Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon continues his Southeast Asia trip with a visit to Sri Lanka from 1 to 3 September. His last visit to the country in 2009 came right after the end of the armed conflict. The Secretary-General then aimed to address immediate post-conflict challenges, including humanitarian relief, resettlement, reconciliation and the rehabilitation of war-torn areas.
Ahead of the Secretary-General’s visit, we spoke to the UN’s Reconciliation and Development Adviser in Sri Lanka, Gita Sabharwal, about the Organization’s role in the country’s development and the reconciliation process.
Where do we stand today in terms of reconciliation and development in Sri Lanka?
The political transition is a historic opportunity to achieve sustainable peace in Sri Lanka. The UN has been engaging comprehensively with the government to advance reconciliation and address issues of accountability. The UN strategy brings the three pillars of peace, development and human rights working in close coordination for durable peace.
The high-level engagement, with the Secretary-General meeting with the President (September 2015), the Prime Minister (May 2016), and the Foreign Minister (February 2015) laid the ground work for UN’s assistance to support Sri Lanka’s peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts. The visits of the Under-Secretary-General for political affairs (February 2015) and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to Sri Lanka (February 2016) have enabled a continuous, joined-up and holistic dialogue with the government, civil society and other development stakeholders.
Guided by the Human Rights Council resolution entitled “Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka” (A/HRC/30/1), the government has begun putting in place the building blocks of legislation to institutionalize transitional justice mechanisms. It has also created the framework of independent institutions and initiated the dialogue on constitutional reforms to build consensus for a long term political settlement.
Promoting reconciliation in a polarized society will be a slow process given that it involves embedding relationships of trust cutting across the political spectrum and communities. Still, the process appears to be moving in the right direction, however. To cite some examples of progress, a consultation task force is undertaking popular consultations on the design of the transitional justice mechanisms. Political parties across the spectrum are working together to craft constitutional reforms that should serve as a guarantee for non-recurrence by providing equitable rights to all communities. Legislation for establishing the Office of Missing Persons puts in place the institutional framework for investigating and tracing missing persons. Furthermore, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution lays the foundation to consolidate democratic governance in the country by scaling back powers of the executive presidency and establishing the independent commissions.
The key features are as follows: reduction in the terms of President and Parliament from six years to five years; re-introduction of a two-term limit for the President; restriction of the power of President to dissolve Parliament; revival of the Constitutional Council and establishment of independent commissions, including the election, public service and national police commissions.
What do you identify as the main challenges going forward?
There are three main challenges as the country moves forward to achieve peace. The first deals with maintaining the momentum of the reform process to advance reconciliation and accountability in the face of resistance from opposing forces. This becomes even more of a challenge during transitions as it involves negotiating a political consensus underpinned by broadly based, inclusive and participatory processes. The window of opportunity for taking such complex processes forward is typically limited, making it imperative to maintain the pace in the initial years of the transition.
The second challenge deals with sustaining the confidence of the majority and the minority communities who are ready to move past the legacy of conflict. There is hope about reconciliation and a belief that the national government will resolve their long standing grievances. To capitalize on this tremendous opportunity, development stakeholders will need to focus efforts in a coordinated and coherent manner to support the government to take meaningful steps for addressing unresolved grievances and delivering peace dividends.
The third challenge is building national capacities to serve as the building blocks to maintain the momentum of peace. This is a long term process which will require investing in nationally owned spaces for dialogue to genuinely build a process of accommodation on the part of domestic stakeholders. Engaging women, youth and victims of conflict from across communities will remain central to generating the necessary horizontal consensus for sustainable peace.
What is the UN Country Team’s role in Sri Lanka?
The UN Country Team has stepped up its leadership in building national capacities on reconciliation while embedding a victim centric approach to transitional justice. This is premised on a comprehensive strategy to support the implementation of the Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution and backed by a nationally owned peacebuilding priority plan (PPP). The PPP is a results driven plan to embed durable peace and developed jointly with government, civil society and donors. The Resident Coordinator is in dialogue with Member States to encourage donor coordination and harmonization while ensuring ongoing dialogue to turn the Government’s peacebuilding commitments into reality.
The UN Country Team, while continuing to engage at the highest levels of government, is also investing in generating evidence to inform policy making by monitoring peacebuilding results. Concurrently, the special mandate holders, such as the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion of Truth, Justice, Reparation and Guarantees of Non-Recurrence bring to bear high level technical expertise to inform government and development stakeholder efforts towards sustaining peace.
I think that in Sri Lanka the UN’s role demonstrates how the Organization can strategically come together to effectively support a government’s efforts for sustainable peace.
The Security Council and the General Assembly in July have adopted identical resolutions stressing the all-of-system priority of sustaining peace. How is this concept implemented in Sri Lanka?
The UN in Sri Lanka has adopted a threefold strategy to ensure an all-of-system approach. Firstly, the UN Country Team in close coordination with DPA, the Peacebuilding Support Office (PBSO) and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) invested in developing a comprehensive strategy to support the implementation of the HRC resolution. Secondly, with the Secretary-General declaring Sri Lanka eligible to access financial resources under the Peacebuilding Fund’s (PBF) Peacebuilding Recovery Facility, the UN Country Team, in partnership with the government, PBSO and DPA, participated in developing the comprehensive results orientated peacebuilding priority plan. The peacebuilding priority plan covers support for (a) accountability and transitional justice; (b) reconciliation (c) good governance and (d) resettlement and durable solutions. While this serves as the UN’s framework to bring to bear financial and technical assistance to advance sustainable peace, it will also serve as a common framework for the coordination of peacebuilding support for the wider community of development partners. Thirdly, the continued UN high-level engagement specifically from DPA, OHCHR, PBSO, and the UN Development Programme (UNDP), ensured a coordinated dialogue with the government under the leadership of the Resident Coordinator. This has enabled the UN to address some of the challenges in helping advance reconciliation and transitional justice.
Also check out our previous article on Sri Lanka (18 months ago), where we focused on the job of Peace and Development advisers, featuring an interview with Gita Sabharwal.
Title Picture: Staff of the Kahawatta Pradeshiya Sabha present their ideas on how reconciliation could be promoted within their communities. This programme was one of several supported by the UN Peacebuilding Fund, and conducted through the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation for staff of government offices to increase dialog and reconciliation. Photo: UNIC Colombo