Reparations Office Can Bind The Nations Together
Limping and internally conflicted thought
it be, the government of national unity once again showed its value when it got
the Office for Reparations bill passed through parliament. The margin of
victory was narrow with just 59 MPs voting in favour and 43 against it.
As both UNP and SLFP members of the government voted for the passage of the
bill it can be believed that both President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime
Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe were in favour of the passage of the bill.
They were joined by the TNA which also voted in favour of the bill.
However, the voting figures show that most of the government MPs kept away from
the vote. This was a shirking of their responsibility to take a stand on
an issue of greatest importance to the national reconciliation process.
It is to the credit of the government
that it continues with its post-war reconciliation process despite strong
opposition from nationalists and party political rivals on both sides of the
ethnic divide. This opposition is fueled both by misinformation about the
purpose of these reconciliation mechanisms and by the desire to gain partisan
political advantage. It is to the credit of the members of the UNP and
SLFP who did cast their votes that they were of one mind in ensuring that the
bill was passed even while at loggerheads on most other matters of state.
This alone highlights the value of the alliance and the need for it to continue
beyond the present term of parliament.
Particularly praiseworthy was the vote of
UNP members Sajith Premadasa and Navin Dissanayake in favour of the bill. Both
of them had lost their fathers to LTTE suicide bombers when they were at the
height of their political careers. Anther who voted in favour of the bill
was Field Marshall Sarath Fonseka who almost lost his life to an LTTE suicide
bomber. The opposition critiqued the bill on account of the possibility
of LTTE cadres obtaining reparations as a result of the establishment of the
Office for Reparations. In voting in favour of the bill all three of
these UNP members gave priority to victims of human rights violations during
the war, and other conflicts that had taken place in the country, rather than
to their own personal losses.
The Office for Reparations is the second
of the transitional justice mechanisms to be set up following the October 2015
resolution of the UN Human Rights Council that the government decided to
co-sponsor. The first was the Office of Missing Persons which was
established in February this year. The acceptance of the targets set out in the
resolution and intended to be achieved by the government have been
controversial since the day the resolution was signed. The government has
been denounced by the opposition for having betrayed the country and those who
both fought and led the military operations that resulted in the defeat of the
With few exceptions, such as Minister
Mangala Samaraweera, the unfortunate failure of the government's leaders to
defend the co-sponsorship of the UNHRC resolution in October 2015 can be
attributed to their lack of conviction and political courage with regard to the
need for the ongoing reconciliation process. The non-participation of
many government members in the vote on the Office for Reparations bill indicates
their lack of conviction that it is a necessary measure in terms of the
national reconciliation process. Without a system of ensuring
reparations for past human rights violations and injuries stemming from such
violations, the consequences of the war cannot be adequately dealt with.
Last weekend I was at a workshop that
explained the concept of transitional justice and what it means for Sri Lanka
to a group of community leaders and members of the Youth Parliament in the
Ratnapura district. When the Office for Reparations was being discussed
the same objection that was heard in parliament was heard on the seminar
floor. Articulating themselves with considerable passion, some of the
participants said that the Office for Reparations would be compensating LTTE
members and their families and this was not an appropriate or just use of
national resources. They pointed out that it was an inequitable use of
government resources to use funds to compensate LTTE members and their families
when the LTTE's primary focus was on dividing the country. This echoes
the objection of the political opposition to the Office for Reparations.
The legislation in the Office for
Reparations Act does not specifically state that LTTE members and their
famileis are to be recipients of reparations. The law states that persons
who have suffered damage as a result of loss of life or damage to their
property or persons in four contexts are those who are entitled to
reparations. These are in the context of the war that took place in the
Northern and Eastern Provinces, in connection with political unrest of civil
disturbances, in the course of systemic gross violations of the rights of
individuals, groups or communities of people in Sri Lanka or due to an enforced
disappearance. This use of language does not exclude the LTTE members or
their families from receiving reparations if they have suffered human rights
Once the institution is set up and
commissioners are appointed they will need to go into this issue. It is an
axiom that those who seek justice need to have clean hand themselves. The
commissioners will be able to look at what other countries have done in similar
situations. At the workshop in Ratnapura, those who were conducting it took
the position that reparations were for all Sri Lankans who were entitled to
them. This was acceptable to the big majority of the workshop
participants. This was seen when 15 out of 17 youth development officers who
were taking part in the training said they were prepared to organized follow up
workshops in their localities and explain the transitional justice process to
the people they worked amongst.
is an opportunity for the government, political parties and public and civic
institutions that failed in the past to make amends for those failures.
The Office for Reparations can provide a strong message of care to the conflict
affected populations living in all parts of the country due to the several
conflicts that have taken place during the country's post-independent
history. These include the recent anti Muslim riots and the two JVP
insurrections that took place in 1971 and again in 1988-89 in which much
violence was perpetrated on innocent people. Even though most of the
government MPs did not vote, by getting the Office for Reparations into the
law, the government of national unity can still claim to represent the
interests of a multi ethnic and plural nation better than the opposition who
voted against the bill.