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The Power of Forgiveness: South Africa’s Reconciliation as a Model for Sri Lanka

It's time to put an end to the politically-driven pursuit of revenge through "eye for an eye" tactics. As Mahatma Gandhi once wisely observed, such a path will only lead to a world where everyone is blind.

5 mins read
Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Sabry PC meeting South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Dr. Naledi Pandoor in Pretoria, South Africa [Photo: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sri Lanka]

by Our Political Affairs Editor

If you want peace, you don’t talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies. – Desmond Tutu

Sri Lanka has experienced deep-rooted conflicts and a prolonged civil war, which have resulted in widespread human rights violations and atrocities. In the aftermath of the conflict, the Sri Lankan government established a transitional justice mechanism in various forms to address past wrongs and bring about reconciliation. The process has, however, been fraught with challenges and criticisms, including accusations of inadequate participation and engagement with affected communities and lack of progress in implementing reforms.

To address this inadequacy, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established after the end of apartheid, offers valuable insights into Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process. The Commission was based on a forgiveness-based approach that aimed to promote healing and reconciliation through truth-telling and forgiveness, rather than retribution and punishment.

Drawing on this approach, Sri Lanka could consider prioritizing forgiveness-based reconciliation as a means to heal the wounds of the past and build a more cohesive and inclusive society. This would involve a process of truth-telling, accountability, reparations, and ultimately, forgiveness. By embracing this approach, Sri Lanka could establish a foundation for lasting peace and justice and ensure that the atrocities of the past are not repeated.

One of the most significant aspects of the TRC was its emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation. The commission provided a platform for victims and perpetrators to come forward and tell their stories, with the aim of promoting healing and forgiveness. While the TRC was not perfect, it was a significant step towards building a more just and inclusive society in South Africa.

Sri Lanka can also learn from South Africa’s commitment to transparency and accountability. The TRC held public hearings and released its findings to the public, ensuring that the truth was not hidden from the people. This level of transparency helped build public trust in the commission’s work and ensured that the process was seen as legitimate and credible.

It is also worth noting that South Africa’s commitment to truth-seeking and reconciliation mechanisms is not unique to the country. Many other countries in the global south have established similar systems, demonstrating that these mechanisms are not exclusive to Western democracies.

In contrast, many Western democracies have struggled to establish effective truth-seeking and reconciliation mechanisms, particularly in cases where the state has been responsible for human rights abuses. The United States, for example, has yet to establish a truth commission to address the legacy of slavery and racism in the country.

That is why we strongly believe that Sri Lanka can learn a great deal from South Africa’s experience. First and foremost, Sri Lanka needs to establish an independent and impartial truth commission that is free from political interference. The commission must have the power to subpoena witnesses and compel them to testify, and it must be able to recommend reparations for victims.

Secondly, Sri Lanka must prioritize the involvement of victims and their families in the truth-seeking process. This means providing them with legal and psychological support, as well as ensuring that their voices are heard and their experiences are acknowledged.

Thirdly, Sri Lanka must be willing to confront its past and acknowledge the crimes that were committed during the civil war. This requires political will and a commitment to accountability, which can be difficult in a society that is deeply polarized and where there is a culture of impunity.

South Africa’s success in establishing a truth and reconciliation commission is even more remarkable when one considers the country’s history. Like Sri Lanka, South Africa was a deeply divided society that had suffered from years of violence and repression. However, unlike many Western countries, South Africa did not simply brush its past under the rug and move on. Instead, it confronted its history head-on and took steps to address the injustices of the past.

Within this context, we can commend the ongoing visit of the Sri Lankan delegation as a symbol of the strengthening partnership between the two nations. The discussions on nation-building, constitutional making, and building a better future for all demonstrate the commitment of both countries towards democracy, human rights, and justice.

This visit of Sri Lankan delegates has provided an opportunity for both countries to strengthen their partnership and share experiences in building a better future for their people. The discussions on lasting peace, unity, justice, and reconciliation demonstrate the shared commitment of both countries towards building a democratic and inclusive society. The importance of consensus-building and confidence-building mechanisms for national revivification, as well as the role of ordinary people in shaping constitutionalism, were also emphasized during the visit. It is hoped that this visit will pave the way for more meaningful collaboration between the two countries in the years to come.

In addition to the main theme, the Sri Lankan delegation also highlighted their responsibility as the chair of the Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA). Former Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s foreign policy was marked by the pursuit of non-alignment, regional cooperation, and peace-building efforts. In the 1970s, she advocated for the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace and proposed a UN resolution to this effect. The initiative aimed to promote peace and stability in the Indian Ocean region and ensure freedom of navigation, especially for developing countries.

The resolution was tabled at the UN General Assembly in 1971, and it was eventually adopted as Resolution 2832 in December of the same year. The resolution recognized the importance of the Indian Ocean for world peace and development and called for the establishment of a zone of peace in the region. The resolution was a significant achievement for Sri Lanka and helped to promote regional cooperation and peace-building efforts. Sri Lanka continued to play an active role in promoting the Indian Ocean as a zone of peace and supported various regional initiatives to this effect. Sri Lanka, as a vital Island nation, is always inspired by its own uniqueness and value of upholding democratic values. Sri Lanka has repeatedly demonstrated its commitment to regional peace and stability through its actions under any circumstances. It is in this context Sri Lanka is going to play an important role as the Chair of IORA.

However, as Minister Sabry emphasized, some sections of the Sri Lankan diaspora are unfairly involved in domestic affairs in Sri Lanka. The delegation emphasized the importance of devolution of power and supporting the required executive actions in terms of decision-making. Furthermore, they stressed the need for credible and transparent domestic accountable mechanisms, which can learn from other countries, especially South Africa, as a genuine partner. The visit of the Sri Lankan delegation to South Africa was deemed significant in this regard.

The delegation also discussed the importance of accountability mechanisms acceptable both for victims and perpetrators. The benefits of such a mechanism would be many. It would help to promote healing and closure for victims of the conflict, and it would help to create a shared understanding of the past among Sri Lankans. It would also help to promote national unity by creating a sense of ownership over the process among Sri Lankans. South Africa’s success with the TRC highlights the importance of transparency and inclusivity in establishing such mechanisms. Sri Lanka could benefit greatly from adopting these principles in its own efforts to establish a truth-seeking and reconciliation mechanism.

It is worth noting that South Africa’s success with the TRC is particularly noteworthy given that it is a country in the global south. This stands in contrast to some Western countries, which have been criticized for their own truth-seeking and reconciliation mechanisms that are perceived as hypocritical or driven by dubious motives. By learning from South Africa’s example, Sri Lanka can establish a nationally and internationally recognized and acceptable truth-seeking and reconciliation mechanism that is transparent, inclusive, and effective.

It’s time to put an end to the politically-driven pursuit of revenge through “eye for an eye” tactics. As Mahatma Gandhi once wisely observed, such a path will only lead to a world where everyone is blind. Now is the time for forgiveness and coming together to work towards a brighter future for our nation.

Sri Lanka Guardian

The Sri Lanka Guardian is an online web portal founded in August 2007 by a group of concerned Sri Lankan citizens including journalists, activists, academics and retired civil servants. We are independent and non-profit. Email: editor@slguardian.org

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