In Sri Lanka: New Laws to Protect Victims and Witnesses of Crime
October 17, 2007
In April 2005, the Law Commission of Sri Lanka began work on the first-ever law in Sri Lanka to guarantee the rights of witnesses and victims of crime. The law’s enactment has been “a long-felt need in Sri Lanka,” which, according to Dr. Lakshman Marasinghe, Chairman of the Law Commission, will “greatly enhance the country’s quality of criminal justice.”
At the request of the Law Commission, the governmental body under the Ministry of Justice responsible for reviewing and reforming the law, The Asia Foundation provided research support, expert advice, public consultations, and advocacy for the draft Bill for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses. The Commission’s public consultations began in April 2005 and involved members of the bar and judiciary, the police, the medical association, and other civil society organizations who collectively discussed the legislation’s value and content over the course of two years. Earlier this month, the Bill received Cabinet approval and it is soon expected to be passed into law by Parliament.
The legislation establishes a National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses, which will be responsible for monitoring the enforcement of the new law, codifying the specific rights of victims and witnesses of crime while providing new protections for both, imposing tough penalties for any retribution against victims of crime and witnesses, and establishing a special fund for compensating and protecting victims and witnesses. The National Authority, according to Dr. Marasinghe, is designed to simplify the legal system, “so that a person already traumatized by crime of which he has been a victim shall not get further traumatized while seeking help from a system established under the proposed law.”
The two-year effort to create legislation gained a surge of attention after the breakdown of the ceasefire between the Sri Lankan government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) in mid-2006. With mounting human rights violations by both sides, the Sri Lankan President appointed a national Commission of Inquiry into Involuntary Removal of Persons in November 2006 to investigate some of the most egregious violations. In February 2007, a parallel International Independent Group of Eminent Persons — headed by Justice P.N. Bhagawati, former Chief Justice of India — was established to monitor the national commission, provide expert advice when requested, and report on the commission’s progress to the diplomatic and donor community.
Sri Lankan NGOs have criticized the new legislation for not going far enough to arrest the growing culture of violence and impunity. Specifically, they are concerned that the legislation will not adequately encourage victims and witnesses of crimes in which Sri Lankan government officials are implicated to come forward; nor, in their view, will it provide sufficient safeguards to ensure their safety should they choose to do so.
Proponents of the bill argue that while it may not be perfect, it does represent a first step by the Sri Lankan Law Commission and the Attorney General’s Office to afford some protection that did not exist before. Under the law, victims and witnesses will have clear-cut rights and a legal framework to punish offenders who violate those rights.
In the context of Sri Lanka’s conservative legal system and culture, in which public prosecutors and judges rarely go beyond the letter of the law to enforce the protection of an individual’s rights, this legislation is significant. For the first time, a special category of rights violations and victims that requires special attention by law enforcement authorities will exist, while an institution within the system ” the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses ” will prod other agencies into action.
Nilan Fernando is The Asia Foundation’s Country Representative in Sri Lanka; Ramani Jayasundre is the Program Manager, Access to Justice for the Foundation in Sri Lanka.
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