“Those elected to parliament have a heavy burden and we can only hope that good counsel will prevail,” said President’s Counsel Geoffrey Alagaratnam, noting that parliament plays an important role as it represents the citizenry more so than the president – especially in light of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution.
He asserted: “There may be an excessive number of members; but nevertheless, they represent the people, and have a duty to implement proper institutions and processes to protect democracy and the rule of law.”
“My belief is that even a flawed democracy is much better than authoritarianism or tyranny,” Alagaratnam added.
As only a minority of candidates disclose their assets to the public, he pointed to the need to strengthen the law to ensure transparency and accountability in the democratic process: “This information must be open to public scrutiny as the people must be aware of ill-gotten wealth, candidates’ suitability for the job and whether cases are pending.”
In his view, more progress is needed in ensuring the independence of the judiciary as the method of appointment is undertaken by the Constitutional Council, which comes under the control of those in parliament.
Furthermore, Alagaratnam suggested that the council pursues “broader based civil society engagement.”
Additionally, he maintained that the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) is too narrow a body as it comprises three members of the Supreme Count. To address this, he proposed expanding representation to include the President of the Court of Appeal, as well as representatives of the Attorney General, the Bar Association of Sri Lanka (BASL) and civil society.
“First, we must protect the judiciary from political pressures, and also ensure that there is transparency and accountability within it,” he insisted. And with regard to the politicisation of professional bodies, he noted that while lawyers may have had political affiliations in the past, the principle of law was of paramount importance.
However, this scenario appears to have changed in the present day – he believes that there have been several instances of professional independence being sacrificed for various benefits, and called for measures to ensure that the legal profession remains independent.
He emphasised that “people look to the legal profession to lead the way, and tell them what is right or wrong as far as governance, democracy and the rule of law is concerned.”
As for the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Alagaratnam stated that the “measures taken were fairly good” but insisted that the law must be followed when imposing curfews.
“The curfew that was imposed was illegal as stated by the Human Rights Commission. Moreover, there was no accountability as parliament had been dissolved and the judiciary was inactive to a certain extent,” he stated.
While health regulations were announced to ensure the safety of citizens in the lead up to the general election, there were protests by public health inspectors and medical workers. He traced this to the efficiency and independence of the public service, stating that it has been politicised to the point of those serving being rewarded for affiliations rather than performance.
Meanwhile, he urged the private sector to unite when engaging with the government and public sector especially in the case of the chambers of business and commerce: “There must be consistent policies because if an economy is to develop, you should be aware of expected policies related to investment, expropriation and taxation – and whether they can be changed overnight, as well as knowing that there are equal opportunities for all in the private sector.”
“When it comes to both foreign and local investments in terms of developing the economy, without policy consistency, certainty and a level playing field, Sri Lanka will not be treated as a country that can be trusted,” Alagaratnam declared.