Report on Reconciliation: PM’s and President’s combined absence – no accident

by Sanjana Hattoruwa (Sunday Island)

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Last week, the Consultations Task Force (CTF) handed over its final report to former President Chandrika Bandaranaike-Kumaratunga. It was supposed to be handed over to the President. However, he wasn’t present at the ceremony, on a date and time his office had negotiated after many delays spreading over months. As widely noted, the CTF comprised of eleven members drawn from civil society and was appointed by the Prime Minister in late January 2016, to seek the views and comments of the public on the proposed mechanisms for transitional justice and reconciliation, as per the October 2015 UN Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka, co-sponsored by the Government of Sri Lanka. Accordingly, you would expect the PM, whose brainchild the CTF was, to be present at the handover ceremony. He wasn’t either.

The optics of the PM’s and President’s combined absence – no accident – will be the defining frame through which government writ large engages with the substance of the report. Already, the Justice Minister has dismissed the CTF’s findings. The Cabinet Spokesperson went on record saying that a key mechanism flagged in the report was not one the Government of Sri Lanka or the UN had agreed to. The comprehensive rebuttal over Twitter from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights was unequivocal in its support for the report, and key recommendations therein. To date, the President and the PM have not issued any press release or statement welcoming the report. The Official Secretariat for the Coordination of Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM), now the custodian of the report, has no demonstrable capacity to champion any of the recommendations, and furthermore, in an incredible display of incompetence, managed to make a complete hash of the report’s release to the public on the web.

It remains to be seen whether civil society, quite vocally critical of the Rajapaksa regime’s unwillingness and inability to deliver key recommendations in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) report, will hold this government accountable for, what will invariably be given the signs, the non-implementation of many CTF key recommendations. An acronym soup of official entities risks confusing the general public as well. The CTF, as noted in the report itself, even though set up by government, was debilitated in its ability around public outreach during consultations. Funding was crippled – much slower than expected, far lower than required. The official entities tasked with reconciliation have no coherent coordination framework.

Consultation fatigue has set in amongst the general public, with many, even as they engaged with the CTF, clearly noting that they were hugely sceptical of any meaningful redress and reform. Above all, the timbre of the public mood the CTF report clearly flags is far removed from a healthy democracy. Legitimate grievances, from those in the South and families of the military, to those in the North and families of the disappeared, undermine all the rosy scenarios painted by government around a stable, just, peaceful future. This is not some academic argument or the wild imaginings of a few at the helm of CTF. A complete, trilingual archive of submissions, which for the first time in any national consultation held to date in the country will be made public in the months to come, will support and strengthen the report’s thrust.

The CTF is a historic achievement, and by far, one of the most far-ranging consultations around four key mechanisms of transitional justice and reconciliation conducted in any post-war context. Instead of having institutions, frameworks and mechanisms imposed on them, citizens were asked for their opinion around what was important to focus on, why, how and with whom – including the capture of aspirations, concerns and ideas well beyond the four specific mechanisms the CTF was anchored to. You would think that as a consequence, the release of the final report would bring with it a flurry of mainstream media attention, analysis and engagement. This hasn’t happened – the English press has focussed on a single topic – the issue of international involvement in judicial mechanisms. Nowhere is it made clear that the recommendations are reflective of the submissions made by those across the country.

Editorials in the Sinhala press have already dismissed the CTF, calling it an NGO canard – unsurprising, given the nationalism that so often cloaks Editorial gaze. At the press conference held by the CTF last week at the Media Ministry, at least one journalist from a leading TV news station sitting in the front row didn’t know what he had come to cover, until he was informed by a colleague what the CTF was. This anecdotal story is more broadly indicative of what we can expect from mainstream media by way of critical engagement with the CTF’s findings.

The CTF’s press conference underscored other structural concerns I had with the final report. What was a process of consultation mandated and initiated by government, is now pitched as a report that is a clarion call for civil society to hold government accountable around implementation. This shift here is telling and perhaps the result of the CTF’s inability, at least for now, to openly criticise the PM for not following through with the promise of consultations. Though the report emphasises the critical role of civil society, it is essentially a complete revamp of the State as it is structured now. This is a task for government. And herein lies the rub. The entire report is written with the assumption that government will champion its recommendations. If it was evident even during consultations – with plenty of evidence on this score – that the government would not in fact take kindly to what was proposed, the report should have been structured around what could be done despite government, and re-focussed recommendations around regional, international, media and civil society strategies to diplomatically and by other means strongly encourage political office to take heed of vital recommendations in line with existing commitments at the UN in Geneva.

A report that pegs the success of reform to a government that isn’t really interested in it stands little chance of success. Further, there is no prioritisation of the recommendations, which when reading the report can be seen as overwhelming – even to government. Arguably, this will come by way of consultations around how the recommendations can be implemented, but we don’t find in the report safeguards against filibuster by focussing on the least important points, and in the noise and attention generated as a consequence, pushing to the periphery far more important recommendations that need to be urgently implemented. An inadvertent consequence of strong, sustained civil society advocacy and activism around the recommendations may also be that it gives life to what leading critics of the report, including from within government, misleadingly say it is – an NGO campaign.

If the government itself doesn’t give life and leadership to reform and reconciliation, civil society cannot fill the gap. And since this isn’t about regime change but rather State reform, it is unclear to what degree civil society itself has the competency and capacity to engage with government, over the long-term, to achieve intended outcomes. And finally, no political party, even though invited by the CTF, made any representation or submission whatsoever. Beyond the bi-partisan coalition in power, this suggests the political firmament of Sri Lanka is hostile to or at best dismissive of the CTF’s recommendations and by extension, what so many citizens so desperately want to see, achieve and feel, post-war.

The great pity of merely quoting politicians, reading slanted Editorials and news features, hostile opinion pieces and other material against the CTF and its findings is that they will be entirely unreflective of the rich, textured and multi-faceted foci in the report, anchored to the thousands across the country who, despite visible and repeated intimidation, came out and spoke their mind. Even in the passages and points dealing with the military and their opinion, there is opportunity for engagement and negotiation. Arguably, at close to 1,000 pages spread over two volumes, this will be read completely by just a handful at best. Even the Executive Summary is too long for most. Much will need to be done to communicate back to those who engaged what the report focussed on, and beyond, how a government fearful of pushback from the South, the military and Buddhist clergy can be supported, without being co-opted, in a courageous reform agenda.

The CTF is a historic attempt. Let our disagreement as well as our support be based on what’s in the report, which essentially requires us to read, at the very least, the Executive Summary. One also risks disappointment to hope there is the political will to take the key recommendations forward. This will require compromise on all sides, but is there any task more important than this? The sustenance of a government that embodies everything that is denied to citizens must not be how history records this time. The CTF’s report is cartography we must explore.

Else we will forever be lost.

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