The Sri Lankan Parliament passed the ‘Office of Reparations Bill’ on 12th October 2018. It is another step in reconciliation efforts by the Sri Lankan government in implementing the UNHRC resolution of October 2015. Sri Lanka after a long delay had set up the Office of Missing Persons in May 2018 and has agreed to release all Tamil civilian lands by 31stDecember 2018.
A total of 59 members representing the United National Party (UNP) and Sri Lanka Freedom Party members supported the government led by President Maithripala Sirisena. The Tamil National Alliance (TNA) also voted in favour of the Bill, whereas 43 MPs representing the Joint Opposition (JO) led by former President Mr. Mahinda Rajapaksa and 15 rebel SLFP members voted against the Bill.
The Office of Reparations is the second mechanism after the Office for Missing Persons (OMP), which was put up to deal with the issue of missing persons and post war allegations. The new law will repeal the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority Act (No. 29) of 1987. The Sri Lankan President will appoint a Chairperson and four members to the Office of Reparations based on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council.
The Bill provides for the provision of individual and collective reparations for aggrieved persons, i.e., persons who have suffered violation of human rights or humanitarian law, their relatives and missing persons’. Most importantly the scope of the legislation applies to the entire country to both minority and majority communities that suffered due to the long ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.
The Bill provides for individual and collective reparations such as facilitation of monetary payment or material benefit, educational programmes, training and skills development programmes, psycho-social support, including the provision of allotment of land and housing and other measures to be identified by the Office for Reparations.
The OMP interim report, recommended the setting up of an independent office for reparations. The report also acknowledged that some families of the missing and disappeared persons have suffered over thirty years with no state assistance or sporadic support. In many cases, the families have lost their primary bread winner’. Three decades of war led to more than 60,000 persons missing. During the final phase of the war nearly 215,000 persons from the Tamil community surrendered to the Sri Lankan army. In the post war scenario, the Lankan army faced allegations of disappearance of persons in custody in camps. More than 5000 Sri Lankan army personnel too reportedly went missing in action during the war. Therefore, finding persons and providing reparations with the approval of both the Sinhalese and Tamil communities would be a complex task as truth and justice issues are likely to come up during the process.
Sri Lankan civil society groups, though, have criticised the setting up of the Office of Reparations. They allege, it is not an independent body, as the decisions taken by it would be subject to Cabinet approval. Civil society groups also allege that it will delay the process of reparations to victims and the government has introduced it to derail the call for establishment of accountability mechanisms as recommended by the UN. The Sri Lankan Tamil parties welcoming the move, have said, that the Sri Lankan government should not side-line the issues of truth and justice which are much needed for complete reconciliation in the post war Sri Lanka.
Though the Bill provides positive momentum for addressing the concerns of the victims of violence, there are other issues that still need to be addressed by the Lankan government to gain the trust of the minority Tamil community.
As a close friend and neighbour, India would like to see that the Tamil community’s genuine grievances are addressed by Sri Lanka in a transparent and holistic manner. With the 2020 elections looming on the horizon, it remains to be seen how Colombo does a fine balancing act.
Script: Dr. M Samatha, Strategic Analyst On Sri Lanka