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What South Africa can do to help with reconciliation in Sri Lanka

‘Comparison of Sri Lanka’s LLRC with South Africa’s TRC is, frankly, an insult’

by Louise Arbour

As South Africa knows better than most, a country cannot begin to overcome decades of internal conflict without a sustained effort at revealing the truth of the past and a committed push for reconciliation. If only Sri Lanka could learn that lesson.

It has been more than two years since the Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), in a war whose final months saw both the Sinhalese-majority government and the rebels contribute to the massive loss of Tamil civilian lives.

Rather than starting on the slow, painful path towards a more democratic and equal society, however, the post-war policies of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his powerful brothers have further undermined the country’s damaged political institutions and deepened the ethnic divide.

Progress toward reconciliation was always going to be difficult. Decades of political violence and civil war have polarised Sri Lanka’s ethnic communities and politicised institutions, particularly those involved in law and order. Conflicts have left hundreds of thousands dead, injured or displaced and entrenched fears and misunderstandings in each community.

Louise Arbour

Instead of addressing these challenges, the government has increasingly cut minorities out of decisions on their economic and political futures, clinging to its claim that the war was about “terrorism” and not an ethnic conflict. It has controlled narratives both within and outside the country, reacting furiously to any challenge to the official version.

The unwillingness of much of the million-strong Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora to recognise the brutality of the LTTE and its share of responsibility for a largely broken Tamil society has only strengthened the government’s hand.

The Rajapaksas tell a different story, claiming to be pursuing reconciliation and accountability, in part through the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) set up by the president over a year ago. But this process is deeply flawed, as a UN panel of experts, including South Africa’s own Yasmin Sooka recently determined. Indeed the panel’s report specifically addressed the government’s claim that it had drawn on South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), finding that the LLRC falls far short of that important precedent.

But even if the LLRC did have more in common with South Africa’s commission, its potential to contribute to reconciliation would still be minimal. As Sri Lanka’s long history of failed and ignored presidential inquiries demonstrates, these mechanisms are ultimately powerless. The country’s post-war course will not change unless the Rajapaksas decide it has to. So far, they have shown no interest in doing anything that would diverge from the Sinhalese nationalist vision they have embraced fully, as both means to stay in power and end in itself.

Instead, they continue to repress the media and political opponents, while manipulating elections and silencing civil society. Constitutional reforms strong-armed through parliament in 2010 have removed presidential term limits and solidified the president’s power over the attorney general, judiciary and various “independent” commissions.

Northern areas once ruled by the LTTE are now dominated by the military, which has taken over civil administration and controls all aspects of daily life.

The government has also defiantly rejected the growing body of evidence supporting allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity by both sides in the final stages of the war, including the UN panel’s report and a recent television documentary “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, first aired by the UK’s Channel 4 on June 14, but since shown internationally and online. Sri Lankan officials continue to deny that government forces did anything wrong, but as more and more evidence emerges, their attempts to white wash the crimes are looking ever more absurd.

The frustration engendered by the government’s refusal to take any responsibility for alleged crimes, combined with the rest of its post-war agenda, are increasing the risks of renewed violence.

The international community should push for a fundamental change of course.

South Africa can play an important role in this process. It can use its influence with other emerging powers and members of the non-aligned movement to advance the recommendations in the UN panel report, including their call for an international investigation into alleged atrocities by both sides. It should encourage other governments to reject Sri Lanka’s attempt to dismiss any international scrutiny of its war-time and post-war policies as a neo-colonialist assault on its sovereignty.

If the government would stick to its promises to ensure accountability and devolve power to the traditionally Tamil-speaking north and east, such scrutiny would disappear.

Finally, South Africa should resist the government’s attempts to gain undeserved legitimacy by comparing the LLRC with South Africa’s TRC. Such a comparison is, frankly, an insult. Sri Lanka desperately needs a fair accounting of its violent history to avoid repeating it. The Sri Lankan people should not have to settle for anything less. (courtesy: ICG)

Louise Arbour is president of the International Crisis Group – This article first appeared in The Sunday Times, Johannesburg


  1. Bruno Umbato says:

    This south African (Head of ICC, former UN High Commissioner of Human Rights) insults Sri Lankan goverment by Refering it as “SINHALESE-MAJORITY GOVERNMENT” … What does he thinks it should be? …  “africanos majority” or “Tamil majority” …
    Doesn’t Louise Arbor know that 75% of srilankans are sinhalese and obviously majority of the government has to be Sinhalese ?
    Does Louise Arbor think that like old south afriaca where majority blacks were governed by minority white, SRI LANKA SHOULD be governed by minority Tamils?
    This ICC President here after should use when referring to governments like MAJORITY-CHINESE GOVETMMENT, MAJORITY-GERMAN GOVERNMENT, MAJORITY-BLACK SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT ….
     It is ashamed that people like Louise occupy a top post of ICC GROUP .. One of her infamous agenda is to ridicule and paint a very bleak picture of SRI LANKA while promoting separatism in SL. Louise Arbor promoted them through UN when she was UN high commissioner of human rights .. Now, she is promoting it through ICC as it’s president … World must be watchful about these do-gooders as they take all these respectable institutions to promote their private agendas … 

  2. Kalu Albert says:

    After apologizing to each other ,the White man still reign supreme.

    Blonde haired whites and the ANC heavies travel the Super highways in their Beemers and Mercs, while the poor Blacks hitch a ride in the back of Tip Trucks packed wall to wall even with standing room only.

    I am yet to see Tamils even in the North as bad as what I have seen in Jo’berg.South Africa.

    With in two years, major Infrastructure projects are in progress in the North and the East which had been destroyed by the LTTE Terrorists.

    Economy in the North is growing at 20 percent which is more than twice the national average.

    How many major Infrastructure projects have been built in the Bantustans?.

    What is the per capital income of Soweto residents?.

    Tamils in the South are enjoying life without security checks and road blocks.

    Tamil Businesses are booming in the South , even in the deep South.

    The ex LTTE political wing the TNA has scored a resounding victory in the recent Local Councilm Elections.

    If the TNA , with their new found ego doesn’t put the spanner in the works , North residents will have their past glory restored in quick time.

    It is adviisable for MS Arbour to pay visit to see herself how the people are thriving in their new peaceful environment, before advising them to follow South Africa.

  3. nandimithra says:

    Madam Arbour,

    The biggest CISIS faced by the world today is the financial crisis caused primarily by the USA. YOUR job should be to deal with issues such as these.


    In chosing issues to moan about, is it always down to who pays you the most ?

  4. srinath.gunaratne says:

    Thank you madam, Thank you Thank you Thank you. We Sri Lankans are dumb idiots and your wisdom really enlighten us. We will do what you asks us to do.

    I am moved by your concern for uncivilised us and how your insight the depth of knowledge you have on the ethnic issue in SL. Why did not we have you telling us what to do when our LTTE brothers explode bombs in every corner of SL, Chopping and machetting infants in villages.

    Please come and contest the next presidential election.

    Thank you very much again.

  5. srinath.gunaratne@ says:


    Now that you have confessed to all the discriminations you subjeted black people. Now you must be feeling wonderfully. no guilt, no remorse. How wonderfull this reconciliation!

    This thing I heard, somewhere else, that when you believe and confess, You go to heaven, I guess all South Africans must be in heaven now. Are you? So no regrets anymore for subjecting blacks to inhumane treatments?

  6. Samuel says:

    It is a fair comparison.
    Louise Arbour visited sri lanka earler as a UN official.
    Thousands of tamils who wished to meet her and hand over a written memorandom were beaten back by the army, while she watched.
    The present lankan Military Regime suppresses all dissent and oppresses the tamils.
    This “development” of the north is mere eyewash.
    What tamils need is to live as Free and Equal citizens – LIKE the whites AND blacks of South Africa.
    This is being denied.

  7. Chaminda Tilakumara says:

    I think this truth & reconciliation commission could be best deployed in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan & Guantanomo Bay.

  8. M FERN says:

    “Finally, South Africa should resist the government’s attempts to gain undeserved legitimacy by comparing the LLRC with South Africa’s TRC. Such a comparison is, frankly, an insult.”

    The above statement itself speaks volume on the credibility of the SL Govt in the international arena – Let alone its denials on war crimes committed and promises on devolving power / treating Tamils equally in SL.

  9. Kalu Albert says:

    The recent horrible events. such as the Right Wing Terrorism in Norway,The suicide attack in Tikirit, Iraq.the failing invasion of a sovereign Nation in Libya and the latest assassination of the leader of this foreign engineered and supported Invasion and finally the recent triumph of the Political Wing of the LTTE, the TNA have important and critical relevance to the post LTTE Nation of Srilanka.

    Great Britain openly supported, and hosted the architect of the LTTE and allowed the Terrorists to kill many many more civilians than the lives lost in Norway.

    This UK supported killing spree engulfed Srilanka for 25 years until the shit hit the fan in the host nation’s own bacyard, in the form of suicide attacks in the Metro.

    Norway took the cue from the English and continued to support and protect the LTTE sinc. and made desperate attempts, even at the last minute to save the LTTE chief,,with the support of the British Foreign Sec Mr Milliband.

    Now the Norwayian society have suffered a terrible loss by a Terrorist or Terrorists, the same way ,the poor Srilankans, especially the rural Sinhala people suffered for 30 years.

    People like MS Arbour and her ex boss Mr Bun Ki Moon have now engaged in a crusade’to destabilize Srilanka at the behest of the West led by the British, Norway and the US to a certain extent.

    Destabilizing Srilanka is the only opportunity they have to engineer an invasion to deliver “mini Eelaam. as most Diaspora are betting that will happen.

    And these Diaspora elements, some of whom were and are directly involved in collecting money for arms and explosives and even took part in Terror activities in Srilanka are given Norwegian residency .

    US killed 226 thousand civilians and lost 6000 Soldiers to liberate Iraq and fight the Taliban.

    The suicide bomb in Tikirit makes one wonder whether the US strategy has delivered Terror free , peaceful and harmonious society to the Iraqi people.

    Libyan patriots have delivered a decisive blow to the Invaders by killing the ex Army Commande, who betrayed his people who are living peacefully with no financial debts. good housing , full employment and myriad of other essentials, the Govt provides at no cost. and people inother poor countries long for.

    Finally the TNA victory has delivered the best message of all to the people who plan to destabilize the post LTTE peaceful enviroment in Srilanka.

    That is the potential collaborators in the opposition. the UNP has been annihilated by two to one.

    The JVP has been deleated to the dust bin.

    A great majority of Srilankans have realized that the current Western manouvers are nothing but plans to please the Diaspora and allow them to carve out a separate nation in the North.

    The majority of Srilakans have also realized that the only possibility of the west succeeding in an invasion is if the opposition gain some ground. and align with the anti Govt TNA for their own benefit.

    MS Arbour and the likes who are working overtime to set the ground work for invasions must take note of these developments.

    The great majority of Srilankans only need a peaceful and harmonious environment where they can give their kids a fair chance.

    This great majority understand that there is no need and there is nothing to learn from South Africa because , Souh Africa now or before has no relevance to Srilanka.

  10. Leela says:

    If I am to quote one of the quotes of Desmond Tutu, the man in charge of TRC; ‘in the land of my birth I cannot vote, whereas a young person of eighteen can vote. And why? Because he or she possesses that wonderful biological attribute – a white skin.’ Needless to say that is apartheid.

    When the Government of South Africa set up the TRC, its main aim was to help deal with what happened under apartheid. TRC had pondered and addressed how to get out of apartheid in South Africa.

    Now, what relates it here is; did we ever have apartheid or sort of a situation that Tutu had described above in Sri Lanka. Obviously not.

    Indeed, Tamils were the favourites of the British Raj who ruled Sri Lanka for almost 135 years. During all that time, they and their allies, Christian missionaries had setup best schools in Tamil areas to teach them English, the language of the government of the British Raj. And they gave Tamils 90% of all top government jobs in Sri Lanka. The language of 75% of people, Sinhalese had been set aside. Sinhalese had to be content with minor jobs. And that situation continued for 150 years until late 1950s. If that is so, any rational man would say, all governments before 1956 had effected apartheid against Sinhalese.

    And Sinhalese voted to change the government in 1956 to claim their quota of jobs and the rightful place for their language. I do not doubt for a moment that Tamil intelligencia and Louise Arbour and co. doesn’t know the brief account that I described above.

    I say, the rightful place acquired by Sinhalese is what Tamils mistook as discrimination against them and Louise Arbour misquoted as apartheid against Tamils. As Kalu Albert says, TRC type of inquiry or Tutus’s know-how doesn’t fit Sri Lanka. If one read the Bible, he could learn everything that the theologist Desmond Tutu knows.

  11. Bharath says:

    Make make no mistakes ya

    There should be and will be impartial investigations for the crimes committed against humanity. 50000 Hindus were killed

    Lankan soldiers make Hitler or Musolini saints

    Litte Lanka is in the international radar now

    Ravanas can run but can not hide

    UN can not exist without punishing criminals

    All war criminals will be killed or arrested by Internaltional Troops sooner than later even 3rd World war start

  12. Banda says:


    Can you please be more specific?
    What rights do the Tamils in Sri Lanka not have that are enjoyed by everyone else?
    In what way are “rights” of the Tamils in Sri Lanka being denied?

    What particular “rights” are you referring to?

    Your answers to these questions will be eagerly awaited.

  13. Banda says:


    Your comparison of Sri Lanka soldiers with Hitler and Mussolini makes you look very dumb and foolish.
    More to the point. What about the war crimes committed by the LTTE over 25 years? What sort of criminals were they? How many innocent people did they kill? Didn’t their lives matter? Or do only Hindu lives matter?
    Should not the UN and Western countries, who harboured these terrorists and war financiers also be brought to justice?
    Better get used to the fact that terrorism in Sri Lanka will not be allowed to raise its head whether by the LTTE or the JVP or anyone else.
    And wait and see how those who aided and financed the LTTE effort will be caught and tried. Be they in the US Canada or Australia or Britain.

  14. shaday padotan says:

    i have been part of the struggle since i was 7 i am a south african tamil, and as a south african person i can not accept what is happing in sri lanka. Thing have 2 change and the world has to open its eyes. Its a human rights problem. We are so quick 2 stand up for the people in the middle east, so why not for the people of sri lanka

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