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Sri Lanka’s Presidential Task Force threatens rule of law – International Commission of Jurists

In response to Sri Lankan President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s announcement of a task force, which Rajapaksa claims will ensure a “secure country” and a “disciplined, virtuous and lawful society”, the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has requested that he rescind this order, describing the task force as a threat to the rule of law.

The ICJ has specific concerns over the legality of this taskforce, its broad and ambiguous mandates, as well as the fact that the task force is dominated by Sri Lanka’s security forces.

Military encroachment

Commenting on the encroachment of Sri Lanka’s security forces into the public sector, the ICJ warns that the “task force is composed entirely of the military, intelligence and police officials”. It will also be headed by the notorious war criminal, and current Defence Secretary, Kamal Gunaratne.

Gunaratne was commander of the Sri Lankan army’s infamous 53 Division during the 2009 massacres, in which tens of thousands of Tamil civilians were killed. The unit he headed is accused of numerous abuses, including sexual violence, summary executions and the disappearance of those who surrendered to the military.

Alongside issues of accountability, the ICJ warns that the independence of public officials will be compromised as they “they are compelled to report to a military-dominated body”. This is due to the broad mandate of the task force which will draw law enforcement and public officials addressing drug-related offences or criminal activity under the administration of the task force.

Criticising the task force, Frederick Rawski, ICJ’s Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific, says:

“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 […] 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 ICJ stresses that the role of the military must be limited, and civil administration should be done by “elected and public officials in respect of the rule of law and principles of democratic governance”.

Broad mandate

Rawski further criticises the mandates of the task force stating:

“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 mandates include:

  • “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.”

Read more here: Rajapaksa announces militarised task force for 'disciplined, virtuous, and lawful society'

“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,” Rawski warns.

The legality of the task force

There are further concerns with the legality of the task force, as it is established under the poorly defined presidential powers under Article 33 of the Constitution.

The task force is able to “conduct investigations and to issue directions as may be necessary in connection with the functions entrusted to it”. This means that public officials may be given direct orders to comply with. Failing to follow said orders will result in them being reported to the President.  The gazette issued provides little to no details on how a reporting process would operate or the legal ramification for refusing to act.

Read the full ICJ statement here and the full text of the Gazette here.

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