Colombo Telegraph

Reconciliation ‘Muddled’ – Part II

By Chamindry Saparamadu

Chamindry Saparamadu

In the first part of this Article, I have tried to explain how reconciliation was conceptualized and approached in the Yahapalana Programme. In this section of the article, I briefly look at how the reconciliation agenda unfolded in the Yahapalana government through the various processes and institutions set up for the purpose of achieving national reconciliation.  

The New Mechanisms under the Framework 

In Part 1 of this article, I explained how an institutional framework proposed by UNHRC Resolution 30/1 and the Sri Lankan Government’s commitment under the Resolution came to define a national narrative and agenda relating to Reconciliation under the Yahapalana government. The four pillars of truth, justice, reparations and non-recurrence are a new conceptualization of reconciliation that did not exist prior to 2015. The emphasis being placed predominantly on an institutional framework based on the four pillars led critics to say that other reforms/ interventions essential to achieve national reconciliation such as educational reforms, strengthening service delivery, psychosocial support programmes etc. were either not considered significant or relegated to a secondary place. Critics claim that the new institutional framework largely based on accountability and punitive justice, whilst being important is not sufficient to achieve national reconciliation through the articulation and formulation of a national agenda underpinned on the same. There was much skepticism regarding the sustainability of such institutions which were created outside the existing legal and institutional framework and the need for immediate integration of those into Sri Lanka’s existing structural and institutional framework has also been highlighted. 

The Institutional Muddle

The Yahapalana reconciliation agenda was not just marked by conceptual obscurity but also by a proliferation of reconciliation institutes based on terminological confusion and various stakeholder interests. In addition to the new institutions set up or proposed to be set up by the Geneva framework, multiple other institutions were also created based on a terminological spectrum between unity, reconciliation, co-existence and dialogue with unclear and overlapping mandates. The institutions based on this terminological muddle created further confusion regarding their role, mandate, and the linkage to the national agenda. Few examples of such institutions are the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR), Ministry of National Co-exsistence, Dialogue and Official Languages and the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) etc. 

If one looks at the mandate of the ONUR, it is responsible for formulating and coordinating the implementation of policies and programmes to build national unity and reconciliation. The office conceptualizes and formulates programmes, secures funding & collaborates with other agencies for implementation. The Office is chaired by former President Chandrika Kumaratunga.

The Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) is tasked with the design and implementation of Sri Lanka’s reconciliation mechanisms and comes under the Prime Minister’s Office. It has been formed by the Cabinet of Ministers on 18th December 2015 and is headed by Mano Tittawella.   

The Ministry of National Co-existence, Dialogue and Official Languages was set up in terms of Gazette No. 13/1933 dated 20.09.2015 with the mission of policy formulation, promoting dialogues and facilitation and implementation of relevant programmes to create a developed society which ensure rights of all communities and observes mutual respect, cooperation and co-existence. The Ministry is headed by Minister Mano Ganeshan. 

It is apparent that these three institutions have similar functions and their differentiation is not based on any rational or scientific criteria but on terminology and actor interests. As such, critics have alleged that these institutions have been set up with a view to giving various interested parties positions and privileges in the government as well as a stake in the reconciliation agenda rather than on any strategic and institutional level intervention to address national reconciliation.

The ONUR and SCRM have both been created by special authority of the Cabinet and outside the public administration system. It is unclear as to how various consultants and staff have been selected and assigned for various functions in these institutions.. It is also not clear whether these multiple institutions with overlapping mandates have been crated based on any public demand. 

The illusive Political commitment and the National Ownership 

Concerns have also been raised regarding the political commitment and national ownership of the reconciliation agenda. The commitment to reconciliation among the political actors in the Yahapalana government seemed vague and ambiguous. The large majority of the political actors remained either disinterested or oblivious of the reconciliation processes. The absence of political commitment becomes even more pronounced by the reluctance on the part of both the President and the Prime Minister to officially and publicly accept the Report of the Consultation Task Force for Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) after having appointed and mandated the consultation process. However, many say that this meager commitment should not come as a surprise, considering the various statements and positions taken by them towards reconciliation and democratization in the past where no clear and consistent position could be ascertained. 

In the absence of political ownership, the reconciliation processes seem to be driven mainly by civil society organizations and actors who have played multiple roles in the process. They have been a part of working groups, technical committees, drafting committees and consultative committees. They have made representations and submissions, arranged and facilitated submissions by victim groups before various consultative forums as well as represented them before these forums. The civil society that is closely associated with the reconciliation processes stems from the liberal peace building ideological standpoint

In many of the reconciliation initiatives, there was also an absence of clear connection between the government agenda and the bureaucracy who were, to the most part, not involved in the conceptualization or the design of any of the processes.  Much of the work relating to the reconciliation agenda was handed to external consultants. This situation can be distinguished from the relative successes achieved in rolling out the Yahapalana government’s RTI agenda. Throughout the process, from drafting to operationalizing the law, the state was engaged in a partnership of trust with the political establishment and the civil society. 

Further, it is not clear whether there was any public demand for the agenda or for the institutional framework as it was not part of the election manifesto and as such not submitted to approval by the people at the time of elections. There was no opportunity to assess whether it was sanctioned by a public mandate.  

Defining a Way Forward 

Conceptual obscurity, terminological confusion, proliferation of institutions with unclear and overlapping mandates, conflicting stakeholder agendas and interests as well as lack of political commitment and national ownership seem to have shaped the reconciliation agenda under the Yahapanala government placing same in a complex muddle of things. To move forward, Sri Lanka needs to define its national reconciliation narrative and agenda and the challenge would  be to come up with a model that will work in the Sri Lankan context given the contestations, polarized views and the contemporary national security challenges. 

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