LIMPING and internally conflicted thought it be, the government of national unity once again showed its value when it got the Office for Reparations bill passed through parliament. The margin of victory was narrow with just 59 MPs voting in favour and 43 against it. As both UNP and SLFP members of the government voted for the passage of the bill it can be believed that both president Maithripala Sirisena and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were in favour of the passage of the bill. They were joined by the TNA which also voted in favour of the bill. However, the voting figures show that most of the government MPs kept away from the vote. This was a shirking of their responsibility to take a stand on an issue of greatest importance to the national reconciliation process.
It is to the credit of the government that it continues with its post-war reconciliation process despite strong opposition from nationalists and party political rivals on both sides of the ethnic divide. This opposition is fuelled both by misinformation about the purpose of these reconciliation mechanisms and by the desire to gain partisan political advantage. It is to the credit of the members of the UNP and SLFP who did cast their votes that they were of one mind in ensuring that the bill was passed even while at loggerheads on most other matters of state. This alone highlights the value of the alliance and the need for it to continue beyond the present term of parliament. Particularly praiseworthy was the vote of UNP members Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake in favour of the bill. Both of them had lost their fathers to LTTE suicide bombers when they were at the height of their political careers. Another one who voted in favour of the bill was Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka who almost lost his life to an LTTE suicide bomber. The opposition critiqued the bill on account of the possibility of LTTE cadres obtaining reparations as a result of the establishment of the Office for Reparations. In voting in favour of the bill all three of these UNP members gave priority to victims of human rights violations during the war, and other conflicts that had taken place in the country, rather than to their own personal losses.
THE Office for Reparations is the second of the transitional justice mechanisms to be set up following the October 2015 resolution of the UN Human Rights Council that the government decided to co-sponsor. The first was the Office of Missing Persons which was established in February this year. The acceptance of the targets set out in the resolution and intended to be achieved by the government have been controversial since the day the resolution was signed. The government has been denounced by the opposition for having betrayed the country and those who both fought and led the military operations that resulted in the defeat of the LTTE.
With few exceptions, such as minister Mangala Samaraweera, the unfortunate failure of the government’s leaders to defend the co-sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution in October 2015 can be attributed to their lack of conviction and political courage with regard to the need for the ongoing reconciliation process. The non-participation of many government members in the vote on the Office for Reparations bill indicates their lack of conviction that it is a necessary measure in terms of the national reconciliation process. Without a system of ensuring reparations for past human rights violations and injuries stemming from such violations, the consequences of the war cannot be adequately dealt with.
Last weekend, I was at a workshop that explained the concept of transitional justice and what it means for Sri Lanka to a group of community leaders and members of the Youth Parliament in the Ratnapura district. When the Office for Reparations was being discussed the same objection that was heard in parliament was heard on the seminar floor. Articulating themselves with considerable passion, some of the participants said that the Office for Reparations would be compensating LTTE members and their families and this was not an appropriate or just use of national resources. They pointed out that it was an inequitable use of government resources to use funds to compensate LTTE members and their families when the LTTE’s primary focus was on dividing the country. This echoes the objection of the political opposition to the Office for Reparations.
THE legislation in the Office for Reparations Act does not specifically state that LTTE members and their families are to be recipients of reparations. The law states that persons who have suffered damage as a result of loss of life or damage to their property or persons in four contexts are those who are entitled to reparations. These are in the context of the war that took place in the northern and eastern provinces, in connection with political unrest of civil disturbances, in the course of systemic gross violations of the rights of individuals, groups or communities of people in Sri Lanka or due to an enforced disappearance. This use of language does not exclude the LTTE members or their families from receiving reparations if they have suffered human rights violations.
Once the institution is set up and commissioners are appointed they will need to go into this issue. It is an axiom that those who seek justice need to have clean hand themselves. The commissioners will be able to look at what other countries have done in similar situations. At the workshop in Ratnapura, those who were conducting it took the position that reparations were for all Sri Lankans who were entitled to them. This was acceptable to the big majority of the workshop participants. This was seen when 15 out of 17 youth development officers who were taking part in the training said they were prepared to organise follow up workshops in their localities and explain the transitional justice process to the people they worked amongst.
This is an opportunity for the government, political parties and public and civic institutions that failed in the past to make amends for those failures. The Office for Reparations can provide a strong message of care to the conflict- affected populations living in all parts of the country due to the several conflicts that have taken place during the country’s post-independent history. These include the recent anti-Muslim riots and the two JVP insurrections that took place in 1971 and again in 1988-89 in which much violence was perpetrated on innocent people. Even though most of the government MPs did not vote, by getting the Office for Reparations into the law, the government of national unity can still claim to represent the interests of a multi-ethnic and plural nation better than the opposition who voted against the bill.
Jehan Perera is executive director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka.
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