Demonstrating a simple but powerful truth
On a recent visit to Hong Kong on work, particular phenomena regarding this Special Administrative Region (SAR) struck me as amazing. As contrasted to the majority of countries in South Asia and Southeast Asia that appear to be retrogressing in the safeguarding of the rights of ordinary people and the institutional systems that ensure such protection, Hong Kong has been singular in its recent manifestations of people power over authoritarianism. And it is no small matter that in so doing, predictions of the pessimists that the contrary would happen as a result of the reversion of the Region to the authority of mainland China in all aspects, including the judicial, have been soundly defeated.

Specific developments in this regard are important for Sri Lanka. In the first instance, a powerful symbol of integrity in public life has been constituted through the functioning of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). The manner in which this Commission came into being, is highly illustrative of its context. Hong Kong, before the Commission was set up, was a Region where corruption was endemic. Quaint terms such as 'tea money' served to whitewash the fact that the public service, including importantly, the police, had sophisticated systems of graft that were very much the norm. Caught in this trap, ordinary people were helpless in a manner fairly akin to the basic vulnerability that Sri Lankans are experiencing now as regards their Government and the institutions that are supposed to protect them.

However, growing public opinion itself was the reason why the systems in Hong Kong changed. Faced with a tremendous public uproar over the inability of the Region to minimise massive corruption, including mass student protests over the fleeing of a prominent police officer after taking huge bribes, the ICAC was set up under Ordinance in 1974. Strikingly, a comment made at that time by an originator of the ICAC was to the effect that " To combat corruption, good laws and good organisation are essential but I put my trust principally in the services of sound men and women...."

The ICAC had teething problems in the sense that the police force which it first dealt with, rebelled against its authority, culminating in police officers themselves engaging in public rallies. However, a compromise was reached wherein past practices, much on the lines of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in a different context altogether, was given immunity subject however to the stern warning that thereinafter, police officers found guilty of corruption, would be dealt with mercilessly.

The ICAC is mandated to act in any alleged offence of blackmail committed by a public servant through misuse of office as well as crimes facilitated by or connected with suspected corruption offences. It has substantive powers of independent investigation as well as search and seizure including the authority to take non-intimate sample from a suspect for forensic analysis. Its structure is relatively uncomplicated but extremely effective, comprising a Chief Executive and an Executive Council as well as a Legislative Council which latter body holds the authority of conferring and repealing the powers of the ICAC. Uniquely, four advisory committees comprising some forty prominent citizens of Hong Kong oversee the functioning of the ICAC.

These advisory committees include a general committee which oversees the overall direction of the ICAC and advises on policy matters, an operations review committee that examines the investigative work of the ICAC, a corruption prevention advisory committee that looks at corruption prevention studies and a citizens advisory committee that educates the public and enlists their support. Meanwhile, an internal investigation and monitoring group handles all complaints against ICAC staff that are then reported to the operations review committee. Further buttressing the internal integrity of the ICAC, an independent ICAC Complaints Committee chaired by an Executive Council member monitors and reviews all complaints against the ICAC.

The functioning of the ICAC since the years that it has been established, has been nothing short of remarkable. In a Transparency International's Corruption Perception Index survey released recently, Hong Kong was ranked the 14th least corrupt place amongst 102 places polled, and the second cleanest in Asia. This has had obvious results in so far as development and international investors are concerned.

The pride of the members of the ICAC in belonging to an institution of this nature is considerable. Thus, speaking at the Plenary Session of the 11th IACC conference in Seoul, Korea in May last year, ICAC Commissioner, Ambrose Lee identified the success of anti-corruption work in Hong Kong to rest on four main pillars.

Firstly, the Hong Kong government is committed to eradicating corruption and fully supports the work of the ICAC. Secondly, the ICAC operates independently. Its independence is further guaranteed under the Basic Law which enables it to enforce anti-bribery laws effectively, without fear or favour. Thirdly, the ICAC has a team of professional graft fighters who are dedicated to the mission of fighting corruption in Hong Kong. An important underlying factor meanwhile in all these respects has been the commitment and independence of Hong Kong's judiciary in this regard.

Lastly, strong community support behind the ICAC anti-corruption drive has guaranteed its successful functioning. Interestingly, over 90% of corruption allegations investigated by the ICAC originates from the public. Annual surveys reveal that an overwhelming majority, (98% - 99% of respondents), consider that the ICAC deserves their support. Again, a high proportion of complainants, (over 70%), are willing to reveal their identities to the ICAC when reporting corruption. In contrast, only about 35% of complainants were willing to do so in the 1970's, when the Commission just started their work.

The contrasts with Sri Lanka cannot be more vivid. Not only has this country's graft Commission been non-functional for the past one year and more due to the non appointment of a Commissioner to fill a prevailing vacancy, but several other fundamental problems hinder its functioning. Glaring problems include the absence of an independent police force, rendering it virtually impotent as an independent corruption fighting body with regard to the public service including the police as well as its lack of financial independence.

Excessive political struggles that the Commissioners and officers have been caught up since its inception, has almost totally destroyed public confidence in its efficacy and independence. This has all been aggravated by the public belief that there is an overwhelming lack of political will on the part of our leaders in toto, to effectively deal with corruption, given that their own parties are rife with corrupt politicians.

Immediate parallels with the manner in which corruption was tackled in Hong Kong are evident in the recent protests by the people of Hong Kong against attempts by the Government of Hong Kong to enact legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law (Hong Kong's mini Constitution) against treason, sedition and secession as well as crimes as vague as subversion and the theft of state secrets. Mid last year and again in January this year, ordinary citizens notwithstanding their political differences, came out on to the streets to demonstrate peacefully against the attempted infringing of their civil and political liberties by Hong Kong's rulers.

These twin tales of success demonstrate a simple but powerful truth. Until people are sufficiently moved to take matters into their own hands and demand accountability and justice from their rulers, they are fated to suffer the deprivation of their own liberties.. This is an enduring lesson that Sri Lankans should do well to take to heart at this present juncture.

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