With the recent passage of yet another UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka — dealing broadly with human rights, accountability and reconciliation — now is an opportune time to clarify and explain how Sri Lanka’s new government has said it will approach transitional justice.
The interpretation of the resolution remains a source of debate. However, it’s important to note that the resolution clearly calls for some degree of international involvement and lays out the general framework for the country to deal with its past. Unfortunately, there’s seems to be (unnecessary) confusion about these issues too. Let’s take part of a recent article in The Caravan as an example.
Here’s the problematic paragraph:
Beyond the matters of financial rehabilitation, though, lies the even thornier issue of justice in a country still deeply traumatised and ethnically divided. Last month, following a UN report on “horrific” violence committed by both sides in the civil war, the Sri Lankan government rebuffed calls for a court of international and local judges to investigate possible abuses. Instead, it insisted on forming its own commission for truth, justice and reconciliation. But, as the UN report warned, Sri Lanka is “not yet ready to handle these types of crime” alone. A purely domestic process is unlikely to meaningfully address grievances of discrimination and wartime abuse, in Sampur or beyond. Returning property and handing out cheques is certainly an improvement over occupation and displacement, but no one I spoke to in Sampur called it fair redress.
The Caravan piece was published on October 1 — the same day that the consensus resolution on Sri Lanka was adopted at the Council — yet that’s not even mentioned in the article. Indeed, by co-sponsoring a broad resolution on Sri Lanka during the Council’s 30th session, the Sri Lankan government went on the record in saying that it would allow some international participation regarding transitional justice. As mentioned, while the specific level of international involvement is still unclear, what was agreed to at the Council was definitely not “a purely domestic process.”
Transitional justice in Sri Lanka is going to be led by Sri Lankans. That being said, if one reads the recently passed resolution in full, it’s evident that the text contains numerous references to international involvement, including the part pertaining to a judicial mechanism with foreign judges, lawyers, prosecutors and investigators.
Here it’s helpful to break down Sri Lanka’s prescribed transitional justice agenda into its principal components. For now, there are four: a truth and reconciliation commission; a judicial mechanism; an office to deal with reparations; and an office to handle disappearances. (On the other hand, one could argue that there are actually five key parts, since creating a lasting political solution is a crucial part of this process, and something that’s also called for in the recently passed resolution.)
Why do these details matter?
A judicial mechanism and the concomitant need for criminal prosecutions (for wartime abuses) should be differentiated from the government’s proposed truth and reconciliation commission. For starters a truth and reconciliation commission will not be nearly as controversial as any kind of judicial mechanism; the former deals primarily with truth-telling. While talking about the past is very important, it must be accompanied by a broader reconciliation agenda that includes accountability (in the form of criminal prosecutions). Truth-telling alone (or truth-telling with offices for disappearances and reparations, respectively) are unlikely to satisfy the Tamil community. Criminal prosecutions — if combined with a comprehensive political settlement and a credible truth and reconciliation commission — could.
Furthermore, if Colombo starts to get cold feet about implementing its transitional justice agenda in full, one would guess that the administration might try to embrace the idea of a robust truth and reconciliation commission and deemphasize the importance of a credible judicial mechanism or criminal prosecutions.
Since the resolution was passed at the Council, Colombo has been downplaying the notion of any meaningful international involvement for its domestic audience. While the exact level of international involvement remains unknown, it’s vital to reiterate that, in the form of the recently passed resolution, Colombo agreed to something other than a purely domestic process.
Monitoring the implementation of Colombo’s transitional justice plan, like the larger set of commitments made in the recently passed resolution, is very important. Yet in order to accurately track progress, understanding the content of the latest resolution is absolutely essential. For that is how we can begin to discern whether Sri Lanka’s new government is really serious about healing the wounds of war.