Reconciliation is investment in our children’s future | Sunday Observer

 Reconciliation is investment in our children’s future

On the last day of his mission to Sri Lanka, Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-recurrence held a press conference in Colombo to present a summary of his findings. His presentation covered the progress Sri Lanka made on the transitional justice front in the last two years, and the outstanding issues and challenges we as a country face in implementing this crucial process.

The presentation was lengthy and comprised numerous important points, including the danger posed by the incessant politicization of reconciliation by some political opportunists.

According to De Greiff, this propaganda misrepresents what is a process of social change and recovery of the society from the legacy of almost three decades of conflict as somehow an issue of inter-ethnic conflict and communalism.

The next-day’s coverage of the press conference best testified to this point as many in the media presented reductionist, and sometimes diametrically opposing interpretations of De Greiff’s assessments.

The coverage spoke of the dire need for an informed debate on what is a process deeply rooted in values inherent to our culture and religion, a process crucial to the prosperous future of our country.

Transitional justice

So, what is it that we are talking about when we use these complicated terms like transitional justice and reconciliation? In their essence, these notions are about the healing of our society after three decades of conflict. They are about human rights of every citizen of our great country.

They are about us coming together as a society in building a future for our children, a future free of conflict or repression, disappearances, terrorism. They are about values of kindness (metta) and compassion (karuna) for others. Ultimately, they are about repairing the victims among us and making sure we never again have to go through the traumas brought about by the war.

We undertook a commitment to take this journey because it is about what kind of society we want for us, for our children. It seems that at various points in this journey we need to be reminded that reconciliation is about the dignity, rights and prosperity of all our citizens, not only the victims.

It is about the trust between the citizen and the state, it is about the rule of law, and ultimately, it is about the development of our country. We had a war that has gone one for almost 30 years, in which tens of thousands of our citizens died, many more suffered.

How can we have a hope of becoming a stable, prosperous society, in which rights of all citizens will be respected and protected, if we don’t address this suffering? How can we claim to be a society in which everyone enjoys the same rights if among us live mothers who still don’t know what happened to their children? How can justify their plight with some sort of a political agenda?

It is through this lens that we have to analyze Pablo de Greiff’s findings and recommendations. We will study his report carefully, but let me be clear: we have not embarked on the road of reconciliation because of Mr. De Greiff or anyone from outside the country, but because of our commitment to the welfare, dignity and rights of all Sri Lankans.

As President Sirisena says in his Vision 2025: “People in the north, south, west, and centre came together [in 2015] to vote for: a change in Sri Lanka’s political culture against the politics of ethnic and religious division and extremism on all sides; against impunity; for a strong democracy; for the rule of law and good governance; for reconciliation and sustainable peace; equality; upholding promoting and protecting human rights of all and the pluralistic nature of our society; and for inclusive and equitable growth and development of the country.” This is why we are on this journey.

Additionally, there is empirical evidence amassed by the World Bank in its World Development Report of 2011, the most ambitious study of conflict conducted in recent years, which establishes beyond any doubt that societies that do not address the legacy of conflict inevitably end up in repeating the cycle of violence. We do not want to leave that kind of burden to our children. Crucially, this is an issue instrumental to our economic prosperity, and that is something every Sri Lankan has as a priority.

It doesn’t have to be repeated that our commitment to these norms, enshrined in the international law and covenants, and expressed in the HRC Resolution 30/2, has seen Sri Lanka rejoin the community of rights-respecting nations and has taken us from the isolation we ended up in under the previous regime.

Long-standing conflicts

But even more importantly, where there is no trust between citizens, different ethnic groups and between citizens and state institutions, which is typical for societies that emerge from long-standing conflicts like ours, where the state is not seen as upholding the rule of law that applies equally to all, there can be no political stability, which is a key precondition for foreign investment and a flourishing economy.

In his presentation, the UN Special Rapporteur highlighted the progress we have achieved over the past two years. In particular, he hailed the consultation process we have undertaken to hear what the people want and expect from the reconciliation process. We are indeed proud of the work done by the Consultation Task Force, which has, in close cooperation with the civil society, held numerous meetings with the people on the local level, to get their views to inform our policies.

We are progressing with the establishment of the Office for the Missing Persons, the law has been passed and a call is out for nominations of commissioners who will be appointed by the Constitutional Council.

This is one of the priority areas, as nobody can justify leaving the families of the missing people in a limbo in which they go on without knowing the fate of their loved one, without the chance to grieve for their loss and achieve closure that comes with the truth.

And while they continue to suffer in this limbo, they are often lacking basic legal rights in relation to their kin, which can affect their access to compensation or ownership. We are looking to have the OMP operational as soon as possible, and hopefully we will see the commissioners appointed in a matter of weeks.

These have to be people of the highest moral and professional standing to instill the confidence of the people, and to successfully fulfill an important and difficult mandate.

There are also two draft laws being developed as we speak – the law that will regulate reparations to the victims and a law on a truth-seeking mechanism. We expect these laws to be passed soon so that these important processes unfold expeditiously. We have established institutions like the Secretariat for Coordinating the Reconciliation Mechanisms and the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation, which are working with various communities to provide information and guidance about the reconciliation process and how to engage with its various elements as they become operational.

And then there are some very important things that have happened that were not mentioned by Mr. De Greiff, like the housing program that is providing homes for those affected by the war.

Over the past two years, we have built over 16000 homes in the areas most affected by the conflict and plan to build further 80 000.

This is something that has been identified as very important by the people themselves during the consultations. There are numerous programs of assistance addressing infrastructure and other livelihood needs of people in the war affected areas.

We have achieved considerable progress in the release of land which was occupied under security measures, and currently there are only some 5000 acres of private land still occupied by the security forces.

Similar scenario

This is something we will also address either through further release of such land or adequate compensation.

I could go on, but the point I want to emphasise here is that this is a process that in some countries facing a similar scenario has taken decades and is still going on.

Look at South Africa or the former Yugoslavia, 20-30 years after the fact they are still dealing with transitional justice issues. We don’t want to take decades and have set ourselves an ambitious timetable, but these things cannot be done overnight.

Especially not in a situation where there is a lot of political opportunism and misinformation being spread by those trying to politically profit from people’s suffering and consequences of the war.

Mr. De Greiff himself addressed this misinformation, which relies on peddling myths about “witch hunts targeting our heroes” and is purely designed to stoke up communalist divisions and mistrust and score cheap political points.

Different elements

The fact is that transitional justice and reconciliation is not only about criminal justice, but about all the different elements that I discussed already.

Criminal justice is but one element of it and reducing the whole discussion to this one issue is misleading, unnecessarily polarizing and does a great disservice to the country.

The fact is that any accountability measures that are to ultimately be adopted will NOT be focused solely on one group of victims or only on the end of the war in 2009.

We had almost 30 years of conflict and there are victims in all groups – of the 1971 insurrection, 1987-89 violence, the LTTE violence against Tamils, the murder of over 600 policemen in 1990, expulsion of Muslims from Jaffna, many victims of terrorist attacks – and accountability measures will be seeking to address such suffering in all communities, as much as that is possible, as they all have the same rights to justice and dignity.

And lastly, the fact is that accountability is not about tarnishing war heroes, but on the contrary. It is about distinguishing between the legitimate, lawful and courageous fight of our armed forces to defeat terrorism and provide security to all citizens of Sri Lanka and addressing incidents in which it needs to be established if the law and military procedures were broken.

This has to be done in a way that provides all the rights to the victims of such incidents, but also fully guarantees the rights of those who may have been involved.

This is not an issue of a particular ethnic group or a particular point in the war.

There are victims in all groups, Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim. This process is about us doing what needs to be done to repair victims, to ensure such things cannot happen in the future and to let the past be in the past for the sake of our children’s future.

This is a process that will continue and we need everyone, the civil society, the religious leaders, the victims and, most importantly, the politicians to engage constructively.

Because this is a process that will shape a Sri Lanka united in dignity and prosperity for all, a process that will shape the future of our children and a process whose outcomes will outlast you and me and any politician who is on the scene today.