Explaining Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka

 
 
On January 29, I had the pleasure of attending a transitional justice workshop in Jaffna, Sri Lanka. The event was organized by the National Peace Council (NPC), a Colombo-based organization. Jehan Perera, executive director of the NPC, participated.

The workshop was led by Patrick Burgess, an Indonesia-based lawyer with deep knowledge of human rights and transitional justice. Burgess spoke about the four key parts of transitional justice: truth-seeking; prosecutions; reparations; and institutional reform. He emphasized the importance of taking a holistic approach.

While the sequencing of a country’s transitional justice process could be up for debate, Burgess reminded the audience that getting to the truth — actually figuring out what happened — will always be crucial. He also emphasized that every country is different and that it’s up to the Sri Lankan people to decide what type of transitional justice process would work for them.

Burgess spent some time talking about truth commissions and noted that South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) is the most well-known example. Burgess is an engaging speaker and the material he presented provided some nuance and detail, yet his presentation was still quite accessible.

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After the first part of the workshop, things moved to a more interactive format. The idea was for people to ask questions and perhaps seek clarification on any of the issues which had been raised during the presentation. There were some questions, though there were also several comments. Let’s keep in mind that Sri Lanka’s Tamil community has suffered disproportionately from a civil war which lasted nearly three decades and an ethnic conflict that continues.

There were some emotional moments. Many people are tired and frustrated. They are still hurting and they want to be heard. They want answers. They want the truth. They want to know what happened to their loved ones. They are also disappointed with the United Nations (UN) and the UN system.

Approximately 70 people attended the event. Pre- and post-evaluation questionnaires were handed out. Having already conducted a few workshops recently, Perera and Burgess would hold another one in Trincomalee on January 30. “These educational events are important because there are a lot of misconceptions about transitional justice,” says Perera.

“Most people in the country see it as being about accountability and punishment for war crimes. This leads to false expectations. There is a need for people to learn that transitional justice is a more holistic concept, and includes truth seeking, reparations, and institutional reform also,” he added.

In late January, I spent about a week in Jaffna, and this workshop stands out as a rare (and relative) bright spot. More than one year after Mahinda Rajapaksa’s unexpected electoral defeat, the new government’s progress on core Tamil issues, including the release of Tamil political prisoners and demilitarization, has disappointed many.

Transitional justice in Sri Lanka is going to take time and it’s going to be a difficult process. In that context, awareness-raising about such an important topic is vital.

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