By Bhavani Fonseka
This week the Cabinet of Ministers approved draft legislation to establish an Office for Reparations in adherence to the commitments made by the Government in 2015. Unfortunately, there is a lack of public knowledge about what reparations are, despite successive Governments providing various forms of reparations over the years. At the time of writing, there was also limited public information on the draft legislation approved by Cabinet. It is disappointing that there is really no concerted effort by the present Government to explain their own proposals and to engage citizens in something that would benefit many people across Sri Lanka.
More concerning than even this absence of information, however, are the attacks by senior members in the Government on proposals to provide reparations to families of former LTTE cadres. It is deeply troubling that senior members of a Government which promised co-existence and reconciliation to all its citizens have a very selective view of victim-hood in a country that has witnessed decades of violence impacting all ethnic and religious groups. It is also a worrying sign of attempts to shape a particular narrative by some with ethno-nationalist tendencies. Any reforms meant at genuine reconciliation must address the diversity of affected individuals and groups, and recognise that victims are not homogeneous. Attempts to shut out some groups from future reparations miss the nuance required of a complex issue with no attempts to understand the grievances of individuals and groups.
What are Reparations?
People lost life, limb and livelihood in two youth insurrections and a civil war that spanned three decades. Those losses were never acknowledged or compensated meaningfully – Pic: BBC
In the information void the Government has created, many have questions and doubts as to what reparations are. Reparations are an essential part of transitional justice and focus on recognising and remedying losses from abuses or disasters. It is one of the four pillars of transitional justice which complement the other three: justice, truth and non-recurrence. In many post-war and post-conflict settings such as Colombia, Guatemala and Sierra Leone, reparations have been introduced to assist victims by way of providing material and symbolic support to assist with rebuilding their lives. By recognising past abuses and the need to remedy, reparations are able to empower communities and transform them into rights holders and equal citizens. Importantly, reparations can and should be provided not only to those suffering loss from conflict, but also from natural or man made disasters and associated state negligence or wrongdoing.
If implemented in a comprehensive manner, reparations can directly and comprehensively benefit victims. Practical issues such as the availability of finances may define the scope of a reparations program and these should be factored in during the design stage with information publicly available to explain such decisions and potential limitations. If reparations are provided in a selective and ad-hoc manner, leaving out some victims and favouring others, there is the danger of imposing victim hierarchies and creating unnecessary and dangerous divisions within and between communities. Decisions influenced by political and nationalist agendas or the perception of it further compound such situations.
Reparations must also be seen as a larger initiative than what is commonly considered by many as merely paying compensation. If implemented to encompass different aspects of reparations such as compensation, rehabilitation, restitution, satisfaction and non-recurrence, they can address structural inequalities, provide material and symbolic assistance, and be truly trans-formative.
Reparations should also not be considered a substitute to other reforms including truth and justice. As captured by the Consultation Task Force (CTF) appointed by the Government in 2016, many across Sri Lanka perceived reparations as shutting down accountability. The Government must clarify this misconception, demonstrating that it is genuine in its commitments and that introducing reparations is not a substitute to other promised reforms.
Reparations are not new to Sri Lanka
It should be noted that various forms of reparation were provided by successive Governments in Sri Lanka. This includes compensation to victims of ethno-religious violence across the country and to victims of man-made disasters such as the Meetotamulla garbage dump tragedy, and resettlement and restitution provided to victims of natural disasters such as the 2004 Tsunami and the Meeriyabedda landslide.
These initiatives, however, have had their limitations. Institutions such as the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority (REPPIA) and others are tasked with administering various forms of reparation. Yet, these actors only provide forms of compensation or restitution in specific instances and have limited co-ordination between each other. Often, compensation after various disasters is authorised through Cabinet decisions, resulting in inconsistent forms and amounts of compensation for victims. Despite decades of responding to cycles of violence and disasters, successive Governments have never dealt with the gamut of reparations in its entirety or attempted to establish a comprehensive reparations policy.
The proposed bill, if enacted will bring relief to thousands of victims and their families who have suffered through several episodes of extreme violence in the country. Two youth insurrections in the South and a civil conflict that spanned nearly three decades have left victims of violence traumatised. The violence has also had devastating socioeconomic impacts on vulnerable communities in the North, South, East and West of this island. For many of these victims, decades have elapsed with no closure or acknowledgement of their losses by the state. The recognition of their pain and acknowledgement of their loss is an integral part of the country’s healing and reconciliation process. This is what reparations, in a post-conflict society, sets out to achieve.
A critical task
Thus, the attempt to establish a future Office of Reparations will be welcomed if it is undertaken in a transparent and inclusive manner that addresses issues of equity, gender sensitivity, victim centrality and other key areas. A future Office will have the daunting but critical task of looking at Sri Lanka’s history and introducing a framework that recognises the numerous cycles of violence, conflict and disaster. With visionary leadership and expertise, it can address the existing ad hoc nature of assistance and introduce programs that treat all citizens of Sri Lanka who suffer misfortune with dignity. The Government must motivate itself to see through its commitment to reparations by being informative, transparent and inclusive. Political expediency, inaction and ethno-nationalist sentiment should not be allowed to define what could become a vital component in Sri Lanka’s journey to reckon with its past.