I am pleased to have been asked to speak today on Reconciliation, at the meeting to mark International Women’s Day, because it is clear that women have a great role to play with regard to Reconciliation. Most important perhaps, in today’s context, is the need to act as advocates for coherent policies and actions with regard to reconciliation. I must admit to being deeply disappointed that this government, which we welcomed with such hopes, has put reconciliation on the back burner. It cannot assume that healing will come just because of goodwill, just as it cannot assume that prosperity will come to all of us through economic growth. We need concerted action, and that action must be based on carefully prepared plans.
One of the problems though with this government is that it is led by people who avoided the responsibilities of the political offices they held in the last few years. So we have no understanding of good government, because there was no effort to engage, and for instance promote efforts to strengthen Parliament against the encroaching executive. At Consultative Committee meetings with regard for instance to Resettlement, or Public Administration Reforms, members of the Opposition did not turn up, and they did not raise issues that continue to affect those who suffered in the conflict. And now they make platitudinous pronouncements about pursuing reconciliation, but have not set up a dedicated mechanism. They have ignored the work done by the LLRC Action Plan Task Force, they have ignored the draft National Policy on Reconciliation, which can easily be adopted, with amendments if needed. They seem, with no knowledge of mechanics, determined to reinvent the wheel, and are meanwhile content to trundle along on skateboards. Though the recent appointment of a Task Force on Reconciliation is welcome, it would have been better had this occurred as the government was elected, so that work could have commenced at once.
I have sent the head of the Task Force a copy of the draft policy, because, prepared as it was with inputs from the more civilized elements in all political parties, as well as constructive members of Civil Society, it has a lot of suggestions that could easily be taken forward. The last government unfortunately did not want to act because, like ostriches with their heads in the sand, they wanted to claim that there was no problem.
In the Policy we identified three areas for action. Women are particularly important in all three of them, and I will make some suggestions briefly as to all three, and hope that ways of moving forward will emerge in discussion.
The first is Recovery and Equitable Development. Though we poured in cement on the grounds that it would lead to development, we did not take steps to ensure that the people of the area could take advantages of the opportunities that we hoped were being created. Training programmes are minimal in the North, and what is worse is that government is not even aware of this. I complained for ages that nothing was being done about Vocational Training, and finally last year a new and comparatively decent Secretary arranged a meeting where the 101 agencies under his Ministry were to tell me what they were doing. It turned out that lots of work was being done on paper, and they were not aware, having never been to the area, that some centres were closed, others had hardly any students, and the massive training centre built at Mullaitivu was offering very few courses to very few students.
Moving forward though would be so easy, as I found at the five training centres I have set up with my decentralized budget in Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi. But this should be done through a needs assessment, and then there should be training programmes to develop teachers in the subject areas the people want.
In addition there should be micro-credit schemes. Unfortunately there has been no policy of targeting women specially. In one Division I found that credit was no longer available, because none of the loans had been repaid. They had all been given to men. Last week, when the Resettlement Authority came before the Committee on Public Enterprises – with no one from government present apart from myself, and indeed no one from the opposition either for an hour or so – it turned out that they did not have statistics on a gender basis as to the loans they had initiated.
The second area we dealt with was that of Political Participation and Administrative Accountability. Apart from the obvious need to encourage more women to participate in politics, we should also develop community consultation structures where women can play a role, and begin to realize their full potential as socio-political influences. Certainly, at the Reconciliation meetings I held in Divisional Secretariats in the North and East, women contributed significantly, and had a more practical approach to their problems.
In this regard I hope we can entrench the consultation mechanisms which the Ministry of Public Administration tried to institute last year. In addition the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Affairs had set up Women and Children’s Desks in each Divisional Secretariat and was preparing duty lists, which would have ensured greater participation of women in monitoring the work of government.
I hope too that we can work swiftly on the new Local Government Act, which I have suggested to the President should be expedited along with the Education Act on which the last government labored for five years with no results. I have already sent him a draft for a new Higher Education Act, and tabled a Constitutional Amendment with regard to Electoral Reform. These were two of the pledged reforms we urged the last President to implement before any election, so I hope that this government will go through with these before the next election.
One of the main points of the new Local Government Bill is to institutionalize Committees for every local authority. The initial draft had these appointed by the authority, but we must make sure they ar composed of representatives of community organizations, and in particular Women’s Rural Development Societies. The capacity I have noticed in the last few years in such organizations can be given full play, to ensure that local administration is truly responsive to people’s needs, and not to the benefit of politicians.
Finally, the Reconciliation Policy looked at Justice, Truth and Reconciliation. The last government was far too slow about this, though I am glad that they finally appointed a Disappearances Commission. But the mandate of that Commission must be expanded and strengthened, so that it can swiftly implement a process of restorative justice. This is vital for women, who have been the most affected by bereavement, and who need psycho-social as well as economic support to rebuild their lives.
But the Commission should also give up inviestigating possible war crimes, because that requires a different sort of mechanism. I have no doubt that government can move swiftly on this matter, as recommended by the LLRC, on the lines of the work of the Udalagama Commission. Already I would assume Mr Desmond de Silva and his team, whose inputs have been sought by this government too, have clarified the ground so that proceeding with any cases where there is strong evidence can be expedited. I would presume that the work of those experts makes clear that the emotional attacks on the Sri Lankan government and forces are misplaced, but we need to argue that case forcefully, without adopting the ostrich approach. That can only be done if we have credible investigations into those cases where criticism is not misplaced. In particular we must ensure justice for those individuals who, at the end of the trauma to which the LTTE had subjected them, claimed that they were separated from their loved ones who had also survived the ordeal. Those memories must be overcome, and without that reconciliation will be difficult.
I should note again that I have just introduced some ideas for what I hope will be a fruitful discussion. But let me conclude with the Mission and Values that we thought should inform the National Reconciliation Policy –
- To ensure that all citizens have equal opportunities without alienation and discrimination of any kind.
- To wholeheartedly accept individual identity and respect religious and cultural diversity within a united Sri Lanka, to acknowledge and address the needs and aspirations of all communities residing in the country and to foster a sense of belonging amongst all peoples and communities irrespective of language, ethnicity, race or religion.
- To enhance sovereignty of the people at all levels of governance.
- To encourage a sense of caring to be shown by the State to all citizens and communities and readiness to acknowledge and address fears and insecurities of all communities.
*Strengthening the Reconciliation Process in Sri Lanka – Text of a presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the Celebraton of International Women’s Day, March 10th 2015 Arranged by the Parliamentary Women’s Caucus