Rejecting corruption: a foremost exigency | Sunday Observer

Rejecting corruption: a foremost exigency

23 July, 2023

Wikipedia describes “corruption” as a form of dishonesty or a criminal offence undertaken by a person or organisation that is entrusted with a position of authority to acquire illicit benefits or abuse power for one’s personal gain. Sri Lankans, as a society, have heard or used the term “corruption” on numerous occasions in their day-to-day lives.

The irony is that although the subject is a common one, most often the target group is either politicians or public officials. While the media reports it genuinely most of the time, the politicians, as key respondents, openly discuss corruption only when they are in Opposition.

Corruption in Sri Lanka has been a longstanding and pervasive issue that has had significant implications for the country’s development, governance, and overall socio-economic well-being. Although a faction of the general public also sometimes engages in corrupt acts, mostly politicians and public servants are identified as the biggest culprits. However, allegations are also levelled at high-income professionals in professional fraternities such as legal, medical, and private tutors that they evade paying taxes, denying billions of dollars in tax revenue to the Government.

As a positive move, the incumbent Government has introduced a new bill to combat corruption. The objectives made known by the proposed act are to prevent bribery and corruption in order to meet the just requirements of the general welfare of the public, augment transparency in governance, reinforce the integrity of governance, increase accountability, enhance public confidence in Government, and boost public participation to eradicate corruption.

The Act also envisages the establishment of an Independent Commission to exercise and carry out the powers of the Act. The commission will be charged with conducting preliminary inquiries and investigations into, and prosecuting against, bribery, corruption, asset and liability disclosure crimes, and related offences.

Politicians and bureaucrats

Corruption exists in many countries around the world. Yet, there are only a handful of countries where there are politicians and bureaucrats who make it their livelihood. Sri Lanka is easily in the forefront of this category, perhaps outshining only neighbouring India, where corruption is a persistent issue, just as in Sri Lanka.

Corruption in Sri Lanka is multifaceted and occurs at almost every level, from petty bribery to high-level gross misappropriations of State funds and resources. Primarily, it permeates the public sector, affecting areas such as politics, bureaucracy, and public service delivery, although in certain cases the private sector is also allegedly involved. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index consistently ranks Sri Lanka relatively low, indicating the prevalence of corruption.

Grappled with corruption for decades, Sri Lanka grappled with corruption and confronted significant challenges in governance, economic growth, and public service delivery. Successive governments attempted a number of anti-corruption drives in collaboration with civil society organisations, law enforcement, and other stakeholders.

These campaigns sought to eradicate corruption at all levels, from grassroots to top-tier leadership, through transparency, accountability, and good governance. Regrettably, most of these attempts were futile due to weak implementation, political influence, and bureaucracy. The general public’s perception is that the new bill will provide more power to relevant authorities to investigate and prosecute wrongdoers.

It is common knowledge that corruption has enormous negative implications. Corruption diverts public funds meant for development projects, impeding economic growth and hindering foreign investment. It distorts markets, discourages entrepreneurship, and creates an uneven playing field for the private sector. It also means key services may not be delivered to the population. As a result, the resources raised domestically may not be put back into the public domain for the welfare of the population.

Misuse of power

The Sri Lankan economy, plagued by a high degree of corruption, including misuse of power in the form of money or authority to attain specific goals in an unlawful, dishonest, or unjust manner, is unable to move forward. Also, the economy cannot function effectively because corruption prevents natural economic laws from operating freely. Hence, corruption in the country’s political and economic processes harms the entire citizenry.

It is a public secret that public procurement procedures are tainted by bribery and corruption. Lack of knowledge, lack of capacity among public officials, and political interference have marred transparent Government tender procedures during the past several decades. In addition, under-the-counter and unauthorised facilitation to obtain Government contracts are being reported repeatedly in the media, although most such incidents are swept under the carpet.

These malpractices have contributed to multiple irregularities in public procurement. Despite the efforts of some authorities who have genuinely attempted to enforce anti-corruption laws, their implementation remains restrained due to a lack of resources, technical expertise, and, more damagingly, political manipulations.

In order to control the ongoing corruption, the Government must further strengthen anti-corruption legislation. Whether the existing primary institution in the country on the subject, the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC), has adequately performed is a pertinent question mark.

During the past many years, perhaps decades, the CIABOC has not achieved a notable result on conviction, although many cases have been filed against perpetrators. CIABOC was forced to withdraw some prominent cases that highlighted blatant corruption by politicians due to technical errors, exposing the inefficiency of the institution.

However, the functionality of this extremely important institution is expected to be more efficient with the enactment of the proposed bill.

Endorse comprehensive legislation

The authorities should endorse comprehensive legislation that criminalises all forms of corruption, including bribery, embezzlement, and abuse of power. They must ensure that the penalties for corruption are severe, proportional, and enforced consistently.

Also, they must establish robust legal protections for individuals who report corruption, including safeguards against retaliation and mechanisms to incentivise reporting. Currently, any genuine informant is reluctant to assist due to fear of leaks that can lead to possible reprisal.

However, according to the new Act, a corrupt act by an individual or group can be investigated without an official complaint.

The culture of whistle blowing is considerably weak in Sri Lanka due to the lack of public trust in law enforcement. Hence, the authorities must enhance awareness through campaigns, publicising successful cases, and rewarding informants.

The new anti-corruption bill presented to Parliament by the justice minister was an extremely positive move by the government. The new Act seems to envisage the establishment of an Independent Commission to exercise and carry out the Act’s powers and functions, as well as to act on the obligations imposed. The commission will be charged with conducting preliminary inquiries and investigations into, and prosecuting against, bribery, corruption, asset and liability disclosure crimes, and related offences.

The Bill will also allow authorities to conduct and coordinate public awareness activities on the prevention of bribery and corruption, implement an effective system for the declaration of assets and liabilities to prevent illicit enrichment by public officials, promote inter-agency cooperation and international collaboration in bribery and corruption prevention, and give effect to obligations under the United Nations Convention against corruption.

The country unanimously hails the provision of the new bill that compels the declaration of assets of politicians from the President downward, including parliamentary members, elected local Government representatives, and State officials and their spouses and children.

If this works out without hindrance, a considerably high response can be expected from the corrupt individuals.

The notable difference is that the omnipresent habitual disagreements and obstructions are conspicuously low for the new bill. Most independent observers expressed positive sentiments about the content of the bill. The common opinion of experts is that the bill must have some amendments, but the overall concept is positive.

Corruption in Sri Lanka

No country in the world has been able to eliminate corruption completely. Nevertheless, the level of corruption in Sri Lanka is so vast that if it continues, the overall development of the country can be far from reality. Corruption makes society worse off and lowers living standards further unless a tangible and transparent implementation of the prevailing anti-corruption laws, both new and old, is guaranteed.