The Sunday Leader

Reconciliation Efforts Face Minor Setbacks

by Easwaran Rutnam

Political prisoners (file picture)

Sri Lanka’s efforts towards reconciliation is facing minor setbacks with Tamils in the North losing patience on some issues.

The latest is the political prisoner issue which is back in the spotlight with the prisoners saying they will commence a hunger strike tomorrow.

The political prisoners had staged a similar hunger strike in December last year but the strike was later suspended following assurances given by the government.

Some of the prisoners were released in stages but most of them are still in prison in jails around the country.

The prisoners have handed over a letter to the Prisons department indicating the decision to stage the fast.

The prisoners have stated that if there is to be true reconciliation the political prisoners must be freed.

The other issue is on missing persons and the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP).

Families of those missing are concerned over the delay to address the issue despite assurance given by the government to the international community.

An island-wide assessment conducted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has also found that families of missing persons have many needs, years after the end of the conflict.

The survey found that these families primarily want to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relatives and that they also face economic, legal and administrative difficulties in their daily lives.

Between October 2014 and November 2015, the ICRC met with 395 families of missing persons, including those of missing security forces and police personnel, in all 25 districts of the country. The findings of the assessment and recommendations were presented to the government.

“We believe these findings and recommendations can contribute to the development of a comprehensive response to the needs of all families of missing persons”,  Claire Meytraud, Head of the ICRC delegation in Sri Lanka said.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) said that the bill on the establishment of the OMP has prompted a number of debates among victims and civil society over outstanding issues, a few of which we address below.

CPA says although there is some disagreement amongst              non governmental and survivors’ organisations over specific provisions           of the bill, there is a broad consensus that victims belong at the center of the OMP’s work and that a victim centered approach is critical.

“The victim’s rights to truth and justice must be its animating principles. Thus, the OMP must have a primarily humanitarian mandate to ensure families’ right to know, with safeguards in place to ensure there is no undermining of future efforts to hold perpetrators accountable—through either a special court or the existing criminal justice system. In this regard, the OMP must have coherent and clear working methods, ensuring that steps are taken at the outset to reduce any tensions between humanitarian and prosecutorial goals,” CPA said.

CPA also notes concerns raised about possible tradeoffs between truth and justice and the need to address these issues.

The OMP has a broad mandate, outlined in Clause 10 of the bill. The primary mandate appears to be that of searching for and tracing missing persons and identifying appropriate mechanisms for the same, and of clarifying the circumstances in which such persons went missing. Other aspects of the OMP mandate include making recommendations to relevant authorities to address the incidence of missing persons, protecting the interests of missing persons and their relatives, identifying avenues of redress available to missing persons and their relatives and informing them of same, and collating data related to missing persons from previous processes carried out by other entities and establishing a centralised database. Unlike previous mechanisms, the mandate of the OMP covers all missing persons regardless of the time period during which such person became a missing person.

Another concern raised last week was attempts to give prominence to one religion in Sri Lanka, namely Buddhism.The Catholic clergy and the Catholic community in Sri Lanka issued a joint statement with 99 signatures last week stating that Sri Lanka should be a secular state that recognises, promotes and protects all universally recognised human rights.

“To us, a secular state is one that doesn’t give foremost place, prominence and privileges to one religion, constitutionally or in practice. In our view, such a secular state will enable individuals and communities to be more religious and spiritual and will also promote harmony and co-existence amongst different religious communities. It will strengthen the right of freedom of religion of all individuals and communities. While we recognise the historical and present day contributions of all religions to the country and its peoples, we are also conscious of attacks, restrictions and a variety of problems faced by the numerically smaller religious and ethnic communities, at the hands of the Sinhalese – Buddhist dominated Sri Lankan state and majority communities. Constitutional provisions are one of the important means of protecting rights of numerical minorities,” the joint statement said.

The Catholics called for the removal of article 9 of the present constitution which says “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give Buddhism the foremost place”.

The joint statement said the clause appears to be a contradiction to article 12 (2) of the present constitution which states that “no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of race, religion, language, caste, sex, political opinion, place of birth or any such grounds”.In this regard, the Catholic community endorses the statement in the 2013 “Pastoral letter” by all the Catholic Bishops in Sri Lanka that stated that “Sri Lanka should shed all those clauses or conditions in its constitution that could be interpreted or read to justify different forms of discrimination against its people”.

They also rejected a recent statement of the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, saying that he doesn’t recognise the concept of a secular state.

“We are also concerned about the Cardinal’s statement implying that human rights are a western idea imposed on us, and that it can destroy our cultural heritage. It is our firm conviction that human rights are universal and captures the teachings of Christianity and other religious and spiritual traditions about human dignity, equality, value of life etc. During times when Church leadership has been blind and deaf to biblical and church teaching on human rights, we recognise and appreciate the role social movements and secular institutions such as the UN has played in awakening us to our vocation to promote and protect human rights,” the statement said.

While welcoming the Cardinal’s commitment to work together with Buddhists, the signatories to the joint statement underlined that such collaboration must be not to discriminate and suppress numerical minorities, but rather, to promote and protect human rights of all, especially of numerical minorities.

“To our knowledge, Cardinal’s statement has been made without consultation and thus, it may not even represent the views of Catholics of the Colombo Archdiocese. At the moment, Cardinal Ranjith is the President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka, which historically has been a position rotated on a regular basis, amongst the different Bishops who are members of the conference. But it should be noted that the Archbishop of Colombo doesn’t represent or lead in anyway the other 11 Catholic dioceses in Sri Lanka which are headed by their own Bishops.

There are also many Catholic Religious Congregations in Sri Lanka which the Archbishop doesn’t represent. For all purposes, this appears to be a personal statement of the Cardinal and not of the Catholics in Sri Lanka,” the joint statement said.

The Catholics recognised the relevance and applicability of universally recognised human rights to Sri Lanka and fundamental vocation of all Catholics, along with all others, to protect and promote human rights.

They also committed themselves to a secular Sri Lanka, which in practice and in its Constitution, will not give foremost place, prominence or privilege to any religion, but rather will recognise and promote rights of all persons and communities to have a religion of his or her choice or not to have a religion.

2 Comments for “Reconciliation Efforts Face Minor Setbacks”

  1. raj

    While Gota and MR have never been investigated for shelling on civilian Targets where Tamils sheltered and for responsible so many disappearance, many Tamils are in prison without trial because they are Tamils

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