Colombo, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict

Defence Secretary: The epitome of bad governance

The last column suggested that the tide of popular opinion may well be turning against the Rajapakse regime on account of the human rights and humanitarian situation, international censure and the rising cost of living.

The brutal slaying of the Red Cross workers was followed by the lodge evictions and the Supreme Court decision halting them.

The Independent International Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP) who had been invited in by the President to observe the workings of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry submitted its first Interim Report to him and released two press statements.

The latter confirmed all the challenges and obstacles they face in the fulfillment of their mandate that local human rights groups had warned about when the idea of such a commission and hybrid mechanism was mooted in the first instance.

Geneva visit
The President flew to Geneva to address the ILO and had the opportunity to meet the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Secretary General of Amnesty International and heads of UN mechanisms.

Whilst he was at pains to defend his regime’s record, back in Sri Lanka the fact of bad governance was being driven home by the fall out from the eviction case and the regime’s clumsy and ham fisted attempts to, in some cases, explain its actions and in others justify them.

What transpired was that a salvage operation designed to make a bad situation better, made it worse. At the heart of this vital matter is the structure of power in this regime and the adverse effects it has on governance.

Consider for a moment the following questions:

* Where in the democratic world will a high ranking bureaucrat have the audacity to in effect contradict the Prime Minister and get away with it?

• Likewise a cabinet minister in the pronouncement of his personal opinion?

• Where in the democratic world will the Defence Secretary make what are in effect foreign policy pronouncements castigating the policies of friendly states and get away with it?

• Where indeed will a Defence Secretary get away with abusing and threatening an editor of a newspaper?

All of the above has happened in the last 10 days except of course the incident with the editor which happened much earlier and which prompted this columnist to call for the resignation or sacking of the Defence Secretary. The above reinforce this call.

Abysmal Record
Let us be quite clear and plain. The record of the government on human rights and the humanitarian situation and now with regard to the simple procedure of governance – that of communicating government policy – is abysmal.

They may have needed time to learn, but it would seem that they need a lifetime at least to acquire the basic aptitude for the job. The one act for which this regime earned respect – the Prime Minister’s acceptance of responsibility on behalf of the government and his apology — has been vitiated by the chilling and intemperate pronouncements of the Defence Secretary and Cabinet Minister Fernandopulle.

Cabinet Minister Jayaratne has also pitched in, it is reported, with a contribution on the abduction of Muslim businesspersons. It is along the lines of the President’s remarks about those who have disappeared having returned or having disappeared to Germany and England.

The remarks are frivolous and insensitive and attest to the attitude of those who have made them with regard to human rights, the rule of law and governance. Friends and foes alike, have already talked about a regime of clowns and jokers. It is hard to disagree with this and harder still to disagree with the argument that this is downright dangerous for this country and its democracy.

Military government
The relationship of the Defence Secretary to the President and the structure of power institutionalised by this regime, give his pronouncements and opinions greater weight than that of any other cabinet minister including the Prime Minister. Furthermore, his minister is none other than the President, his brother.

Gotabhaya Rajapakse’s behaviour begs the question of the militarisation of government and governance in this country. Shocking though it may seem, there is the story doing the rounds that Sri Lanka has in fact a militarised if not military government without having a military coup.

The hyperbole of this opinion notwithstanding, the point that it makes with regard to the demonstrable disregard for the hallowed conventions of civilian supremacy in a democracy, collective cabinet responsibility, the relationship between bureaucrats, advisors and ministers is a cause for serious concern. The overarching question remains as to who is in charge.

Consider another set of questions.

• Would the Prime Minister have accepted responsibility and apologised on behalf of the government unless he was instructed to do so by the President?

• Did the Defence Secretary make his remarks on the evictions with the express permission of the President, his minister and brother or did he go ahead on his own accord?

• Have any of the individuals who have made public pronouncements on this issue which vitiate those of the Prime Minister been called to account by the President?

Were it to be the case that all of these pronouncements were made on the instruction and with the blessings of the President, the question arises as to why so convoluted a system of governance is necessary?

Lousy governance
Or is it the case that the regime feels the need to satisfy a number of constituencies and therefore speaks with many tongues? In this case, surely the President knows that what his brother says will be given greater weight than what his Prime Minister says?

This system of governance aimed at appeasing all the people all of the time will not fool any of the people any of the time. It is shoddy governance and the zeal and conviction with which the Defence Secretary makes his pronouncements amply demonstrates the ideological core of this regime.

There is a missing gene here as this columnist has argued before. It is not the case that the regime does not care about human rights, rather it is the case that it does not have the sensitivity and intellectual equipment to do so.

The Defence Secretary has come to epitomise the worst excesses of this regime. It cannot even begin to reform itself with him and without an overhaul of the structure of power that currently prevails.

Will President Rajapakse act decisively to restore governance and salvage his regime or is it the case that he too is just not able to?

See The Morning Leader for article.