Yet another official delegation has returned from yet another study tour of South Africa to explore ways and means of re-energising a yet-another Reconciliation exercise at home — 14 years after the armed northern separatist insurgency was quashed and the mopping up was not properly done. Some may say ‘better late than never’, while others would argue that that transitional justice train has long left the station.
Sri Lanka has been the victim of what has become an ‘industry’ in Europe, Northern America and the UK, born out of the 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom. Local politicians in those countries have been held to ransom by the Sri Lankan Diaspora no different to the immigrants from other countries opposing their Governments becoming pressure groups.
In Colombo, successive Governments took transitional justice lightly. They refused to see what was to be the ‘writing on the wall’ on the global stage. It was difficult to sacrifice troops who had gone into battle to end the scourge of terrorism at home, but the defeated separatist groups hung on to it as a means of revenge. How much the South African model of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the wounds of a protracted conflict will fit into a Sri Lankan scenario is a matter of debate. That was an apartheid issue the entire world was against. This was a terrorism issue, deftly upgraded nowadays to a ‘genocide’ issue due to failed foreign policy initiatives and delayed domestic mechanisms by Governments.
The South African experience was a very Christian approach where confessions were accepted and amnesties given. An Archbishop chaired the sittings. That it was held immediately after the curtain fell on apartheid, helped but what long-term success it brought is debatable. Prosecutions were few and retributive justice even fewer. Twenty-five years after, there may not be apartheid, but wide-ranging socioeconomic and accountability issues persist.
That model, vigorously advocated by the West, also found its way to other post-conflict nations like Colombia, Cambodia, Uganda and Nepal, though understandably not Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya etc. Closer home, Nepal managed to bake an autochthonous transitional justice cake with some western icing on top to bring conflict-era perpetrators from among the warring parties, both the Maoists rebels and the military to account. However, with the Maoists now in power adopting a ‘forget and forgive’ formula, and geopolitical realities at play, the West is reducing the heat for transitional justice and opting rather to cosy up to the Maoists to counter China’s influence over Nepal. It can happen in Sri Lanka.
The appointment of the LLRC (Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission) helped ease the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) juggernaut that was closing in on Sri Lanka. The LLRC was initially viewed with suspicion by the West, but soon gained credibility for its recommendations. It was another ball dropped by not implementing them. Its report is gathering dust, not attention. The accountability and reconciliation agenda migrated abroad once again, with the Foreign Ministry and other Ministries spending their time answering reams of queries from Geneva in what has become an ex-parte exercise as there is no one to answer for the LTTE on their own conduct during the insurgency.
Whether the delegation to South Africa should have been at the ministerial level is a question as it leaves little space for flexibility and room for consensus building in a highly polarised minefield of partisan politics, North and South. To pilot such a mechanism in the midst of election posturing is not going to be easy. One side will cry “sell out” and bring the ‘electric chair’ argument, while the others will demand external intervention through the UNHRC saying “not enough”.
Therefore, if such a fresh initiative will survive the ‘blood sport’ of Sri Lankan domestic politics has to be seen. Without domestic consensus – and not international consensus, it is doomed to fail and make matters worse by opening old wounds that may be naturally healing with the passage of time.
That office in Geneva is collating evidence on alleged human rights violations with the imprimatur to distribute such ‘evidence’ to individual countries for them to take whatever action deemed fit against individuals. We have seen Canada, a state that has protected terrorist groups like the LTTE, the Khalistan movement etc., clamp sanctions on two former Sri Lankan Presidents without any further ado. Military officers face visa refusals, some based on the information ‘ratted’ by fellow officers who have obtained asylum in those countries.
That is one side of the coin. The other side is where a UN officer was in Sri Lanka on a recruiting mission for more Lankan soldiers to serve in its Peace Keeping Force in Mali. In Trincomalee, the US Army just concluded a joint military exercise with the Sri Lanka Navy. On the diplomatic front, Sri Lanka just participated in the Shanghai Cooperation Dialogue to ‘Recover and Rejuvenate’ and in another workshop on ‘Maritime Security’ organised by the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Very soon, Sri Lanka is going to be the chair of the IORA.
In recent years, there has been escalating interest, and tension, in the Indo-Pacific region. The paradox of it all is that on the one hand, Sri Lanka is being whipped into shape by the US State Department on human rights while the US Defence Department is more than eager to do business with the country to ensure it does not fall entirely into the lap of China. The US State Department excluded Sri Lanka from its 120-nation ‘Summit for Democracy’ this week. Not to be upstaged, China held a ‘Shared Human Values for Democracy’ summit in Beijing.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s ‘Recovery and Reconciliation’ theme is linked heavily to external factors directly relevant to Sri Lanka; recovery from debt restructuring with foreign creditors under the supervision of an IMF programme for Sri Lanka to reconciliation demands for transitional justice under a watchful UNHRC; to peace in the Indian Ocean.
A greater focus on the country’s foreign relations is imperative in the coming months. Jingoism needs to be tempered. It is said that a country’s foreign policy is an extension of its domestic policy. For Sri Lanka, it might just be, the other way around.