By Jehan Perera –
Civil society members from all parts of the country walked into Temple Trees last week to meet with Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. This was the first time for most of them. This included religious clergy from both the North and South. In past years, they had been more accustomed to the government treating them in a hostile manner which meant Temple Trees was out of bounds. One of the Buddhist monks said he chose not to come in the past, because he did not agree with the practices of those who had been incumbents. The meeting was held in the super size meeting hall built by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa during his two terms as president. Although Temple Trees is usually the domain of the prime minister and not the president, the former president made it his abode. Thousands of people from all walks of life were invited to Temple Trees to meet with him at state expense. The giant meeting hall could easily seat over 2000 persons in air conditioned comfort. Some who were at the meeting said that it was capable of seating as many as 7000.
The thrust of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s presentation to those who were gathered there was that the government wished to make NGOs and civil society organizations become partners with the government. He said this would not be only at the national level but also at the grassroots level. NGOs at the grassroots level have often got to fight against prejudice due to the belief within the government officials that they are anti government or doing the bidding of foreign donors. But today at the national level, NGOs are performing an important national consultation process that connects with what the government is preparing to do in terms of the transitional justice and reconciliation process. One of the key requirements of the international community is a process of public consultations that would legitimize the investigation into the past and the accountability, reparations and institutional reforms that come out of it.
The government is required to work to a time table it has agreed to with the international community with regard to the reconciliation mechanisms as these are part of the government’s commitment to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. When the government decided to co-sponsor the UNHRC resolution in October 2015 it was defusing the growing crisis with the international human rights community and with Western governments that backed the probe into Sri Lanka’s war time accountability for human rights violations. In return for their willingness to drop the demand for an international process of truth seeking and punishment, the government proposed to establish four transitional justice mechanisms and to meet international standards in implementing them. These are the Office of Missing Persons, the Truth-seeking Commission, the Office of Reparations and the Special Court. Consultations are currently underway in all parts of the country with representatives from civil society regarding the four specific mechanisms relating to transitional justice that the government has proposed in this regard.
The government is following a phased approach in fulfilling its commitments by the international community. The first reconciliation mechanism is the Office of Missing Persons. The legislation for this is scheduled to be presented later this month to parliament. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has said that this legislation will be a model for other countries. However, it has come under criticism for having had insufficient public consultations regarding its content. The government was able to hold limited public consultations with the relatives of missing persons and with civil society organizations from both the North and South who have been working on this issue for many years. But this was not a comprehensive public consultation process. The government dispensed with his requirement due to its desire to have something in place to show to the UN Human Rights Council at its meeting in March of this year in Geneva.
The ongoing public consultations with regard to the reconciliation mechanisms being undertaken by civil society groups will shed light on public opinion. Reports from those conducting the consultations indicate a substantial degree of public interest. In one instance a group with several Buddhist monks had disrupted proceedings for a short time demanding that the consultations should be more widely publicized with more opportunities being extended to people to give their opinions. While the officially mandated consultations are going on there are also other civil society meetings taking place on the same topics led by peace and reconciliation oriented organisations which are also receiving a positive response. One such meeting held in Matara last week which I attended drew a participation of over fifty community leaders including religious clergy, government officials, lawyers and media personnel.
The meeting with community leaders in Matara was a manifestation of inter ethnic and inter religious goodwill which has begun to grow visibly under the present government. It shows the influence that government leaders have over the people, either positively or negatively, to take the country in the direction of ethnic harmony or ethnic conflict as the case may be. The unified stance by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on issues of inter community relations, together with the leaders of the Tamil and Muslim ethnic parties, is influencing the general public to also subscribe to values of co-existence and non-aggression to those of other communities. This is in contrast to the approach of the previous government which mobilized the forces of ethnic nationalism in which the government was itself a partisan actor on the side of the ethnic majority rather than being seen as a neutral arbiter.
Prime Minister Wickremesinghe spent nearly two hours in the discussions with over a hundred members of civil society who attended the meeting at Temple Trees under the aegis of Minister of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages Mano Ganesan and the government’s NGO Secretariat. As the invitations for the meeting had been sent by Minister Ganesan who has been a long term advocate of human rights and inter ethnic reconciliation, there was an expectation that the discussion would be primarily on issues related to the government’s reconciliation process in which the four transitional justice mechanisms have taken a central place. The invitation to the meeting did not give a specific agenda which left it open to be flexible. But it also meant that those from civil society who came for the meeting did not have the opportunity to prepare themselves for the issues that the Prime Minister himself brought up. It will be necessary to have follow up meetings so that the ideas introduced can be built upon.
The main thrust of Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s presentation was his interest to strengthen civil society organizations to be able to work in a structured manner with government institutions at all levels. One of the problems that civic groups have experienced in trying to work with government is that they are often only on the periphery and are not brought into at the policy formulation and implementation planning stages. Indeed, during the period of the last government the work of civil society organizations and NGOs came under tight government scrutiny, with prior approval being required for work in the former war zones of the North and East, and surveillance by security forces the norm. It appeared that the Prime Minister’s interest is to find a way by which the voice and inputs of civil society can be institutionalized in government processes so that they can work in a cohesive manner at all levels.
During the discussion the Prime Minister sketched out a three phased process that could strengthen civil society organizations in their contribution to the development process. The first was to develop a policy on government – civil society relations that would ensure that civil society’s role in the development process from the grassroots level upwards would be ensured. The second was to find immediate solutions to the administrative problems and government circulars of the past which continue to be in force and restrict the space for civil society. Third would be to prepare new legislation relevant to civil society that would replace the existing legislation which is outdated in relations to the needs of a post-conflict society that is aiming for rapid economic development. The role of inter-community dialogue, mutual understanding and trust building will need to be an essential part of this endeavour so that no section is left out or feels left out.