Has the Notion of ‘Justice for Victims’ Lost Its Singularity?

Sep 19 2016 - In the whirlwind of activity that attended the 33rd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva this week, Sri Lanka was put on inquiry regarding the non-consultative nature of its ongoing transitional justice and constitutional reform process.

As would be expected, the denials were strong. State representatives affirmed soothingly that a comprehensive and participatory public policy is in force, with truth, justice, reparations and guarantees of non-recurrence at its core. ‘Constructive engagement’ with the world body was said to be of utmost importance, so on and so forth.

Contrary to blindingly simple logic
But perhaps it is now time that this Government acknowledged that ‘constructive engagement’ with affected families within the country is equally and indeed, even far more important. Necessarily, this must go beyond the secluded parameters of what passes currently for a consultative process. Propelled by genuine fears or otherwise, the guarded and secretive approach followed up to now just will not do. Sidelining the victims as a deliberate choice pushes them into marginalized corners. It also insults the Sinhalese by lumping them into a condescending basket, easily excitable by Rajapaksa rhetoric.

This modus operandi also runs contrary to blindingly simple logic where the South is concerned. Indeed, (and stunningly so), this was precisely the opposite rationale on which the Presidential and Parliamentary elections of last year were won. If this paradoxically skewed logic held true at the time and the Sinhalese masses had been inflamed by Rajapaksa communalism as easily as is now advanced, it stands to reason that such electoral wins, one upon the other, would have been quite inconceivable.

But for this approach to work now, the Government must keep a clean governance and Rule of Law record. It cannot follow on the same road as its predecessor with the solitary if not forlorn boast that things are better now because there are no enforced disappearances and critics are not killed. It cannot also condone political corruption and waste, hauling up only those of the previous regime before courts and other mechanisms.

Prevalence of stark contradictions
Most importantly it cannot allow structural impunity to continue. As rightly observed by international human rights monitors before the UN a few days ago, the lack of progress on the January 2006 extrajudicial executions of five students in Trincomalee, the shootings of 17 aid workers with Action Contre La Faim and the enforced disappearance of human rights defender Stephen Sunthararaj in 2009 are just few of many long pending cases. Uncomfortable questions in regard to lack of state arise in this regard.

And where the North is concerned, the contradictions are starker. A classic example was the approach followed by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in regard to the draft legislation on the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) at the time. Deflating rising public anger regarding the non-consultative process followed in finalizing this law, the TNA quickly intervened saying that they had examined the OMP Bill as it was at the time and that their ‘concerns’ had been incorporated.

But is this the way that a main political party purports to support the people of the North and East which it represents? The aim should have been exactly the opposite. The TNA should have insisted on an accountable public process. Its own documents in this regard should have been publicly available. This is indeed a duty of all political parties. Covertly filtering ideas through proxy research ‘institutions’ churning out ‘papers’ supported by generous donor funds simply does not provide solutions thereto.

Refraining from mindless parroting
Moreover, the careful interpretation fostered through a sympathetic media was that the OMP Bill (at the time) did not need public scrutiny as it was the ‘best that one could get’ in the present context.
In a missive sent out earlier this year to protesting groups by the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) this same point was reiterated. In fact, the term ‘consultation fatigue’ was referred to. The sheer arrogance in this incendiary message was unbelievable, quite apart from being factually contestable on its merits..

And where the lack of consultations on the OMP process was concerned, all that was evidenced was a statement or two, some muttering in corridors and tut-tutting on phones, explaining in whispers that ‘yes, yes, we are urging greater process compliance.’

Indeed, when by chance, certain matters, including the sweeping Right to Information exclusion regarding confidential information received by the OMP, (without definition of the exact legal parameters applicable thereto), were critically examined in these column spaces, the outcome was surprising.

Entertaining a cynical quid pro quo
Clearly infuriated reactions completely disproportionate to the questions in issue surfaced almost immediately. Amused if not piqued by curiosity as to what warranted this defensiveness, further probing laid bare some unpalatable truths.

First it was clear that only lip service is paid to upholding liberal values of discussion and disagreement by some civil society actors. Rather, mindless parroting as to what ‘should be said’ to the exclusion of each and every other point of view has become the norm.

Thus, participants representing victims spoke angrily to a shutting down of their opinions at meetings on the transitional justice package. ‘We are not even heard; we are treated as if we are unimportant’ one activist said. This insularity and insecurity on the part of those who would wish one view to predominate is telling.

And the questions that arise in consequence are far graver. In this disquieting climate of political bargaining that prevails now, has the very idea of justice for victims lost its singularity? Is it that in this most triumphal phase of retreating from a darkness which once threatened to overall each and every one of us, there is a cynical quid pro quo at play which prefers to focus on political priorities rather than seeking answers for some of the most heinous human rights violations that this country has ever seen?

These are matters that should be at the forefront of stubborn public debate, from the North to the South.

This story was originally published by The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka

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