We had some very vigorous discussions at Sepia Mutiny last year as the civil war in Sri Lanka ended, with the LTTE defeat, the death of Prabhakaran, and the placement of some 200,000 Tamils in temporary refugee camps.
I haven’t followed the week-to-week developments since then terribly closely, but several recent developments were mentioned in a thought-provoking Op-Ed by Bishop Desmond Tutu and Lakhdar Brahimi in the Guardian yesterday. There is some good news overall, as the peace has held, but Tutu and Brahimi also acknowledge that progress towards rebuilding the affected parts of northern Sri Lanka, and the broader project of healing and reintegration, has been painfully slow. Here are the specific things Tutu and Brahimi want to see the government do:
Respect for minorities, human rights and the rule of law must be centre stage in Sri Lanka’s future. The worsening conflict saw limitations imposed on civil liberties and democratic institutions. The recent relaxation of emergency laws and the promised presidential pardon for Tamil journalist JS Tissainayagam are welcome, but they are only a start. Real change must begin with repealing the state of emergency and re-establishing the constitutional council.
All displaced civilians should be helped to return home. Those suspected of being fighters must be treated humanely with full regard to international law.
[...] There is a growing body of evidence that there were repeated and intentional violations of international humanitarian law by both the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers) in the last months of the war.
President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decision earlier this month to appoint a commission on lessons learnt and reconciliation is a step in the right direction but not nearly enough. There is no indication, as yet, that the commission intends to hold anyone to account for any violations of domestic or international law. (link)
The particular development that stands out here is Rajapaksa’s decision to create a South Africa (and Rwanda) style Truth and Reconciliation Committee to deal with human rights violations on both sides. On the one hand, this seems like a good thing, since up until now the Sri Lankan government seemed very reluctant to even acknowledge the possibility of any military misdeeds.
But there is also a problem — unlike in South Africa and Rwanda, where the Truth commissions were established by new governments to deal with the violence associated with previous regimes, in Sri Lanka the government has not changed. In order to ensure that witnesses from both sides feel safe coming forward, Tutu and Brahimi advocate a different approach to establish a reckoning — an independent, international committee.
I hope this process does move forward somehow. Rebuilding people’s homes and putting a new economic infrastructure has to be the first priority (and even there, it appears the government has lagged, despite significant infusions of foreign aid to help rebuild the north). But the longer-term project has to include some sort of credible reckoning: of the numbers of deaths, of specific crimes and atrocities, and admissions of responsibility (even if no criminal punishments are involved). If you don’t make efforts to confront the legacy of violence and, establish a shared baseline for the truth of what happened, the sense of bitterness and rupture people feel won’t begin to heal.
Since a lot of our discussion last year involved the Tamil Diaspora’s anguish about the way the war was concluded, it might also be worth noting that getting into these matters is especially important to address the concerns of that community.