SC rulings place citizens first | Sunday Observer

SC rulings place citizens first

Landmark judgments in protection of citizens’ rights by the Supreme Court last week signalled the higher judiciary’s continued activist posture in favour of the Citizen and society’s interests. While all courts of our judiciary do have a record of upholding citizens’ rights, it is in recent years as other apex institutions of the Republic, such as the legislature and presidency were locked in crises, that the top judiciary firmly remained the bulwark of the People’s sovereignty.

Last Friday the Court ruled in favour of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone unions litigating against the police assault on protesting factory workers in May 2011. Upholding the workers’ right to demonstrate freely and peacefully, the Court awarded compensation to all fourteen petitioners for violation of their fundamental rights and for injury sustained due to police assault.

The Katunayake FTZ workers and their trade unions have long been a bastion of activism in defence of labour rights and facilities. Theirs is a militancy that fulfils their historic role as the organised labour force of the country’s very first free trade zone, the flagship of export-oriented industrial development.

Other struggles of workers of the Zone were met with even worse police and military repression at the behest of the government of the time. The deaths of citizens in protests in Rathupaswela and Katunayaka due to police and military firing are tragedies that punctuated the human rights record of the last regime.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled to protect the rights of citizens of Chunnakam, Jaffna, for a healthy and clean living environment safe from industrial pollution.

The Court held in favour of petitioner residents around the Uthuru Janani diesel-powered electricity generating plant operated by the Northern power company. They had petitioned that their living environment was endangered by effluents of the power plant. In this case, too, the Court ordered compensation to the petitioners and went further by requiring the company to bring its operational systems up to the necessary health and environmental standards.

In both rulings the Court has laid the foundation for a more strict upholding of a range of citizens’ rights, thereby adding to the democratic foundations of our Republic and reassuring the citizenry that the State is, indeed, theirs and not the boodalaya of powerful interest groups. It is a proud judicial tradition already cemented by the Court’s historic rulings late last year in protecting Parliament against the depredations of Executive misrule. The Court has heeded the call of citizens for redress at a time when other State institutions seem heartless and unresponsive to people’s burning issues.

New uniform for a new police

All citizens will applaud the move to end the presence of embattled khaki in our public places and communities. President Maithripala Sirisena in disclosing, last week, this decision to change the uniform of our police force, argued that the Sri Lanka Police needed an image make-over.

While acknowledging the largely ‘negative impression’ of the Police among the public today, the President endorsed the need for an ‘internal renewal’ of the Force as the guardians of the law and community peace. Indeed, such has been the reputation of the Sri Lanka Police that readers may be forgiven if they are cynical about political promises of genuine change for the better in an institution which the politicians themselves are most adept at in manipulating.

This is why the President’s acknowledgment of the poor public image of the police must be seized by all who aspire for that renewal in professional practice and performance of duty.

The discarding of khaki attire will, at last, bring to an end the military-style appearance of the police which was an imprint of colonial rule in which the policing of a subject society was seen as part of a larger military dominance. Our military wears khaki as a means of self-defence and camouflage in battle. Not only does a khaki police uniform give the public an impression of a combat-style duty posture, one that conveys distancing from the citizen, but the decades of wearing khaki may have helped nurture domineering attitudes among the constabulary.

In the post-colonial republic, however, the Police are public servants and not agents of an oppressor colonial power. The republic requires a legal and community policing that is civilised and civilising. The police therefore is committed to upholding basic human rights. Today, sadly, the police displays a persistent tendency to violate human rights and indulge in brutish behaviour.

Despite its high level of institutional order, the police has been both neglected and wildly abused by the political class in the last several decades. This has encouraged the permeation of corruption and abuse of power among police cadres themselves as well as collusion with elements of society, whether underworld or shady business.

Ultimately, it is the wearer and not the uniform that counts when it comes to fulfilment of duty. The citizens will truly look toward that renewal of police performance that must parallel or even precede any renewal of uniforms.