Opening comments by TISSA JAYATILAKA at a panel discussion held during the 26th Rotary District Conference, Rotary District 3320- Sri Lanka and The Maldives, on 18 March, 2017 held at the BMICH, Colombo. The following served as panelists: Mr. R.Sampanthan, The Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Rauf Hakeem, Minister of Urban Development, Water Supply and Drainage, Mr. ManoTittawela, Secretary General, Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms, Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, Executive Director, The Centre for Policy Alternatives, Prof. Savitri Goonesekere, Former Vice Chancellor and Professor of Law, University of Colombo.
The organisers of this panel discussion have requested me, as the moderator, to begin by making a brief opening statement which perhaps could serve to stimulate or provoke a discussion among the very experienced, knowledgeable and distinguished panelists we have with us today. I propose to bring to the table, so to speak, thethree following themes:
1. Reconciliation and Accountability
An absence of war or armed conflict in and of itself does not automatically lead to peace and reconciliation. Sri Lanka remains a post-war as opposed to a post-conflict country. Consequent to the change of government in January 2015, a foundation has been laid for peace and reconciliation in our country, but even after two years much yet remains to be done on these fronts. The accountability component of the transitional justice process appears to be impeding a speedier return to peace, harmony and reconciliation. A few days ago in Geneva, Foreign Minister MangalaSamaraweera referring to the accountability component of the transitional justice process characterised it as the ‘straw that could break the camel’s back’’. And he asked the UNHRC for more time to deal with some of the more complex and contentious issues of the transitional justice process.
In an interview with DharishaBastians published in the Financial Times of 17 February, 2017, President Chandrika Kumaratunga, the head of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation(ONUR), has noted that ‘development, livelihoods, education and answers to their questions about missing people’ are priorities for the war-affected citizens of our country. Punitive action on alleged war crimes did not come across as an urgent need for them. President Kumaratunga in this same interview states that the need for a new constitution for Sri Lanka is an even greater priority than justice for grave human rights violations committed during the final stages of the war, a perception shared by President Sirisena as well. She adds that this in no way means we should forget about accountability but that it should be deferred until the more crucial issue of reconciliation has been addressed.
On the basis of the foregoing, would it not be correct to suggest that national reconciliation ought to be the need of the hour rather than accountability? Accountability perhaps could go hand in hand with reconciliation once reconciliation measures to address the political and cultural grievances of our Tamil citizens are in place. Most citizens seem to feel that an externally driven accountability process with the participation of foreign experts and supervision by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights may militate against national reconciliation. There seems to be a general feeling, if not a consensus, that the citizens of Sri Lanka are more likely to accept an independent domestic mechanism, perhaps with foreign technical assistance. This whole issue of participation of foreign personnel has been politicised beyond recognition to the point of absolute distortion by bankrupt and hypocritical politicians on both sides of the divide. So far as UNHRC resolutions go there is no reference to a ‘hybrid’ court that one is able to find in there. This is the bane of our politics since independence, with politicians who should know better uttering blatant lies to arouse ethnic passions in a cynical bid to regain power. Should not those pandering to the lowest common denominator in our society be denounced more forcefully and vigorously?
It is my conviction that there is no absolute justice or ‘absolute anything’ in the universe. Ambiguity is a crucial part of the world we live in. And the socio-political world we inhabit is not made of paragons of virtue. All of us are, to varying degrees, flawed human beings. In this regard, if accountability and reconciliation are to go hand in hand, would we lose it all? In seeking perfect justice, will we end up being unjust?
When we consider peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, we confront three issues: reparation, reconciliation and accountability in the order of humanitarian, political and forensic priority. There is overlapping – – because meaningful action in reparation would facilitate understanding in the other two. They could also help operationalise the effective functioning of provincial and local administrations in effective ways. Insistence on accountability in the abstract reinforces instead the aggravation of all three areas. Delays in reparations aggravate the other two. If accountability is to mean Old Testament justice of an ‘eye for an eye’, we may as well forget reconciliation. I am here reminded of Mahatma Gandhi’s words: ‘An eye for an eye will leave the whole world blind’. On the other hand, if accountability is to be transformative, it cannot be achieved without parallel progress in the two Rs – – reparation and reconciliation.
Another issue which troubles me is whether Sri Lanka has generated expectations within the international community by co-sponsoring resolution 30/1 which it cannot deliver on. Will the extended time we seek to deliver on 30/1 lead to added commitments based on the critiques and recommendations of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights? And should we fail to deliver will we not be legitimising the need for a full blown ‘international inquiry’?
2. How should we respond to the Sri Lankan diaspora?
The overseas-based Tamils and Sinhalese seem even more divided than those at home. The Global Tamil Forum (GTF) and the British Tamils Forum (BTF) work together while the TGTE is pulling in different directions. Likewise there are hardline Sinhala nationalists in North America, Europe and Australia who are at loggerheads with their more moderate counterparts both at home and abroad. The notion of an over-arching Sri Lankan identity does not seem to sit well with either the extreme Sinhala or Tamil nationalist constituencies. This state of affairs is compounded by extremists both within the government, the opposition as well as in the society at large. To make matters even more complicated, the concerns and interests of Muslims , the Up-Country Tamils, Burghers, Malays, Kaffirs, Chetties, Bharathasneed to be taken into consideration in any political arrangement which the Sinhalese and the Tamils may arrive at in seeking to solve the vexed ‘National Question’ . How might these factors affect or impact on peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka? And
3. Sri Lanka and the World
The UNHRC and the international community appear to be ‘kinder and gentler’ towards Sri Lanka since January 2015. The hostility and even rancour that characterised the Sri Lanka- UNHCR/International Community relationship today is absent. Is this due entirely to the dismantling of ‘the Culture of Impunity’ that was prevalent in Sri Lanka prior to 2015 and to the reformulation of our foreign policy? Or is it perhaps due current geopolitical considerations, especially in regard to those linked to the Indian Ocean region, given Sri Lanka’s strategic location within it?
A related question that arises in this context is the perception (or misperception) that exists within a segment of Sri Lankan society that human rights is a western construct and a part of the western political agenda. And that it has no relevance for us because HR is being manipulated by the west to be used as a weapon against us. Are these perceptions justified? (Island)