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Strengthening Accountability: Sri Lanka’s Anti-Corruption Bill and Enforcement Challenges

Sri Lanka’s quest to emerge from its economic crisis has led to the approval of a significant piece of legislation aimed at combating corruption and enhancing governance.

By Madhuri Ranasinghe

The country’s Parliament has passed an anti-corruption bill, which not only seeks to address the misappropriation of funds but also aligns with the requirements set forth in the $2.9 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, the journey towards effective implementation of this bill is fraught with challenges, primarily stemming from the nation’s complex law enforcement landscape.

The anti-corruption bill received parliamentary approval without the need for a formal vote, a testament to its perceived importance in rectifying governance issues that contributed to the economic crisis. This legislation marks a significant development as it is the first time that an IMF program in Asia has been linked to a measure of this nature.

The bill enhances the authority and resources of Sri Lanka’s Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption, empowering it to conduct major investigations. An important innovation is the commission’s newfound ability to collaborate on investigations with both local and international counterparts, a move that could potentially facilitate more comprehensive probes into corruption cases that transcend national boundaries.

The anticipated enactment of the proposed new bill, complemented by the 21st amendment to the constitution, signifies a pivotal shift in empowering the bribery commission and enhancing its investigative capabilities. While acknowledging this step forward, Sankhitha Gunaratne emphasizes a positive aspect of the new bill, which addresses the issue of secrecy provisions that have historically hindered transparency.

This provision holds promise in facilitating information dissemination. However, Gunaratne also underscores concerns regarding potential conflicts between the new bill and the existing Right to Information (RTI) Act. The prospect of the new bill potentially overriding the empowering provisions of the RTI Act casts a shadow over its comprehensive effectiveness. This dual perspective underscores the nuanced nature of the reform, prompting Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) to maintain a cautious stance on the transformative potential of the bill in driving a broader cultural and social shift.

One of the most noteworthy provisions of the bill requires electoral candidates to declare their assets, with the information being made public before elections. Additionally, bribery offences have been expanded to encompass private sector entities, reflecting a broader scope of accountability.

While the law has been lauded as a step in the right direction, its efficacy hinges on proper enforcement. Sankhitha Gunaratne, Deputy Executive Director of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), pointed out that successful implementation depends on law enforcement authorities operating free from political influence and self-censorship during investigations. The bill’s passage is only the beginning, and its impact will be truly evaluated in practice.

A significant concern lies in the absence of provisions encouraging and protecting whistleblowers who expose corruption and bribery. Gunaratne stressed the need for a cultural shift toward transparency, uninhibited public officers, and unbiased law enforcement. Without this shift, the legislation may struggle to catalyze substantial change in addressing financial misappropriations.

The IMF, recognizing the importance of tackling corruption vulnerabilities, had previously embarked on an “in-depth governance diagnostic exercise” to assess vulnerabilities and provide recommendations. The anti-corruption bill, along with the wider efforts to enhance fiscal transparency and financial management, constitutes a multi-faceted strategy endorsed by the IMF to stabilize the nation’s economy and restore its credibility.

As Sri Lanka faces the imperative of overcoming its economic crisis, the anti-corruption bill represents a significant milestone. It underscores the country’s commitment to address past wrongdoings and prevent future transgressions.

However, the true test of its impact lies in its execution, particularly in an environment where law enforcement, cultural norms, and political pressures have historically posed challenges to the enforcement of such legislation. As Sri Lanka looks to the future, it will be essential to focus on building a framework that not only holds wrongdoers accountable but also fosters a culture of transparency and integrity across all levels of governance.