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A new commission for restorative justice to deal with difficult past practices of abuse and violence in Sri Lanka

May 10, 2010

A Statement by the Asian Human Rights Commission:

The communiqué from the Presidential Media Unit announcing a probe into the violations of internationally accepted norms of conduct has incorporated several new words and phrases which are not yet familiar terms in the political discourse in Sri Lanka. A few such words and phrases are: the need for restorative justice; a probe of violations of internationally accepted norms of conduct; no recurrence of such tragic conflict in the future; institutional, administrative and welfare measures already taken in the post conflict phase and which should be further taken in order to effect reconstruction, rehabilitation and reconciliation; legislative and administrative measures that may be necessary to prevent such situations in the future; assessing the lessons learned from the recent conflict phase; identification of any persons or groups responsible for such acts, (and) payment of compensation for victims.

For a long period the government took up the position of burying the past as the best policy to be used in order to avoid the surfacing of the unhealed wounds. However, such a view, which has been taken in other places after the country has faced mass atrocities has not been an enduring policy. It simply becomes necessary to deal with the past. The only issue is how daringly such a task will be faced. This of course depends on the political will of the country's leaders and the civil society leaders of the time. If the country is blest with an enlightened leadership politically as well as other areas of intellectual life it becomes possible to take far reaching actions in dealing with past atrocities and violence and violations of human rights.

....Perhaps in the situation that Sri Lanka is now trying to address it would be useful to recall some other attempts by other countries to go in this direction. In the years following the Second World War the German society was faced with a period of severe psychological and social problems in dealing with its own immediate past. For many in Germany it became a problem to realise that they were capable of falling into the trap of supporting a terrible dictator as their own leader. Many would recall that their own families followed Adolf Hitler with admiration at some point in time. For many the fact that their own children became soldiers in the Nazi army and were capable of carrying out atrocities towards people of their own country, such as the Jews, and the people of other countries as they were engaged in a war was also a severe trauma to deal with. How was it possible that what they once considered to be ideal and the natural way of doing things had gone so wrong?

With the sheer incapacity to deal with these problems many people thought it better to simply forget about such things and to begin a new way of living. However, the past that the people are involved in is not something that can be forgotten so easily.

An extremely talented psychologist, Alexander Mitscherlich realised that many people who came to him for treatment were not really suffering from any identifiable illness. After long years of clinical work he realised that their illnesses were a product of their inability to mourn their past. Mitscherlich and his wife Margarete, wrote a famous book which was translated into English under the title, Principles of Collective Behaviour—the Inability to Mourn, which was based on their experiences of this time. This book, which later became a household item deals with the enormous need for human beings to mourn the social wrongs that people commit collectively as much as the people have the need to mourn in the face of personal tragedies. Social tragedies leave deep impressions in the inner self of human beings living at a certain time as do the personal tragedies in the lives of people.

Read the whole statement.

Also, see Sri Lanka: The Asian Human Rights Commission cautiously welcomes the move for the appointment of a commission for truth and reconciliation.

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