The Sunday Leader

Bird’s Eye View On Sri Lankan Political Realities On Transitional Justice

  • Prince Zeid’s Report

by  Lionel Guruge

Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein

During the recently concluded Thirty-second session of the Human Rights Council, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein made an oral update before the Council on ‘Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka’. The report follows last October’s Human Rights Council Resolution which was adopted by consensus with Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship. According to Prince Hussein, ‘the resolution represents a historic commitment by the Government of Sri Lanka not only to the international community, but also most importantly to the Sri Lankan people, of its determination to confront the past and end corrosive decades of impunity, serve justice, achieve’. The update comes also following the High Commissioner’s own visit to the island in February, 2016.

The High Commissioner’s update gives a comprehensive bird’s eye view of the progress (and the lack thereof) made in terms of transitional justice and reconciliation and the political realities associated with them in post-Rajapaksa Sri Lanka. “The National Unity Government formed in September 2015 among a broad spectrum of political parties, including the Sri Lankan Freedom Party and the United People’s Party, has consolidated its position, creating a political environment conducive to reforms.  Negotiating party politics and power sharing within the coalition has proved complex as the Government seeks to build and retain the two-thirds majority in parliament necessary to reform the Constitution. This is manifest in an extensive Cabinet with overlapping ministerial mandates, and mixed messages on crucial issues such as accountability.” Furthermore, we have a unique composition of a Tamil National Alliance MP being the leader of the Opposition and the TNA being supportive of some of the Government’s constructive moves. However, as Prince Zeid says, “Political process of adopting constitutional changes should not involve trade-offs and compromises on core issues of accountability, transitional justice and human rights”.

The Government has taken some symbolic steps towards promoting reconciliation and changing the majoritarian political culture such as de-listing a number of Tamil diaspora organisations and individuals proscribed under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), singing the national anthem in both Sinhala and Tamil on Independence Day in February, 2016, the replacement of the previously hubristic military celebrations of the 2009 victory by a more understated Remembrance Day, visits to war-affected and displaced communities, and the President’s pardoning of a convicted LTTE prisoner who once plotted to assassinate him, among others. However, the High Commissioner notes that these also need to be accompanied by more institutionalized changes.

Significant momentum has been achieved in the process of constitutional reform. The 19th amendment adopted in April 2015, has seen the restoration of the Constitutional Council to recommend appointments to the senior judiciary and key independent institutions. The Government has initiated the drafting of new security laws to replace the Prevention of Terrorism Act. While the Government has made initial progress in the identification and release of civilian land, in the North and East still held by the military, little progress has been reported since then. The fate of remaining security detainees held under the PTA remains a major concern for the Tamil community. Progress with a viable system for the protection of victims and witnesses and asserting full civilian control over the military and intelligence establishment remain slow.

Progress has been hampered by a lack of clarity of responsibilities between various overlapping ministries and institutions. A Prime Minister’s action group has been established and supported by a dedicated Secretariat for the Coordination of the Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), there are also the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation headed by former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, the State Ministry of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages headed by Minister Mano Ganesan, and State Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation headed by Minister A. H. M. Fowzie. The Government has also appointed an 11-member Task Force formed by prominent members of civil society mandated to conduct the national consultation process. While the creation of these institutions of topics of grave importance is welcomed, it is important that the same is done in a ‘coordinated, integrated and appropriately sequenced manner’.

The Government has to do a lot more to raise public awareness of the issues and make the case on the importance of transitional justice, especially to the ‘Sinhala Buddhist Political South’. The views that key members of the State hold on these issues appear to be progressive, but they need to trickle down to every electorate.

It is also unclear as to what place this process has given to the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission Report and what steps are being taken to implement its recommendations.

This writer has worked for decades on upholding language rights in Sri Lanka. We have filed hundreds of cases before the judiciary and various commissions. Much more needs to be done by the State to ensure that language rights of all are protected and upheld. For the writer, reconciliation in its truest sense boils down to being able to communicate freely with one another, share each other’s stories and sorrows and learn from each other. However, today there is a gap in terms of the narratives held by the Sinhalese and Tamil communities about history, the conflict etc… and this gap is reinforced by the vernacular media.

There appears to be a commitment from the highest levels of the State for reconciliation and transitional justice, but it’s important to underscore that this needs to take place in a more synchronized, transparent and consultative process, and equally important is that more awareness is raised among the public of why this process is so crucial.

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