Colombo, Jaffna, Peace and Conflict, Politics and Governance, Post-War, Reconciliation

Unpacking the Truth in Sri Lanka


In recent weeks there has been some talk about a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC) as something that will allow Sri Lanka to come to terms with its troubled past and move forward into the promise of its ‘post-war’ future. I have been informally invited into a few of these conversations because I have worked with the International Center for Transitional Justice in connection with TRC initiatives and proposals for such initiatives in a range of countries, from South Africa to the Philippines. However, it is precisely the lessons I have learned from that experience that confirms my skepticism about the proposal for a TRC in Sri Lanka at this juncture. In many contexts with a long complex record of abuse and a fraught security climate, civil society activists (and sometimes the international human rights community), have pushed for the establishment of a TRC in the hopes that this may be the thin edge of the wedge that opens the door to more political space; space that would expand and empower human rights victims, dissenting activists and others. However, again and again, in country after country, where commissions have been advanced in contexts shadowed by repression and insecurity, the resulting commission has done more to legitimize impunity rather than advance justice.

It may be worth reminding ourselves of some of the goals that have been vested in truth commissions. From Peru to Sierra Leone, social justice or human rights activists who advocated for truth commission saw their efforts as aimed at the inter-related goals of truth, justice, reparations and reform. These goals come together in contesting impunity by addressing both what TRCs have termed legal, forensic truth regarding the details of particular violations, and the ‘big picture’ social, historical truth regarding their enabling conditions. These are often mutually reinforcing truth seeking processes that situate human rights violations within larger structures that identify the command responsibility chains, institutional roles and systemic injustices that were pivotal to particular crimes.

The term ‘truth’ may be misleading to the extent that it suggests that commissions should be aimed at ‘fixing’ the truth. Rather, the potential of truth commissions can be best described as a process that can help contest reigning ideas about the ‘truth’. It is not about establishing an uncontested truth, but about critically unpacking claims to truth. In this sense, the aspiration for a truth commission process is that it will undermine dominant myths rather than determine official dogma. For instance, truth commission analysis may be able to demonstrate that human rights violations are not just a question of a few bad apples in the security sector (as is often the official line) but that these violations are a window into more systemic and structural problems; that violations are not random and isolated but that struggles over the politics of race, ethnicity, class, gender, ideology etc. can explain patterns of violations. Thus, at their best, truth commissions may demythologize nationalist conceits and, as Michael Ignatieff has noted, “narrow the range of permissible lies”.

In some cases, the potential of a TRC to open-up greater political space for accountability can be seen in the relationship between TRCs and prosecution initiatives. For instance, in Chile, the TRC functioned as the principle official instrument contesting impunity when Pinochet left office and his amnesties barred prosecutions; moreover, two decades later those commission findings became crucial evidence when the amnesties were repealed and cases were brought against Pinochet. In South Africa, the TRC’s partial and conditional amnesty was envisioned as the route to an intertwined carrots-and-sticks strategy where perpetrators who came forward to the commission and told the whole truth about particular incidents were given amnesty for their role in those particular incidents but those who didn’t were liable to prosecution. Because they are aimed at telling the larger story regarding patterns of violations, TRC analysis can be of particular value in prosecution initiatives against those with command responsibility. Moreover, while prosecutions provide one important platform for accountability struggles, ideally TRC analysis will go beyond the terrain of courts to open up a wider national conversation on the prevailing distributive injustices and their supportive ideologies that have been the enabling and contributing conditions of violence and abuse; a conversation about the ordinary, everyday complicities and extraordinary, persistent hierarchies that have sustained and reproduced a history of human rights violations.

The Sri Lankan Experience
I started this brief note by invoking some of the anti-impunity ‘truth seeking’ goals that have motivated advocates of TRCs. Yet from Indonesia to Northern Ireland to Sri Lanka, we have repeatedly seen commissions in many parts of the world that have been designed precisely to defeat the goals they claim to advance. Over the last two decades Sri Lanka has itself convened several commissions of inquiry into disappearances and other human rights violations that bear some family resemblance to truth commissions. The history of these commissions provide an indicator of how commissions can be manipulated to defeat dissent by channeling criticisms of human rights violations into institutions that the government of the day uses as a shield against critique. Even when commissions have fought against the odds to push for justice their work was restricted and compromised and their recommendations for prosecutions and reform were buried; many voices of dissent who engaged with these commissions have been threatened and the justice aspirations of those who gave testimony have been betrayed.

Some argue that irrespective of Sri Lanka’s past record, the current need for post-war ‘reconciliation’ warrants a TRC. Yet, not unlike the word ’truth’, the word ‘reconciliation’ in truth and reconciliation commissions has sometimes led to more confusion than clarity. Reconciliation is a long term process that is itself dependent on advancing justice rather than functioning as a proxy for justice. There are many contexts where there is a great need for reconciliation but more often than not the discourse on reconciliation has functioned as a cynical public relations exercise where empty calls to unity have substituted for policies that genuinely address the justice claims of minorities and other marginalized groups.

This is not the first time in Sri Lanka that calls for reconciliation have been advanced (in the name of a “post-war” historical moment) in ways that have raised questions regarding legitimacy and accountability. In March 2002, after the GOSL-LTTE ceasefire agreement, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of the South African TRC signed a statement protesting threats to the space for dissent in Sri Lanka noting that the legitimacy of peace “depends not only on the cessation of hostilities, but also on broader questions of democratic accountability.” This statement reminds us that questions of justice and dissent that inform questions of democratic accountability will be central to the legitimacy of post-war initiatives.

In the spirit of the Tutu statement, we may note that although the requisite ‘legitimacy’ preconditions for a TRC to pursue the goals described earlier are complex and multi-facetted, whether the current government can establish an institution today that has the confidence of marginalized communities and dissenting voices may provide a telling window into whether the most elementary political and security conditions obtain. For instance, would those most victimized believe that such a process will advance their justice goals? Do dissenting political activists believe in the integrity and independence of the process? Do those most skeptical of nationalist myths believe the process will expose lies and challenge impunity? Is there a political and military climate where dissenting voices can give testimony without security fears? The answers to these questions may give us a hint as to whether establishing a TRC at this juncture would enable Sri Lanka to unpack dominant ‘truths’, track command responsibility and redress legacies of abuse, or, instead, if it would prop-up national myths, cover up the responsibility of those in power and legitimize a repressive regime.

Where do you place your bets?