Ensuring justice, protecting morale | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Ensuring justice, protecting morale

23 October, 2016

None other than President Sirisena himself has asked the Police to ensure that a thorough and credible investigation is made into the deaths of two university students in Jaffna on Friday.

Initial news reports indicated that two students of the University of Jaffna had died in the early hours of Friday and that the police had claimed that the deaths were the result of a motorcycle crash.

Subsequently, however, a Government statement, that seemingly contradicted the early Police announcement, acknowledged that the cause of the students’ deaths may not simply be accidental.

Tensions were already high in the Peninsula at the end of the week as students reportedly gathered to protest the deaths claiming police involvement in the tragedy. President Sirisena’s directive to the Police must be considered a timely intervention to clear the atmosphere of suspicion, mistrust and uncertainty.

Such interventions by the political leadership are important when society becomes disturbed and restless over sudden tragedy, especially when the tragedy bears evidence of possible involvement of officers of the State. It is significant that the President did not overstep the mark with pretentious posturing and barely convincing hyperbole such as seen during the previous regime. That regime had not only a reputation for incessant crises of State heavy handedness in dealing with citizens but also for supposedly launching special investigations, even presidential inquiry commissions and committees, to probe such heavy handedness and its often tragic outcomes. We are yet to see the outcome of many an ‘inquiry’.

The list of encounters between students and security authorities – whether police or the armed forces – in which the civilians suffered, is lengthy during the previous government. Of course, if we look back over the decades, as successive governments became increasingly heavy handed in their dealings with civilians, such a list will be very long indeed.

However, there have been moments – too few – in our troubled and bloody history when genuine probes have been made into such controversial interactions between civilians and our uniformed men and women that have ended in tragedy. When, at last, the perpetrators of identified rights violations and even downright murder, are brought to book, that outcome is hailed for the rare occurrence of justice.

Sadly, the list of unresolved deaths, disappearances, torture, unjust secret incarcerations and suchlike involving the security authorities is very long with the names of the hapless victims now a too-frequent punctuation of our island’s record of human rights and social justice. Some individual names, such as that of Lasantha Wickrematunga, have reached worldwide circulation thanks to their prominent societal roles.

Others, like those of the five students who were shot dead on the beach in Trincomalee in 2005 and, the many other students who have died or been injured in yet-to-be-resolved incidents of violence involving the security authorities, are not remembered individually. Instead, they are numbers in the mounting victim toll.

And there are other lists of civilians who have died in incidents where their victimisation by the security authorities has not even been acknowledged. In the early years of the ethnic separatist insurgency, for example, the news media would conveniently report such unacknowledged victims as being ‘caught in the cross fire’. Lawyers in the North and East used an alternative term: ‘random firing’.

Today, thanks to the electoral commitment to transparency and justice, our national leadership has been quick to brush aside such hyperbole as ‘motorcycle accident’.

That the President, only a week earlier, had spoken up ostensibly to protect the interests and dignity of the uniformed personnel in the face of corruption probes, speaks volumes of the careful balancing of State interests and public accountability exercised by the head of State.

The Police and the armed forces have the reassurance from the very top that their pride comes first through thick and thin whether in ensuring their dignity in the face of hostile legal actions or in the rigorous internal clean-up of miscreants in order to re-establish that pride of our uniformed men and women.

In this, the National Unity coalition has demonstrated a general consistency in the governmental practice of transparency and accountability that is markedly at variance with the preceding regime which became known for its consistency in violating norms and perpetrating oppression. Repeatedly both the President and Prime Minister Ranil WIckremesinghe have shown remarkable coordination in their responses to public crises, thereby demonstrating the coalition government’s continued consensus to rule.

How this commitment to both justice as well as service personnel’s morale plays out in Jaffna will depend on the cooperation between officialdom in the North and the civilian population and their leaders. That it is a population that has suffered terribly at the hands of both the State as well as the rebel movement makes it all the more necessary that understanding and kindness couches the response of authorities in handling this latest tragedy in the North.