Focus On Reconsilation

by Ashanthi Warunasuriya

With the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passing a resolution in September this year on Sri Lanka regarding the alleged violations of human rights in the country during the final phase of the war, the new government now has to submit a report by 2017 to the UNHRC on the progress they made in securing human rights of the people in the country, and on other issues.

The government had promised that they would seek the support of civil society organisations towards the government’s accountability and reconciliation effort. However, some claim that the keen interest that the government showed earlier in this regard has now somewhat diminished.

In this backdrop, The Sunday Leader sought views of several civil society representatives and intellectuals on the government’s progress with achieving reconciliation and on related accountability issues.

 

Mano GanesanMinister Of National Dialogue

Globally, South Africa first established a commission to seek truth and reconciliation. It is part of the catholic tradition to share agonies and seek truths and forgiveness. Of course we also have very noble traditions and practices. But what is easy to have done in South Africa, may not be that easy to achieve in Sri Lanka. But I am an optimist. We must have our own home-grown Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in accordance with our local conditions. Who knows, sometimes we may end up better than what the South Africans did. I told this to the South African High Commissioner recently at a NPC workshop.Investigating is not necessarily the mandate of a TRC. A separate apparatus from a TRC may handle the investigation part. Can we seek truth and reconciliation while investigating war crimes? Yes and no.

A TRC is where the victims could share agony and truth; it is also where alleged perpetrators could seek forgiveness. An apparatus for investigation will be another entity. Both entities need to compensate for each other. It is going to be the most difficult task. We have to bring in laws to provide amnesty for confessors at the TRC while dealing with the alleged criminals in special courts. The political will of all stakeholders is highly needed in this regard more than the techniques of such apparatuses. Let’s forget the past and begin afresh. I have confidence in President Sirisena and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe. I think that the current national and international conditions ideal for initiating such an achievement. This is the best political duo this country ever had. Now the pivotal point is the UNHRC resolution. We participated in bringing that resolution. We cannot disregard now the 20 points in the resolution. Yes, investigation is important to seek accountability. I am basically for it. But, I am keen on other aspects as well. The government is formulating a general response to the Geneva resolution. They have identified four aspects in this regard: a truth commission, judicial process for addressing the accountability issue, reparations to the victims and the non-reoccurrence of those unfortunate and horrible events. For obvious reasons, the judicial process is the most focused aspect. But we have to focus on the other three aspects as well if we have to move forward as a nation. The ministers involved in this process need to share responsibilities. As the Minister of National Dialogue, I am more interested in the “non-reoccurrence” aspect; because I am officially responsible for the coexistence of every ethnic group in the country.

I have to adders the causes of the war and national ethnic issue. My ministry holds the key entities such as the Department of Official Languages, the Official Languages Commission, the National Institute of Language Education and Training (NILET), to help achieve that goal. This is the first time a minister who is able to work in the three main languages of the country has received responsibility to ensure the subjects being handled effectively. So, I am confident that I can find solutions that Sri Lankans including the Tamils are expecting for so long. If I did not succeed in finding justice, and if I was not authorized properly to play my role here, I would have no business in the government.

 

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Brito FernandoChairman, Families Of the Disappeared (FOD)

The government has to submit frequent reports on the progress they achieved to the UNHRC that are acceptable to the international community. The international community then can decide that the government’s efforts are genuine and justifiable. But the government’s present conduct suggests that they are trying to initiate a discussion with the United States and other UN bodies to reach a settlement.

From time to time, USA and UN representatives visit Sri Lanka and present their recommendations to the government. The government claims that they are trying to make a noticeable progress within two more months by engaging in discussions with civil society organizations on the proposed domestic mechanism. Accordingly, a group of civil society representatives from the South had held a discussion with the Minister of Foreign Affairs. But it is important to hear the Northern opinion as well. However, since January 8, the day this government came into power, they have been failing to address the issue of the disappeared. So, various organisations and individuals claim that the government has failed to do anything. According to media reports, the President had recently held a discussion with Army Chiefs. Even in his speech delivered in France, he claimed that he will not do anything that put the national security in jeopardy. When we consider all these comments, we doubt whether the attempt of the government regarding the accountability is genuine. To date, providing justice to the reported victims of assassinations and abductions has been delayed. The government ought to explain their actions to the international community and to do justice to the victims of such crimes. At least if the government could sign the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances and bring in laws in this regard, it could be considered a progressive domestic step. Unfortunately, even that has not been done. The government must choose what they can achieve within a stipulated time frame and finish them. The people still have faith in this government. So it is up to the government to uphold that trust. Not only in the final phases of the war, but also the atrocities committed during the 88/89 insurgency must be probed. It is only through such achievements, the government could gain the trust of the people. The government cannot ignore these issues anymore. It seems the government is still afraid of racial extremists in the South. The government seems to be cautious in facing the allegations that the Rajapaksas made that the government is trying to hand over the country to Tigers But the government must take a clear stance and say that everyone, irrespective of their racial background, are being treated equally.

 

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Dr. Prathiba MahanamahewaDean, Faculty of Law, Defense University

The President has engaged in a discussion with all political parties on a domestic mechanism and reconciliation. That is a good step. What must be done now is to decide what to do next. At the UN Human Rights Council, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera claimed that the government is planning to set up a truth and reconciliation commission. But that proposal was not discussed that much thereafter. Instead, the US resolution came. But former President Kumaratunga, who was in a corner so far, is getting active in this regard. It is admirable. The appointment of a 10-member committee on the national development scheme and the language policy by the Prime Minister must also be appreciated. All this builds up national reconciliation. The final goal is to safeguard human rights. But still this is not enough to satisfy the UNHRC. By January 2016, we must report to them what we have done. For that, the President must seek the support of all political parties and other stakeholders. Fortunately it seems to be going on at present. What is most important is the national reconciliation. In a war, people from all sides perish. This is not something new to the world. The government cannot easily slip these issues, like TNA does today. What must be done is speeding up the legal proceedings and punishing the culprits.

Language is also another important factor in national reconciliation. It is important to make it compulsory to State officials to be fluent in both national languages. Proper communication could solve many problems. There must be some law reforms in this front as well. Before the 2016 UN Human Rights Council session, we must make sure that we take all these progressive steps properly.

 

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Dr. Nirmal Ranjith DewasiriFormer FUTA President

After the Rajapaksa regime, even though the demography of the North and East has become more open to the general public, nothing significant has been done with regard to achieving reconciliation. It seems the government is still has not a firm view how to achieve reconciliation. The government seems to be lobbying only the Sinhala Buddhists. Without having the support of all ethnic groups in the country, the reconciliation can never be achieved.

These issues can never be solved without initiating a proper discussion. Mere claims that the LTTE cannot revive will not do. We cannot achieve any reconciliation under such circumstances. For that, there should be an open approach based on a strong political view. The international community does not look at these issues in the same way we do. They have their own agendas. They do not have the same wishes of the Tamil people. If the regime in the South is willing to work with them, then they are happy. The people in the North are not well organized like the LTTE. Due to terrorist activities, the political views of the people in the south have also changed to a certain extent. But now things have started to change. Now those people think of politics. That is the biggest challenge.

There is a crisis in the government at present. Plastering is not going to fix it. What Mahinda Rajapaksa did was deceiving the people into thinking that an international invasion is imminent. But the present government cannot do the same.

They have to fulfill the promises they made to the people during the election. But the government failed to do so because of their other agendas. At least now, they must go for an open discussion on these matters.

 

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Dr. Jehan PereraExecutive Director, National Peace Council

The government has taken policy decisions conducive towards reconciliation unlike in the past. It has decided to probe the issue of missing persons more thoroughly in accordance with the resolution it cosponsored in Geneva with the UN Human Rights Council. It has started releasing long term detainees. It has started to return land. It has instructed the armed forces not to be intrusive when dealing with civilian activities. Most of all, it has lifted the fear of the white van and being targeted to sudden disappearances.

The Tamils prefer an internationally managed process as they do not trust a local mechanism. The main concern of the Tamil polity is that the proposed Sri Lankan judicial mechanism will end up delivering nothing. They have inherited a deep mistrust in Sinhalese-led governments due to their past failures. Therefore, the present government must show the Tamil people in deeds that it is different from that of the past. Returning lands, releasing political prisoners, providing livelihood assistance are some of the actions that they should accelerate. Then the government will receive the space and time to  set up the judicial mechanism with international components. So far the government has publicly disclosed a little about the judicial accountability mechanism. It does not mean, no work being done on it. The government is not consulting openly either the general public or civil society associations. It may do so later. The UN resolution is not only about accountability. It stresses the importance of the 19th Amendment and its potential contribution to promoting democratic governance, including strengthening judicial independence in the country. It also highlights the positive steps that the government took to improve lives of the war-affected people of the North and East, and acknowledges the progress the government made. The government has announced that they will address the issue of constitutional reform. But so far, there has been no consultation with the civil society on this either. The government was given 18 months to show results. As the government has cosponsored the resolution, and improved its relationship with the United States and other western countries, it is likely that they can handle the situation in favour of the country.

Many think that the previous government created this favourable situation. There is a need to create a different mode of thinking both within State institutions and the civil society in general. If this does not happen, the government will find it difficult to set up an accountability mechanism, releasing detainees and lands, and demilitarizing the north and east. The government needs to create a new vision of governance that leads to reconciliation. They have to achieve this cooperating with community level activists both in the north and south and in the local government structures, including provincial councils. Declaring policies in order to satisfy the international community will not do anything positive. These declarations need to be implemented without delay, and those who do the implementing need to be convinced that this is the best way to reconciliation.

 

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Marisa De Silva – Activist

This government has given us a momentary breath of fresh air. They seem to be more open to the opinions of civil society association and dissention. But they are not that much different from the ideology of the Rajapaksa regime – they’re just more sophisticated and subtle in their approach. However, unlike the previous government, they want to maintain good relations with the West, so, they would not want to rock the boat too much. However, as they also have to keep racist/Sinhala chauvinistic elements, both, within and outside the govt. at bay, they seem to have taken on quite a juggling act.

Some confidence building measures that government took in relation to the North and East are note-worthy. But they are inadequate or incomprehensive. Remembrance events in the North, even though under tight surveillance, both in May and November were positive signs that the government is willing to start respecting families’ right to mourn/commemorate their dead. It’s still far from ideal, as there’s heavy surveillance around these events and many organisers and participants had been questioned and intimidated before, and after such events. There was even a court order issued against holding specific commemorations in the North, in May this year.

The gradual release of lands held by the security forces in the North and East is commendable. However, these releases had not been done so successfully on the ground. If it was carried out systematically, it could have greatly contributed to the reconciliatory process.

The recent release of political prisoners and long-term detainees is yet another positive sign, although it comes because of the extensive local and international advocacy, and because of the government’s “eagerness” to please the international community and the West. Moreover, the government seems to be more open and willing to engage with the civil society, including the North and East, and the media seems to have more freedom to report independently. Also, the invitation extended by the Government to the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, and the cooperation of the government with the visits of international experts and high-profile diplomats such as UN Special Rapporteur on truth and justice Pablo de Greiff, International War Crimes expert Stephen Rapp, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power, gave the government more “Brownie points”.

I can’t speak on behalf of all Tamils, but, definitely the civil society and the victim groups that I have worked with, primarily in the North and East, would quite rightfully, not trust in a purely government-led process, as time and time again, such purely domestic mechanisms had failed victims and their families. So, the government must set in motion such confidence-building measures to earn people’s trust.

The Government is lagging behind on all commitments made at the UNHRC in September. They are yet to even hold widespread consultations with victim groups and the civil society around the country in this regard. The government recently held a large meeting of civil society organizations to share the government plan/proposal/s for reconciliation in Sri Lanka (i.e. Compassionate Council, Office of Missing Persons, Hybrid Special Court, Office for Reparations etc.,). Thereafter, the Foreign Minister asked for submissions from these groups, on how the consultation process should take place. Subsequently, many representatives of different constituencies have sent in their submissions. However, it is unclear to what extent the Government will be incorporating the contents of these submission in the eventual design of the consultation process. Also, as the government has begun to implement certain confidence building measures, they might be able to get away with appeasing the international community for the moment.

I doubt there would be very serious repercussions as far as the international community is concerned. Unlike the previous Rajapaksa regime, the new government has managed to build a better rapport with Western governments and the UN.

I don’t think this question can be answered easily, as there are multiple interests and agendas at play. But the government must exhibit that it is seriously committed to the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka, and most importantly, it needs to reassure the different war affected communities that it will deliver on its promises. Successive governments had been unsuccessful to achieve either of the above, and had worked towards fulfilling their own political ends. So until and unless the government is truly prepared to work towards achieving a lasting peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, we will remain a country in conflict.