Sri Lanka: Democratizing Reconciliation, From Rhetoric To Reality – OpEd


Whoever said that demand must drive supply was certainly not talking about reconciliation. However, the relevance and applicability of the philosophy and its wisdom in a post-war reconciliation setting cannot be overstated.

After all, reconciliation is as important a goal as it is a process. While Government efforts in post-war rehabilitation, reintegration, and reconstruction have been commendable for the most part, there remains a need for ensuring that the dividends of such efforts are sustained and lead to a meaningful transformation in the lives of those affected by conflict.

While my previous writings in these pages have called for State-led programmes of reconciliation, it is imperative that such initiatives be informed by the needs and aspirations of communities they are intended to reach. Accordingly, the strengthening of both local mechanisms and processes of consultation of grassroots communities becomes paramount.


The democratic process of involving those affected in decisions that will ultimately affect their own lives serves an immediate purpose in itself – it rebuilds confidence in the State while creating a sense of connection to the country, which will go a long way in deterring the resurgence of conflict. Consequently, generating ownership of such programmes amongst the communities will lead to increased buy-in and thereby up the chances of successful implementation of the initiatives undertaken. This will, in turn, ensure sustainability of the dividends of the initiatives, lead to empowerment of previously vulnerable and marginalized individuals and communities, kindle renewed hope in the future, while throughout fostering independence and self-sufficiency in the individuals and communities concerned.

That said, it must be cautioned, that while such consultations and discussions should be held regularly they must also seek to be inclusive and engage all ethnic communities and groups concerned, the reverse of which could be disastrous in that they will only reinforce and entrench previous perceptions of discrimination and marginalization, descending into a new spiral of conflicts.


In this regard, it is worth considering the recently set up District and Divisional Reconciliation Committees in the conflicted-affected regions of Jaffna, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Kilinochchi.

In the past few months several meetings have been convened seeing the participation of Assistant District Secretaries, Divisional Secretaries, Grama Niladharis, representatives of Rural Development Societies, School Principals, religious leaders, police officials, medical personnel and officials concerned with social support mechanisms.

While these meetings and consultations have been limited in their ability to effect change, the participants at the meeting have expressed appreciation at being heard and listened to, which is in itself a valuable tool for conflict transformation.
Through meetings held thus far, the following have been identified as key issues requiring immediate attention: liaison between Women and Children Desks at Police Stations and officials concerned with Social Service, Probation, Counselling, and Women and Child Development; better training for Counsellors and Awareness Programmes for students and single women households:The need to promote employment opportunities was stressed throughout, but it is noteworthy that requests were for micro-credit facilities and the establishment of cooperatives rather than simply a demand for government jobs; Tunukai and Manthai East Divisions in the Mullaitivu district require urgent attention in the transport sector, with particular need for government run buses – the lack of which has affected productivity and economic growth in the area as officials arrive late at work as private transport services are not always dependable.

Accordingly, weekly meetings in the following three sectors with relevant actors and group representations present must be proposed: Livelihood and Development Meetings – Government officials should make clear what has already been provided and announcing future plans of actions whilst encouraging prioritization of requests. The focus should be on ensuring that support is directed towards ensuring the economic empowerment of the population rather than perpetuating dependency; Protection – This should involve Women’s Societies and the police, with the particular involvement of Women’s and Children’s Desks, which should be established in at least every DS Division. The creation of support groups, for counselling as well as protection, should be considered, with the meeting taking cognizance of those in vulnerable situations. The meetings would be additionally usefel in terms of leading towards closer cooperation with the police, which would in turn enable swift redress in cases of criminal activity, but also advice and warning when dangers are anticipated. Particular attention should be paid to former combatants to promote their active integration into community life; Social and Cultural Activities: This should involve Education as well as Cultural officials. Youth and Sports Groups, the police and Civil Affairs officers from the army may also be invited. The aim of the cultural and social activities should be such that they serve the community while bringing people together.


The value in empowering the smallest possible units in the state’s administrative structure cannot be overstated, for the greater the reach to the grassroots communities, the higher the chance that needs will be met. In this regard, strengthening the capacities, both structurally and functionally, of Divisional Secretariats and Grama Niladhari Divisions will be of extreme benefit. There is a need to make understandable to Grama Niladharis and Divisional Secretaries a clear list of duties, and specifications as to the consultations needed, together with reports that ought to be prepared – a worrying lack of such knowledge was revealed at the recent meetings. Additionally, and not less importantly, in post-war contexts such as Sri Lanka, there ought to be put in place by such officials the number of individuals displaced during the time of war, numbers of those returned, and finally what had been received and what the specific needs of each group and individuals were. While such an approach of local consultation, participation and ownership will serve communities well, they will also provide higher benefits for the State. It will ensure accountability, transparency of processes and goals, inform international aid programmes, ensure effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of programme benefits, increase confidence in the citizenry of the State which will undoubtedly improve the relationship between the two and thereby strengthening the social contract, and hence contributing to a new culture, structure and system of governance.


With much talk of the implementation of the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) and the National Human Rights Action Plan (NHRAP) being put in place, a similar democratic process of consultation and ownership should be mobilized.

Any measures taken to design programmes to implement the LLRC and NHRAP should meet the following objectives to ensure optimum impact in the lives of the Sri Lankan people: To bring the initiatives of the LLRC and the NHRAP to the people, and to promote ownership of the Commission by the people of Sri Lanka – the first step towards achieving such would be to have the LLRC and NHRAP reports officially translated into Sinhala and Tamil languages and widely disseminated to the citizenry islandwide; to enable Sri Lankans to identify the causes of disunity among themselves; to enable the Sri Lankan people to actively participate in generating solutions to the problem of disunity – forums at the local levels to engage different groups and communities can achieve this by being both a means and an end to achieving a sense of togetherness and solidarity; through such discussion there will be a recognition and acknowledgment of the problems faced by the ‘other’ while at the same time generate momentum towards finding solutions together; to enable the Sri Lankan people to set-up structures and channels through which unity and reconciliation programmes can be channelled – local government units are well placed to play a critical role in this regard; and to consult with the people themselves on how to steer the country to a more productive path towards a range of developmental socioeconomic activities, including wealth generation, culture, sport and development of a positive national identity.

While the recently set up District and Division Reconciliation Committees are an important step in the right direction, they need to be formalized and strengthened further by a range of measures that facilitate a swift access to redress, including being connected to service providers. Such will pave the way for a new culture, structure and system of governance, renewing the social contract and improving the relationship between citizens and the state. It is only through the democratization of such national processes and mechanisms that the benefits envisaged will percolate to the people of Sri Lanka, translating the rhetoric into reality. This is a matter that cannot afford to be delayed any further. The time for action is now.

This article appeared at The Daily Mirror and is reprinted with permission.

Salma Yusuf

Salma Yusuf is a Visiting Lecturer, Masters in Human Rights, University of Colombo and University of Sydney; Visiting Lecturer, Bachelor of Laws, University of Northumbria – Regional Campus for Sri Lanka & Maldives; LL.M, Queen Mary, University of London; Queen Mary Scholar 2008-2009; LL.B (Hons), University of London. She provides legal and policy advisory services on both national and international programmes in the fields of human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice, and peace-building. She has authored publications for the Sri Lanka Journal of International Law; the Seattle Journal for Social Justice; the Complutense University of Madrid; the Institue of Human Rights; and the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Email: [email protected]

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