In the wake of Sri Lanka’s tumultuous history, the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has been a topic of debate and concern.
While the Ministry of Foreign Affairs claims that progress is underway, stakeholders and human rights activists are raising questions about the commission’s efficacy and independence. The TRC aims to address past atrocities and foster national healing, but its effectiveness remains uncertain.
Stakeholder meetings and Interim Secretariat
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has indicated that the TRC’s formation is an ongoing process.
“Stakeholder meetings, including consultations with civil society organisations, have been held to garner diverse perspectives on reconciliation. An Interim Secretariat has been set up and recruitment notices have been published in newspapers, signalling steps towards the commission’s realisation,” sources at the Foreign Ministry told The Sunday Morning.
Meanwhile, President Ranil Wickremesinghe recently stated in an interview with the French media that the Government of Sri Lanka would invite foreign jurists to observe the TRC’s sittings. The President emphasised that this inclusion of foreign observers aimed to dispel any perceptions of a cover-up.
However, scepticism remains among critics who argue that the TRC lacks teeth and that accountability is essential to achieve genuine reconciliation.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP M.A. Sumanthiran expressed reservations about the TRC’s purpose and objectives. He highlighted that past commissions had failed to ensure consequences for perpetrators of human rights violations, leading to victims’ retraumatisation without any tangible progress.
“A draft was shared with us in January and thereafter we were told that several amendments were being made to that draft. Then last month there was a meeting in Parliament that the TNA attended, invited by the two ministers – the Minister of Justice and the Foreign Minister – on this issue.
“There we made our position very clear; that there doesn’t seem to be any purpose or objective to this Truth and Reconciliation Commission that is to be set up. There is no consequence that will happen as a result of this, so it’s another stage for the victims to come and tell their stories and cry, which they have done many times.
“I met a mother of one of the disappeared last week at the Mullaitivu court, who said that she had already gone before 12 commissions and told her story, so this will be the 13th time she will have to go before a commission to tell her story for nothing. Even in the draft law it doesn’t say what happens thereafter; it’s just a storytelling exercise. This is totally unacceptable and we told the Government this.”
The MP asserted that a truly independent and impartial mechanism required international involvement, as both the Government and the LTTE were parties to the conflict.
“In 2015 there was co-sponsorship by Sri Lanka of UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, in which the Sri Lankan Government agreed to set up a hybrid court – this was not just a truth commission, it went beyond that into a prosecutorial mechanism – and agreed that Commonwealth and other foreign judges, prosecutors, defence attorneys, and investigators would participate in those capacities.
“At that time, the incumbent President was the Prime Minister and the incumbent Minister of Justice was the Minister of Justice then as well. This Minister of Justice, while he was in the Opposition, once presented a private member’s bill in which he suggested participation of judges from other Commonwealth countries – not Sri Lanka – to inquire into allegations against Supreme Court judges. He couldn’t have made that suggestion if it was unconstitutional.
“There is nothing unconstitutional about that; there is no bar to foreign persons becoming a commissioner in this or a judge in another matter. Our position all along has been that any mechanism must be thoroughly independent and impartial and for it to be so, it must be international, because there are two sides to the violent conflict – one was the LTTE and the other was the Government of Sri Lanka. Therefore, one of the parties to the conflict cannot be holding an inquiry. For it to be independent, it has to be international.”
History of unimplemented recommendations
Human rights activist Ambika Satkunanathan shared similar concerns, emphasising Sri Lanka’s history of unimplemented commission recommendations and the continued violation of human rights.
“We have a history of commissions that have published reports. Some reports have not even been made public, even where the reports that have been made public are concerned, the recommendations have not been implemented. The victims who have gone before commission after commission and been retraumatised have had no psychosocial or livelihood support. It is cruel, inhuman, and insulting to expect them to go before yet another commission when there is absolutely no guarantee that even the basics will be met in terms of integrity of the mechanism and political will.”
Satkunanathan questioned the need for yet another commission when the focus should be on addressing ongoing violations and implementing past recommendations, which could resolve a significant portion of the country’s issues.
“If you implement the recommendations of the past commissions, you will probably end up solving 50% of the problems anyway. Therefore, instead of wasting resources that could be utilised in other ways and wasting time and energy, why doesn’t the Government just start implementing the recommendations of past commissions?” questioned Satkunanathan.
Japan, South Africa, and Switzerland’s intervention
In a noteworthy development, the Ambassadors of Japan, South Africa, and Switzerland are reportedly working together to intervene in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process.
These countries aim to engage with the Government and Tamil parties to explore ways to address reconciliation holistically, beyond the proposed TRC Bill.
“At the present moment, the ambassadors of three countries have got together and are intervening, we were told. The Swiss Ambassador’s representative met Sampanthan and myself and announced that Japan, South Africa, and Switzerland Heads of Missions in Colombo had jointly taken an effort to talk to the Government and to the Tamil parties to see whether there was a way forward, not just on this bill alone, but on overall reconciliation and dealing with the past.
“The three ambassadors are due to meet us some time in August and we will also tell them our concerns on why we cannot agree with this proposed mechanism,” MP Sumanthiran told The Sunday Morning.
As the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission moves forward, concerns about its effectiveness and independence continue to surface. The willingness of the Government to invite foreign observers is seen by some as a move to avoid international scrutiny rather than a genuine commitment to accountability and reconciliation.
Stakeholders and human rights activists stress the importance of implementing past commission recommendations and addressing ongoing violations to establish a credible platform for genuine reconciliation in Sri Lanka. As the country navigates its tumultuous history, the success of the TRC will depend on its ability to truly address past atrocities, bring about accountability, and pave the way for a peaceful and united future.
Repeated attempts to contact the Minister of Justice, State Minister of Justice, Secretary to the Ministry of Justice, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and the State Minister of Foreign Affairs were futile.
(Original caption: Truth and Reconciliation Commission: Topic of controversy and scepticism) The Morning/22.07.23