Sanjana Hattoruwa, in The Sunday Island, 7 January 2017, where the title is “A Report on Reconciliation“… with the highlighting below being the work of The Editor, Thuppahi
Last week, the Consultations Task Force (CTF) handed over its final report to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga. It was supposed to be handed over to the President. However, he wasn’t present at the ceremony, on a date and time his office had negotiated after many delays spreading over months. As widely noted, the CTF comprised of eleven members drawn from civil society and was appointed by the Prime Minister in late January 2016, to seek the views and comments of the public on the proposed mechanisms for transitional justice and reconciliation, as per the October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, co-sponsored by the Government of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, you would expect the PM, whose brainchild the CTF was, to be present at the handover ceremony. He wasn’t either.
The optics of the PM’s and President’s combined absence – no accident – will be the defining frame through which government writ large engages with the substance of the report. Already, the Justice Minister has dismissed the CTF’s findings. The Cabinet Spokesperson went on record saying that a key mechanism flagged in the report was not one the Government of Sri Lanka or the UN had agreed to. The comprehensive rebuttal over Twitter from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was unequivocal in its support for the report, and key recommendations therein. To date, the President and the PM have not issued any press release or statement welcoming the report. The Official Secretariat for the Coordination of Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), now the custodian of the report, has no demonstrable capacity to champion any of the recommendations, and furthermore, in an incredible display of incompetence, managed to make a complete hash of the report’s release to the public on the web.
It remains to be seen whether civil society, quite vocally critical of the Rajapaksa regime’s unwillingness and inability to deliver key recommendations in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, will hold this government accountable for, what will invariably be given the signs, the non-implementation of many CTF key recommendations. An acronym soup of official entities risks confusing the general public as well. The CTF, as noted in the report itself, even though set up by government, was debilitated in its ability around public outreach during consultations. Funding was crippled – much slower than expected, far lower than required. The official entities tasked with reconciliation have no coherent coordination framework. Consultation fatigue has set in amongst the general public, with many, even as they engaged with the CTF, clearly noting that they were hugely sceptical of any meaningful redress and reform. Above all, the timbre of the public mood the CTF report clearly flags is far removed from a healthy democracy. Legitimate grievances, from those in the South and families of the military, to those in the North and families of the disappeared, undermine all the rosy scenarios painted by government around a stable, just, peaceful future. This is not some academic argument or the wild imaginings of a few at the helm of CTF. A complete, trilingual archive of submissions, which for the first time in any national consultation held to date in the country will be made public in the months to come, will support and strengthen the report’s thrust.
The CTF is a historic achievement, and by far, one of the most far-ranging consultations around four key mechanisms of transitional justice and reconciliation conducted in any post-war context. Instead of having institutions, frameworks and mechanisms imposed on them, citizens were asked for their opinion around what was important to focus on, why, how and with whom – including the capture of aspirations, concerns and ideas well beyond the four specific mechanisms the CTF was anchored to. You would think that as a consequence, the release of the final report would bring with it a flurry of mainstream media attention, analysis and engagement. This hasn’t happened – the English press has focussed on a single topic – the issue of international involvement in judicial mechanisms. Nowhere is it made clear that the recommendations are reflective of the submissions made by those across the country. Editorials in the Sinhala press have already dismissed the CTF, calling it an NGO canard – unsurprising, given the nationalism that so often cloaks Editorial gaze. At the press conference held by the CTF last week at the Media Ministry, at least one journalist from a leading TV news station sitting in the front row didn’t know what he had come to cover, until he was informed by a colleague what the CTF was. This anecdotal story is more broadly indicative of what we can expect from mainstream media by way of critical engagement with the CTF’s findings.
The CTF’s press conference underscored other structural concerns I had with the final report. What was a process of consultation mandated and initiated by government, is now pitched as a report that is a clarion call for civil society to hold government accountable around implementation. This shift here is telling and perhaps the result of the CTF’s inability, at least for now, to openly criticise the PM for not following through with the promise of consultations. Though the report emphasises the critical role of civil society, it is essentially a complete revamp of the State as it is structured now. This is a task for government. And herein lies the rub. The entire report is written with the assumption that government will champion its recommendations. If it was evident even during consultations – with plenty of evidence on this score – that the government would not in fact take kindly to what was proposed, the report should have been structured around what could be done despite government, and re-focussed recommendations around regional, international, media and civil society strategies to diplomatically and by other means strongly encourage political office to take heed of vital recommendations in line with existing commitments at the UN in Geneva.
A report that pegs the success of reform to a government that isn’t really interested in it stands little chance of success. Further, there is no prioritisation of the recommendations, which when reading the report can be seen as overwhelming – even to government. Arguably, this will come by way of consultations around how the recommendations can be implemented, but we don’t find in the report safeguards against filibuster by focussing on the least important points, and in the noise and attention generated as a consequence, pushing to the periphery far more important recommendations that need to be urgently implemented. An inadvertent consequence of strong, sustained civil society advocacy and activism around the recommendations may also be that it gives life to what leading critics of the report, including from within government, misleadingly say it is – an NGO campaign. If the government itself doesn’t give life and leadership to reform and reconciliation, civil society cannot fill the gap. And since this isn’t about regime change but rather State reform, it is unclear to what degree civil society itself has the competency and capacity to engage with government, over the long-term, to achieve intended outcomes. And finally, no political party, even though invited by the CTF, made any representation or submission whatsoever. Beyond the bi-partisan coalition in power, this suggests the political firmament of Sri Lanka is hostile to or at best dismissive of the CTF’s recommendations and by extension, what so many citizens so desperately want to see, achieve and feel, post-war.
The great pity of merely quoting politicians, reading slanted Editorials and news features, hostile opinion pieces and other material against the CTF and its findings is that they will be entirely unreflective of the rich, textured and multi-faceted foci in the report, anchored to the thousands across the country who, despite visible and repeated intimidation, came out and spoke their mind. Even in the passages and points dealing with the military and their opinion, there is opportunity for engagement and negotiation. Arguably, at close to 1,000 pages spread over two volumes, this will be read completely by just a handful at best. Even the Executive Summary is too long for most. Much will need to be done to communicate back to those who engaged what the report focussed on, and beyond, how a government fearful of pushback from the South, the military and Buddhist clergy can be supported, without being co-opted, in a courageous reform agenda.
The CTF is a historic attempt. Let our disagreement as well as our support be based on what’s in the report, which essentially requires us to read, at the very least, the Executive Summary. One also risks disappointment to hope there is the political will to take the key recommendations forward. This will require compromise on all sides, but is there any task more important than this? The sustenance of a government that embodies everything that is denied to citizens must not be how history records this time. The CTF’s report is cartography we must explore.
Else we will forever be lost.
- MEERA SRINIVASAN ... http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/Sri-Lanka-task-force-seeks-%E2%80%98hybrid%E2%80%99-war-crimes-court/article16994075.ece
- TAMIL GUARDIAN … http://www.tamilguardian.com/content/sri-lankas-consultation-task-force-reconciliation-recommends-international-judges
Tamil language ‘Reconciliation Channel’ on Rupavahini
The agreement was signed in presence of Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake, Mass Media and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka, Deputy Minister of Mass Media Karunarathna Paranawithana, Renewable Energy Minister Ranjth Siyambalapitya, Deputy Minister of Power Ajith Perera, and Minister of National Co-existence Dialogue and Official Languages Minister Mano Ganesan.
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Reconciliation move: potentials and liabilities
The dust may yet to settle on the second anniversary of the National Unity government. The ruling United National Party (UNP) and the mainstream faction of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) held a sombre ceremony to mark the event where President Maithripala Sirisena categorically stated that, despite the challenges it faced and the occasional critical comment from within the government itself, it would survive until 2020, when the next national elections are due.
The main challenge to the government comes from the Joint Opposition (JO) faction of the SLFP. Its de facto leader, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, has already declared that 2017 will be the year in which the government will be toppled. He has also stated that he is willing to serve as Prime Minister under President Sirisena.
That is, in effect, an admission of defeat of sorts for the JO. This is because it is also an acknowledgment that, without a general or presidential election until 2020 and the Constitution now preventing a premature dissolution of Parliament, there is no way for the JO to regain power unless it demonstrates a working majority in Parliament. Even if the JO achieves this nearly improbable target, President Maithripala Sirisena is already on record saying that he will never appoint Rajapaksa as his Prime Minister. In fact, in the lead up to the 2015 general election, he made an address to the nation to convey exactly these sentiments to the country!
Nevertheless, challenges to the smooth functioning of the government remain. Although swept off the headlines now, chief among them is the resolution of the ethnic question. There are two critical components in resolving this issue: the degree of devolution of power granted to the regions and the inquiry into alleged war time atrocities during the final phases of the Eelam war. The latter had been a constant irritant for the Rajapaksa regime, which had the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passing successive resolutions against it in Geneva.
In trying to address the issue of accountability for alleged war time atrocities, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe appointed a Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF). The Task Force consisted of eminent persons of many ideological persuasions and was chaired by Attorney at Law Manouri Muttetuwegama, the widow of late Sarath Muttetuwegama, the stalwart Communist party parliamentarian who once played a lone hand in Parliament against the steamrolling J R Jayewardene government.
Others in the Task Force were Dr. Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu (Director, Centre for Policy Alternatives), Gamini Viyangoda (columnist and social commentator), Visaka Dharmadasa (Founder of the Association of War Affected Women and Parents of Servicemen), Shantha Abhimanasingham (President of the Jaffna Bar Association), Sitralega Maunaguru (a retired professor from the Eastern University), K W Janaranjana (Attorney at Law and journalist), Daya Somasundaram (Senior Professor of Psychiatry at the Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna and a Consultant Psychiatrist), Dr. Farzana Haniffa (an anthropologist and Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Colombo), Prof Gameela Samarasinghe (a Clinical Psychologist and an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Colombo) and Mirak Raheem (a researcher and a human rights activist). Their credentials speak for themselves.
What created controversy was their final report. The report was presented last week to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga. This was in her capacity as the Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). The most disputed recommendation of the Task Force was that there should be a majority of national judges and at least one international judge on every bench to try war crimes and serious violations of human rights that allegedly occurred in Sri Lanka.
It will be recalled that the issue of appointing international judges to any war crimes probe has always been a bone of contention. The international community and the UNHRC have always called for this. Conversely, the Sri Lankan government has consistently defended its right to make its own decisions in this regard. It has also been pointed out that the appointment of international judges could be potentially violating the Constitution.
The report of the CTF said that consultations in the North and East in particular, as well as in some areas in the rest of the country, revealed the overwhelming lack of trust in the State, its institutions and mechanisms. The belief was strongly expressed that exclusively domestic mechanisms would not be credible. At the same time, consultations outside of the North and East and with the armed forces, revealed strong opposition to international participation in any inquiry. Many however did recognise that given the limitations of existing capabilities in specialised areas, international expertise should be engaged, the CTF noted.
The CTF recommended that changes be made to Sri Lankan law to facilitate an inquiry into war crimes. “International crimes such as war crimes and crimes against humanity must be criminalised and incorporated into Sri Lankan law immediately through legislation,” it proposed. Recommending the creation of a special court to hear such allegations, it suggested that this court “shall ensure that there will be a majority of national judges and at least one international judge on every bench”.
Reactions to these recommendations have been swift and surprisingly have come more from the government itself than from the ranks of the Opposition which will predictably condemn them. President Maithripala Sirisena is yet to publicly react to the findings of the CTF. However, addressing a hurriedly called press conference at the President’s House, State Minister of Finance Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena said he was clarifying the President’s stance on the issue.
President Sirisena’s position was very clear on this matter and he has more than once said there will be no foreign judges in the local judicial mechanism and it will not be a hybrid court as suggested by certain groups, Abeywardena explained. The Minister said that only logistical assistance would be obtained to expedite the judicial process, when the judicial mechanism was set up to probe the alleged crimes. He also noted that Sri Lanka’s Constitution or the Criminal Procedure Code do not provide for the establishment of a judicial mechanism with foreign judges to adjudicate alleged war crimes.
Also expressing his dismay at the CTF report was Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe. The minister said he had no confidence in the CTF. “No one is complaining about the independence of the judiciary anymore. We have reconciliation and peace processes in place. This report, at this juncture, is totally unwarranted. Therefore, we don’t have to follow these recommendations by the CTF,” the Minister said. Having foreign judges in local tribunals is also a violation of the Constitution, he noted.
In comments at a public event on Tuesday, Kumaratunga acknowledged that the CTF’s recommendations had been rejected by some in the government but argued that they need discussion. “We are not opposed to them. We are not under obligation to implement all of them,” Kumaratunga observed, stating that “the government will have to decide on this”.
In the weeks and months to come, this is likely to become an even more controversial issue. The CTF was appointed under the auspices of the government by the Prime Minister. It has now emerged with a set of recommendations that may have unfavourable consequences for the government: if the government upholds them, the opposition will quite gleefully raise alarm, claiming that the government is betraying ‘war heroes’.
On the other hand, if the government chooses to ignore the recommendations of its own Task Force, it risks censure from the international community and the UNHRC at a time when a lot of hard work has gone into repairing Sri Lanka’s image and credibility on the world stage.
Perhaps more importantly, the country must still come up with a mechanism of inquiry into the alleged war crimes that would satisfy all stakeholders: the aggrieved parties, the armed forces, the Sri Lankan voter as well as the international community and the UNHRC. It is no easy task. The government will need to handle this issue which extends beyond party lines, extremely carefully. Potentially, it could also be a familiar theme heard during the campaign for the Local Government elections, the next poll that the country will face. Interesting times lie ahead.