The constitutional crisis in Sri Lanka and rapidly unfolding events there raise two important concerns from the point of view of peace and security. The democratic track record of this country is now marred by the President’s decisions to dismiss the Prime Minister and appoint his replacement, and then proroguing Parliament to prevent a test of strength.
What is the future of the post-war transitional justice and reconciliation, unfolding very slowly but more or less surely, over the last four years? War-time experiences as also post-2009 concerns form the substance of the issues for which justice has been sought.
This has involved formal processes like the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by the Rajapakse government soon after the end of the fighting, as well as the Consultation Task Force on transitional justice which heard from over 7000 Sri Lankans. It has involved smaller, civil society dialogues and exchanges across the island, each of them held despite some concern about undue attention from local law enforcement.
In addition, there have been official and non-official meetings on disappeared and missing persons, where family members have spoken out about the challenges of working with government officials to trace their relatives, including corruption and sexual harassment. Disappearances have taken place during the war; right after the war, when Tamils were asked to report for army inquiries but did not return, and afterwards, most infamously the ‘white van’ abductions. At all these fora people have left their homes and work and come forward to depose. Their depositions and their names are on the record.
Despite a full-throttle push by Sri Lankan civil society, which seemed to have been preparing for this moment— building skills and networks in anticipation—progress on reconciliation was lamentably slow. Rather than an end in itself, for the sake of a better future for all Sri Lankans, it was caught up in the internal politics of an ill-fitting coalition and in the international politics of sovereignty and national assertion, vis-à-vis UN resolutions and recommendations. What will happen now, given that those most invested in not having war and post-war human rights violations investigated have seized power?
The fragile social trust that was being built by dozens of dialogue, exchange and reconciliation programmes is once more going to be shattered. Funders and participants are going to shy away until it is clear that they will not be punished for this work, and peace workers will have to stay afloat (free and safe) as best they can. The most chilling worry is for the safety of human rights defenders in Sri Lanka.
Human rights are threatened when old regimes are restored like this. But human rights defenders are even more at risk. Prominent civil society leaders who served, drafted and led different parts of the transitional justice programme are going to now have to lead the push-back. But the ordinary women and men, unprotected by privilege, who would have given depositions or stood outside government offices or campaigned in the intervening elections, are also at peril. Who will protect them from another round of white van abductions and other such?
In the face of such uncertainty, gender justice is a secondary concern. Women’s organisations and feminist voices were part and parcel of both the transitional justice mechanisms as well as the discussions on drafting a new constitution. If this coup stands, those are surely going to be affected. There is usually little room in strongarm governments for broad-based, inclusive processes. Thus, it is also likely that hard-won gains for women’s participation in such processes will be rolled back. With feminist voices marginalised, it will be harder to enforce accountability for the spectrum of human rights violations, especially sexual and gender-based violence.
For decades, in the face of war, Sri Lankan civil society including its women’s organisations stood their ground, taking conflict analysis to the public and thinking about the terms of peace. In the difficult decade since the end of the fighting, they have engaged with government and with society to take Sri Lanka towards peace. They will lead the push-back on whatever comes, but require the world to watch and stand by them.