Sri Lanka: Newly constituted Presidential Task Force threatens rule of law
The ICJ today condemned the proclamation by the Sri Lankan president to establish a Presidential Task Force dominated by the security forces and called for the proclamation to be rescinded.
On June 2, 2020, Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa issued an extraordinary gazette establishing a 13-member “Presidential Task Force to build a Secure Country, Disciplined, Virtuous and Lawful Society.” The Task Force is composed entirely of military, intelligence and police officials. It is to be headed by Defence Secretary, Retired Major General Kamal Gunaratne.
“This Presidential Task Force constitutes another act of over-reach by a government seeking to take advantage of the COVID-19 pandemic to further expand its powers,” said Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific. “Its mandate is overbroad, and it empowers its military and police membership – including alleged war criminals – at a time when strong, independent, civilian-led policy-making is what is needed.”
The Task Force is given a sweeping mandate which includes:
- “taking necessary immediate steps to curb the illegal activities of social groups which are violating the law”
- “taking measures for prevention of the drug menace…”
- “taking legal action against persons responsible for illegal and antisocial activities conducted in Sri Lanka while locating in other countries”
- “investigating and preventing any illegal and antisocial activities in and around prisons.”
The task force also has the power to “conduct investigations and to issue directions as may be necessary in connection with the functions entrusted to it.” This includes issuing instructions to government officials to comply with its directives or be reported to the President.
The ICJ raised concerns that the task force has not been established on proper legal foundations. It is apparently pursuant to the broad, but ill-defined presidential powers under Article 33 of the Constitution.
The ICJ said that the task force could effectively usurp the powers and functions normally reserved for civilian authorities, under rule of law principles and as established by the Constitution and relevant enabling legislations.
Article 42 (1) of the Constitution provides that the “Cabinet of Ministers shall be charged with the direction and control of the Government.” Law enforcement and public officials under the direction of the relevant Minister have been designated under existing laws to specifically address drug-related offences and any other illegal and/ or criminal activity that seemingly fall within the mandate of this Task Force. The independence of public officials will be compromised if they are compelled to report to a military-dominated body. The Gazette provides no detail on how this reporting process would operate, or the legal consequences of refusing to act as instructed.
“Few doubt that this task force will be used as another tool to suppress speech and target critics of the Sri Lankan government. It is disturbing that such a potentially consequential body has been formed pursuant to broad presidential powers, with no reference to judicial or parliamentary oversight,” said Rawski. “Vague and overbroad language such as ‘anti-social activities’ could effectively criminalize expression protected under international law. Such provisions are inconsistent with the rule of law and contravene the principle of legality.”
The task force’s military and police membership follows a pattern of recent military appointments to civil administrative positions by the incumbent President. The military personnel appointed include officials credibly accused of war crimes. Chairman Major General Kamal Gunaratne was the commander of the 53rd division and Major General Shavendra Silva was the commander of the 58th Division of the Sri Lankan Army. Both units were identified by multiple UN investigatory bodies as having been involved in the commission of serious crimes and human rights violations during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s decades-long armed conflict which ended in 2009.
The ICJ called upon President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to rescind the extraordinary gazette establishing the Presidential Task Force. The role of the military in public life must be strictly circumscribed and matters pertaining to civil administrcation should be executed by elected and public officials in respect of the rule of law and principles of democratic governance.
Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Asia Pacific Regional Director, t: +66 2 619 84 77; e: frederick.rawski(a)icj.orgNewsPress releases