International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Sri Lanka Mulls South African-Model Truth Commission

On Wednesday the Sri Lankan government announced it was considering a commission similar to that of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission to address allegations of abuses committed during its 25 year civil war. A delegation led by Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva  arrived to South Africa on Thursday, and President Jacob Zuma of South Africa has appointed a special envoy to Sri Lanka to aid efforts. The Sri Lankan Foreign Ministry stated that discussions in South Africa will be held with the “aim of understanding the manner in which that exercise can help in Sri Lanka’s own reconciliation process, following the defeat of terrorism.” The collaboration speaks to the success of the South African truth commission- it is considered a model worth emulating.  That being said, HRW believes that if the South African model were to be applied now it would be seen as a disappointment to victim communities who now have different expectations for justice. Do you think HRW’s sentiments apply to the people of Sri Lanka, considering the Sri Lankan government’s past (failed) attempts at commissions? I also find it interesting that South Africa is willing to serve as a mentor to Sri Lanka. I’m not sure if South Africa has done something similar before. It’s too early to tell whether Sri Lanka will take what it’s learned and apply it to its own situation, but the collaboration between South Africa and Sri Lanka does seem promising within the broader international context of reconciliation- hopefully it can open the door for further bilateral efforts toward reconciliation.

Sri Lanka’s reconciliation efforts are partly in response to increased international pressure to investigate atrocities that occurred during the 25 year civil war. The United States has said the patience of the international community is “wearing thin” because Sri Lanka has not investigated abuse allegations as recommended by a 2011 report by the Sri Lankan government-appointed Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission. The U.S. has also warned that it could introduce a third successive U.N. Human Rights Council resolution against Sri Lanka. India has backed two previous resolutions headed by the U.S., and the U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay has called for an investigation. British Prime Minister David Cameron has also warned he would push for an international inquiry into Sri Lanka’s rights record unless President Mahindra Rajapakse’s regime ensured accountability by March 2014.

While such pressure by the U.S. and U.K. is hypocritical since they have continually been unwilling to examine their abuses and those of their allies, it does work-somewhat; Sri Lanka desperately does not want the U.S. to pursue another UNHRC resolution. Not only has a delegation been sent to South Africa, but also the Sri Lankan government has hired two US lobbying companies. Rajapakse has sent cabinet ministers to lobby for support in Vietnam, Brazil, Pakistan, the Philippines and Kuwait.  The diplomatic maneuvering illustrates that the Sri Lankan government believes a third successive resolution would be a major blow geopolitically.

Sri Lanka’s diplomatic efforts further call into question whether Sri Lanka intends to follow through and conduct investigations. Sri Lankan has failed to publicize reports of previous commissions and implement recommendations. The international community is wary, wondering if things are going to be different this time around. Is the delegation in South Africa a way to appease the international community for the time being or is Sri Lanka looking toward the long term? Let’s say a UNHRC resolution against Sri Lanka fails, will efforts toward reconciliation come to a halt? One of the major problems with exerting diplomatic pressure over investigating abuses is that a state may initiate investigations with a lukewarm attitude. Such reluctance is somewhat counterintuitive, and a huge diplomatic risk. However, it would be in line with the track record of the Sri Lankan government and the current regime. In response to Cameron’s warning, President Rajapaske insisted that the army did not kill any civilians while fighting the rebels. For President Rajapaske, the army doesn’t hold any culpability so what might a truth commission look like in practice? Might it be stilted toward the side of the army?

If the Sri Lankan commission/ investigations turn out to be half-hearted I wonder what the take of the victim communities might be. Would they prefer that the commission be forfeited entirely or would they welcome a recount of what occurred-even if it were heavily biased?


One response to “Sri Lanka Mulls South African-Model Truth Commission

  1. thewendyway February 24, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    This brings to mind Daly’s article “Truth Skepticism” in which Daly argues that governments must seriously consider the costs (economic, social, psychological) along with the unproven benefits of adopting a truth commission in each specific context. The aim of the Sri Lankan truth commission appears to want to use the commission to better inform how to develop institutional reforms. However, Daly argues that “empirical evidence is lacking” in cases where truth commissions relates to reform. Practically, a lot of countries don’t have the financial resources to implement legislative reforms either. Wouldn’t already limited funding be put to better use in material reform? Also, if the aim of the commission is reform, wouldn’t it be more efficient to set up a reform commission directly?

    I also agree with your concern about Sri Lanka’s motive and commitment to carrying out a truth commission. I wonder if Sri Lanka’s adoption of the truth commission in order to meet the approval of the global community will overshadow the government’s ability to critically analyze the country’s need for a truth commission. However, as Daly mentioned, if Sri Lanka is able to narrow down the goals of a truth commission to a specific objective, perhaps benefits could be achieved.

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