The Supreme Court’s determination on the constitutionality of the Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill was met with relief last week. While the determination affirms many fundamental principles and constitutional protections, it provides only a temporary reprieve. Human rights activists and legislators who are concerned about the state’s attempts to restrict human rights through laws and institutions should maintain vigilance with regard to this proposed law.
State’s contempt for legislative principles and the public good
The submissions of the Deputy Solicitor General reveal the government’s thinking on this issue; it exhibits contempt for basic legislative principles and highlight the absence of evidence based policy making that has the wellbeing of the public at its core.
The Supreme Court, in no uncertain terms, found that vague provisions in the proposed law prevent the public from understanding the ambit of the law and stated that if government authorities are “cloaked with power under vague provisions” it can lead to arbitrary action since the officials themselves will not know the extent of their powers. In response to the Deputy Solicitor General’s submission that the court should consider the provisions as they exist and not speculate whether the law can result in an arbitrary exercise of power during implementation, the court affirmed it has jurisdiction to consider the threat of potential abuse of proposed laws. The court stated it does not have to await actual or imminent infringements by the implementation of the law if the concerns are based on “plausible possibilities”. At a time when the government is weaponizing the law to restrict fundamental rights, the importance of these assertions by the court, which reiterate that law is made for the public, and hence the public should be able to understand the extent of its application, cannot be overstated.
The government justified the (over) broad definitions in the proposed law on the basis it was not possible to be specific because the rehabilitation provided would depend on the category of persons to whom it was being provided. This illustrates the government had little or no idea about who was to be rehabilitation or how when it drafted the law. The court did not accept the Deputy Solicitor General’s argument that future specific laws would define the category of persons who could be subject to rehabilitation, and said that would be a “dangerous route” to take, thereby recognizing the need for certainty in the ambit of the law.
The government’s claim it will draft laws in the future to specify who will be rehabilitated sounds disingenuous because even at present, there are laws that the government can utilize to send persons to rehabilitation such as regulations issued under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for the rehabilitation of former LTTE combatants.
Compulsory rehabilitation: refusal to abandon a counter-productive method
A few critical issues however remain unresolved even following the Supreme Court’s determination. Although the court examined whether the provisions of the Bill are clear and whether there are adequate safeguards “for the achievement of the objective of the Bill” to prevent arbitrariness in the decision making process, the objectives themselves are problematic. For instance, the cabinet memorandum on the Bill, which the court referred to and seemed to accept, proposes (compulsory) rehabilitation instead of imprisonment. Yet the reality is that where drug dependent persons are concerned, neither method leads to impactful outcomes. The cabinet memorandum further presents (compulsory) rehabilitation as a solution to prison overcrowding. In reality, the solution that will lead to meaningful outcomes is the decriminalization of personal drug use and treating it as a health issue by providing voluntary, community-based solutions; not the establishment of more places of detention at which human rights can be violated.
The court states that the Bill’s inconsistency with the constitution shall cease if references to ex-combatants, violent extreme groups and “any other group of persons” are deleted, and Bill is limited to “drug dependent persons” and “such other persons as may be identified by law”. The court proceeds to accept that consent to rehabilitation must be without “duress, coercion or undue influence” and not as “an alternative to protracted remand”. Yet, at the same time, it accepts a contrary position, i.e. that (compulsory) rehabilitation (without consent) is possible through a judicial order.
Globally, including in Sri Lanka, evidence shows that compulsory rehabilitation is counter-productive and leads to quicker relapse. Further, compulsory rehabilitation contravenes human rights standards. It is due to this reason, the UN has repeatedly called upon countries to cease compulsory rehabilitation. The violation of fundamental rights during compulsory rehabilitation is hence not a “fanciful hypothesis” as there is documented evidence to that effect, especially at the military run centers Kandakadu and Senapura.
The court also does not recognize right of a drug dependent person to leave treatment whenever they choose. Instead, the court says that steps have to be taken to apprehend persons leaving without authorization. Moreover, the court states that the issue of leaving rehabilitation when a person wishes has to be dealt with in regulations issued under the law. However, if rehabilitation is not punitive, as claimed by the state, persons should be able to enter and leave rehabilitation voluntarily and any law enacted should be only to regulate the functioning of such centers to ensure they adhere to standards related to conditions, maintenance of records and confidentiality, much like the regulation of private healthcare providers.
While the court cannot rule on existing laws, it’s view that the current law dealing with drug dependent persons, i.e. the Drug Dependent Persons (Rehabilitation and Treatment) Act, provides curative means to deal with drug dependence does not align with evidence. Both in principle and practice, the current law is punitive, not curative. The abusive nature of the current law has to be studied in the context of proposed amendments to the Poisons, Opium and Dangerous Drugs Ordinance as well, because it expands the powers of the police and empowers them to refer a person to rehabilitation bypassing a judicial process. This illustrates the state’s insidious attempt to extend its abusive tentacles, which the court has found to be unconstitutional.
Simply put, if rehabilitation is voluntary, there is no need to empower the bureau to rehabilitate drug dependent persons. All that is required is for the government to dedicate resources to establishing centers, as well as ensure that existing centers adhere to human rights standards. Any law drafted to enable this would have to focus on the standards to which the centers have to adhere to ensure the rights of persons entering treatment voluntarily are protected.
How to solve a problem like normalization of torture?
The state has proposed the inclusion of once a month visits by the magistrate to the rehabilitation centers as a protection against torture. While this appears progressive, in practice, given the everyday nature of violence at the military run centers in particular, a monthly visit will do little to arrest deeply entrenched abuse. Further, the purpose of law and processes should be to prevent abuse, rather than only to detect and address it after the abuse has taken place. Although the proposed new section also requires the magistrate to refer the case to the Inspector General of Police to commence an investigation into any cases of alleged torture, the historical failure to hold the police accountable and entrenched impunity raise grave doubts whether this will be adequate protection in practice.
The court reiterates there can be no derogation from the protection against torture enshrined in the constitution. Nevertheless, at the same time, it allows the provision that permits the use of minimum force to compel a person to obey lawful orders to remain intact. Since a person who is drug dependent will not be able to perform many functions during the withdrawal process due to physical and psychological changes they experience, this provision will allow the use of force for behavior that is normal and to be expected during a withdrawal process. This provision hence undermines the protection against torture guaranteed in the constitution. Additionally, the denial of evidence based and effective treatment options, such as harm reduction, and instead forcing persons to perform labor, may constitute inhuman treatment according to international human rights standards.
Russian roulette method of law making
The cabinet memorandum on the Bill does not set out the empirical evidence on which the Bill is based. Nor did the Deputy Solicitor General make submissions in this regard. The result of disregard for evidence based policy making leads to the adoption of regressive positions on rehabilitation, such as labelling persons undergoing rehabilitation as persons with disabilities, which the court rightly states is inappropriate.
Interestingly, the Deputy Solicitor General submitted that the decision to involve the military in rehabilitation is a matter of policy and hence not within the purview of the court. The court found that since the cabinet memorandum on the Bill does not mention the involvement of the military, the Bill is not in line with the policy objective set out in the memo. The court further pointed out the lack of clarity regarding military involvement, i.e., are they employees of the bureau, will the same disciplinary procedures apply to them? It is pertinent to note that through its argument to defend the involvement of the military in rehabilitation, the government has acknowledged that militarization is a government policy.
Constructing systems of oppression brick by brick
The Bureau of Rehabilitation Bill is just one building block in the state’s attempt to label certain social groups deviant, criminalize them based on their status/identity, use the law to arbitrarily detain them and subject them to a process of supposed rehabilitation. This process is militarized and will result in grave human rights violations. Though containing many positive elements, the Supreme Court’s determination still leaves room for the proposed law to be used in relation to persons considered drug dependent persons, as it contains many provisions that will result in grave human rights abuses.