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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2702

No freedom from corruption without a vigilant public – Judge Weeramantry

Colombo, 04 August, ( Addressing the National Anti Corruption Conference in Colombo, Judge Christy Weeeramantry said that “the laws are like cobwebs which catch small flies but let wasps and hornets break through.Judge Christy Weeeramantry : "My first proposition is that freedom from corruption cannot be achieved without a vigilant, informed and sensitive public."Judge Christy Weeeramantry : "My first proposition is that freedom from corruption cannot be achieved without a vigilant, informed and sensitive public."

“It is a general complaint that the network of anti corruption laws across the world functions in much the same way. If power, influence and position can buy exemptions from the operation of the law that would be the total negation of democracy and the democratic ideal,” he added.

Here is the full text of the keynote address by Judge Christy Weeeramantry at the National Anti Corruption Conference 2007:-

Bribery and corruption are features that every government in history has had to take note of and treat with serious concern. World literature is therefore full of references to corruption ranging from the ancient clay tablets of Assyria four thousand years ago to the most recent literature. The dramatists Beaumont and Fletcher likened corruption to a tree. Once it takes root “its branches are of an immeasurable length and spread everywhere”

This is therefore a universal phenomenon and all countries need to marshal their best resources to deal with it. Of course their prevalence varies greatly in extent, with corruption being rampant in some jurisdictions and minimal in others. Yet whatever the government, and whatever the prevalent degree of corruption, two aspects are universally relevant and that is what I wish to speak of today – the need for public education in this field, and the need for strengthening the institutional structure for the containment of this blight upon the public life of a nation.

Since peace education has been one of my central interests, this aspect is particularly stressed at my Centre. I would go so far as to say that anti corruption education is an integral part of peace education, for corruption undermines human rights and the rule of law, and this sows the seeds of discontent, disrespect for law and the outbreak of violence.

The Educational Aspect

My first proposition is that freedom from corruption cannot be achieved without a vigilant, informed and sensitive public. Throughout history and in every country and legal system, this has been demonstrated time and time again. The remarks I shall be making are not with reference to any specific state or jurisdiction but about corruption in general wherever it may be and by whomever it may be practised.

We need to generate a climate of integrity such that it is the expectation of every citizen that integrity will be observed by every official in the discharge of all his or her responsibilities and that nothing short of total integrity would be accepted. Such a general climate, such a national atmosphere, needs to be generated. In consequence, if there is the slightest departure from those high standards there will be a feeling of confident expectation on the part of the entire public that this will not be tolerated, that appropriate steps will be taken to ensure rectitude and that the offender will be brought to book. Such a general atmosphere cannot be achieved in any country without the introduction of this concept into the education process and it is my earnest appeal to all here present that we should take immediate steps to introduce these concepts into our schools.

Let our children know that it is their right to expect total integrity from all who hold authority over them and that nothing short of this shall be expected or accepted. Educational curricula tend all too often to be crowded with subjects that help one to get a living – the so called “bread and butter” subjects. But the “perspective” subjects which embody the wisdom of the ages in regard to duty and integrity tend to be left out.

This is a huge lacuna in our education system and needs urgently to be corrected because it is the lack of this perspective which in any country permits injustice and corruption to prevail. In modern times we tend to stress our rights and to neglect attention to our duties to the community, and this needs to be urgently addressed by our education system.

We can take a lesson in this respect from the Japanese context where for centuries children are impregnated with the idea of duty – duty to themselves, duty to their employers, duty to their fellow citizens and duty to their nation. A corollary to this is that nothing short of this standard is expected of others, however exalted the position which they hold. I have spent some time in Japan and if I had time I could relate to you numerous incidents of the pressure of public opinion absolutely preventing the performance of a corrupt official act or requiring redress for wrongful acts that were performed. This tradition goes so far that some are even prepared to sacrifice their lives if they feel they have not performed their public duties with complete rectitude.

This is an extreme example but what is important is the moral underlying it - namely that there is an irresistible body of public opinion expecting and compelling total rectitude in the discharge of public duties.

All this is particularly important because corruption can take innumerable forms. It consists not merely in bribery in a monetary sense. Performance of favours, asserting the importance of one’s position in seeking exemption from the operation of the law, throwing ones weight around to prevent humble officials from performing their duty, nepotism, misuse of political funds, trading money for political favours, supporting candidates in return for favours expected later, threats and blackmail, interference with processes of fair trial – the list is unending.

For this very reason all these methods cannot be regulated by law for it is impossible to frame a law covering every situation. It is here that the moral sense of the community must come into action, asserting what is right however hard may be the path. The path of corruption is easy and the path of rectitude is hard but all our traditions and all our religions teach the importance of the latter. The Dhammapada teaches that the path of corruption is easy, but the path of rectitude is difficult – “easy is the life” of those who choose the first path but “hard is the life” of those who choose the second. Yet the duty is clear and unmistakable that the path of rectitude, though difficult, is the only path that may be chosen. Had time permitted I could give you quotations from each of the religions with regard to this.

The Institutional Aspect

I come now to my second proposition – the need to strengthen our institutional structure against corruption. In order that the public, imbued with such a sense of duty and an expectation of duty from others, may be able to assert its expectations, certain pre requisites need to be provided – there should be a right to information, a right to protection when making one’s complaint, an authority to whom such complaints can be made, a duty on the part of such authority to investigate the complaint, a means for translating the result of the investigation into action whether by way of punishment or compensation, and many more.

Among the items of legislation that need to be introduced or revamped to achieve this end are:

- A Freedom of Information Law,

- A Whistle Blowers Protection law,

- An Audit Act enabling the Auditor Generals Department to make free and fair Investigations,

- Acts relating to Declaration of Assets & Liabilities, as well as Financial Disclosure Acts need to be strengthened in their operation

Further suggestions to that end are contained in the various studies that have gone into the National Anti Corruption Action Plan that is being presented today.

Two other aspects pertaining to this topic cannot fail to be noted.

The Social Aspect

One is that the bulk of the victims of corruption in a country are those who are already poor and under-privileged. They have no power at their disposal to assert either rights or to right the wrongs done to them except through those who have power and authority, and who have been installed in those positions by the people themselves. Lacking other means of redress, the executive, the legislature and the judiciary are their sole weapons against wrong-doing. If those weapons or any parts of them cannot be relied on, they have no refuge in adversity and tend in desperation to take the law into their own hands. There is need therefore to have an increased sensitivity to this aspect of the responsibility of all who hold public office. The rich and privileged may have other means of redressing the wrong done to them, but the poor and under-privileged have none.

The second aspect to be referred to is that our country is an intensely agricultural and rural society. The bulk of our citizens are far away from the centres of authority and can approach them only with difficulty, although the writ of authority reaches far out into their rural places of residence. There is inequality here, for the centres of authority from which they seek redress can only be approached with difficulty, and at great trouble and expense. When with all this, they do approach these centres of authority, it must be heartrending for them if there is bias or corruption in this their last place of refuge. Consequently a duty of total integrity in administration lies very heavily upon all those who are in the seats of authority.

These human aspects of corruption often tend to recede from view when we consider the matter academically and from the privileged positions we occupy. Especially in developing countries this imposes a specially heavy burden of uprightness and total integrity on all who have the authority to make determinations affecting the lives of those people.

We must not lose sight of the fact that corruption even at the lowest level can cause immense hardship. Corrupt or politically influenced decisions by minor officials and at village level can completely disrupt the lives of humble people. It should be our endeavour to ensure that this country is free of corruption all the way up the hierarchy of administration, from the rural levels to the corridors of power. Every sector of the government, executive, judicial and legislative needs to be freed of this taint.

It is important of course to ensure that these officials are not driven to corruption by sheer want. In many cases it is desperate economic necessity that drives them to seek the extra penny which they need for basic subsistence. Addressing the problem of corruption therefore involves also attention to the problem of ensuring a living wage for those who are at the lower ends of the bureaucratic ladder.

Another aspect needing attention is the interference that often takes place with those who seek to enforce the law. It was only yesterday that I addressed a meeting of the South Asia Cooperative Environment Program (SACEP) which aims at protecting the coral reefs of South Asia. There was a discussion at this seminar of damage done to our reefs which are steadily being destroyed by poachers. When these persons are prosecuted or when attempts are made to stop their activities, those who employ them intervene and prevent further proceedings. In this way irretrievable damage is done to our environment, which cannot be repaired for centuries and the damage done to future generations is immense. Stories such as this can be duplicated from almost every sphere of activity. All these are aspects which need attention in the social and practical context of continuing concepts.

Protection of Witnesses and Informers

It is also most important that there should be a freedom from fear to make a complaint or to give evidence, for the ways are many in which such conduct can be restrained and such complainants can be discouraged. In the field of anti corruption this applies much more than in the field of law.

I recall many years ago the case of Ms Catherine Genovese in the United States which aroused world wide attention. Ms Genovese was done to death in the heart of New York City in the presence of many bystanders . Not one of them came to her defence and this shocked the world. Inquiries revealed that it was the fear of being implicated as witnesses, the exposure to threats, humiliation, harassment, victimisation and rough treatment in court that prevented people coming to her rescue. Seminars were held all over the world on the Genovese Case. This has deep significance for us, for world wide studies on anti corruption have revealed a fear on the part of complainants to come out into the open. There is an important message here for those addressing the problem of bribery and corruption, for the pressures that are brought to bear on complainants and witnesses of bribery and corruption can be as severe if not more so than even in a case of murder. The greater the act of corruption the greater is the danger to the complainant and witnesses.

Here again the creation of a climate of rectitude could bring about a major change by ensuring that complaints can be made without fear of retaliation or victimisation and that they will be investigated and followed by appropriate action. To offer such protection is a basic duty of the state.

The Spider’s Web Syndrome

There was an old Greek saying that the laws are like cob webs which catch small flies but let wasps and hornets break through.

It is a general complaint that the network of anti corruption laws across the world functions in much the same way. If power, influence and position can buy exemptions from the operation of the law that would be the total negation of democracy and the democratic ideal. This happens often in very powerful countries where corporate power, technological power and military power either alone or in combination and sometimes too powerful for even governments to resist.

Looking at the problem of corruption world wide one sees also the immense force of corporate power. It is scandalous to observe how across the world these powerful entities corruptly assert their will through blandishments afforded to those in power. The sad phenomena of lobbying even in the most powerful legislatures of the world draw attention to the magnitude of this danger. In our country let us ensure that this does not happen and we could then be an example to others.

We see thus that the campaigners for integrity face opposition from very powerful sources. Political power, corporate power, economic and industrial power can become a very powerful phalanx of power which the average citizen often finds difficult to resist and it is here that we need to strengthen our legal and institutional structures. In some countries military power is also added to this contribution as President Eisenhower famously warned the American people in his Farewell Address, referring to the power of the military industrial complex.

The Cross Political Aspect

The campaign against corruption is one that crosses all political boundaries. It does not matter what political party or persuasion one belongs to. It is axiomatic that every political party or persuasion must necessarily condemn corruption outright and banish it from the realms of governance.

We are here on even ground for there can be no quarrel with this proposition. There may be individuals within a political party who may seek to circumvent this principle. But I make bold to say and I say it in the name of all Sri Lankans, that no political party in this country can for one moment accept corruption or deny a pledge to end it outright as far as lies within its power.

Here is a platform on which everyone can agree. It is the bounden duty of all political parties and of every legislator to promote a culture of integrity and adopt a strategy of preventing corruption and pursuing wrong doers. Of course, despite the best efforts some occasional instances of corruption will occur but these must be dealt with as and when they occur. This can be stated in very strong terms. Indeed Ignacio Pagaza, a Mexican politician who was the Governor of the State of Mexico has very pungently observed that, “The phenomenon of corruption is like the garbage. It has to be removed daily” (New York Times, April 17, 1987). If we do not do this corruption will grow upon us and dominate us. Thomas Jefferson said, “The time to guard against corruption and tyranny is before they shall have gotten hold on us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.” (Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). We need urgently to have an anti-corruption action plan and this will be one of the matters for consideration. Increasing transparency and accountability of all departments and organisations at every level are important portions of this activity and you will no doubt give them your concerned attention.

Corruption tends to grow if it is not brought under control and that is why constant attention to it is necessary. In the expressive words of a 19th Century English writer, Charles Colton “Corruption is like a ball of snow, once it's set a rolling it must increase.”

All this wisdom of the ages thus points to the need to stop corruption as soon as it is detected.

A Message of Hope

There are many who are losing hope that we can solve our problems. I think we have an important message of hope to convey, arising from the topic we are considering today.

We have wonderful traditions to guide us in this regard. I will give you an obvious citation from a reference in Buddhist scripture which we all know – the dasaraja dharma, enumerating the ten duties of rulership. Among them is “fair dealing”. There cannot be any semblance of fair dealing between a government and its subjects if governmental acts are influenced by corruption. Nothing could be more opposed to “fair dealing” towards the subject of a government than corruption at whatever level it is practised. If there is to be “fair dealing” as required by the dasaraja dharma it is the State’s duty relentlessly to enforce and ensure a total absence of corruption at every level.

“Fair dealing” is of-course vitally important as a rule of conduct for everybody. Yet for a government it has massive implications which do not operate at the individual level of a subject robbing or dealing unfairly with another subject. In such a case an individual victim is unfairly deprived of his or her property. But if a government official takes something illegally for the performance of an official act, the whole country is robbed, for the assets of the government belong to each and every citizen. So it is in regard to governmental power, for governmental power is the property of every citizen, granted to the government on trust. When that power is misused, its owners - the citizens - are cheated of it. The government’s duty of “fair dealing” thus needs to be enforced at every level and throughout the length and breadth of the country. Failing this we would not be true to the basic principles which are such an integral part of our national culture and heritage. This therefore needs a widespread institutional apparatus which can reach into every area of possible corruption, investigate it and take appropriate action.

Unfortunately successive governments in setting up various parts of the institutional structure have failed to give it the necessary strengths and safeguards and to insulate it from interference.

I conclude with a reference to our rich cultural and religious heritage which should be an inspiration to us all.

The Buddhist teaching relating to governmental integrity has already been referred to. In Christianity the Commandment “Thou shall not steal” has been amplified by generations of writers in its application to rulers and their officials in every aspect of their official business. In Hinduism the subject of “dharmishta” or righteous conduct has been elaborated down the centuries in treatises dealing with the duties of rulership.

The laws of Manu are explicit on the duties of judges and officials to rise completely above even the suspicion of corruption. In Islam the concept of rectitude in rulership has been elaborated on to the point that the just Caliphs whose conduct is held up as a model for rulers drew a careful distinction even between the categories of oil they used for lighting lamps. They thought it wrong to use public oil to light their lamps at night except for official business and made it a point to use their private stocks of oil to illuminate their rooms for purely social events.

Such are the traditions we are heir to and we need to instil these into the consciousness of our people commencing with the schools.

In this country we have the singular advantage of being home to four of the great religions of the world. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Islam all co exist and fertilise our national traditions. This is an advantage few other nations can match. All these teachings point in the same direction – rectitude in public administration. We have no excuses for deviating from this path and every reason to draw upon this wealth of tradition and adhere to a standard of rectitude which can be a stimulus and an example to others.

* * *

In short my message today is that we need to infuse every level of the public with an enthusiasm for integrity in public life which will transform and illuminate all levels of administration in this country ensuring to all Sri Lankans their rights and the performance of their duties by their superiors without which democracy would exist only in name. We have the traditions and the capacity to do this. We must generate the requisite will, enact the necessary legislation and set up the necessary institutions. We can then rise up once more, triumphant against the perils that assail us and give the world a shining example of what can be achieved if the people are determined in their pursuit of rectitude in public life.

Notes: 1 On 13th of March 1964 – 38 witnesses – attack lasted 32 minutes & she was stabbed 17 times

- Asian Tribune -

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