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Without accountability there cannot be reconciliation: Is the argument correct?

by Dayan Jayatilleka

One must re-scrutinise the emphatic assertion that post-war accountability, democracy, good governance and post-conflict reconciliation are integral parts of a single package or located on a continuum. It is argued that greater democratisation and fuller accountability regarding the war are indispensable complementarities.

The argument is put forward that without accountability there will be no reconciliation, and the question is therefore raised as to what the international standards and best practices of accountability are. Opinion divides between those who advocate or support an ‘independent international inquiry’ and an independent domestic inquiry.

What if the wrong question is being asked, to wit, what are the best practices with regards to post-war accountability?

The discussion today takes place against dual frameworks, those of democracy and post conflict reconciliation. What does the overwhelming evidence show, in both these realms?

In the first place, let us examine the evidence with regard to democratisation. Even if one were to adhere to the notion of a worldwide trend towards democracy, I would remind the reader that there is no single worldwide or universal trend, there are universal trends (plural), some of which tend to cancel the other out, or combine in a fashion that modifies the outcome. Thus the ‘End of History’ meets ‘the Clash of Civilisations’, with unforeseeable results. Authentic adherence to pluralism has not only a domestic but also a global dimension; recognising that there is a plurality of global trends, such as democratisation as well as multi-polarity propelled by newly emerging powers, and the Asian resurgence.

This being said, I think the late Prof Huntington was onto something when he wrote of the Third Wave. He was referring to the great waves of democratisation, the first being in Southern Europe in the 1970s, when the long lasting dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and the ‘younger’ ones in Greece and Turkey collapsed. The second wave swept Latin America. The Third wave (or was it the fourth?) took down the Soviet bloc. I would say the fourth (or was it the third?) wave was in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia. My slight confusion is because the Philippines restored democracy in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998, with the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe and Russia ’91 falling in-between. The Arab world is experiencing the fifth wave.

Now it must be emphasised that in the overwhelming number of these democratic transitions (with the GDR case being a short-lived exception), openings or re-openings, there were no accountability hearings with regard to the conduct of the militaries of those countries. More: an amnesty, or the pledge not to rake up accountability issues, was part of a compact which underpinned democratisation and guaranteed stability and forestalled further polarisation.

So accountability probes were not part of the great waves of democratisation, and were perceived to be counterproductive to the grand bargain that underpinned the project. More starkly, democracy and accountability did not go together. It was, more often than not, a question of democracy OR accountability.

The picture is no different with regard to post conflict reconciliation. From the Spanish civil war to the Philippines and Indonesia, the post conflict reconciliation process did not involve accountability probes. These were regarded as dangerously lacerating and polarising. Here again, accountability was not understood as a precondition for reconciliation but as a potential threat, and it was often a choice of reconciliation OR accountability.

In some cases, accountability issues have been allowed to surface only after decades have passed. Chile is about to probe the death of President Salvador Allende not only almost forty years after the event but a few decades after the restoration of democracy. Bangladesh is opening an inquiry into atrocities committed by militia during its war of independence in 1971, forty years ago.

Most societies settle accounts with their violent pasts by classically cathartic means such as artistic expression and public debate. Thus, some accounts are better balanced by History and left to what the French called la longue durée, the long term -- and to future generations.

Reconciliation is more readily achieved and more rooted through a negotiated compact between all democratic stakeholders. Such a process has already been initiated in Sri Lanka.

No external claim of accountability is more important than the accountability of a government to its own citizens; its own people. That is the corollary and concomitant of popular sovereignty.

(An expanded version of remarks made at the discussion that followed a paper presented by invitation by the author, at the Workshop on Global Leadership, Yale University, USA)


I would say 'Without Justice their cannot be reconcilliation'. Justice must be done to the thousands who suffered on both sides. It cannot be ignored or held in abeyance. Killings, abductions expropriations of land and property need to be addressed and the wrongs done to victims redressed and compensated. Those guilty must be brought to justice whoever, mighty and powerful, Govt or LTTE.
It matters nought if this is done by external or internal parties. Preferably this needs to be done by the Govt of Sri Lanka and the people themselves. If not others will step in to teach us what Justice and Accountability is.

Posted by: SriLankan | April 11, 2011 09:35 PM

"Reconciliation is more readily achieved and more rooted through a negotiated compact between all democratic stakeholders. Such a process has already been initiated in Sri Lanka."

Does really a democratic stake holder or a racist autocratic stakeholder rule in Sri Lanka?

The writer of this article is trying very hard to manipulate the facts and spin doctoring the real situation for his Masters benefit who decide his fate. What a shame !

Posted by: Armen | April 12, 2011 12:20 AM

"No external claim of accountability is more important than the accountability of a government to its own citizens, its own people."

Dayan! Which is your own citizens and own people? You mean Sinhalees? No problem about that, because no-one in their right sense would believe, the Sinhalees and their Sinhala government take Tamils as their own citizens. In-fact they believe, that they OWN the Tamil citizens. If you doubt, ask Sonia Gandi, even she knows that. Sir! Are you a mad person, to think Tamils would get justice from your domestic accountability which you are talking about? Where did you deliver justice to Tamils, for the crimes committed on them, for all this past 63 years? It is laughable you want us to wait 40 years? Why? You want all the thugs to die before the justice catch-up with them? Is it not so? Dayan! What, you failed to understand is, that, if the world is seeking justice now for the crimes committed 40 years ago, it means the world become very, very civilized now than ever apart from the tribe called Sinhalees. The very simple logic.

Posted by: afool | April 12, 2011 08:03 AM

So you want no accountability for the problems in your tiny island. You people were never accountable. Never have you people treated the Tamils as equals. you people re wrote history through Mahavamsa and are falsely claiming the entire island for your selves and denying the past of the Tamils there.

How long you want this to continue?

Posted by: Mahesh | April 12, 2011 10:51 AM

In theory, Dr.Jayattileka’s write-up should have opened the eyes of those that crave for ‘accountability’ for it explained very well how other countries has progressed around it without getting tangled into it.

Posted by: Leela | April 12, 2011 01:29 PM

Your boss killed VP on the issue of accountability for whatever alleged crimes/atrocities he committed. You then fully supported your boss's action.

Can I ask you why you did not tell your boss then to go for reconciliation by overlooking VP's alleged crimes?

I put it to you that though you are an educated person, your utter racist mindset makes you a very small retarded creature.

Posted by: kc | April 12, 2011 01:39 PM

What an argument Dr Dayan?

According to this article, “War crimes were in fact committed in Sri Lanka and that the Government is against war crimes investigation only because it will adversely affect reconciliation and not because there were zero causalities or any question of sovereignty”

If this is the position then the government of Sri Landa should first profusely apologize to the Tamils for all the atrocities committed and withdraw their claim that what happened was humanitarian operation.

As a first step Sri Lanka should remove all buddhist temples constructed after the end of the war in the Northern and Eastern Provinces to celebrate their war victories and dismantle all state sponsored colonization that are daily taking place with the aim of converting the majority in those areas into a minority or to capature the resources from the local people.

Any construction of temples and colonization should only be carried out with the participation of the local people , not under military compulsion,but democratically involving the people in the decision making process.

This is applicable everywhere in Sri Lanka irrespective of race or religion or location.

As for your references to international practices, War crime inquiries or inquiries against the military regimes never took place or delayed not due to fear that such inquiries would damage reconciliation but as a trade off with the powerful military.

Such a trade off is possible even in Sri Lanka if the Government is willing to grant sufficient autonomy to the minorities and treat them actually as equals not only in words .Then democracy, good governance and reconciliation in the long run against war crime inquiries? but not to take the minorities for a ride.

That is a prospect that pleases a lot of people both locally and internationally.

The movement towards more and more democracy is a human instinct that could not be stopped by anyone.

Posted by: Sri | April 13, 2011 01:24 AM

i concur with the writer that all the countries which experienced dictatorship and when these countries made a transition to democracy it did not experience like what south africa did with truth and reconciliation commission.but any country which has dictatorship coupled with racial or ethnic discrimination has to have a comission on the lines of south african experiment becoz past not only includes denial of certain basic rights which are universal but being denied these rights becoz one is born in a certain community or ethnicity is a double whammy hence there is a clamour for accountability in srilanka.the writers intention seems to be to support sinhalese governments position that there was no human rights violation at the end of the war which is too facile an arguement to be accepted but international community should not take cognisance of it and united nations should act on the report submitted to it.lastly dayan jayatilake countries which voted in support of srilanka in may 2009 un human rights council itself is facing accusations of violation of human rights for example libya what is your opinion about it.

Posted by: jagan sriram | April 13, 2011 10:26 AM

Utter nonsense. There is a simple reason that accountability is important for reconciliation: impunity to crimes emboldens the perpetrators to continue to commit even more atrocities. Whatever happened in other countries is irrelevant. Just because some rapist-murderer escaped somewhere else doesn't mean people should or will allow your fellow murderers in Sri Lanka to go scot-free.

Ban's committe report on Sri Lanka will be released to the public soon. The US State Dept. report is there for all to see. The AI, HRW and ICG are still on the case. Don't delude yourself by thinking you can lie your way out after committing mass murders.
Justice is coming to hired propagandists like you as well.

Posted by: Expatriate | April 13, 2011 10:04 PM

It is because of the stupidly and megaphone diplomacy of the likes of this character and rajiva w. that we are in this mess.. we can't really blame the madamulana thug who may have been taken for a ride by these so called educated people.. it is time that we leave people like palihakkara who know a thing or two about diplomacy handle our foreign affairs..these people have done enough damage..the best they can do now is at least to keep their rotten mouths shut!

Posted by: Sharn | April 20, 2011 07:46 PM

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