“…the concept of the ‘crimes against humanity’ remains on the horizon of the entire geopolitics of forgiveness”. – Jacques Derrida
Sri Lanka’s incapacity as a nation state (or which has so far failed to become so) to give protection to many of its citizens, mostly during the war and its aftermath, has resulted in the current crisis of the country facing international probes. The world has come to know about the realities facing the average person in Sri Lanka after the end of the war in May 2009. And, today, the international community has begun to force open the eyes of the ruling regime to such realities. On the other hand, regime has failed to provide ‘laws for those who lost the protection of the national government’ and has increasingly placed such matters in the hands of the military or the police. This remains largely a cause for endless agitations in the North where the civilian administration is yet to be restored in its entirety. The military and the police have received unprecedented authority to act directly on the people. Mostly, as we have seen, the alleged perpetrators of violence during the ethnic war and the JVP insurrection were put to death by military in the name of national security without fair trials or any other mechanism even to have records of the death count. At the end of the long fought war too this practice has not ended, but gotten more rigorous. We often witness the truth of this situation from the killings of many of the alleged members of the underworld and others like media persons who protested against this government’s arbitrariness and anti-people policies through their activism as members of the civil society.
Rule of Law not in place
Extrajudicial killings, abductions, arbitrary arrests, torture, delay in legal procedures and many other impunities by the military and police in Sri Lanka have constituted a set of new undemocratic practices and anti-people norms which in turn have best served the interests of a few who have wanted to extend their power at any cost. All in all, democracy in Sri Lanka is being slowly led to the guillotine. Ritualistic elections have only served as eyewash to the world to justify our practice of democracy. As domestic politics kept growing like a cactus with severe authoritarian tendencies, the international pressure on the government too has grown in similar scales. The UNHRC advocated probe that the parliamentarians of ruling alliance did not want to take place is the best example for such external pressures.
True that the President has suddenly awakened to the reality, or he pretended so, and set up a local mechanism supported by international advocacy at this last minute, but it has not added much justification for stopping an international probe as such. Now therefore two probes, a local probe with international advocacy and an UN initiated international probe, are being underway. Probing crimes of the past, why and for what? Can the justice be done through punishment? And, if not, are the parties ready to apologise or to forgive each other? And can they really do so in the absence of the dead? Or who is going to apologise on whose persuasion? We need to answer these and many questions by rereading Derrida’s idea of forgiveness in our context.
External Forces for probing
The UN prescribed probe on the alleged human rights violations and breaches of humanitarian laws has started as an international process at this critical juncture when the domestic process has crucially collapsed. What exactly would an internationally driven probe and its findings result in terms of bringing justice to those who remain already dead and who are survived by the dead. The probing of any crime related event is aimed at punishment or at least making the perpetrators apologise for such crimes.
The Sinhalese and Tamil conflict in Sri Lanka took a highly militant character with the violent eruption of the conflict after the Black July pogrom of 1983. At the end of the long war it was alleged that Sri Lankan military had perpetrated genocide against the Tamils in the last phase of the war as well. Nevertheless, from both sides, despite the disparity of powers each other had, violence was caused and on such violence multiple narratives abound now in society. The end result was a greater destruction; the increasing understanding that violence can lead a society no where in searching for solution for political and social issues it is confronted against. However, this understanding seems to have not struck the minds of the leadership of both parties to the violent struggle and they still maintain attempts of revenge.
It is such a difficult exercise to rethink the idea of forgiveness on behalf of the dead. The living is unwilling to forgive or they themselves cannot do so as they have no power to represent the dead either. Thus at a time when the idea of forgiveness has increasingly shown its impossibility to take root in an embroiled social and cultural space like ours, we undertake to rethink of the same, despite its seemingly futile nature. Because we think that the dead is dead, but the unborn is yet to come, and they should not inherit the burden of an unresolved crisis. Therefore we suggest that a campaign for forgiveness is a political struggle against racialism, ethnic hatred and ethno-political violence. Yet, it does not want to be another pragmatist tool on the hands of the rulers or racists to cover up for their crimes too.
Derrida and South African Reconciliation
Possibly, the idea of forgiveness is not just a philosophical notion without political possibility, but it has a futuristic dimension that can contribute to a better democracy tomorrow or ‘democracy to come’. If we can attain forgiveness for all our crimes, surely an impossible task, tomorrow’s generation will not have to inherit the same amount of hatred that we live with today. French philosopher Derrida has dealt with the issue of what he calls ‘impossibility of forgiveness’ in an essay titled ‘On Forgiveness’. In this essay Derrida throws light on the reconciliation process of the South African society after a long fought conflict due to apartheid.
South Africa established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to look into the possibility of reconciliation. Without a reconciliation process “South Africa would have mired in fire and bloody vengeance” for long. The President of this Commission Desmand Tutu, as Derrida says, “With as much as goodwill and confusion…introduced the vocabulary of repentance and forgiveness”. According to Derrida South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission had to recognise two parties to the process of reconciliation namely the perpetrators of violence (guilty) and the victim. This is certainly the tradition of Abrahamic religions and Derrida highlights the effect of norms in Christianity on South Africa’s reconciliation process. Therefore, the ‘forgiveness’ takes place only between the two singularities –victim and guilty- in its pure form, and with third party mediation, again, could change the language toward ‘amnesty, reconciliation and reparation’.
Derrida finds that South African TRC oscillated ‘between the non-penal and non-reparative logic of ‘forgiveness’ and ‘a judicial logic of amnesty’. Now the central question that Derrida raises on the issue of forgiveness is that it can create confusion between the ‘order of forgiveness and order of justice’. The time consumed for the process of ‘forgiveness’ may provide for ‘escape of justice’. If the parties to conflict just “mimic the scene of ‘immediate’ and quasi automatic-forgiveness” the process of justice will never run its full course. Thus, forgiveness in its true sense seems more impossible than we think of it. There is more possibility that forgiveness can be abused by the parties to the conflict in order to escape penal or reparative dimensions of justice. Should forgiveness be ‘conditional or unconditional’? The answer for this issue brings out the heterogeneity of forgiveness.
Heterogeneity of Forgiveness
Derrida realizes that a genuine reconciliation process through genuine forgiveness has to address the ‘heterogeneity’ of the term. A non-conditional forgiveness is something like a ‘gracious gift’ from the God. Therefore forgiveness has to be attached with some conditions at least the ‘repentance, transformation of the sinners’. The transformation must take place in many spheres, ‘law, history, politics, and existence itself’. ‘A series of conditions of all kinds’, social, psychological etc. have to be engaged in order to arrive at ‘effective’ or ‘concrete forgiveness’. ‘A pure and unconditional’ process of forgiveness would reduce it to the idea of ‘amnesia, acquittal, or prescription’ and what Derrida calls ‘the work of mourning and some political therapy call reconciliation’. However, Derrida suggests that ‘pure and unconditional’ forgiveness cannot have ‘meaning or finality or even intelligibility’. Therefore, from a philosophical meaning, the challenge before us today would be to create conditions for forgiveness that does not yearn for ‘meaning or finalities’.
Politics and Forgiveness
Forgiveness is impossible like a ‘gift of grace’. It aims at finding ‘meaning or finality’ and therefore engages in a relentless process of political bargain. The experience in Sri Lanka is that the Tamils have kept demanding for rights for ages and the Sinhalese government has kept refusing every time. The parties have looked at the issues from a language of strategic, economic, and political only. As Derrida says “All sorts of unacknowledgeable ‘politics’, all sorts of strategic ruses can hide themselves abusively behind a ‘rhetoric’ or ‘comedy’ of forgiveness, in order to avoid the step of law”. The disjuncture between ‘ethical and pure forgiveness’ and pragmatic process of reconciliation is clear from the Sri Lankan example. Ours is a case of ‘power, sovereignty and human rights violations’. The crimes against humanity are what make the problematic of forgiveness more complicated. Is it just possible to forgive ‘terrorist’ or ‘military’ any other perpetrator when they have killed someone’s children, raped his wife etc? This is where the question that who can forgive arises in the discourse of forgiveness. When the ordinary masses suffer in the absence of their beloved members, breadwinners in the family, can the reconciliation occur through a process of forgiveness? And just an exchange of symbolic gesture between the leadership will alone not make forgiveness possible. The people at the grassroots level needs to forgive. On the other hand the enormous violent machinery called the state is not willing to compromise its power or so called ‘sovereignty’.
Future without Forgiving
Sri Lanka is likely to carry forward the legacy of its ethnically disturbed history of violence well into the next century unless it cannot establish a new foundation for peace. The existing foundation of violence has to be transformed in ways that guarantee justice for all the communities in the land. The victors of the war and defeated have to come out of their victorious and defeatist mindsets and for such a transformation political power has to be unconditionally negotiated between the parties. The form of the state has historically kept changing, even our own state, and we have to be open minded to see that there are not so rigid forms of state that should go to the future without transformations. The right of minority communities to their language, culture, politics and economics have to be unconditionally recognised through legal and constitutional means and the system of democracy should be more strengthened in order to free the people to realise their true freedom in a meaningful manner. As a nation which want to progress with the world we should prepare to forgive and ask for forgiveness. One of our most daunting political challenges today is to create a discourse of forgiveness and take it as long a possible, because the communication between people and sharing their languages among each other would help a lot in that endeavour. It is true that this article raises more questions than it answers but many of those answers are complex, difficult and can only be arrived at through sustained engagement between the two communities under the guidance of enlightened leaders. Only time will tell whether Sri Lanka will take such a path.