Nearly four months into the highly contested arrest of writer Shakthika Sathkumara, the allegedly selective application of the ICCPR Act repressing free expression of Sri Lankan citizens came into harsh criticism in a panel discussion held in Colombo yesterday.
Organised by the citizen journalism initiative Vikalpa, the discussion centred around the sudden spike in arrests made under provisions in the controversial International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act.
Speaking at the event, lawyer and activist Lakshan Dias said authorities and institutes entrusted with implementing the law cannot be relied upon to use the ICCPR Act for its express purpose of protecting the civil and political rights of citizens.
These institutes, biased and backward as they are, he said, are ill-informed of the fundamental rights already enshrined in the Constitution including the right to free speech as well as other cultural, social and economic rights guaranteed through various Acts in Parliament.
“I believe that the laws already in place are mostly sufficient. The problem lies in the political bias and backwardness of the institutes implementing the law,” he said, charging that the authorities have a tendency to selectively and discriminatorily apply the law as they see fit.
Going as far as to call the ICCPR Act effectively “useless”, Dias said no government in history has offered to protect human rights at the expense of ruling class interests.
“Marx said the state is a weapon of the ruling class. No country has served human rights to its citizens on a platter. This [Act] is useless. Except that it is being used to curtail the people’s right to express themselves,” he said.
Quoting the preamble of the ICCPR Act passed in 2007, the senior lawyer noted that it only covers civil and political rights not already given legislative recognition in the Constitution and in other legislation enacted in Parliament.
“A majority of civil and political rights were already covered in the chapter on Fundamental Rights and other Acts passed in Parliament. There were things not already covered, but no government would like to touch those. As I understand it, the ICCPR Act is not one that guarantees or promotes any right,” said Dias.
He further noted that publishing anything that is deemed hate speech or inciting communal violence can lead to an arrest under provisions in the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the ICCPR Act and Sections 290, 291 and 292 of the Penal Code, as well as other laws.
“Who decides that you would be sued under provisions in the ICCPR Act? The police. We know the level of a police officer. It is someone of that level who decides to use this law against you,” he said, adding that it was unlikely that the police officer who arrested Sathkumara sought the advice of the Police’s legal division or the Attorney General’s Department.
Reiterating that the authorities implement the ICCPR Act with no consideration to the people’s constitutionally guaranteed right to free expression, Dias said even a Magistrate is often compelled to listen to the prosecutor.
“The institutes implementing the law continue to be biased and backward. It is so bad that not even the judiciary can intervene. This system will continue if you don’t try to change it,” he said.