Photo courtesy of Kumanan

As the government proposes yet another authority, the National Unity and Reconciliation Commission (NURC), to deal with the process of healing the country, human rights activists are questioning the motives behind the move.

The president’s secretary may have let the cat out of the bag when he said that issues related to the reconciliation process should be resolved so that “there will be no need for the country to go to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva for another year.”

There is little evidence of any increase in political will or sincerity as state surveillance and harassment of victims’ families, journalists and activists continues and there is no removal of alleged perpetrators from top security posts and government positions.

Workers digging to lay water supply lines in the Mullaitivu District came upon skeletal remains and clothes, adding to the list of mass graves dotted around the country. A recent report on Mass Graves And Failed Exhumations in Sri Lanka compiled by Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka, Families of the Disappeared, Center for Human Rights and Development and the International Truth and Justice Project, stated, ““It is a story of a lack of political will – an inadequate legal framework, a lack of a coherent policy and of insufficient resources. For the families of the disappeared it is a story of unresolved tragedy; the bereaved are forced to live – and die – without ever finding their loved ones.”

“The report documents so many failings in the way exhumations were conducted and potential criminal investigations handled that they look less like a process of unearthing the truth than an attempt to rebury it deeper than ever,” The Economist magazine said in an article entitled “Sri Lanka is uncovering mass graves but not the grisly truth of its civil war.” It said that history suggested the latest effort to heal war wounds would fail.

In parliament Sarath Weerasekara, reminded a Mullaitivu magistrate that “Sri Lanka is a Sinhala-Buddhist nation” when the magistrate gave a ruling ordering that the construction of a Buddhist temple at Kurunthurmalai without the approval of local residents must stop. Later security forces were sent to Kurunthurmalai after Buddhist monks and others disrupted a festival organised by the Tamils community. The police had sought an injunction to stop the festival but the court ruled that it could go ahead.

The International Crisis Group’s Senior Consultant on Sri Lanka, Alan Keenan, tweeted that a genuine truth seeking mechanism was desirable but only if the government was open to truth, the security sector was willing to accept its share of responsibility and willing to let victims speak freely and the police and judiciary could offer some justice.

He stressed that until these conditions were met, influential governments and international institutions should respect the principle of do no harm and focus on encouraging the conditions for truth and justice, careful not to offer credibility until government had earned it.

Human rights activist Ambika Satkunanathan noted that with the government’s rejection of six recommendation in the UN’s latest Universal Periodic Review made it clear that there was no sincerity in the proposed NURC. The rejected recommendations were ones that called for a credible transitional justice and reconciliation mechanism; promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights; continuing the cooperation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and supporting the accountability project and ensuring the independent work of the Office of Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations; taking steps to implement an inclusive transitional justice process in the country; constructively promoting post conflict reconciliation, domestic accountability and human rights; and ending impunity for human rights violations, abuses and harassment, especially against members of ethnic and religious minority communities, by holding those responsible to account.

“The recommendations it has rejected show that its latest proposal to establish a truth and reconciliation commission is merely a farce. How can you establish a credible truth and reconciliation commission if you reject calls to implement a credible transitional justice process?” she asked.

A group of civil society organisations also questioned the government’s sincerity saying in a statement, “The victim community has no confidence in any local commission or tribunal created by the Sri Lankan state. These commissions have in fact revealed the intentions of successive governments to scuttle truth-seeking and the victims’ quest for accountability. Leading functionaries and politicians have time and again declared publicly that the government will not betray the war heroes and patriotic forces.”

The group pointed out that the NURC was being introduced in the absence of a judicial mechanism although the government had, in 2015, committed to a judicial mechanism with a special counsel, which was yet to be implemented. “The failure to do so has denied victims the opportunity to seek justice through a credible mechanism as they have lost faith in the domestic justice system. The lack of accountability for past crimes has deepened the culture of impunity,” the statement said.

The Sri Lanka Barometer (SLB) is a national public perception survey on reconciliation conducted in 2021 by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) in South Africa, the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) and the Strengthening Social Cohesion and Peace in Sri Lanka (SCOPE) programme.

The survey revealed that Sri Lankans felt that reconciliation was beneficial to the country and cited the lack of political will and divisive politics as the biggest barrier to achieving reconciliation. They also felt that it was important to recognise and address past injustices but realised that political interference and influence prevented this from happening. Politics and political actors interfering in justice processes were identified as key barriers to justice. People condemned the use of violence against other civilians regardless of the perpetrators of this violence.

Here are some of the results from the survey.

Over a quarter of people perceived reconciliation as beneficial and would be a means to achieve national unity. They felt that moderate progress has been made towards reconciliation and continued to recognise the importance of reconciliation by expressing a consistently strong demand for reconciliation, which  cut across identity and demographic groups. This was indicative of the relative importance people place on this process, which may imply a differing view to the mainstream political views and the de-prioritisation of reconciliation.

People felt that progress towards achieving reconciliation during the decade after the war has been limited. While the state’s commitment to reconciliation and implementation of relevant policies has varied since 2009, civil society has continued to advocate for stronger measures towards achieving reconciliation to little avail.

The findings indicated that people agreed that the institutions established to support reconciliation were important.

They noted that obstacles to reconciliation related to politicisation of the process, followed by nationalism and ethnic and religious discrimination as well as economic inequality.

Sri Lankans considered dealing with the country’s past to be important. This indicated that people had not forgotten the violence of the past and felt that it must be dealt with. This finding was significant because while the nationalist political discourse against post war justice and reconciliation at one point was to “forget the past and move forward”, failure to address the past would prevent people from moving forward and hinder meaningful and sustainable progress towards reconciliation.

They agreed that recognising past injustices was important to deal with the past. Recognition of past injustices included the recognition that some people had suffered more than others, that this suffering had many layers and is complex, that people had a right to know the truth about the past and that this should be true for all people who were affected.

People felt that political influence and interference remained the key barriers to dealing with the past. The increase in this thinking could be attributed to the defensive foreign policy stance the government has adopted on issues relating to reconciliation and accountability. The politicisation of the reconciliation process and efforts related to addressing the effects of the armed conflict were a key barrier to furthering the post war reconciliation process.

The survey findings revealed that people recognised that injustices suffered by all groups were an important aspect of dealing with the impact of the war and that memorialisation and reparations were aspects that should be included in the process.

The influence of politics and political actors on justice processes were identified as key barriers to justice. The findings pointed to how ingrained this influence was in the justice system and how it could potentially deny people redressal.

The findings regarding access to justice reflected the perceptions and status of the regular judicial system. Human rights violations committed during the war could be addressed through a judicial mechanism separate to the regular justice system.

Sri Lankans condemned the use of violence against other civilians regardless of the perpetrators of this violence. This may imply a positive indication of a society’s willingness to reconcile.