Curtains came down on the three-day sessions of the ‘Defence Seminar-2012’ at Colombo Galadari Hotel on Friday (10) noon, providing its 270 plus participants, including 116 foreign delegates of 44 countries with an ocean of knowledge on roles and tasks that have been accomplished by the Army in spheres like Reconstruction, Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Reintegration and Reconciliation (5Rs).
The final day’s sessions on ‘Reconciliation’ began with the address, given by Hon Mahinda Samarasinghe, Minister of Plantation Industries and Special Envoy of the President on Human Rights.
Minister Samarasinghe in his brief contribution to the gathering catalogued the series of challenges at international arena that followed the success of the post armed conflict recovery and peace-building initiatives in the country, the worst being a resolution tabled in the UN Human Rights Council in March 2012.
‘Our efforts are truly remarkable. De-mining and resettlement, followed by restoration of economic and administrative infrastructure has been achieved on par with the best efforts elsewhere. Rehabilitation and Reintegration of ex-combatants through a speedy and effective process was also key to success. What is important to underline in the context of reconciliation is that reconciliation cannot take place in a vacuum. It is less than useful to talk of reconciliation if the areas continue to lack physical infrastructure and are under-served by the government. Of course, throughout the conflict, the government founded health, education and schools even in areas unlawfully occupied by the LTTE,’ the Minister said.
Referring to the work of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), the Minister expressed the view that the LLRC has found specific information and referred it to the government for action. The Government established tribunals within the scope of its military laws and is proceeding with these matters. This is no more or no less than others accused of indiscriminate bombing, killing of civilians and other violations of human rights and humanitarian law do in the course of their military operations in various parts of the world. Why then is Sri Lanka expected to chart a different course?’ the Minister queried.
Here are the excerpts of the address;
I thank you for the opportunity bestowed upon me by your invitation to address this gathering of key policy makers and military leaders. I congratulate the Sri Lanka Army for this - the second consecutive occasion on which they have organized a gathering of this nature - to share experiences in defeating terrorism and dealing with its aftermath. I believe this sort of dialogue would evolve into a best practice over time. I welcome the over 120 delegates from 60 countries that have joined us on this occasion to share expertise in an area of critical importance to national and international peace and security. Although I was unable to join you last year when I was invited to deliver the banquet address due to my representing the country overseas, I welcome this opportunity to engage with. You on a subject of signal importance to us all.
It gives me great pleasure lo share with you some thoughts on the theme of reconciliation. This is a subject which of critical importance for Sri Lanka at the present juncture. It is one of the 5 limbs that form the thematic basis for discussion at this gathering.
In this context, the last nine months have seen significant events that arc critical to the success of the post armed conflict recovery and peace-building initiatives that we are engaged in. In December 2011, two documents were made public: firstly, the National Action Plan for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights (NHRAP), which was in the making from 2008, was endorsed by the Cabinet for implementation. Also in December, the report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission was tabled in Parliament on the. 16th . The Government’s position on the report was made known to the people through the Supreme Legislature of Sri Lanka. These two documents form important components of the national reconciliation effort. Human Rights is an important ancillary to rebuilding peace in a country that has been beset by (he forces of terrorism for nearly three decades.
In January the National Trilingual Policy was adopted. Language has proved a sometimes intractable issue in ensuring unity and cohesion. This is a challenge that all multicultural states face. The ability of disparate linguistic backgrounds to communicate with each other freely cither in their own language or through a common link language - is a sine qua non for guaranteeing mutual trust among communities. Since 1987 although we have accorded equal official status lo Sinhala and Tamil and have recognized English as a link language, our success in implementing the provisions of the law have been somewhat limited. An overarching policy that will bring people together through guaranteeing their language rights has been a lack which has now been addressed.
In March 2012 Sri Lanka was faced with a unnecessary and unjustified challenge in the UN Human Rights Council. A resolution was tabled which, in effect, asked us to do what we were already in the process of doing. As has been our custom since the inception, we had regularly briefed the Council and had discussions with regional and cross regional groupings represented at that body periodically on the Sri Lankan situation. We had hosted special side events at which our progress was presented and discussed. We had been open and transparent about our successes and also about the challenges we faced. Hence the resolution was in our opinion, ill-timed, unwarranted and violative of the founding principles of the Human Rights Council. We categorically rejected the resolution on a matter of principle. We pointed out the negative outcomes of the adoption of the resolution, but notwithstanding our rejection, reiterated our commitment to achieve lasting peace, stability and prosperity for our people. Effective reconciliation is a cornerstone of that policy.
During the interim, significant advances have already been made with regard to many of the recommendations in the Report commencing with its interim recommendations in September 2010. Action was initiated even before a formalized plan to implement them had been devised. We will continue to address these issues in a systematic manner. Some of the areas in which progress have been made include the rapid and sustainable resettlement of IDPs; demining; rehabilitation of ex-combatants; implementation of the language policy; the recruitment of Tamil speaking police officers; the removal of the military from assisting in civil administration in the North, making available land previously used for security purposes for resettlement/return; and carrying out a comprehensive census in the Northern Province. A national census has also just been completed and we are in the process of doing ground verification of the information collected which data is being further analysed. This is further evidence of the commitment of the Government of Sri Lanka towards accounting for the population in the conflict affected areas during the humanitarian operation. It is our belief that, through this process, the highly exaggerated claim of “tens of thousands of civilian casualties” can be proved to be wholly without any foundation.
The Cabinet of Ministers in May 2012 decided that a Task Force headed by the Secretary to the President would monitor the implementation of the recommendations of the LLRC. The LLRC recommendations were duly considered and a matrix in the form of an Action Plan was devised by the most senior public officials serving the Government. This plan was submitted to Cabinet in July by His Excellency the President and the National Executive endorsed this plan with a time bound framework for implementation.
For the purposes of this occasion, I do not propose to detail all the measures that find a place in the Action Plan’s matrix. It is a publicly available document and anyone interested in further detail is 'welcome to study it at leisure. What is. However, important to note is that the LLRC's sittings and the preparation of the NHRAP coincided and significant synergies were established between the parallel processes. By the time the NHRAP content was initially approved by Cabinet in September 2011 and its implementation approved in December, several of the important issues had been discussed and measures agreed upon. Hence it is not feasible to view these processes in isolation but rather it is best to view them as different contributions to a collective national effort at post conflict recovery, peace and stability.
It is important to realize that all this happened against the backdrop of the speedy implementation of the other 4 limbs - Reconstruction, Resettlement, Rehabilitation, Reintegration by the Government aided by its partners. Our efforts which I have already alluded to are truly remarkable. Demining and resettlement followed by restoration of economic and administrative infrastructure has been achieved on par with the best efforts elsewhere. Rehabilitation and reintegration of ex-combatants through a speedy and effective process was also key to success. By providing them - especially the 594 child combatants - education, training and choices for new livelihoods, they are made active partners in the development processes progressing apace in their communities. Our gains in these areas have been adequately dealt with by the Secretary and other speakers and 1 do not want to go over the statistics despite them being a source of justifiable pride for us. What is important to underline in the context of reconciliation is that reconciliation cannot take place /in a vacuum. The people of the North and also to some degree the people in the East were deprived of the benefits of national development for 30 years due to the presence of the LTTE in those areas. It is less than useful to talk of reconciliation if the areas continue to lack physical infrastructure and are underserved by the Government. Of course, throughout the conflict, Government funded health, education and schools even in areas unlawfully occupied by the LTTE. The Government also maintained administrative institutions at its expense.
What was deemed necessary after the conflict was over, was the speedy restoration of the conflict affected areas to a situation of normality - better than any experienced previously by the people of those areas. Our aim is to achieve balanced development across the board that will mean that no urban or rural area will have greater facilities than others - this will lead lo less resentment. This ideal of balanced regional development is important for us in the South as well as for those of us from the North and East. We must recall that Sri Lanka in the past 40 years or so has faced 2 youth insurrections in the South as well as terrorism in the North and East. So, all in all our commitment to economic development initiatives, roads, bridges, railways, ports and harbours, airports, livelihood opportunities and initiatives such as development zones in Sampur and Atehuveli will all sustain peace, harmony and prosperity.
I also wish to point out that there appears to be a basic disconnect in thinking as to what is at the core of our reconciliation efforts. At the heart arc the core conceptions of restorative and retributive justice which appear to colour our perceptions and those of our interlocutors. In the Warrant establishing the LLRC, H.E. the President noted that: “an opportune moment has arrived to reflect on the conflict phase and the sufferings that the country has gone through as a whole during this period.” He also noted “that a need has arisen to learn from this recent history, lessons that would ensure that there will be no recurrence of any internecine conflict in the future and that people are assured of an era of peace, harmony and prosperity.” This was the golden thread than ran through the deliberations of the LLRC. Recovery and non-repetition are at the core of this approach. Restitution, compensation and healing are ancillary principles that apply. It is a uniquely Sri Lankan approach to a uniquely Sri Lankan situation. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu states:
“As our experience in South Africa has taught us, each society must discover its own route to reconciliation. Reconciliation cannot be imposed from outside, nor can someone else’s map get us to our destination: it must be our own solution. This involves a very long and painful journey, addressing the pain and suffering of the victims, understanding the motivations of offenders, bringing together estranged communities, trying to find a path to justice, truth and, ultimately, peace. Faced with each new instance of violent conflict, new solutions must be devised that are appropriate to the particular context, history and culture in question.”
All the experts agree that there is no “cookie cutter”, one-size-fits-all solution. Sri Lanka must learn as it goes along and evolve solutions by itself. Of course we look to other countries and regions for ideas. The approaches adopted in Rwanda with regard to poverty eradication and development, in the process of reconciliation arc interesting. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a model we studied carefully. Many policy makers made in depth studies of the still evolving situation in Northern Ireland.
For our part we must rely on the work of our Commission, comprised of persons of goodwill, integrity and experience and a clear vision of the Government to ensure a better future for all Sri Lankans. The work of the Commission proceeded, acknowledging a clear need to heal the wounds of the past and to make recommendations to reconcile the nation by recognizing all victims of conflict, providing redress to them and thereby promoting national unity, peace and harmony.
It is not something that the LLRC overlooked or ignored but the question of accountability from a perspective of retributive justice is all that: seems to occupy the minds of some of our interlocutors in the international community of nations. This appears to be the main thrust of their view in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process. While acknowledging that credible allegations must be looked into, the LLRC found specific information and referred it to the Government for action. The Government established tribunals within the scope of its military laws and is proceeding with these matters. This is no more or no less than others accused of indiscriminate bombing, killing of civilians and other violations of human rights and humanitarian law do in the course of their military operations in various parts of the world. Why then is Sri Lanka expected lo chart a different course?
Another reason that the Government places reliance on the finding of the LLRC is the methodology that it adopted in its work. In all the LLRC Report was compiled following interviews with over 1,000 persons who gave evidence before the Commission, and over" 5,000 written submissions received. To paraphrase relevant portions of the LLRC Report: The hearings were held in public and open to the print and electronic media unless the person making representations before the Commission requested otherwise. The procedure adopted at the public hearings was to first inform the person that he yr she could be heard in public or in camera. Some elected to make submissions in camera. Thereafter the Commissioners proceeded to interact through questions with the person to clarify any matters that arose consequent to the representations made or which they felt were relevant to the terms of their mandate.
The Commission provided every opportunity to persons to make representations in a language of their choice, while providing for simultaneous translation to English. The Commission thus recognized the salutary effect, particularly on affected persons, of being able lo relate their stories in a language of their choice. For the purposes of the Report the Commission utilized the English scripts of the simultaneous English translation. The Commission decided to consult and hear the views of persons who would have personal experience and knowledge on different aspects of matters referred to in the Warrant.
Invitations were also extended to local NGOs as well as NGOs based outside Sri Lanka, that have produced reports on the situation in this country pertaining to matters relevant to the Warrant. However, it is a matter of regret that despite the invitation extended in good faith, seeking a constructive dialogue on what the Commission considered as issues of common concern falling under the purview of its Mandate, this invitation has not been reciprocated by three organizations (1 specify Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the International Crisis Group). As the public sittings progressed and consequent to the wide media coverage, there was a keen response from members of the public to express their views before the Commission. The Commission facilitated the media to video and audio tape the public proceedings. In addition the Commission maintained a web site, since August 2010, where the schedule of Commission visits and transcripts of public hearings, public representations and other information regarding the Commission were published. Among those who made representations before the Commission were members of the public, public servants including those who had served in the affected areas during the conflict period, affected individuals, representatives of the armed forces, senior officials who were associated with the peace process, political leaders, religious leaders, members of civil society, journalists, academics and other professionals, former LTTE cadres and former members of other armed groups.
The Commission undertook field visits to areas affected by the conflict as it was of the view that in order to ascertain first-hand the ground realities, it was imperative to have public sittings in situ. This was also with a view to reaching out to the people in the affected areas and to enable them to highlight their grievances. These people would otherwise have faced considerable difficulties in travelling to Colombo to make their representations. Through this process it was able to acknowledge the suffering of the people in the affected areas and provide an opportunity for them to tell their stories in familiar surroundings. This approach focused on the restorative dimensions of the Commission's Mandate. The Warrant of the Commission required it to report on matters that may have taken place during the period between 21M February 2002 and 19th May 2009. At the same time it also recognized that the causes underlying the grievances of different communities had its genesis in the period prior to the lime frame referred to in the Warrant. The Commission accordingly provided a degree of flexibility to persons making representations in this regard.
Let us compare this methodology with that of the Report made by the UN Secretary-General’s (UNSG’s) Advisory Pane! (known as the Darusman Report). It is also worth noting that the UNSG appointed his panel after the LLRC was appointed by our President. The Secretary-General's Advisory Panef held closed door hearings with unnamed witnesses who were guaranteed 20 years anonymity to secure their statements. They also received documentation from a variety of sources. This method of gathering information meant that the testimony could not be verified or tested for its probative value. The Panel never visited Sri Lanka even though it was open to them to place the information at their disposal before the properly constituted Commission of Inquiry established under Sri Lankan law. Thus the process and content of the Darusman Report is at best questionable. Several attempts were made to legitimize this personal act of the UNSG lo advise himself. Efforts were made to bring the Panel Report before the Human Rights Council though it was procedurally improper. However, wiser counsel prevailed and Sri Lanka was able to successfully halt those endeavours.
When we go before international human rights forums such as the UN Human Rights Council in September for the 21" Regular Session and in November for the Universal Periodic Review of Sri Lanka, we will share (he progress we have made in all aspects of the promotion and protection of human rights. We can do no more than present our case and ask for a fair and impartial hearing. This is no more than we have always demanded.
One last aspect that I must mention is that of constitutional and legal reforms to sustain the process of peace building and reconciliation. The peace won at such cost will not be a stable peace until and unless the legitimate aspirations of all communities are met in a substantive and satisfactory manner. The consensus formula to the national question thus evolved, needs to be democratic, pragmatic and home grown, in order to be sustainable. As a central feature of the Government’s approach to evolving such a process, a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) is contemplated to achieve multi-party consensus m respect of constitutional changes, to fulfil the legitimate aspirations of the Sri Lankan people enabling them to work in unison and with a sense of national identity for a better tomorrow. The relevant motion was adopted by Parliament in November last year. We are optimistic that the Parliamentary Select Committee process would help achieve such a consensus, given its inclusively and transparency, and commitment to democratic ideals. The Government has already nominated its members to the PSC and is awaiting the nomination of members representing the opposition, after which its sittings can commence.
Parallel with this multi-party mechanism, the Government is committed to bilateral discussions with Tamil political parties as well as Muslim representation. We are mindful that all previous attempts at evolving a constitutional formula have failed due to lack of broad national consensus.
Another key to restoration of normality was the holding of elections in the North and East soon after the areas were brought under Government control. Provincial Council elections were held in the Eastern Province even before the Humanitarian Operation ended in the North, and Local Authority elections were held for the Jaffna Municipal Council and Vavuniya Urban Council as early as August 2009. Presidential and General Elections were held island wide in 2010. Local authority elections, held last year, saw elections held throughout the country including in the North and East. Many former LTTE combatants are now in active politics. The LTTE's one time Eastern Province Commander is a Deputy Minister. A former LTTE child soldier, was the Chief Minister of the Eastern Province. A number of former LTTE cadres have also become members of local government bodies. In the areas formerly occupied by the LTTE, people exercised their franchise without fear for the first time in three decades. The fact that political plurality has returned to these areas is clear from the results of these elections. The swift restoration of democracy to those parts of Sri Lanka is a significant achievement. Elections for the Northern Provincial Council are envisaged to be held in 2013.
Another concern is the concerted campaign of disinformation and pressure exerted by the so called “anti-Sri Lanka Diaspora” on host countries around the world to question our record. Wc call on those countries who express an interest in reconciliation in Sri Lanka to focus on the activities of these groups which are aimed at creating instability and undermining reconciliation. We note that, in the recent past, some progress was made by countries to arrest LTTE fundraising to purchase arms and further its campaign of terrorism. Similarly we request these countries to cooperate with the Government of Sri Lanka to arrest this campaign of disinformation which ultimately will have an adverse impact on the peace building and recovery process if allowed lo continue unchecked. We are also taking steps to engage with these groups and wean them away from the defeated LTTE agenda of separatism and terrorism.
It only remains for me to acknowledge with thanks the patronage of His Excellency the President who in his capacity as Commander in Chief and Minister of Defence brought about the conditions under which terrorism could be defeated after nearly 30 years of armed conflict. That defeat paved the way for the Sri Lankan people lo move forward as one nation, under one banner towards a better future. The leadership of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, supported wholeheartedly by the officers, men and women of the tri-forces and the Police, also contributed significantly and without them this victory would not have been possible. The Government wholly appreciates the sacrifice and dedication of those in uniform especially those who sacrificed life and limb for the motherland.
In conclusion, I hope that these few days of deliberations - which is a continuing exercise on the part of the Sri Lanka Army, the armed services and the Government lo share with our partners the experience and lessons of lighting terrorism - will prove useful. Unfortunately the reality today is that terrorism has many forms and manifestations that afflict so many of the world’s nations. It is only through cooperation, information sharing and collective action that this scourge could be eliminated.
Thank you for your attention.