Reconciliation towards Achieving Social Justice: Youth Perspectives

by Selyna Peiris, Attorney-at-Law

Keynote Speaker at the National Policy for Social Integration; Discussion Forum on Access to Justice and Legal Resources jointly Organised by the Lakshman Kadirgamar Institute for International Relations & Strategic Studies and the Ministry of Social Integration and National Languages, September 2013.

The topic at hand contains a few terms, which are “buzzwords” in post-war Sri Lanka and used by many in various circles when addressing different development and social integration issues. Let me pick some out and attempt at the outset to connect these terms to today’s discussion and set the foundation for my presentation.

First let us begin with defining what “Social Justice” should be in the Sri Lankan context. Paraphrasing many a definition, one which suits the context is that “Social Justice”refers to the idea of creating an inclusive and democratic society that is based on the principles of equality and unity; one that understands and values human rights and further recognizes the dignity of every human being. If that is the desired goal, then how do we “reconcile” our fragmented society towards this? Sri Lanka as we all know is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-cultural diverse Island. A unique particularity about the composition of this multicity is that more than half the population is of one religion, ethnicity and culture. This is therefore naturally reflected in the representations at the administration, policy-making and legislating bodies within the country. In light of this and among other reasons, the “other” or the minority of this composition may often feel excluded. Since Independence, we have seen that this feeling of exclusion has led to various conflicts in our society. Therefore, the process of reconciliation should then entail changing the relationships of these antagonistic parties for the better by taking actions that make one’s view or belief compatible with the others.  More importantly, it should contain actions which are genuinely seen as being collectively beneficial for all Sri Lankans.

 

In this regard, inspiring the feeling of equality and unity in society becomes important. While there are many factors which play into this and some of which I will touch in the rest of the presentation, I would like to now look at the responsibilities of the youth in creating this inclusive society. The youth of today need to lead proactive solutions in this critical period of transition for the country and this needs to occur in schools, in universities, in workplaces and spaces of social interaction. As I see it, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to replace a culture of divisiveness and conflict with one of inclusiveness and respect. This ideal is all well and good, however what are the practicalities of it? Invariably and integral to this equation is then the idea of justice. Very simply, as John Rawls elaborates, justice is fairness. How then can this fairness be ensured in order to promote an equal, united and inclusive society? Access to the law, the upkeep of the rule of law, the due process of the law and predictability and certainty within the law are integral to a just legal system and it is with the achievement of the above that an individual or group within the system can feel that they are fairly treated. In the absence of access to justice or fairness, people are unable to have their voice heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination or hold decision-makers accountable. Quoting Albert Einstein, “in matters of truth and justice there is no difference between large and small problems, for issues concerning the treatment of people are all the same”.

Structures and institutions are important in protecting justice. I am happy to see that the National Social Integration Policy seeks among other things to guarantee the political rights and the freedom of association, movement and information to all citizens; to promote effective and efficient administration of criminal justice with support of the relevant institutions, to strengthen and improve access to alternative dispute resolution methods and to reinforce proactive measures to install or enhance structures, reforms and instruments, specifically responsive to law delays and the needs of vulnerable and socially-excluded groups in legal processes. This is indeed a very necessary step. However, and more importantly from a youth perspective, I feel that it is essential that education and awareness is given to young people firstly about their rights, secondly about their responsibilities and thirdly about how the systems and structures will react when their rights are violated or they neglect their responsibilities. There needs to be a sense of accountability among the youth and citizens at large, which sadly I feel is not prevalent in our society at present. There is also little respect for and confidence in the available institutions and structures. For example, when the police question an individual in regard to a traffic offence, one is the son or knows the son of a minister, an army commander or an OIC. If he or she is subsequently fined, the charge is later withdrawn because an influential individual visits the police station. If one is the victim, it is often heard that they prefer to bear their loss than antagonize a more powerful party. This should not happen in a country, which is dedicated to the upkeep of the rule of law and justice. I do not wish to generalize but only wish to share this very small and daily example with grave repercussions. It illustrates that our society is slowly and surely disregarding the rule of law and stepping above it. This is a very dangerous situation. When all’s said and done, if we have a society, which cannot use the institutions in place to serve justice, if the citizens do not have the capability to understand the concept of justice, then how are we to begin to reconcile in achieving social justice? Quoting Amartya Sen, “it is not enough having just institutions, it’s good social outcomes that matter”. In this regard then there must exist a practical model for social change that includes an understanding of ways to transform consciousness that are linked to efforts to transform structures.

The work we do at Sri Lanka Unites strikes a chord here. We are a local and voluntary movement for reconciliation and connected to over 120 schools representing all 25 districts of the Island. In fact, we have been working on reconciliation before the war ended and firmly believe that reconciliation cannot be confined to bridging gaps made during the ethnic conflict and it is about addressing the various issues that are prevalent in society today. With this in mind, we have programs, which focus on the harassment of women and religious intolerance, alongside our main programs, which focus more on reconciliation based on ethnic fragmentation.  We have a very simply ideology, making friends and staying friends. Entrenched in all our activities, the biggest being the FLC we have every year, we educate and inspire our students who are prefects and leaders in their respective schools to understand that reconciliation is about understanding and respecting the perspective of another and that as youth they have to be empowered as leaders in order to implement creative and proactive solutions to the issues that challenge inclusive social integration in our country. Through structured programs and mentoring we try to make them discover the importance of  respecting the other and the institutions that protect the other and that change can only be achieved in this way and through communication and building trust and not through violence. We let them take the initiative, as we believe that if we ask what they are actually able to do and to be, we come much closer to understanding the barriers societies have erected against social integration.

Something that we are proud of is a well thought out guidebook on reconciliation – where through a 3 level process, we guide the students who attend our conference to custom their minds and then guide their colleagues about the various aspects of reconciliation, conflict resolution, leadership and finally what it takes to maintain a peaceful society. I would be happy to answer any questions in this regard in the Q&A which will follow, however, what is mostly relevant here is that through this process, the students – the future mothers and fathers of this country – learn to respect the other, learn to take responsibility for their actions and inactions and learn that if they take the time to look beyond social stigmas they are all at the core, Sri Lankan. Further, we have identified that language and market-oriented vocational trainings are vital skills for youth to have in the process of social integration and with that in mind have established two reconciliation centers in Mullativu and Matara. One program that we hope to launch is a facility, which will allow our students from the North to have tandem partners in the South and vice versa, so that they can learn either Sinhala or Tamil from one another while keeping in touch with their friends. There is much more to be done but I sincerely believe that SLU has identified a model, which can be easily replicated, and that we are responsibly grooming the future leaders of our country. However, there are limitations.

We only impact students in less than 200 schools in the Island and we are always working outside the system, which I believe lessens the impact we can have. I sincerely believe that if this model is implemented throughout the education system in the country, we will be able to regain the elusive sense of responsibility and accountability among the youth and be able to set a strong foundation for a socially just society.  As Helen Keller states, until the great mass of the people shall be filled with the sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice can never be attained.

Another perspective that I would like to share very briefly is the need for greater youth consultation in policy making. Youth perceptions and expectations must be countered into policy making with regard to current issues, as they are the generation which will be impacted by such policy. The reality is that today is a fast shaping world and policy makers can sometimes be weighed down by theory or political expectations when generating policy. A useful check can be to hear young people’s perceptions and views so that implementation of policy can be smoother. There are many initiatives to do so, however the outcomes of youth summits or forums are not taken very seriously. Starting from the Grama Niladari divisions right up to national level, young people should be encouraged to get involved. This also creates a sense of ownership and is important when dealing with conflict-sensitive matters in particular. If young people from minority communities are allowed to have their input, the acceptance of the outcome is greater. Interestingly, this may also be a good way to encourage young people to enter into policy-making institutions as their career path, which will mean the generation of fresh ideas and new mentalities. This I believe goes hand in hand with changing mindsets and is a necessary step towards inclusive social integration.

Before I end my presentation, I would like to thank the Ministry of National Languages and Social Integration for giving me this opportunity to share my experiences and I would like to recap that it is my opinion, that in order to achieve a socially just society, where structures and institutions protect the rights of the people, the most important step to take at this critical juncture, is to empower the youth to believe in the necessity of living in a socially just society. While institutions and structures are created and strengthened, serious efforts should be made to empower the youth to think in a socially conscious and just manner. Until and unless there is this realization at mass scale, the journey to inclusive social integration as a one Sri Lanka is a treacherous path, as few will see the need to tread upon it. Education beyond the textbook is the key – the younger generation needs to realize the importance of their civic responsibilities. Young people should be encouraged further to contribute to national debate and national policymaking. A united and fair society with inclusive access to justice and the equal protection of human rights is the ideal we should continue to tirelessly work towards because this country is too beautiful not to.

Selyna Peiris, Attorney-at-Law is a graduate of Law with Honors from the University of Hull and has Master’s Degrees in Law and International Studies from University College London and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna respectively. She works as an independent consultant for various government, non-governmental and international organizations focusing on youth and women’s development issues. She is a national committee member and head of programs at Sri Lanka Unites, a youth movement for Hope and Reconciliation. She will contribute to a bi-weekly column on Reconciliation and Rights in Sri Lanka.

 

Links of Interest:

National Policy Frame for Social Integration – http://lanintegmin.gov.lk/national-policy-framwork-for-social-integration/

Sri Lanka Unites – http://www.srilankaunites.org/

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