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Sri Lanka’s difficulty with truth

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By Tejshree Thapa

War is messy, leaving in its wake, not just death, injuries and destruction, but persistent distrust. To heal, there needs to be communication, understanding, and above all a sense of righting wrongs. In this, Sri Lanka’s Government is faltering, despite promises to its own people, as well as to the international community.

Sri Lanka’s three-decade war with the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) killed an estimated 100,000 civilians, left many more injured and displaced, and widened a seeming unbridgeable rift between the minority Tamil and Muslim communities, and majority Sinhalese communities. 

After an October 2015 pledge to the United Nations Human Rights Council to address justice and accountability, Sri Lanka’s Government in 2016 embarked on a nation-wide consultation to find ways to deliver answers.

The Government entrusted the task to an 11-member Consultation Task Force (CTF), representing a cross-section of Sri Lanka’s ethnic, regional, and religious groups. Nearly half the team, including the head of the CTF, were women.

The consultation process was a complicated one. The CTF recruited representatives of local civil society, political, feminist, healthcare and religious leaders as Zonal Task Force members (ZTF), who could conduct consultations on the ground across the various districts and provinces. Several ZTF members told Human Rights Watch that it was a difficult process, with little support or outreach from the government. Worse, they said people turned up for meetings despite intense fear of security force surveillance. 

The ZTF reported robust participation even in the southern predominantly Sinhala provinces, and from within the military forces themselves – groups that had been expected to be somewhat recalcitrant. This is because communities trusted members of the task force, and wanted to both understand the transitional justice process and work towards justice, in spite of the fears and difficulties. 

The ZTF ended their consultations in August 2016, and submitted their reports on their respective districts and provinces. The CTF then compiled these various reports, and distilled the findings and recommendations into one central report, which was submitted to the government on January 3, 2017. The report makes strong recommendations. 

It calls for the creation of a war crimes court comprised of both national and international judges and other officials, with no time limit on its jurisdiction. Support for this court included Sinhalese, whose population suffered thousands of enforced disappearances three decades ago, for which there has been no accountability. The task force also recommended a countrywide response to disappearances, financial and symbolic reparations, a constitutional and political settlement, resolution of longstanding land disputes, and attention to psychosocial needs.

Half a year later, the Sri Lankan Government has let this important initiative languish. Although officials travelling abroad boast about the consultation process and herald it as a signal of the Government’s determination to abide by the Human Rights Council resolution, it has completely ignored the report domestically. Foreign governments watching Sri Lanka’s progress on the resolution need to ask tough questions about why yet another Sri Lankan Government report is banished into silence. Meanwhile, the task force members, both national and zonal, are left in a quandary. While many joined the effort with a fair degree of scepticism, aware that the Sri Lankan State had undertaken many commissions of inquiry which in the end led to no redress, they had hoped that the Government led by President Sirisena was sincere in its promises. And now they feel let down. 

A CTF member described both the exhilaration of the process and the attendant disappointment: “The consultations gave way to an amazing non-patronising community of support…the best thing about the experience is that people had ideas. But by January 2017, I was wondering: what the hell?”  ZTF members, particularly community leaders who have spent years building relationships of trust, feel they are bearing the brunt of public rage over the lack of action. They feel exposed, and are confronted daily by their communities, yet another failed promise but this time by trusted local leaders.  “They are very angry with us, people have lost their faith, even with me,” one ZTF member told Human Rights Watch. “And now, I also have lost faith.” 

The Government of Sri Lanka should publicly acknowledge the findings of the consultation report and ensure that its recommendations – which are nothing more than the voices of the aggrieved nationwide, across ethnic and religious lines – are appropriately implemented through robust justice mechanisms. 

This is not just so Sri Lanka can keep its commitments internationally, as it must, but to reassure its own citizens that it believes that peace includes justice, and not just the end of war.

(The writer is a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch.)

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