Insights On Sri Lanka’s Transitional Justice Process

Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu is the Executive Director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. He recently served as the Secretary of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CTF’s big report is finally out. What are some of the key takeaways?

CTF recommendations are grouped into general, cross-cutting and specific recommendations on the four mechanisms [a truth commission, a judicial mechanism and offices to handle both reparations and disappearances]. What we found at the outset was that people were both frustrated and angry by their past experiences of providing testimony to commissions without any results. Once they realized that this was the first time the government was seeking their views before the enactment of policy they expressed the hope that it would be different.

People wanted to be part of the mechanisms, have them located outside Colombo and operate in the languages they speak. Across the board, there was a demand for the truth and acknowledgement of it by the state. People also spoke to a number of confidence-building measures they wanted to see ranging from a new constitution with a political settlement to the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act to the return of land. Regarding accountability [for wartime abuses] they were clear that this should apply towards those who gave orders.

They also spoke about reparations in cash and in kind as well as symbolic reparations. The CTF in response to all of this did recommend that the government engage in outreach on transitional justice, come up with the legislation for the mechanisms without delay as well as a roadmap clearly indicating the relationship between the mechanisms.

What has attracted the most attention and criticism is the recommendation of a hybrid court in respect of accountability, the presence of internationals on the court and in the special counsel or prosecutor’s office. This is in response to the demands on the one hand, predominantly in the north, that any mechanism that was entirely national would not be credible and on the other hand in the rest of the country, that international judges would be a violation of Sri Lanka’s sovereignty and be biased. The CTF has recommended international participation as judges and in the prosecutor’s office as reflected in the resolution at the UN Human Rights Council co-sponsored by the government of Sri Lanka and also recommended in the report on Sri Lanka prepared under the aegis of the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

What, if anything, about the consultative process surprised you?

The depth of feeling and conviction of the importance of transitional justice and reconciliation, the lack of trust in the state and, as mentioned above, the anger and frustration with regard to going before so many commissions without result. It was suggested that there would be no interest in the consultations outside the north and east and that there would not be anything said about [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] LTTE atrocities and violations. This was not the case at all. In total, we received 7,300-odd submissions through public meetings, focus group discussions, national-level consultations, through e-mail and by post.

Do you expect any transitional justice mechanisms to be operational in the next few months? What sort of timeline should we expect?

Legislation on the Office of Missing Persons was passed in August, probably to meet the deadline of the September session of the Human Rights Council. Yet the office has not been appointed. I suspect that there may be legislation on a Truth Commission and [an office for] Reparations but not on accountability. Seems unlikely that all of these will be set up and running in the very near future. Partisan political considerations between and within the two main parties in government intrude to stymie quicker progress on transitional justice. The challenge to civil society is to ensure that transitional justice does not get indefinitely stuck. Continued attention at the Human Rights Council is therefore critical.

What’s the best way for the international community to help Sri Lanka at this critical juncture?

As indicated above, critical and constructive engagement regarding commitments already made. Continued focus at the Human Rights Council is very important.

By Taylor Dibbert For Huffington Post