Delivering justice for violence past | Sunday Observer

Delivering justice for violence past

1 July, 2018

It was in November1988, at the height of the JVP insurgency that Seetha Gamage’s life was uprooted overnight, when members of the armed forces allegedly took her husband away during the JVP insurrection. Seetha recalls running after them, crying, despite the fact that it was past midnight, asking to be taken with him. At the time, they were living in State Plantation Corporation quarters in Thalangaha Estate, Nakiyadeniya, where Seetha’s husband worked.“ I learnt that he was taken to the nearby camp. From next morning and for six more months, I used to take a shirt and a trouser and walk around the camp, screaming his name, hoping he would come to get them. He was only wearing a sarong when he was taken,” she says.

Torn from her husband, who was the sole breadwinner of the family, Seetha experienced utter destitution in the immediate years that followed. “ I had no one after this happened, no parent, relative or friend spoke to me since they were afraid army officers would trouble them. I had no place to stay, no food to eat. Sometimes, I used to hide in a corner outside someone’s house and spend the night,” she says.

At the time of her loss, Seetha was a young mother of 23, with a three year old daughter. With the loss of her husband, what security she had in her life was gone. “Army officers used to follow me in vehicles without number plates. They threatened to take me away. Once, they threatened to shoot me and and allow my daughter to go to an orphanage, since I troubled the people of the camp so much asking for my husband,” she says. Seetha aimlessly roamed the roads, searching for some sign of her husband. When travelling by bus, if she spotted a body burning by the roadside, she would immediately get off, walk up to the charred bodies and turn them face up to see if it was her husband.

Seetha’s is one story among the thousands who suffered losses during JVP insurrection, tsunami and the civil war that followed. According to International Centre for Transitional Justice(ICTJ), transitional justice refers to the ways in which countries emerging from periods of conflict address large scale human rights violations, where the usual justice system fails to provide an adequate response. Transitional justice involves accountability and rectification for victims. “Under transitional justice, all victims have right to reparation, justice, truth and non recurrence,” explains Attorney at Law, Niran Anketell.

How can reparation help?

According to ICTJ, reparation serves to acknowledge the legal obligation of a state to repair the consequences of violations - either because it directly committed them or it failed to prevent them. In a way, by making reparations the State acknowledges its commitment to addressing the underlying reasons for these violations andprevent recurrence. Reparations can be either material or symbolic and remain the most direct and meaningful way to receive justice, hence remain important to the victims.

This month, the Cabinet approved draft legislation to establish the Office for Reparations in Sri Lanka, making reparations one step closer for all those who suffered due to war. Speaking of the form of reparation that should be made for these victims, President of the Families of the Disappeared, Brito Fernando, says a temporary mode of livelihood should be provided to the remaining family members, until long term reparation is granted.

“Most of the times, it was young wives who were left alone as a result of these disappearances. They had no jobs and this was not a decade where women walked alone on the roads. Sometimes, children’s education was disrupted, I knew one incidence where a child around 12 years did labour work to provide his family with a livelihood,” Fernando says.

He says reparation to these people can come in the form of priority points when selecting children of these families for government jobs, priority treatment in government hospitals or providing them houses or lands.

“This society has done something wrong to them, now they think neither society nor the Government care about their calamity, thus, reparation will act as a gesture of respect by society towards them,” he says.

However, Anketell says, when similar situations elsewhere are observed, it was evident that providing reparations remain difficult in situations where there is a victim pool of thousands, who have not been reparated for decades.“This is simply due to lack of finance. Instead, what can be offered to them is symbolic reparation, which will try to communicate the remorse of the State and the community,” he says.

Anketell further says it is difficult to change living conditions via reparation. Collective reparation can be attempted, in areas worst affected by violence,where investment in education and health care can be made. This makes it difficult to distinguish between developmental efforts and reparation. Another way is to identify certain groups and restrict financial reparation to these groups, for example, families of forced disappearance victims. “ However, in this case there might be other groups, such as rape victims, who have suffered more,” he says.

In USA, reparations are sought by black, brown and indigenous people for slavery and racial injustice. The subject, according to New York Times, although widely debated, has not attracted widespread support.

Last year, Cambodia decided to offer millions of dollars of reparation in the form of project funding to victims and civil parties affected by Khmer Rouge forced evacuation in the late 1970’s, which resulted in mass genocide, physical abuse and forced labour. The proposed proposals included health care (physical and mental), reconciliation work, education, preservation and naming of memorials and public remembrance ceremonies, according to VOA Khmer. The plans received wide criticism from experts. Some experts believed personal reparation and legal prosecution of the guilty would have been a better option, while others believed collective reperations are better suited due to large number of victims.

What are they seeking?

Three decades later, Seetha claims that her husband was never involved in JVP activities. Now, she has a death certificate saying her husband was murdered by unknown persons. “I don’t think he is still alive anyway. But I want to know why they did this to us, when there was no JVP in that area,” Seetha says.

She expects financial reparation and a land for her daughter, for the calamity they underwent after her husband was lost. “I could not look after her as much as I would have liked to, since I was searching for my husband. That loss affects her to date,” Seetha says. However, Seetha emphasises that money cannot compensate their loss and what they went through as a result. “We want those involved be brought to justice,” she insists.

Nihal Atapattu, whose childhood home in Akuressa was burnt and whose father and six-year-old nephew were murdered asks only for one thing- to meet the persons who killed them. “ I want to ask them under what rationale they killed a child. A child is completely innocent,” he says. He adds that punishing the guilty is the duty of the law enforcement officials, which lies out of his sphere.

For 74 year old M.Wimalawathi, from Panwila, the loss of her 24-year- old son meant the loss of financial stability during old age. “ Out of my children, he was the only one who looked after me. Even the week before he was killed, he brought me rice and vegetables. But now, I live alone and still work at an estate for Rs. 550 per day,” she says. Wimalawathi expects financial support as reparation. In early 1990, she has received Rs 15000 as compensation for her loss, which remains inadequate for her suffering.

M. H. Dayawathi from Rathgama, Galle, says, with the disappearance of her 17 year old son, the country lost a champion swimmer. “ I can’t value my son’s life by money, had he lived, he would have been a swimming champion now,” she says, while holding on to a pile of her long lost son’s certificates. Dayawathi would like to know what actually happened to her son, and would also like a place to live, since she has nowhere to stay.

Along with reparations, truth and justice - the search for answers , remain pillars of transitional justice for many of these victimised families. “ The role for reparation maybe to act together with other forms of transitional justice,” says Anketell.

Cruelly torn away from some of their family members, subjected to violence and trauma, families of the victims remain without adequate reparation for almost three decades.They remain unaware of terms such as transitional justice and reparation. But, they are convinced the state owes them something for their suffering.The time has come for action to be taken, for the authorities to grant these people the long overdue closure in a form that adequately expresses the acknowledgment of their suffering.

Pix: Sarath Peiris


Office for Reparations Bill in Parliament soon

Draft legislation to establish an Office for Reparations was gazetted last week and will be presented to Parliament for debate and amendments soon.

Defining “aggrieved persons” as people who have suffered violations of their human rights or victimised by violations of international humanitarian law, their relatives and missing persons, the draft bill seeks to provide reparations individually or as a collective for such persons.

The Bill applies to victims and “aggrieved persons” affected both by the war in the North and East and also any political unrest, civil disobedience or systematic gross violations of the rights of individuals and groups or communities of people in Sri Lanka. Once set up, the Office for Reparations will also serve to make reparations to victims of enforced disappearances and their families.

If the Bill is enacted, the Office for Reparations will comprise five members appointed by the President on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council chaired by Speaker Karu Jayasuriya.

Considered the second of the four pillars of transitional justice the Government promised to deliver upon assuming office, in order to heal the wounds of a protracted civil conflict, the new Office of Reparations is expected to work closely with the Office of Missing Persons, the first of the four mechanisms to have been set up earlier this year.

The OMP will be able to recommend to the Office for Reparations, what kind of reparation – monetary or otherwise, should be made to victims of enforced disappearances and their loved ones.