Centre for Policy Alternatives on 16 April, 2016

Interview: Prospects for Transitional Justice in Sri Lanka

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An interview with Howard Varney a few weeks ago held in Colombo attempted to demystify transitional justice and map out the challenges around reconciliation in Sri Lanka. As noted on the website of the International Centre for Transitional Justice,

Howard Varney is a senior program adviser with ICTJ. His areas of expertise include truth-seeking, national prosecutions, institutional reform, reparations, and public interest litigation. Howard is a practicing advocate at the Johannesburg Bar. His legal practice includes human rights, constitutional, and administrative law.

In the early 1990s he was an attorney with the Legal Resources Centre in Durban where he represented victims of political violence in public interest litigation, judicial inquests, and commissions of inquiry. In the mid-1990s he led an independent criminal investigation in South Africa into organized political crime which resulted in significant criminal trials. He worked with the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a consultant on range of matters. Howard was the chief investigator for the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

We start off by talking about how Varney sees the prospect for meaningful reconciliation in Sri Lanka at present, given that he has visited the country of several occasions in the past including during the Rajapaksa regime.

Given the interest in the Wickremesinghe-Sirisena administration around transitional justice and the confusing official responses to some aspects around it, Varney was asked as to what, in Sri Lanka, would constitute a credible process reckoning with the past.

Varney is then asked as to why we should bother so much with looking at the past, when there is always the option to leave the past behind, as best forgotten, and move forward into the future. Varney’s response leads to a follow up question around what the best time should be for processes on acknowledging the past to be introduced and take root in society. He also responds to the submission that it may be too soon, and too fast, in Sri Lanka to talk about transitional justice mechanisms.

Given the twin imperatives of transitional justice and constitution building for a first term coalition government, Varney responds next to a question around sequencing, and whether constitution building can take place without accountability, or if both agendas can somehow be juggled as equally important for the country to move forward.

He then talks about South Africa itself and the lessons learnt from his own country’s transitional justice mechanisms, given that Sri Lanka does not today, has never in the past and will never in the future mirror the principled political culture and progressive social dynamics that led to the end of apartheid. Varney openly discusses some of the failures in and of South Africa to deal with the past.

He then tackles the role of media and public consultations in a process of constitution building as well as transitional justice.

Finally, he tackles the pushback that the transitional justice agenda often faces – that it is largely alien to Sri Lanka and done or pursued at the behest of Western interests and powers.

You can also see the video of the interview on Vimeo here.