People need to understand transitional justice process
All allegations against military and LTTE should be investigated
Sudu Nelum movement during CBK’s period changed public opinion on power devolution within a year
Leading Civil Society Activists Dr. Jehan Perera, in an interview with Dailymirror, stresses the need to ensure transitional justice for war victims. Dr. Perera, who is also the Executive Director of the National Peace Council, calls for continued pressure by the international community and civil society on the government to deliver in this regard. He also made representations to Geneva this time. Excerpts:
QAs a civil society activist, what is your opinion on the grant of another two more years for the government to implement the provisions of the UNHRC resolution?
The resolution on Sri Lanka that gave Sri Lanka the additional two years that the government sought to deliver on commitments made 18 months ago. The postponement was necessary as there is no preparedness on the ground. These are necessarily public processes. The discussion has to be taken to the people. The extended time frame granted reflects the confidence that the international community reposes in the good faith of the government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. It also reflects the absence of other viable options with regard to hastening the transitional justice process in Sri Lanka. From a civil society perspective, this is the best time we have. But it is only an opportunity. Our concern is that it is receding opportunity. By giving Sri Lanka the two years that the government asked for, the international community has recognized that it is only the Sri Lankan government that can deliver on all of these, and not the international community which can at best play a supportive role. The international community and civil society need to ensure that pressure is maintained on the government. Its progress, or lack thereof, in implementing its promises in regard to transitional justice needs to be monitored and constructively critiqued. Instead of seeking to punish the government and withdraw support from it, the government needs to be given more assistance to meet its targets.
QThere is a major outcry by the Tamil Diaspora groups against the granting of such an extension. How do you see this?
The outcry from the Tamil Diaspora is understandable. As they are out of the country many of them see the international pressure as the most effective. This is the most effective recourse they have. They have no voting power in Sri Lanka to put pressure on the government. The issues for the Tamil people are urgent. For a person whose child is missing, it is urgent to find that child. To be resettled on the land you once lived on with sufficient resources to ensure normalcy is urgent. The continued suffering of those who were victims of the war who have not yet been benefited by the proper implementation of the UNHRC resolution is not acceptable. The victims of the war continue to live in difficult circumstances and often out of the mainstream of life, struggling to survive without viable livelihood opportunities while being burdened by uncertainty about the fate of their missing family members.
QThe implementation of the provisions of the resolution, particularly the move to set up a judicial mechanism , is bound to be met with public resistance. In that context, how feasible is the implementation process?
The problem today is that the entire reconciliation process is being held hostage to the pursuit of accountability for war crimes. Transitional justice and ensuring reconciliation is not only about accountability, it includes truth seeking, reparations and institutional reforms. The experience of other countries shows that ensuring accountability is a lengthy process often taking several decades. Accountability is important for the future. Those entrusted with state authority must know that they can never abuse state power and get away with it. There needs to be widespread support generated amongst the people for this position. They will be the beneficiaries. There is also a need to help the people to understand the need for the larger transitional justice process which is not only about accountability, but also about compensation and institutional reforms, and that it is about taking the country to an irreversible situation of sustainable peace. This will take time, but it is possible. An example is the Sudu Nelum movement during the period of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. In a matter of a year they were able to change public opinion on the issue of devolution of power.
Q There is a different world situation with the Trump presidency in the United States of America. As such, how long can those interested in Sri Lanka’s issue sustain the international support to the Geneva process?
The United States may be the most important actor but it is only one actor in the international community. President Donald Trump may ensure that US accountability is less, but it is less sure that the US will let go of its traditional role in upholding international human rights standards. Where the resolution on the Sri Lanka was concerned the United States has said it was pleased that Sri Lanka had agreed once again to co-sponsor the resolution, and invited like-minded UN members to demonstrate support for reconciliation and peace in Sri Lanka by adding their names to the list of cosponsors. In a statement, the US applauded the government for its continuing efforts to promote reconciliation. The international community will continue to insist on adherence to international standards. The reinstating of the Generalized System of Preferences Plus status (GSP+) to Sri Lanka is reportedly in the balance following a report from an European Union delegation that was in the country last week. In their report, to be tabled in the European Parliament on 27 April, they have called on the Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom to ensure that the Sri Lankan Government strictly implements the commitments put down by the International Labour Organization (ILO) prior to reinstating the trade facility. The report has also touches on shortcomings on the enforcement on other human rights issues, in particular the use of torture, the rights of minorities and the rights of LGBTI people.
QIn the report by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights, there are 11 allegations. Out of them eight are against the government military. In your view, how legitimate or illegitimate are they?
At this point these are allegations. They need to be investigated and speculation brought to an end. Otherwise they will continue to hang over the military. This will damage their prospects for international training, UN assignments and even for family visits abroad. There are many allegations against the LTTE that should be investigated too. The need is for a process. It is not just to investigate these 11 allegations. As the process continues there might be a need to investigate more allegations. Those who engage in murder, enforced disappearances, torture and rape, whether in times of war or peace, need to be held accountable. The cycle of impunity needs to be broken.
Q How could the military be held to account for civilian deaths in a war zone as there was firing by both sides?
It will be the circumstances and evidence gathered that will determine whether the military was culpable or not. So long as there are no investigations there will continue to be allegations by international human rights organizations and the UN. Sri Lanka needs to get out of this dark cloud. However, we need to be mindful that those who were in the military and who commanded the military and ensured victory over the LTTE are seen by many if not most people, in particular most Sinhalese, as war heroes. Instead of emphasizing retributive justice in which the primary remedy is punishment, there could be an alternative in the form of restorative justice. The latter focuses on victims. The most urgent needs of those who suffered during the war is to find out what happened to their missing family members and to have sustainable livelihoods. This is the accountability I would give priority to.
Q There is public perception that the OMP Act and the proposed law on enforced disappearances contain drastic provisions making way for political and military leaders to be hauled up before an international war crimes tribunal. How do you respond to it?
The primary purpose of the OMP is to enable the families of those who went missing to find out what happened to them. The UNHCR’s resolution has no provision in it for setting up international war crimes tribunals. That is a matter for the UN Security Council, in which China and Russia are members and have pledged to support Sri Lanka. If it is found that those who went missing were killed, there has to be accountability and consequences even within the domestic Sri Lankan system. Q How would it help in reconciliation if the military are punished for their conduct of the war?
It is legal in international law to fight a war, and for military personnel to kill one another. It is only if they behave outside of international law, by killing prisoners, raping women and killing civilians that they are liable to be punished. But these are also violations of codes of conduct within the military itself. Holding those who violated the laws of war accountable will build confidence in people that this is a country governed by the Rule of Law and in the equal treatment of all citizens. If a woman gets raped or a loved one is killed, who will not want justice? We need to put ourselves in others’ shoes.
QWhat is your opinion on the government co-sponsoring this resolution?
By co-sponsoring the UNHRC resolution the government was able to change an adversarial relationship with the international community into a collaborative one. This is the main reason that Sri Lanka was given an extra two years to implement what it had promised to do.
Q As a member of civil society who made representations in Geneva; in your view, could the Tamil lobbying groups be satisfied with the current process and action taken so far?
Reform processes have been initiated but the pace of change is slow. It should be speeded up. The experience of transitional justice processes worldwide is that they are slow. There is the ideal and there is reality. We have to progress, but within the framework of what is real.
QHow do you assess the progress made so far regarding the Constitution making process?
The govt took two good steps at the outset. It appointed a Public Representatives Committee to meet with people all over the country and ascertain their views on all areas of constitutional reform. This is the first time such a public consultation was called for. Second the government turned the entire parliament into a Constitutional Assembly. But now inertia seems to have set in. The preparation of technical documents took too long and were not sufficiently shared. Constitutional Reform, as much as the reconciliation process, is a public process in which the people need to participate on a continuing basis. The govt needs to go to the people, and to all sectors, including the professionals, religious clergy, security forces and business people, and involve them in the discussion. They all want to know what this all means and they deserve to know.