Seven years ago on this day, the civil war in Sri Lanka came to a brutal end. Since then, a national conversation on transitional justice has gathered momentum, with the current government expected to fulfill its international commitments to establish mechanisms on truth, justice and reparations. As it does so, it will be confronted with a recurring claim advanced by certain actors within the state. Their claim is that the ‘Sri Lankan approach’ to transitional justice is based on ‘forgiving’ and ‘forgetting’.
My own experience as a lawyer and researcher in Sri Lanka has prompted me to reflect on this claim. These reflections inspired “Confronting the Complexity of Loss”, an introspective study that tests this claim by examining the views and opinions of 45 victims and survivors of human rights atrocities from across the ethnic and religious divide. In some ways, its conclusion—that Sri Lankans often differ on fundamental questions of truth seeking, memorialization and accountability—makes intuitive sense.
Imagine, for example, a family around a dinner table grieving the death of a loved one in a DUI incident. We would not expect them to cope in the identical manner. We would not expect them to uniformly forgive the offender, nor unanimously demand his punishment. Some disagreement around that table would hardly surprise us. If we can conceive of a single family producing such diverse views, should we then reduce Sri Lankan victims and survivors to a single narrative?
I started asking these questions early on in my career when I represented victims in cases involving torture, detention and custodial death in Sri Lanka. In one particular case in 2008, I represented the wife of a man who died in the custody of the police. She wanted to know the truth about what happened to her husband. Despite police intimidation and her own family’s discouragement, she sought justice in the form of a declaration that her husband’s fundamental rights had been violated. Her resolute demand for truth and justice left a lasting impression on me, and influenced my understanding of Sri Lankan attitudes to truth and justice.
A year later, as a student in the International Human Rights Clinic, I focused mainly on the rights of detainees in Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay. That work challenged me once again to reflect on the diversity of victim and survivor narratives. When I returned to Sri Lanka after graduating in 2010, I decided to engage in a study of the country’s history of violence, talking to victims and survivors who experienced violence firsthand. I focused on several tragic events, including the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom; the 1987-89 Marxist insurrection; the 1990 expulsion of Muslims from the Northern province; the 30-year ethnic war, including its final stages in 2009; and the 2014 anti-Muslim riots. From these interviews and historical analyses, I wanted to glean insights into how Sri Lankans understand and internalize notions of truth and justice.
“Confronting the Complexity of Loss” was published in 2015, following several years of research and reflection. Those who participated in the study differed vastly on whether they preferred to tell others about their loss; whether memorializing lost family members was desirable; whether the identity of perpetrators was important in the pursuit of truth and justice; and finally, whether perpetrators should be prosecuted and punished. In each case, victims and survivors presented views based on their personal experiences, value preferences and how they understood the context of their loss. There was simply no consensus with respect to a single approach—least of all an approach that prioritizes forgiving and forgetting. The conclusion, for me, was clear: the enormity of human loss cannot be reduced to a single narrative.
In view of this finding, my study recommends that, as the national conversation on transitional justice moves forward in Sri Lanka, mechanisms be designed to accommodate the broadest possible spectrum of preferences among victims and survivors. These mechanisms must respond to the diversity of needs and priorities among victims and survivors, including the discovery of the truth; the memorialization of events and lost relatives; and the accountability of perpetrators. A truly victim-centered approach must therefore accept victims and survivors in all their diversity and complexity, rather than homogenize them within a single reductive and coercive narrative of forgiving and forgetting.
Note: Gehan Gunatilleke, LLM ’10, is a human rights lawyer based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and the Research Director of Verité Research. He teaches human rights and democratization at the University of Colombo. He is also a Commonwealth scholar at New College, University of Oxford.