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If Reconciliation Process is to move forward in Sri Lanka, Civil Society must take the lead as in Northern Ireland

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by Charitha Ratwatte

The Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary defines ‘reconcile’ as ‘finding an acceptable way of dealing with two or more ideas that seem to be opposed to each other’.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II shakes hands with Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander Martin McGuinness as First minister Peter Robinson looks on at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast-Jun 27, 2012-pic: The British Monarchy/AP-via Financial Times

‘Reconciliation’ is defined as ‘an end to a disagreement and the start of a good relationship again,’ and as ‘the process makes it possible for two different ideas to exist together without being opposed to each other’.

A recent event in the calendar of activities organised in Britain for Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee commemoration has brought this concept of reconciliation into close focus.

When the Queen visited Belfast, a private charity organised an event at which Her Majesty was presented to Martin McGuiness, Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. McGuiness was a one-time senior commander of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) which fought a long and bitter war of secession against the British.

Indeed the IRA assassinated Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, last Viceroy of the British Raj in India and who was the Allies Supreme Commander in Asia based in Sri Lanka , during the Second World War.

Lord Louis is a close relative of the Queen, and the IRA would not have had any qualms about assassinating the Queen herself or a member of the Royal family if the opportunity presented itself.

In fact they attempted to murder her Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher at the Conservative Party Annual Conference in Brighton England, by building in explosives, during a routine repair, into the wall of the suite of rooms she was occupying at a Brighton Hotel, well before the event and detonating them while the Thatchers were at the hotel for the conference. It was just plain good luck that the PM and her husband survived.

Real epitome of reconciliation

The photograph of the Queen smiling graciously during the hand shake with McGuiness was publicised around the world. It was the real epitome of reconciliation, in every meaning of the word. But as the Queen turned into the room, knowing that she was about to meet McGuiness, the expression on her face was more telling, it seems to be watchful and apprehensive, that of a venerable old lady approaching the man who, with others, who British military intelligence sources claim to have conclusively established, sanctioned the murder of her cousin Lord Louis and his teenage grandson, who at that time, would certainly regarded her, the Queen herself, as a legitimate target, if the opportunity presented itself.

It must feel strange to meet a man who once wanted to kill you and to have to shake his hand. What the Queen’s private thoughts and feelings were at that time, we presently do not know. May be some day, somewhere, Her Majesty will disclose her true feelings, to some Royal biographer, but since the Queen made the gesture at the request of the British Government, we can hazard a guess that they would have been a combination of trepidation, disturbance and relief, at the minimum.

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, who accompanied the Queen to the event, true to his style, gave a reality check to the situation when he, spotting McGuiness seemingly attempting to move towards him to speak with him, after the Queen had moved on, smartly did a quick jinx and nimbly executed a side step (to use an analogy from Rugby jargon) and moved away, avoiding having to shake McGuiness’ hand, with the finesse and panache that would have done a British Lions Rugby team’s star centre three quarter proud.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Not all nations are fortunate to have a head of state with the sagacity and experience of the Queen of England. How do such nations enter into a process of reconciliation? Their instrument of choice is what is known as a Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Such a commission is normally tasked with discovering and revealing past wrongdoing by governments or non state actors in the help f resolving conflict left over from the past. The model for such a Commission is South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by President Nelson Mandela and Bishop Desmond Tutu.

Since the reports of such Truth Commissions are made to governments, they can provide proof against historical revisionism of state terrorism and other crimes such as human rights abuses. Truth Commissions are sometimes criticised for allowing crimes to go unpunished and creating impunity for serious human rights abusers.

The role and ability of a Truth Commission depends on its mandate, which vary widely worldwide. There can be a public mandate to bring past human rights violators to justice. In some cases, such as, it is alleged, in Argentina and Chile, abusers of human rights have gone unpunished by Truth Commissions due to threats of anti democratic coups by powerful parties, such as the military.

The militaries in question cede control to a civilian government, only after insisting that they are guaranteed full impunity for any human rights abuses in the past. In fact Argentina has a ‘Full Stop’ law which provides exactly this.

Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission

Readers are aware that we in Sri Lanka have also had a Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC). It was appointed in May 2012. After the civil conflict, of which the first bullet was fired, when Velupillai Prabhakaran assassinated Jaffna’s Mayor Alfred Durayappah in 1976, ended by the defeat of the LTTE in 2009.

The LLRC was mandated to investigate the facts and circumstances which led to the failure of cease fire agreement made operational on 27 February 2002, the lessons which should be learnt from these events and the institutional, administrative and legislative measures which need to be taken in order to prevent any recurrence of such concerns in the future, and to promote further national unity and reconciliation among all communities.

After 18 months of inquiry, the LLRC submitted its report on 15 November 2011. The report was made public on 16 December 2011, after being tabled in parliament, in the English language, there is to date, no official Sinhala or Tamil version, though private translations are available.

As summarised by analysts, the LLRC found that the SL military did not deliberately target civilians but that he LTTE repeatedly violated international humanitarian law. The military gave the highest priority to protecting civilians, whereas the LTTE had no respect for human life.

The LLRC admitted that civilians had been killed by the SL military, albeit accidentally, contradicting the Government’s line that there were zero civilian casualties. The LLRC did receive some eye witness evidence alleging abuse by the military which warranted further investigation and, if necessary, the prosecution of perpetrators.

The LLRC acknowledged that hospitals had been shelled, resulting in considerable civilian casualties, but did not say who was responsible for the shelling. The LLRC blames Sinhala and Tamil politicians for causing the civil war: the Sinhala politicians failed to offer a solution acceptable to the Tamil people and the Tamil politicians fanned militant separatism.

The LLRC has been heavily criticised by international human rights groups, the UN Secretary General’s Panel of Experts and others due to its limited mandate, alleged lack of independence and its failure to meet minimum international standards or offer protection to witnesses. They alleged that the Government was using the LLRC as a device to avid an independent international investigation of alleged abuses. As a consequence of this Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the International Crisis Group refused to appear before the LLRC.

The LLRC Report was an important feature at the UN Human Rights Council sessions in Geneva where a resolution was adopted censuring Sri Lanka for alleged war crimes. Of 47 members, 24 countries, including India, voted for the resolution, 15 against and eight abstained. Much was made of the fact that 15 plus eight totalled 23! Simple arithmetic, one would think?

Indian stance

India, which does not usually vote for country specific resolutions, made a departure, which cut the Government to the quick, as the Government totally failed to read the signals in the build up to the vote and feigned deafness to the cacophony emerging from Tamil Nadu.

The resolution asked the Government to explain how it would address the alleged violations of international humanitarian laws and how it would implement the recommendations of the LLRC, it also encouraged the UN Human Rights Office to offer Sri Lanka advice and assistance and the Government to accept it.

India, explaining its position on the vote for the resolution, said it believed the primary responsibility for promotion of reconciliation and the protection of human rights lies with individual states. While India subscribes to the broader message of the resolution and the objectives it promotes, it also underlines that any assistance from the Office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner should be in consultation with the Government.

Recently India’s National Security Advisor (NSA), Shivshankar Menon was in Colombo, and refused to commit whether India was satisfied with the Government’s peace and reconciliation process. The NSA, at a meeting with India journalists, said: “The goal of India’s engagement is much bigger; it is to get this reconciliation process to the right place.”

The NSA declared: “India would like to see a united Sri Lanka, within which all communities feel they are in control of their own destiny. Political reconciliation is clearly a Sri Lanka issue, which Sri Lanka has to do, but India will continue to remain engaged with all concerned and continue to support their efforts. We will continue to support help, do whatever we can to make sure that it moves in the right direction.

India is not going to sit in judgment of anyone in the process. This is not a judgmental process… that’s not how it works. The hopes of the Tamils could only be accommodated through a political process. This was an internal political process. We have also to look at that. It is a process that has ramifications for all of us. And it is not something that started today or yesterday or a few years ago.”

Analysis of the LLRC Report

The Government has obtained the views of political parties who are members of the governing group on the LLRC report and referred those views and the LLRC recommendation to a committee of official chaired by the Secretary to the President for its views on the proposals that can be implemented.

In an analysis of the LLRC Report a commentator on Groundviews says: “The report is very much what was expected. A document that looks to the future, exonerates the military , does not touch on the question of accountability and includes some touchy-feely language about the country’s need to move forward, celebrate its diversity and be grateful for the defeat of terrorism.

Essentially, all civilian casualties were the result of people caught in the cross fire or were the LTTE’s fault. The SL Army had given the protection of the civilian population the highest priority. During the final phases of the conflict the military operations moved at a deliberately slow pace because SL army personnel were so careful and cognisant of the dangers to civilian life.”

Groundviews goes on to say that the LLRC also found it difficult to determine what happened regarding the shelling of hospitals. It is clear to the LLRC that the SL Army never intentionally went after civilians in the no fire zones.

Groundviews says that the LLRC’s analysis of the current challenges facing Sri Lanka seem to be slightly more realistic than the rest of the report. Land issues, minority rights and the possibility that militarisation in the North might be a bit too much, are all mentioned. The Government’s progress on these matters will be reviewed regularly at the meetings of the UNHRC and will come under continuous international scrutiny.

Lessons for Sri Lanka

The process of reconciliation in Northern Ireland, which culminated with the meeting between the Queen and Martin McGuiness, has many lessons for Sri Lanka.

In 1998 an organisation called INCORE – Initiative on Conflict Resolution and Ethnicity – sponsored a group of Sri Lankans to visit Northern Ireland to study the peace process which had just started, and was in a very tenuous state, with many doubting its sustainability. The day before the visit the Real IRA detonated a huge car bomb in the city of Omagh, resulting in a number of civilian casualties.

One member prepared a report on the visit, from which the following paragraph is illuminating: The peace deal in Northern Ireland was a deal which could only be done by allowing both sides to claim victory, initially.

The Ulster Unionists hailed it as one, which strengthened the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Sinn Fein (the political front of the IRA) took the position that it backed the deal only because it moved decisively in the direction of a United Ireland. Both cannot be right. Then why is the deal a big breakthrough?

For two reasons, it has accepted nonviolence and the principle of consent. Sinn Fein and the IRA seem to have accepted the position that Northern Ireland cannot be forced into a united Ireland at the point of a gun.

The Real IRA, the Continuity IRA, the Committee for 32 Counties and the INLA have also been shamed into accepting that Northern Ireland cannot be bombed into a united Ireland, by the public outrage after the Omagh bomb atrocity. The moderate among the Nationalists and Loyalists has accepted the principle that the fate of Northern Ireland will be decided by the will of the majority of its people, democratically expressed.

The agreement prepares the ground for far-reaching changes to the government the policing and the administration of justice in Northern Ireland and ensures that in the elected assembly at Stormont (Northern Ireland’s Assembly), the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’ will not be possible… This has been achieved in a unique way. In the Assembly, all assemblymen have to register as Nationalists or Loyalists at the inception. The Women’s Group refused to do this saying that they do not accept these male chauvinist distinctions.

A special compromise was affected for them. All important proposals have to get a minimum 40% approval with the Loyalist Group separately and within the Nationalist group separately, and then an overall two-thirds majority when both groups vote together. This is a safeguard against the ‘Tyranny of the Majority’ and a ‘Tyranny of the Minority’.

Minority rights

Minority rights are at the core of the reconciliation process in Sri Lanka. Powers of the Provincial Councils are also an issue. Authority over the Police Service, whether it should be with the Government or the provincial authorities is disputed.

The most sensible remedy, an autonomous National Police Commission, consisting of eminent persons with impeccable credentials, free from political influence, non partisan and independent, supervised by an independent judiciary, is not even on the agenda. In any event, whether the 18th Amendment to the Constitution will allow such institutions is doubtful.

The so-called supremacy of Parliament must be made subject to the law and Constitution, so that rights are entrenched and cannot be limited or overruled by partisan majorities emerging from time to time. The political class of this country seems incapable of accepting these fundamental truths.

In Northern Ireland, civil society, particularly business persons, employers and trade unions played a decisive role, when the politicians were paralysed by partisan bickering, and the reconciliation process was not moving forward. The Northern Ireland Confederation of Business and Industry (NI CBI) published a paper in 1994 that referred a ‘peace dividend’. It spelt out in some detail the economic rationale for peace.

In 1996 the NI CBI joined with six other trade and business organisations to create the Group of 7, a collective voice of Northern Irish economic interests. In October of that year the Group of 7 invited all nine political parties involved in the peace talks to a meeting, at which they presented the economic rationale for peace and urged the politicians to redouble their efforts for peace.

This initiative contributed greatly to the peace process in Northern Ireland becoming sustainable and irreversible and led to the earth shaking event of the Queen shaking hands with a former erstwhile assassin!

If the process of reconciliation is to move forward, to make sustainable the potential economic gains that peace has bestowed on Sri Lanka, the task cannot be left to the political class; civil society must take the lead, as in Northern Ireland. courtesy: Financial Times

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