges Sri Lanka is presently facing.

Legislative power and fighting corruption are interlinked. While there is much enthusiam to investigate corrupt activities of the previous regime at the national leadership level, the present government lacks the legislative power as it doesn’t command a majority in the parliament.

The present political uncertainity does not help the investigations either. Parties with invested interests are exploiting the situation. Some of the officers are reluctant to take action to progress with investigations fearing, that those who were removed from political offices may return in near future.

There are an unimaginable number of cases being reported. The investigating agencies simply do not have the capacity to handle such a vast number of cases.

Sri Lanka lacks the technical expertise to investigate complex cross border corruption.

The police officers do not have sophisticated knowledge on financial and banking matters. However, assistance from certain foreign countries is coming forth to strengthen Sri Lanka’s capacity in investigating grand corruption.

Weliamuna welcomed the idea of setting up a special unit to investigate financial crimes with a hand-picked chief known for his integrity and honesty. He welcomed the present government’s judicial approach to investigations. He stated that due process is particularly important, as the coorporation and collaboration of countries such as the United States are required in progressing with investigations.

In response to a question from the audience, Weliamuna stated that the Sri Lankan judiciary needed to be sensitised to grand corruption and financial corruption of complex nature- such as money laundering. He also observed the limited mandate of The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption as a major stumbling block. For example, when the commission detects a potential money laundering case, it has to hand over the case to the police for further investigation.

Speaking about the time frame, Weliamuna stated that investigations and judicial processes on grand corruption demand resources. The experience of other countries is that such investigations are time consuming. It could potentially take many years before the perpetrators are brought to books. He emphasized the need for immediate legal reforms to speed up investigations. However, the present political climate and the less than enthusiastic parliament are not conduicive to such reforms at this stage.

Responding to another audience question, Weliamuna said, the present government would be taking a huge political risk if it allows corruption of similar scale to take place.

In closing his speech, Weliamuna said fighting corruption progresses nations. Therefore, fighting corruption is everyone’s responsibility, and civil society is a significant stakeholder in that process. (LBO)

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