Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sri Lanka: Does the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission really listen?

Photo courtesy: The Sunday Leader

By valkyrie | Groundviews

The most recent sessions of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) were held in the conflict affected North from 18 to 20 September, at which a large number of persons, particularly women, made representations. Of course one wouldn’t know it by reading the newspapers, listening to the radio or watching television. In what appears to be a complete information blackout, Sinhala and English language media, which gave considerable prominence to representations made by those appearing before the Commission in Colombo, such as Jayantha Dhanapala and Austin Fernando, were conspicuously silent when the LLRC held sittings in the area where the final battle between the Sri Lanka armed forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was fought. In contrast, the Tamil newspapers carried heart wrenching accounts of mostly women who had lost, in many cases, their entire families.

According to Prof. G.L. Peiris, the Minister for External Affairs, the government established the LLRC ‘drawing upon the experience of South Africa in particular’ with the primary focus on ‘restorative justice, enabling people to pick up the pieces, to get on with their lives’. In his speech at the 9th IISS Asian Security Summit on 6 June 2010 he further reiterated that ‘The State is firmly resolved to put at their disposal all the resources that would facilitate this difficult task’.

Speaking about the LLRC at the 15th session of the UN Human Rights Council on 13 September, Hon. Mohan Peiris, the Attorney-General of Sri Lanka pointed to the public nature of its hearings and described the mandate of the Commission which includes ‘determining responsibility regarding past events in question related to the conflict’, while rejecting ‘aspersions already cast on the work of this Commission’. If assessed within the framework as set out by the Minister and the Attorney-General, what does the LLRC’s performance in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu tell us about the possibilities for post-war reconciliation?

The majority of persons in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu had no knowledge of the LLRC’s visit to the area. There were a few who had access to more resources and information than most and had written asking to appear before to the LLRC. These persons were informed of the Commission’s visit. Most others who heard the LLRC was going to hold sessions in the area only days prior to the visit, spent a couple of days attempting to ascertain the location of the hearing. Requests made to several government officials for information about the Commission’s visit either elicited no response or the people were informed they could not attend the sessions. With much difficulty, a large number of women found out where the hearings were being held and turned up in large numbers. It transpired that most of those living in the areas the Commission was visiting were women who had suffered injuries in the war and whose husbands, fathers and sons had either been killed or were in detention or ‘rehabilitation’ camps.

Although the merits of engaging with the LLRC can be debated, according to activists in the area, many women felt that being able to speak about the hardships and losses they had experienced was in and of itself a relief. As has been reported in the Tamil media the LLRC was clearly unprepared to cope with the number of women who turned up and therefore requested the women to make written submissions. The situation was exacerbated by the limited administrative support available to the LLRC, particularly with regard to Tamil translators, a fact which became glaringly apparent weeks ago when Minister Douglas Devananda who appeared before the Commission made his representation in Tamil. It seemed the Commissioners were also not equipped to deal with persons who had experienced immense hardship and were in need of emotional support. Once again, as has been widely reported in the Tamil media, the women often became emotional or broke down in the middle of their representations. The Commissioners however showed little sensitivity or empathy. Women also reported seeing men who appeared to be CID officials photographing persons who made representations and even those who attended the hearings.

In this context, can one believe that this, in the words of Prof. Peiris, ‘home grown, home spun mechanism’ has the capacity to bring ‘people together, accentuating, not the things that divide them, but the whole reservoir of values which all the people of Sri Lanka share’? Was U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton wrong in her assessment when she reportedly told Prof. Peiris that ‘This experiment holds promise’?

The non-existent media reportage of the sittings of the LLRC in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu illustrates the challenges faced in constructing an alternative narrative about the war from the perspective of the affected person- the victim-survivor. The reasons for the deafening silence of the media are manifold. The most obvious reason is the fear of the state that charges of war crimes might be leveled against it at an international forum which has meant that anyone who has sought to construct an alternate narrative of the war has been and continues to be vilified and attacked. Dishearteningly, the majority of Sri Lankans appear satisfied with the version put forward by the state and exhibit hostility towards anyone who seeks to deconstruct the dominant ‘truth’. The other reason is related to the militarization of the Vanni and the treatment of its population. As evidenced by the refusal to grant permission to the BBC to travel to the area and cover the proceedings, more than a year after the end of the war movement in and out of the Vanni remains strictly controlled. Local and international humanitarian organisations that wish to work in the return areas have to obtain approval from a number of state structures with little transparency about the procedure to submit applications. For instance, to date, the working methods and rules of procedure of the Presidential Task Force are unknown.

The only constant in this scenario is that rules are ad-hoc and can change without notice at any moment. Even organisations that wish to merely visit the Vanni to conduct assessments of the needs of the population in order to formulate projects to address them or meet with local organisations in the area, have to obtain approval to travel to the area. Although the government is supposedly committed to enabling the returnee IDPs rebuild their lives, its’ actions indicate callousness toward a population that continues to be monitored, controlled and prevented from living with dignity. Even those who travel to the area to visit family or relatives are reportedly not allowed to stay overnight. Of course, there are no published rules regarding work or travel to the return areas that are accessible to the public. This could even lead defenders of the state to declare that these ‘rules’ and restrictions on travel and movement are imaginary but the experience of organisations and individuals who work or have tried to work in and travel to the area prove otherwise.

Although many individuals, the majority of them women, have appeared before the LLRC despite possible harm, threats or intimidation they may suffer, can and should people be expected to engage with the Commission and tell their stories, which most often challenge the dominant narrative of the war, in the context of a heavily militarised environment in which they are unable to exercise even the most basic rights to which they are entitled? Further, when men who appear to be state intelligence services are present and photographically recording those who appear before the Commission, how can the safety of those who make representations be guaranteed, particularly women who live alone and are already vulnerable due to lack of shelter, electricity and other factors that contribute to their physical security?[1]

Leaving aside the issues related to the limited mandate and legitimacy and impartiality, or lack thereof of the Commission, the manner in which it has managed the sittings in the war affected areas illustrates the lack of respect for the lived experiences of these people. It also makes one wonder whether the voices of the war affected will be reflected in the final report and recommendations of the LLRC. A Commission with the stated aim of promoting national unity and reconciliation needs to exhibit greater transparency and engage with the public. For instance, when it travels to the former conflict areas, the place of hearing and procedure to be followed when making a representation should be widely disseminated. As those in the return areas do not have access to electronic media it should be done through the distribution of pamphlets, posting notices in the GA offices etc.

Although no process can offer a complete version of the past as there will always be contested versions of events, for a people whose lives have been so brutally torn apart by war the least the state could provide is freedom to place their experiences within the public space. The hearings in the war affected areas are important as they will enable the construction of a narrative of the war that challenges the dominant state sponsored narrative which denies the suffering of the people and refuses to allow them public space to grieve and acknowledge their losses. Based on the manner in which the Commission has functioned to date, one is forced to conclude that it is most likely to lend itself to the project to reinforce the dominant state narrative thereby ensuring that the dissenting voices of the war affected are permanently silenced, memories erased and history re-written. This collective amnesia, which is being foisted upon the people, can have dangerous consequences, from bolstering a culture of impunity to self-blame on the part of the victim-survivors. The government has repeatedly stated that the LLRC’s focus is restorative justice rather than retributive justice implying that issues of accountability and justice will not be examined or discussed. In doing so they fail to recognize that restorative justice does not constitute erasing the past and denying victims and survivors the right to grieve and memorialize.

At the hearings in Colombo every person who appeared before the Commission was asked for his/her opinion on the means through which communities can be reconciled in post-war Sri Lanka. Yet, at the hearings in Killinochchi and Mullaitivu the Commissioners failed to understand that the first step towards reconciliation is allowing people to live with dignity, which in the case of those affected by the war includes enabling their narratives to become part of the broader narrative about the war.

© Groundviews

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