Featured image courtesy Daily Mirror

Justice and Buddhasasana Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe has declared that he has “no confidence” in the government-appointed Consultation Task Force (CTF) on Reconciliation Mechanisms (Daily Mirror, 07 January 2017, p.1).

Minister Rajapakshe’s decision to express his lack of confidence in an important Task Force belatedly (nearly one year after its appointment and many moons of hard work culminating in the public release of its final report on January 03, 2017) is inexplicable to say the least. He may have forgotten that the CTF was appointed by none other than his party leader Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

It is an insult to the 11 members who comprised the CTF but also to the Cabinet of Ministers which is still to consider the report. Even more significantly, the Minister’s statement discounts the 7,306 submissions made during the consultations – dealing a severe blow to the democratic process of listening to the people’s views on the matters tasked by the government to the Consultation Task Force.

All those who made oral and written submissions to the Task Force will no doubt be shocked by the Minister’s dismissive remarks. The report itself notes the duality in attitudes of the people who appeared before the CTF. Considerable frustration, bitterness and anger had been expressed at yet another initiative despite failure of past efforts to provide relief or redress. Still, there was the expectation and yearning that this particular exercise would be different. However, the Justice Minister’s statement at this juncture will only exacerbate scepticism about the government’s sincerity in taking forward its reconciliation programme.

Anyone, including Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, has every right to disagree with any of the recommendations contained in the report. The question of hybrid courts and the inclusion of foreign judges to hear and determine war crimes’ allegations is indeed a contentious and divisive issue. Personally, I am of the view that inclusion of foreign judges will amount to a lack of confidence in our judiciary. Even the acquittal in the Raviraj murder case cannot be argued as an instance of judicial indiscretion, because the acquittal was based on a decision by the jury not that by the judge. One might say the process laid down had led to a miscarriage of justice but one cannot fault the judiciary for it.

If the accused in the murder case were Tamil speakers and if they had opted for a Tamil speaking jury, one might expect a similar miscarriage of justice if the victims were from a different community. The fault is primarily in the very high level of communalism pervading the society which, well known lawyers like Rajapakshe should confront. That, to say the least, was the brief the government gave the CTF going by the mandate that I shall quote later.

Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe’s utterance quoted by the Daily Mirror exposes not so much one’s right to disagree with the CTF but the outright rejection shows more convincingly that racism, tragically, will continue to play the central role in our country. One can see how even a few professionals of repute do not hesitate to sow the seeds that will keep the country far behind other countries in the region.

How can Rajapakshe say that he has no confidence in the Task Force now, after its final report has dealt with many other issues that may help solve critical issues facing the county including strengthening the rule of law and the administration of justice?

Where was he (the Cabinet Minister holding the Justice portfolio no less!) when the CTF was appointed? Has he suddenly woken up from a deep slumber like Rip Van Winkle? He could surely have made his views known soon after the CTF was appointed. It is apparent that the Minister has rejected the report – outright – without a proper reading of the meticulously prepared document which runs into well over 900 pages in total, and without any discussion at Cabinet-level on a subject of urgent national priority.

The CTF report refers to consultations had with the security forces and the police. The report notes that international involvement in the accountability mechanism had been categorically rejected by the security forces. However, it states, “in most submissions made by the Security Forces and Police there was unequivocal support for the Government’s reconciliation initiatives and for a restorative as opposed to retributive approach, with a call by them (security forces) for the involvement of religious leaders to enhance the former.” How can Rajapakshe ignore the views of the security forces?

Minister Rajapakshe is also quoted in the same Daily Mirror article as follows:

“No one is complaining about the independence of the judiciary anymore. We have reconciliation and peace processes in place. This report, at this juncture, is totally unwarranted. Therefore, we don’t have to follow these recommendations by the CTF.”

The only comments that are unwarranted at this juncture are those of the Minister himself. The CTF was appointed by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on January 26, 2016 to conduct island-wide public consultations on transitional justice mechanisms following nearly three decades of armed conflict. The Task Force consisted of well-known members of the civil society and was appointed directly by the Prime Minister.

Its mandate was:

“to carry out, on behalf of the Government of Sri Lanka, a wide process of consultations involving all stakeholders including victims of conflict, to ascertain their views regarding the steps that they would like the Government to take including mechanisms to be established to ensure a durable peace, promote and protect human rights of all, strengthen the rule of law, administration of justice, good governance, reconciliation and non-recurrence including measures for reparations in line with the ideas of mechanisms that the Government proposes to establish, which were articulated in the Human Rights Council”.

Rajapakshe’s assertion that the CTF report is “unwarranted” at this juncture is an attempt to side-track a mechanism set up by the government itself to ascertain people’s views. Where is the democracy in this country if the opinions of key sections of society are not even considered and just rubbished away? Was the CTF not appointed with a view to restoring the democratic rights of the citizen to participate in the policy-making process? Could this perhaps signal a resurgence of the tentacles of the dictatorial regime that was defeated on 08 January 2015?

Minister Rajapakshe has further stated that no one could force us to have foreign judges or make us do things for the sake of reconciliation and impartiality. In his words:

“If forcing continues, Sinhalese and Muslims will also be compelled to ask for justice for the crimes committed by the LTTE. They will ask for probes on terror attacks on the Dalada Maligawa, Sri Maha Bodhiya, Aranthalawa, Kattankudy and so on.”

It is the Minister’s ethnicisation of the issue that is unwarranted. All victims of war deserve justice irrespective of race, religion, caste or creed. His words sound more retributive than just or fair. “If you ask for this, we will ask for that.” Revengeful and racist, and most unbecoming of a Minister of Justice. Another question is who is ‘forcing’ him, as alleged by him? Little wonder then that the vast majority of peaceful citizens who hoped for a restoration of the rule of law, democratic governance and accountability post January 2015 will now have no confidence left in their so-called Minister of Justice.

If you enjoyed this post, you might find “Wijeyadasa Rajapaksa: Unfit for the job of Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister” and “Deconstructing the CTF Report” enlightening reads.