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In Sri Lanka, reconciliation will be tough to secure

Sri Lanka has a long road to reconciliation ahead but the island nation can still serve as an example of how peace can triumph over war, argues Joseph Dana
Sri Lankan mourners burying coffins with 61 victims killed in a bomb attack at Kebitogollewa in northcentral Sri Lanka in June 2006.  Six years after the end of a bloody civil war, Sri Lanka this week took historic steps to confront its traumatic past.  Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP Photo
Sri Lankan mourners burying coffins with 61 victims killed in a bomb attack at Kebitogollewa in northcentral Sri Lanka in June 2006. Six years after the end of a bloody civil war, Sri Lanka this week took historic steps to confront its traumatic past. Lakruwan Wanniarachchi / AFP Photo

When South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) convened for the first time in Cape Town in 1996, the country was well on the road to healing the scars left by the apartheid regime. Black South Africans were emboldened with their successful international campaign to isolate and ultimately dismantle the regime of racial segregation that had governed South Africa since 1948. Nelson Mandela had been elected as president with an overwhelming majority. Nearly 20 years on, the scars of apartheid still run deep.

Last week, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) released a long-awaited report on war crimes in Sri Lanka. It details scores of human rights abuses during 26 years of fighting between the Tamil separatist group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), and the Sri Lankan government.

The report especially focused on alleged war crimes during the last phase of the civil war. Among other events, it found that LTTE rebels had been attacked by government forces even after they had agreed to surrender in 2009. While the report didn’t name those in the government who might be held responsible for these crimes, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa and those around him are major culprits in many people’s minds.

The pressing issue for Sri Lanka, however, is how to move on from this tragedy and ensure that society heals from the wounds of war. This problem is all the more acute thanks to the continuing influence of former military officials in the government and Mr Rajapaksa’s image as a strong man unwilling to relinquish power.

As such, the UNCHR recommended the creation of a hybrid court system, led by South African jurists, that will integrate international lawyers, experts and judges with local ones. In an ideal world, such a court could be bolstered by local reconciliation efforts spearheaded by the current Sri Lankan president.

Indeed, president Maithripala Sirisena rose to power in 2015 by promising a basket of domestic reforms that addressed the issue of reconciliation and the country’s tortured past. There has been talk of creating a credible domestic mechanism that will entrench the four pillars of transitional justice – truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence. Having defeated Mr Rajapaksa and then efficiently shut him out of his own party, Mr Sirisena formed a government of national unity by embracing his traditional political rivals and several minority parties.

On the heels of the UNCHR report, Mr Sirisena announced that his government would implement a South African-style truth and reconciliation commission, which local human rights NGOs have been demanding for years but Mr Rajapaks4a regularly blocked.  

The South African reconciliation model is widely respected across the world, but will it work in Sri Lanka? The answer to this question requires a deeper look into how the TRC conducted itself back in the 1990s. The TRC had a mandate to investigate systemic human rights abuses that occurred between 1960 and 1994, with the goal of restoring victims’ dignity, proposing ways to continue the process of individual and societal rehabilitation, and considering pleas for amnesty from the perpetrators of crimes. While only 849 out of 7,112 amnesty applications were granted, the process of restorative justice created an atmosphere in which the chief perpetrators of the apartheid regime's worst crimes would take personal responsibility for their actions.

The speed with which the government in South Africa responded to the commission's findings remains a point of contention today, but it doesn’t overshadow the critical role the TRC played in fomenting an open and honest national conversation about the past.

Since the TRC, other countries with systemic ethnic conflicts have looked to it as a model for their own process of rehabilitation, with varying degrees of success.

From Rwanda to Bosnia and Herzegovina, South African judges have exported the TRC’s model across the globe. Tunisia began its own Truth and Dignity Commission this year with public testimonies about life and punishment under the rule of former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was overthrown in the first revolution of the Arab Spring in 2011.

While the current Sri Lankan government has demonstrated a willingness to follow the TRC path towards honest debate and reconciliation, several factors impinge on the country’s ability to follow South Africa’s example. Parts of Sri Lanka, especially in the north-east, remain militarised to an unsettling degree.

The media continues to be bogged down by repression, while police and military units composed of former soldiers from the 29-year war with the LTTE continue to operate freely.

The issue of victim and witness protection, which wasn’t prominent in South Africa, will be of the utmost importance in Sri Lanka. Moreover, Mr Rajapaksa deeply undermined the country’s democratic institutions – the very institutions that would be critical to the full implementation of a truth and reconciliation commission – by consolidating the power of the executive branch of government.

In every postwar situation, from South Africa to Kosovo, the taste of the conflict remains present for far too long. Sri Lanka is no different, but the fact that the conflict appears to be continuing to burn in the background is unsettling.

That the country's fragile political institutions have yet to regenerate underlines the sense that proper reconciliation will require heavy lifting. If the Sri Lankans are to push ahead with this process in an honest manner, their example of reconciliation will be just as profound as the South Africans’.

At a time when the world is plagued by conflict, such a demonstration of how peace can overcome war is desperately needed and must be supported by the international community at all costs.


On Twitter: @ibnezra

Updated: September 21, 2015 04:00 AM