Sri Lanka: Losing the sense of right and wrong

Asia Human Rights
April 22, 2016
Reproduced with Permission
Asian Human Rights Commission

What would happen in a society where there is no sense that murder is a grave wrong to be prevented by the state and the people? The same thing could be asked about rape, sexual abuse of women, children or anyone else, about robbery and theft, extortion and drug trafficking. Many more wrongs against individuals can thus be listed.

Then there are wrongs relating to public life. What if those who wield authority do not recognise the stealing of public resources as a grave wrong? What if such persons think that the abuse of power is permissible? Or if there was a common acceptance that politicians and statesmen could lie to people about important matters concerning them? Again, the list of such wrongs against the public could be very long.

From ancient times, all civilisations have accepted that such wrongs must be recognised and prevented. A sense of what is morally acceptable and what is not is imbedded in every civilised society. In fact, being 'civilised' is largely related to the development and enforcement of ideas of right and wrong, and the building of ethical codes in order to preserve these ideas as fundamental to society. Humanity has long struggled to develop and preserve these ideas, and to inculcate them in all individuals. Unfortunately, societies have also seen moments in their histories when there are grave breakdowns of the sense of right and wrong, resulting in great catastrophes. Some of the well-known courts relating to morality developed during such times, due largely to the efforts of great leaders, whether of philosophical or religious movements, or political leaders using state power.

The Ten Commandments in the Judaism tradition is one such example. Whatever the truth of the emergence of the Ten Commandments as in the Bible, what is important is that such an ethical code was developed, embodying certain matters that were of utmost importance to that society. Laid down as commandments, every person and generation was to obey these rules.

The noble eighth fold path in the Buddhist tradition is again another example of a code of morality and ethics spread among the people. While the Buddha and his followers preached this code, Dharmasoka, a great historical ruler, made it into state policy and became a great advocate in the spread of this moral code in his kingdom. King Dharmasoka used state power to implement a moral code as a foundation of society, and did everything possible to educate people on this. Impulse for him to do so came from movements prior to his times, and continued during his time, such as the Jain and Buddhist movements. These have become universal principles spreading into all neighbouring countries around India. That was also how his own son was sent to Sri Lanka, and the rest of the story is well known and recorded.

As civilisation progressed, it was realised that mere declaration of rights and wrongs was not adequate to prevent these wrongs. On this basis criminal courts were developed, defining criminal offences. The key difference between a moral declaration and a declaration of a crime, is that the state takes primary responsibility to punish those who commit any acts considered as crimes. Thus, murder becomes a serious crime to be seriously punished by either death or life imprisonment. Similarly, the wrongs of sexual abuse, drug trafficking, corruption and so forth have all been transformed into crimes with definite punishments attached.

State obligation did not end by mere declaration of certain things as crimes. The state developed machinery for investigation into crimes: criminal investigation departments, or the modern policing system. A primary obligation of such a system is to ensure public confidence that crimes will be immediately investigated, the people committing them will be arrested and subjected to interrogation, and after proper inquiries trials will be held in public, and if they are found guilty a judge will sentence them to punishment as laid down in the law.

Civilisation in recent centuries has developed around such criminal codes and their enforcements. This is the way that right and wrong is not only recognised by society, but also enforced. There have been times however, when the enforcement of these codes was impossible; times of social breakdown. The best known example of this is Germany after the First World War. The development of Fascism in Germany, Italy and several other countries was a catastrophic time for those societies. Things considered wrong in normal times lost their impermissibility. Being relativized, murder, rape and all other serious crimes were seen as permissible when done to society's 'undesirable persons'. For a Fascist, a Communist is undesirable. For those preparing for war, anyone who espouses peace or does not join in the war effort is undesirable. The killing of such persons is not a matter of much concern. In such times, society's sense of right and wrong is seriously undermined

Has Sri Lanka reached this stage today, due to a long period of crises, particularly since the JVP uprising, its suppression, and the continuous violence in the following decades? The sense of right and wrong is not only undermined by violence, but also authoritarian political changes. An authoritarian ruler may develop intelligence and other services to suppress his enemies. Whatever is done to these enemies becomes a matter of no concern. Normal ways of dealing with crime investigation are displaced to the extent that those committing crimes can even be considered heroes. These are catastrophic times for any society.

An examination of various incidents reported over the last 40 years makes it clear that Sri Lanka today has reached the point where many grave wrongs are treated as matters of little concern. It now takes a huge public uproar-which only happens at times-to get the most scandalous of crime investigated. Even then, what happens after the initial stages of inquiry is unpredictable.

Sri Lanka's lawlessness has been discussed and documented in detail, so there is no need to go into it at present. The question now, is whether there is a fundamental disturbance of Sri Lankan society's ideas of right and wrong. Unless we face up to this problem, our society will be moving from peril to greater peril.

It is the duty of every person, particularly those committed to be opinion makers in their countries, to take up the issue of crimes as an issue of right and wrong in their societies. The times in which the ideas of right and wrong are challenged, are also the times in which great movements arise. In both western and eastern societies, the greatest morality movements have arisen in the midst of such crises, leading to great philosophical developments.

Sri Lanka today is facing a moment when either it will transform itself to a much more stable society, by again committing to define and enforce rights and wrongs, or it will fall into its greatest peril after a period of great disaster.