Human rights in Sri Lanka have only deteriorated in recent years amidst the economic crisis that unfolded in 2022. The public, although dissatisfied with the state of affairs, is barred from protest by restrictive measures taken by the government which curtail civil liberties. In this context, Sri Lanka passed a new Anti-Corruption Act on 19 July 2023.
The Anti-Corruption Act is a long awaited legislative development, given the lacunae in Sri Lanka’s existing anti-corruption framework. The statute also aligns the existing framework with obligations under the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). Moreover, it represents a necessary step towards curbing corruption and mismanagement within the government, one of the major causes of the economic crisis. Thus, the general expectation is that the new Anti-Corruption Act will not only protect specific human rights, but may also help to address the structural obstacles of corruption that hinder the implementation and enjoyment of all human rights in the country.
A significant addition to the Act’s anti-corruption legal framework is the inclusion of Section 80 which requires even executive officers (including the President) to electronically submit their assets and liabilities to the Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption (CIABOC). Failure to comply with the provision is liable to result in a fine being levied. Significantly, section 162 of the Act also designates sexual bribery, where a sexual favour is requested for the fulfilment of a service, as a crime for the first time. Sexual bribery is not only a form of corruption but a direct human rights violation, breaching the right to dignity and physical integrity, the right to privacy, and the right to freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment. It is therefore to be hoped that existing human rights violations in Sri Lanka, fuelled principally by corruption, may decrease.
However, the Anti-corruption Act includes certain provisions that are detrimental to the already deteriorating human rights condition in Sri Lanka. Section 119 of the Act makes it an offence for a person to have made an allegation, if the person knows the allegation to be false or has reason to believe that it is false. They may be charged a fine or imprisoned for a term of ten years or fewer. This restricts opportunities for citizens to take action against corruption and the misuse of executive power. In this way, it indirectly sanctions human rights violations, in a country where those in power are already engaging in widespread corruption and human rights violations.
Furthermore, Section 28 of the Act requires ‘every member of the Commission… [and] every officer or employee of the Commission or any other person whose services are retained by the Commission‘ to sign a declaration of non-disclosure (subject to the provisions under the Right to Information Act 2016). The Commission would only consider it necessary for such information to be disclosed if in the public interest. Hence this provision appears to encourage secrecy within the Commission and may hinder freedom of public information.
In enacting this Anti-Corruption statute, the expectation is that major obstacles to upholding human rights and addressing corruption will be addressed. However, certain provisions of the Act are implicitly inconsistent with fundamental human rights obligations, limiting its power to address executive misconduct. As such, the effectiveness of the Act – which depends on its appropriate implementation and enforcement – remains uncertain.
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