Meeting the international accountability obligations is a Hobson’s choice indeed for the Sri Lankan leaders!  

For the Unity Government of Sri Lanka called to justify or reject concerns of the international human right forums on their three years of rehabilitation muddle has only a Hobson’s choice in which only one thing is offered. Earlier, when the Sri Lankan civil-war was brought to finish in 2009, then rulers pursued with majority dominated authoritarian rule with six years of negative peace without a proper transitional justice framework in place. The absence of a transitional justice network caused concern at various national and international human right forums leading the international communities to intervene and effect a change of rulers in 2015. The Unity Government as the new rulers agreed with United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on various mechanisms most suited to democratize Sri Lanka out of a long civil conflict has without a holistic political, social and economic reconciliation efforts visible to redress the root cause of the ethnic conflict in a muddle and is fumbling with the process of reconciliation with lot of work unfinished in the remaining two years of their term time is fast running out!

Feudal fueds

In 2009, when the civil-war ended in Sri Lanka, then rulers continued with the genetic repressive rule of seven decades to maintain the unitary character with its dominant Buddhist cultural identity. Earlier it was this greed of politicians that created a repressive rule after independence to project this identity of the majority that was injurious to the minorities to cause many uprisings that led the multi-ethnic and multi-religious country to a bloody and cruel civil war for three decades until the guns were silenced in 2009 with foreign intervention. Despite the three decades of civil strife in the northeastern region, traditional communal harmony did exist among ordinary people outside the war region due to non-violent and accommodating nature of all four religious culture. Sadly any violence that did occur outside the battle zones during this period were all politically motivated and did cause political polarisation resulting in divisions and exponential increase in the number of political parties.

On conclusion of civil-war in 2009, then rulers had an opportunity to establish a happy, secure, stable society to bring estranged communities together and get them to mend fences with one another in a nation that gave prominence to Lord Buddha’s Dharma. More so because they were fully aware of the riotous history of post-independence politics at least since 1970 in the country; further should have been sensitive enough to realize that a blanket of darkness hanging over the country as a storm was brewing on human right violations committed at the final stages of the war. Yet, the arrogant rulers failed miserably to introduce a proper transitional justice framework to bring the country into line with the moral and legal obligations articulated in the international human rights consensus; with a reconciliation programme that include different characteristics as economic growth and equal reparation for the damage done. The transitional justice was used first against Germany and Japan after World War II that was self-consciously victim-centric; but later a shift in the focus broadened its scope to political considerations of developing stable democratic institutions and renewing civil society; its framework integrates examination of the political processes essential to democratic change on the transition from autocratic regimes to democratic ones. Regrettably this need of the hour was ignored and the rulers instead used the war victory to consolidate their politically corrupt majority rule to prolong the agony on the war victims for further six years without peace.

Not surprisingly, this failure of the rulers to set up a transitional justice framework for reconciliation caused a Wind of Change to blow in the form of another foreign intervention to assist the opponents of the regime that included moderate citizens of all ethnicity to change the authoritarian regime in 2015 that brought in a Unity Government to power. Then the expectations were high to set up a transitional justice framework for the new Unity Government to initiate a proper holistic reconciliation process to analyze the nature and justifiability of responses to past wrongdoings. Intended primarily to increase contact among previously hostile groups and their willingness to participate in common democratic institutions with persons holding radically different political outlooks, respect for the rule of law; trust in newly established institutions and the acceptance of political responsibility for past crimes. The transitional justice framework should have consisted judicial and non-judicial measures implemented to redress legacies of human rights abuses; enacted at a point of political transition from violence and repression to societal stability to rebuild social trust, repair a fractured justice system and build a democratic system of governance.

The Unity Government did kick-off well turning the Parliament into a Constitution Assembly to prepare a New Constitution with many reforms to replace the most amended one sided current draconian constitution.  Unfortunately draft of the new constitution is still not complete as the assembly has to debate and many experts to iron out many thorny issues; while the rest of the reform efforts have not gone far enough to achieve any of the set goals. Further the leaders were powerless against an administration dominated by the majority community that had worked for seven decades determinedly with pre-colonial era mindset still prevailing worked outside a well prepared colonial constitution that had checks and balances to safeguard the rights of the minority communities, who demonstrated against it in parliament, however the rulers continued with the oppression of the minorities by replacing the original constitution with a republican constitution that gave prominence to their language and religion. So much so after the war finished, then rulers considered the many foreign meddlers in the affairs of the country as political and religious enemies of the unitary status and its Buddhist cultural foundation. With frog in the mentality in Sri Lanka and because of glaring discrepancy between practice and precept among followers of Buddhism; their rulers have exhibited ignorance of the fact that Buddhist principles are most compatible with the secular political ideals practiced in the very many foreign meddlers countries. For most politicians, monks, and ordinary voters think secularism means rejection of all religious values in governing; whereas it denotes ‘the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions’ as seen in Christian majority nations as USA, UK and many other Western countries. The Buddhist majority rulers should accepting their ignorance must as true Buddhists adopt the same concept for Sri Lanka and allow it to be secular; for under proper democratic rule Buddhism will continue to retain its dominance and its identity would prevail as majority follow the Buddhist faith and the minorities of other faith have never been disrespectful of Buddhism as the multi-ethnic and multi-religious cultural foundation has existed for many centuries, with peaceful coexistence with minority communities in communal harmony.

In the three years passed social reconciliation between the people who were in conflict once, should have found new ways to live side by side at various levels – individual, communal or national. For a peaceful coexistence and that interethnic tolerance and acceptance of a live-and-let-live philosophy at an individual level of thin social reconciliation was expected; but what is seen in reality is parties simply ignore each other, live side-by-side and do not engage in any acts of violence coexistence and it seems the proper reconciliation to be years or even generations away. Whereas in contrast, what was expected was thick social reconciliation on the same individual level to encompass the process of accepting one another as members of the same community, restoring communication, not seeing the past as defining the future, coming to see humanity of one another with friendliness and forgiveness healing traumas of both the victims and the perpetrators of violence.

All these developments fall under the same category of social reconciliation and all occur on an individual level; but social reconciliation can occur on the communal level as well when communities and their representatives express change of attitudes and behavior and demonstrate the willingness to live peacefully and to restore broken relationships. For thin social communal reconciliation to occur, direct intergroup contacts are a must where communities have to live together, not in isolated neighborhoods. Initially it is necessary for former enemies to develop a degree of cooperation necessary to share a society to promote tolerance. Thick social reconciliation on a communal level is a visible step forward repairing the relationships damaged during the conflict or creating new positive relationships and ties of friendliness. It is a very demanding understanding of reconciliation, requiring active commitment from the reconciling communities and naturally, a great deal of time. Finally, social reconciliation at the national level, the primary agents are the politicians at all three tiers of power in the country; at least they are responsible to see to it that political threats are halted, there’s no inciting of ethnic violence, stirring of interethnic tensions, or renewed territorial claims and the unresolved issues of the conflict are handled in order to prevent the questioning of settlement and the return to violence. Unfortunately, the corrupt administration at all three levels of power has failed to assist the new government on this matter. Whereas, public acknowledgement of responsibility and guilt, the recognition of the crimes that were conducted, and the convergence around a similar narrative of what happened during the conflict are important signs of further improvement and a move towards thick social reconciliation on the national level.

Sadly this has not happened in the war torn regions in the three years, as there were extreme elements with greed for power working against it. These were not achieved due to extreme opponents of the government working for their own agenda preventing it. Further the Unity Government formed was not able to achieve total reconciliation processes, for they had many limitations and many battles to fight that included turning the tide to put the crumbling economy of the country back on track using a corrupt administration and work to eliminate corruption at all levels including those in both sides of the top power house in the country. Further prevented the government to produce a unitary historical account that was very essential for social unity, for a shared narrative in a rationalized society brings the victims and the perpetrators together, salvaging the truth from suppression or distortion, establishing a shared truth about the past and acknowledging the suffering as these are essential prerequisites for restoring social relations on the national level. For this collective reckoning with the past to occur, faith in the possibility of a community and a shared commitment to a common future is needed, it is the failure to do so that has caused international bodies to exert pressure on the government and its leaders are unable to accept.

Though many economic reconciliation process were underway as they were primarily economic driven by profits on either individual, communal, or national levels were riddled with many corrupt practices of many stakeholders including those in government that has not helped the cause. Whereas this form of reconciliation has to go hand in hand with other types of reconciliation; however this did not happen and had devastating effects on the government and this was reflected in the local government pools held early in 2018. After this bitter lesson the government is attempting to repair the damages caused, while advancing with other types of reconciliation. For regardless of the ethnicity of those taking part in them, the economic growth and economic justice ensured at a national level must range from passing laws and promotion of certain policies on the national level to full compliance and successful implementation of those laws and policies. Examples of which are return of property, compensation for victims, reparations, equal employment in state institutions, etc.; these are yet to be done though attempts have been made on them. Not surprisingly the leaders of the minorities have warned the government that disproportionality in unemployment or economic status of minorities may lead to renewed tensions and probably violence.

Finally, there is political reconciliation, ranging from a political cohabitation that was not started immediately after the war ended in 2009 for the victimised community to trust its government, its institutions, and fellow citizens and is respectful to the principles of the rule of law and human rights. The progress of political reconciliation has been painfully slow at individual, communal and national levels; made worse by opponents of the government making it difficult on every step of the way and supported by the monks and security forces with their mind set on the agenda of the majority community rule concept. At the individual level, the victimised citizens still have many unsettled issues in remote corners of the previous war zones not addressed by the rulers properly; while there are many reconciled citizens living in other parts of the country who are willing and able to participate in common democratic institutions with persons holding radically different political outlooks. Sadly, the representatives of the victimised minority communities did give unconditional support to the unity government in 2015 with the hope they will get the issues of their people resolved and in turn have relied on state institutions to provide services to their people irrespective of their ethnic composition. On the communal and national levels, political reconciliation means joint initiatives of the elites, group representatives, initially for the sake of protecting the interests of their groups therefore, such reconciliation has been thin to date; but there are signs that with time and pressure from international institutions, these hostile political attitudes would gradually change and that representatives start working for the security and well-being of all, irrespective of which group seems to get the most immediate benefits.

The leaders of the Unity Government must rise up to the occasion to concentrate on political reconciliation at the national level, that includes interracial tolerance, political tolerance, acceptance of the universalism of human rights culture and legitimacy of new democratic institutions; more importantly on the national level is the formal and official acceptance of the past crimes, acknowledging guilt and accepting responsibility for what has happened on the part of the politicians. Unfortunately, this has not happened as yet even though many politicians have individually accepted it are yet to say so collectively; once that stage is reached there is no room for denial of crimes, open dialogue about the country’s past and a shared commitment to the common future. Though political reconciliation is easier, because it does not depend on the kind of intimacy that some forms of individual reconciliation may demand; but due the past history of the major political parties in government using the ethnic conflict to gain votes has prevented them doing otherwise; perhaps time is ripe for them to come out of this mindset.

A forced reconciliation, or top-down reconciliation from the Unity Government, would provide space for more moderates to enter the political arena. Therefore constant pressure is needed to prohibit hate speech and to create laws and to dismiss officials who obstruct the full implementation of the Provincial Council System that resulted from the Indo-Lanka Peace Accord. Thus preventing ethnic tensions would create an environment where minorities could feel safe and be inclined to trust each other anew and would prevent those monks and security forces misled by the old political and economic elite responsible for the war from dominating in the rehabilitation work and eliminate if not reduce organized systematic violent responses to any attempt to return of normalcy, particularly in the previous warzone. A forced top-down reconciliation combined with severe international pressure at the beginning would have placed the political reconciliation on the national level and given by now a national peace deal installed and given the political will to follow up the reconciliatory processes to move to other levels with the political elite setting the tone for cooperation and guaranteeing a safe and secure environment; then economic and social interactions would follow first on a national level, then on communal and finally on individual levels. Though a decade is lost, it is not too late for the government to make proper transitional justice framework for the country.

Accepting that the total reconciliation process is in a muddle, the leaders of the Unity Government must work together to resolve the muddle at the earliest; for the three different types of reconciliation processes related to social, political and economic sectors are all at different levels of progress bands present across individual, communal and national levels. These needs to be reviewed and tuned properly as any significant delay in progress in one type of reconciliation is likely to discourage the progress of others; but the most difficult task for the Unity Government is having to explain to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva; the cause for muddle reached in three years of its rule and agree amicably to resolve the accountability issues emanating from the last stages of the brutal and bloody civil-war that ended in 2009. Meeting those international accountability obligations is the only one thing in offer makes it a Hobson’s choice indeed for the Sri Lankan leaders!