By Niran Anketell –
As the dust settles on the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Colombo, the press has reported that Sri Lanka may be considering the establishment of a South Africa style Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the assistance of the Commonwealth and the South African government.
As a preliminary observation, however, it is important to note that contemporary Sri Lanka and post-apartheid South Africa have vastly different political and social contexts. The South African TRC (SA TRC) model and amnesties were worked out after a formal transfer of power from the regime responsible for the vast majority of crimes under apartheid to the leaders of the liberation struggle. Moreover the dominant religious belief system in South Africa—where Christian rituals of repentance and forgiveness have significant theological resonance—is fundamentally different to the religious beliefs of the majority of Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim victims.
Nevertheless, the SA TRC continues to possess an enduring appeal for Colombo based—as opposed to North and East based—civil society NGOs. Very few, if any, conversations on reconciliation and transitional justice within Colombo civil society networks conclude without references to the SA TRC as the paradigmatic case of the ideal transitional justice model. The Sri Lankan government has also sought to draw parallels between its own attitude to post-conflict justice reflected in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, and the SA TRC.
The SA TRC is widely known as providing amnesty from prosecution to perpetrators who came before the SA TRC and made full disclosure of all the relevant facts relating to their crimes. However, it is perceived in Sri Lanka—wrongly, I contend—as the triumph of a spirit of reconciliation and restorative justice and a rejection of criminal accountability. Thus, the way in which the SA TRC experience has been understood in Sri Lanka is deeply flawed. Moreover, I also claim that there are fundamental problems in applying the SA TRC model to contemporary Sri Lanka and that any attempt to do so without addressing those problems would have severe consequences for the pursuit of truth, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
First, contrary to the way in which the SA TRC has been understood in Sri Lanka, the model as envisaged by its framers was not designed to exclude prosecutions. Instead, the conduct of prosecutions in respect of perpetrators who did not apply or did not qualify for amnesty was central to the success of the SA TRC’s design. Institutionally, the success of the SA TRC depended on perpetrators confessing to their crimes. The threat of prosecution was precisely the tool necessary to push perpetrators to make full disclosure. In fact, empirical studies on SA TRC data demonstrate that applications for amnesty were low among state security groups whose members were not investigated and punished. Conversely, groups that had members prosecuted or were under investigation—such as the ‘elite’ police task forces—had greater numbers of amnesty applicants. Thus, the threat and conduct of prosecutions enhanced the prospects of truth seeking and reconciliation. This emphasizes the complementary nature of truth and justice and is an important reminder that the Sri Lankan government’s attempted dichotomization of ‘punitive justice’ and ‘restorative justice’ is flawed in practice. The SA TRC Report itself acknowledged that the appeal to the self-interest of prospective applications was well conceived. Moreover, the SA TRC’s final report recommended “a bold prosecution policy” in respect of those who did not apply or did not qualify for amnesty, “in order to avoid any suggestion of impunity or of contravening its obligations in terms of international law.” In fact, the South African government’s failure to follow up on the recommendations of its own commission by instituting a meaningful policy of prosecutions has been sharply criticized by many South Africans, including Bishop Tutu and other members of the commission.
In Sri Lanka, the government itself has explicitly stated that it has no interest in pursuing what it deems ‘punitive’ justice and has ruled out a policy of prosecution in respect of crimes committed during and after the war. Thus, any attempt to institute a SA TRC style process would be flawed for the reason that there would be no incentive for perpetrators to make full disclosure. To be clear, conditional amnesty for full disclosure is not a sine qua non for every truth commission. Domestic commissions in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Sierra Leone and Bahrain among many others focused on eliciting the truth through witness testimony and investigation, including through the use of forensic science. However, if the government opts to take the investigative route, it will have to demonstrate a change of heart and a willingness to investigate alleged crimes by its own leaders. Another sham commission in a long line of cover-ups will only highlight impunity in Sri Lanka.
Second, the SA TRC represented a political compromise between the ANC and the National Party—the two main political parties representing the Black and Afrikaner communities respectively. While the SA TRC’s conduct was criticized by many parties, including the ANC which attempted to block the release of the final report, the underlying political compromise securing the end of apartheid into which the TRC was locked—which all parties had come to accept as irreversible—permitted the TRC to function with at least a minimally sufficient degree of political legitimacy. Thus, even though studies show Black victims feeling betrayed by the TRC, the process had sufficient legitimacy to forestall political campaigns to undo compromises already made. Unlike in Latin America where justice movements succeeded in rolling back unilateral amnesties, the South African conditional amnesty compromise has withstood attempts to retrospectively invalidate it for the very reason that it was a political compromise. The negotiations around the conditional amnesty deal evidence the political nature of the compromise. By 1992, the findings of the Goldstone Commission which inquired into human rights abuses committed by the government, together with the increasingly inevitable reality of impending change, drove the NP government to demand that indemnity offered previously to ANC functionaries must also be offered to state functionaries. However, the ANC maintained that apartheid era crimes must be prosecuted. Approaching 1994, the ANC’s position on amnesty softened. While the party remained doggedly opposed to blanket amnesty, they made critical concessions and appeared willing to consider conditional amnesties predicated on full disclosure. Indeed, the ANC’s position was driven by a deep realism. For one, the NP government began exerting tremendous pressure on the ANC to concede to its demand for amnesty by threatening to prosecute the ANC’s leadership for human rights abuses committed by the ANC in refugee camps overseas. More critically, as Louise Mallinder notes, “the ANC became convinced that peaceful elections would be impossible without the support of the security forces and the security services made it clear that the price of their loyalty was an amnesty.” As Dullah Omar—then ANC negotiator and later Justice Minister—acknowledged: “without an amnesty agreement there would have been no elections.”
In Sri Lanka, the contrast could not be starker. Negotiations between the government and the TNA have been stalled with little indication from the government that it has any interest in pursuing a negotiated and permanent settlement of Sri Lanka’s lingering ethnic problem through direct negotiations with the TNA. Thus, a Sri Lankan effort to mimic the SA TRC process without such a process being accompanied by a comprehensive political deal on restructuring the nature of the state through power sharing will merely represent the government’s unilateral attempt to manage its international pressures. As a result, a Sri Lankan TRC minus a full and final political solution will not persuade the Tamil community that it is a genuine mechanism, and will alienate victims from the inception. In fact, it will likely exacerbate the tension and lack of trust between the Tamil and Sinhala communities and impede genuine reconciliation.
Finally, the SA TRC was conceived and devised in the 1990’s, before the crystallization of the international legal principle deeming impunity laws illegal. The law, as it stands today, requires the pursuit of investigations and prosecutions for grave violations of IHL and IHRL amounting to international crimes. A number of multi-lateral treaties, resolutions of United Nations (UN) bodies, codifications of customary international law, best practices recognized by the UN and decisions of international courts have all unequivocally recognized that there is a legal duty to prosecute serious international crimes. Thus, domestic and international judicial decision makers alike have retrospectively declared amnesty provisions illegal. In Prosecutor vs. Gbao, the Appeals Chamber of the Special Court for Sierra Leone—of which Sri Lankan Judge Raja Fernando was a member—held that there is support for the claim that there is a “crystallized international norm to the effect that a government cannot grant amnesty for serious crimes under international law.”
Given the illegality and the shift away from granting amnesty for serious international crimes, it is very unlikely that the international demand for accountability in Sri Lanka will recede; even in the event the Sri Lankan government attempts to deal with the issue of accountability issues through the provision of amnesty. Further, any amnesties granted in domestic courts will not bind foreign or international courts from prosecuting the beneficiaries of local amnesty laws. More critically, the provision of illegal amnesties by Sri Lankan law will only confirm the prevalence of impunity in Sri Lanka, and will result in redoubled efforts for the internationalization of investigations and prosecutions. Thus, any unilateral attempt by the Sri Lankan government to grant amnesties to its own in an effort to stave off accountability is very likely to be counterproductive.
For these reasons, any attempt to mimic a SA TRC process unless accompanied by a genuine and concrete change of behaviour and strategy on the part of government—including a demonstrable willingness to investigate and prosecute crimes, as well as securing a full and final political deal on restructuring the nature of the state through power sharing—will not succeed. The Sri Lankan government’s unwillingness to consider criminal investigation and prosecutions of those responsible for atrocities committed during and after the war forecloses the prospect of hidden truths being unearthed through a TRC. Further, with or without a political deal, a TRC that offers any amnesty to perpetrators will be perceived as illegitimate by Tamils and illegal by the international community, and will exacerbate divisions between the state and victims. Finally, even viewed from a narrow strategic lens, any attempt by the government’s leaders to clothe themselves with the protective shield of a local amnesty provision will likely be counterproductive and inspire greater internationalization of the pursuit of justice in respect of serious crimes. For these reasons, any attempt by the government to constitute a SL TRC for the purpose of diverting pressure it currently faces on accountability issues—but is not accompanied by a policy of investigation and prosecution of serious crimes and a comprehensive deal on power sharing—must be rejected, and rejected clearly. Failure to do so will undermine the prospects for peace, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
*This piece contains material extracted from a longer article by the author titled “Selling Justice Short: Sri Lankan Civil Society and Individual Criminal Liability for Atrocity Crimes” presented at “Ethical Futures: Dialogues on State, Society and Ethical Existence”, a conference hosted by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies in May 2013. Final publication forthcoming
Safa / November 24, 2013
Nothing will happen till around February 2014, a few weeks before UNHRC in Geneva. Some fool will be selected to head some commission so that the Govt can say we are still hatching the eggs.
loku baba / November 24, 2013
True true, not until 2nd week of February.
But this article is just setting out pre-conditions
“doing that is pointless, unless you do this this and this…. even though doing that might have been a big step in the right direction, just doing that will never work”
Its obvious and probably true, but pessimism like this never helps
Leelagenangi / November 24, 2013
This was the case last time too. Shortly before the last session only, so called president of the nation the appointed a committee to check whether LLRC recommendations are being discussed properly. Who is incharge of these committees ? Do they have discussions rounds on regular basis ? Do they discuss them regularly as promised by MR to IC ? Prof. R Wijesinghe was once criticising the move of LLRC as painfully slow. That was some 8 months ago, since then what progress is made ?
Thiru / December 4, 2013
Sri Lanka hates TRC because they hate the truth of genocide of Tamils get exposed for everyone to see.
Thiru / December 4, 2013
Whereas in South Africa there was no genocide!
JimSofty / November 24, 2013
for intelligent Politicians who wants to protect the Sinhala – buddhist civilization, 13th amendment is the god given thing.
Sivathasan / November 24, 2013
The regime showed to the world that no Lessons were learnt from the LL commission report. LLRC
The regime will show again that Truth can never be ferreted out by the Truth commission in this benighted land. TRC
The people may benefit if the next one is a REPARATIONS COMMISSION, That too if funding comes from the International Community. RC
Max Silva / November 24, 2013
In time to come we will come up with a commission.Till then wait!wait!wait!
jansee / November 25, 2013
Oh no, the time for that comfort had long passed? You can take all the time you want and carry on with your circus commissions and PSCs.
kali / November 27, 2013
Max you Racist Sinhalese Moron & Sexual Predator,
After March 2014 you will wait wait wait for the Prison Gates to open to have your daily meal.
Spring Koha / November 24, 2013
Another typical seat of the pants operation by the GOSL. As if we couldn’t do our own thinking and come up with a plan tailored to suit our purposes. Are we short of erudite, thinking people on this island?
As for Geneva; the GOSL had better address the concerns raised because they are unlikely to go away. It isn’t as if we don’t have a case; it’s just harder the longer we persist with denial. The track record of the GoSL is finally showing: The GoSL could find no one responsible 1958, 1971, 1977, 1983 and 1987-89. So why should we trust the GoSL now? The arguments will rage on.
K. C. John / November 24, 2013
Going by the actions of Sinhalese post war (2009)- thuggery, murder, rape (victims ranging from very small children to 75 year olds), deception etc., etc., etc. and “Buddhism” as practiced in Sri Lanka in the present day (BBS, intolerance, destruction of Mosques & Churches, robbing flowers from others’ gardens to offer at Temples etc., etc., etc.), protection of Sinhala – Buddhist civilization by god can only be possible if the persons concerned consider the devil as god. The question follows: Can such persons be considered intelligent?
Rahula / November 24, 2013
I am Sinhala and I hate this government, but I also dont like the call for retribution by the Tamil leadership. A truth and reconciliation if carried out like in South Africa, is the best hope for Sri Lanka, the JVP/Goverment conflict should also be included. Tamils must forgive Sinhala perpetrators, Sinhala must forgive Tamil perpertrators. The same must happen with, Sinhala, Sinhala and Tamil, Tamil conflicts. We can only hope once these people and their methods are exposed and people are forgiven, we can all let down our guards and the cycle of fear and kidnappings and torture will end.
PalmSquirrell / November 24, 2013
TRC is worthless without bringing to justice Gota and the military responsible for the deliberate wholesale slaughter of Tamil civilians, and the institutional rape and torture of civilians.
Nalani Bandara / November 24, 2013
Any Commission Truth or otherwise should examine the involvement of India and its Intelligence Service the Third Eye.
Rahula / November 24, 2013
I also hope this truth and reconciliation, includes the Murder of Homeless people in Colombo, the Murder and intimidation of Journalist and also the stabbing and intimidation of Judges.
kattakarawala / November 24, 2013
“………..any attempt to mimic a SA TRC process unless accompanied by a genuine and concrete change of behaviour and strategy on the part of government—including a demonstrable willingness to investigate and prosecute crimes…………”
When will that ever be possible with this regime?
SL-LACK-JUSTICE / November 24, 2013
What is the role of state authorities working on Justice today ?
Where is the minister of justice ?
Where is the Chief justice ? What stands on his way not to go with prevailing laws in the country ? Why the man though appointed by MR unanimously, still seems to be NOT reacting publicly ?
What is his role at all ?
What does he take as actions when old women are being reported to have raped ? At all against growing rapists in current day lanka under SO CALLED LEADER MR ?
I wonder why authorities bound to work on legal affairs (lawyers, judges of all levels, law professors, law bound jounalists, law students and and ) stay mum as if they are being permanently paralyzed ? Why cant they stand against all the high crimes that have been TAKEN the day today agendas of RAJAPAKSHE administration ?
SL-LACK-JUSTICE / November 24, 2013
He himself responded saying “we have appointed LLRC and it will take time”. Are there appointed ones to deliver him regular reports on the progress of those recommendations ? Any right thinking body could check them properly what they have done so far, and whether their moves have been efficient enough. All tamil bodies should better raise the questions, asking them to prove the progress of their work done.
Many believe they the rulers would not even read the reports produced and submitted by COPE nowaways. Is there a truth of this ?
Why cant the parliament find proper reasons to impeach MR today ?
SL-LACK-JUSTICE / November 24, 2013
I believe today than in the past similar to stasi, that former eastern germany had… a body handled by GOTA exists in SL.
Nalani Bandara / November 24, 2013
SA TRC was for a conflict entirely different to the situation in Ceylon (Sri Lanka);which may have some similarities and differences. SA TRC was for the domination of a majority by a minority. Situation in Ceylon is the same domination of the majority by a minority that arrived in the island since 1792 under the British-Indian Empire. In SA the conflict was the rebellion by locals against one group of oppressors the Whites but not against the non-violent Indian colonial parasites. One of the leading Commissioners of the SA TRC was one of them Ms Yasmin Sooka who did not treat Zulu witnesses fairly. Remember She was probably the leading writer of the UN Darusman Report about Sri Lanka.
Then the Indian terrorist arms branded Tamil Tigers and JVP Sinhala terrorist were financed, trained and were managed by India. We need an examination of Indian Imperialists involvement in Sri Lanka.
jansee / November 25, 2013
Isn’t it Mahinda Rajapakse who declared that he fought India’s war? Isn’t it President Premadasa who provided money and arms to the LTTE? You didn’t know these or you are pretending not to know?
kali / November 27, 2013
The Truth and Reconiciliation Commission is sipmly a non starter in the absense of ACCOUNTABILITY.
Accountability is a Pre Requisite to Reconcilation.
The situation in South Africa and in Sri Lanka are world apart and setting up a TRC will simply let MR off the hook.
The Tamils are the victims in this sorry saga and we cannot move on until those who are responsibe for the Genocide are punsihed and more importantly those who are responsibe for the Genocide cannot be part of Reconciliation.
MHA / November 28, 2013
Another worthless article by hopeless bigots without a clue to what is going on. Your all just playing the LTTE tune to rouse up discent. You will never play a role in bring normality to Sri Lanka. Your part of the problem, delaying dignity for Tamils, what ever the hell that is. People always finding a reason for not doing something positive are doomed to repeat past mistakes.
R.M.B Senanayake / December 12, 2013
The South African TRC was in operation when the perpetrators were already in jail. So it did not include accountability and the international calls will continue. It is better for the Government to have a discussion with the TNA and reach agreement on how to handle the international call for accountability. I think both sides committed serious crimes including violations of the humanitarian laws, war crimes and genocide. The crimes against humanity are covered by our own penal code and war does not excuse any soldier committing murder, rape or civilian killings.Perhaps the TNA could be persuaded to drop the charges regarding war crimes and genocide and instead agree that the government should prosecute only those accused of crimes against humanity.This would be a compromise and command responsibility cannot be evaded by citing superior orders.