Harim Peiris

Political and Reconciliation perspectives from Sri Lanka

  • March 2010
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The UN Panel of Experts and a Reconciliation Commission Alternative

Posted by harimpeiris on March 9, 2010

Among the political news making the headlines of the last few days has been the stated intention of the office of the UN Secretary General to appoint a panel of experts to advice the Secretary General on accountability issues in Sri Lanka with regards to human rights and the conduct of the now concluded war. This initiative comes on the heels of the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s annual report in which the call for an international investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka is renewed. The local Sri Lankan counter part of such action has been the manner in which war crimes or shooting of surrendees became a political issue at the recent presidential election with the former Army Commander and presidential challenger retired General Sarath Fonseka making the allegations and after the elections repeating the same or reiterating his willingness to testify internationally regarding the same, on the eve of his arrest last month. When an issue makes waves at a presidential election and attracts the attention of the upper echelons of the UN systems, observers can conclude that the issue is on the radar screen and on the agenda of significant players in power politics, both domestically and internationally.

Now the Government and the President’s Office have made very clear its position on the UN initiatives. It has pushed back quite hard. The UN Human Rights Commissioner has been reminded of the UNHRC’s statement proposed by Sri Lanka which was adopted by the majority and requested to honor and respect the same. The UN Secretary General has been told quite bluntly that the appointment of a panel of experts was unwarranted and uncalled for. The Secretary General’s attention has been drawn to a domestic panel of experts, headed by the former Attorney General, studying the US State Department’s report on Sri Lanka’s human rights violations and other related issues.

The rather obvious conclusion to arrive at is that when Sri Lanka is moving apace on a process of dealing with issues which require attention and remedy, the world or the international community is generally prepared to permit such domestic initiatives to bear fruit. The reality is that Sri Lanka is in a post war stage and securing a just peace through a process of national reconciliation is a must. The cartoon in last Sunday’s government sympathetic “The Nation” Sunday newspaper shows the President riding atop a snail named a political solution. A government sympathetic newspaper believes that progress on a political solution, one key aspect of national reconciliation is proceeding at only a snail’s pace. For those more acutely desiring a political solution, the process must seem barely alive if not dead. Besides its domestic ramifications, the international community observes these things.

The push for accountability arises from the very real war related issue of those that suffered death, injury and property loss as a direct result of the conflict. An important aspect of reconciliation is dealing with the victims of the war. Many people lost relatives and loved ones to the conflict, were injured, traumatized or otherwise irreparably scared, lost property and had livelihoods destroyed. When the conflict has been protracted and long drawn out the numbers are large and a multiplier effect through succeeding generations also exists. At the root of much of the young western born Tamil Diaspora’s anger, lies the pain and loss suffered by a prior generation in the course of the long drawn war in Sri Lanka. Interim reconciliation measures, while a conflict is in progress, have only a limited scope for success since the conflict still continues. However once a conflict is over, acknowledging the pain of the victims and providing some redress gives an opportunity to bring much needed healing, provide closure and enable the victims to rebuild their lives and move forward. We must as a nation embark on such an effort.

Sri Lanka has experience in dealing with the aftermath of a bloody rebellion. In 1989/90, the second and bloodiest JVP insurrection was brought to an end, also with the death of the JVP leader and its then entire politburo, of course with the sole exception of current leader Mr.Somawansa Amerasinghe, who successfully fled abroad and lived to proverbially fight another day, albeit now strenuously within the democratic sphere. To its credit Sri Lanka has accommodated him and a new democratized JVP. It is very much more preferable that the JVP does its politics democratically and in the open, than underground and violently. Democratic politics allows the electorate to deliver its verdict and going by current trends the JVP and its NDA partners of the Challenge Cup are likely to receive quite an electoral drubbing next month.

However, after the People’s Alliance (PA), the predecessor of the current UPFA, came into office in 1993/94, there was a similar cry for accountability for the victims of the JVP insurrection and then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga appointed a Truth Commission with the likes of Manouri Muthetuwegama to document the cases of the missing and the disappeared. They came up with the documented missing, presumed dead from the conflict, numbering over thirty thousand. This is a significant process. It provides an avenue to certify a missing person as dead and issue a death certificate. A death certificate in Sri Lanka is an important document. It allows for instance a young widow to marry again, legally. It permits the legal transfer of such a dead person’s property, especially important in the case of land. It mostly allows people to move on with their lives. We should facilitate this and a Reconciliation Commission along the lines of the PA’s 1994 initiative will be a good domestic initiative in which the Sri Lankan State already has experience.

The other key elements of a reconciliation process are of course normalization of the lives of the people of the North and East, the theater of conflict, where the war played out for the last three decades. This normalization would mean resettlement of the conflict displaced in their areas of original inhabitation. To resettle the many IDP’s from densely populated Jaffna this would require a significant reduction of the artillery range land buffer of the High Security Zone’s since there is now no conceivable artillery threat to State security in Jaffna. IDP resettlement also would require small scale rural infrastructure that permits livelihoods and community life. It is an expensive or capital intensive exercise to rebuild the North and indeed the East and the international community must be encouraged to support Sri Lanka’s efforts in this regard. If Sri Lanka had a Tokyo Donor Conference during the ceasefire period which saw significant pledges of aid, up to USD $4.5 billion depending on how one crunched the numbers, with just a ceasefire, the end of the war should hopefully see, a whole lot more, if a clear domestic process of reconciliation is in place and greater progress is made on the issues at hand.

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