Peace without justice is incomplete. From Srilanka
J.M. Joseph Jeyaseelan CMF
If you want peace, work for justice – Pope Paul VI
Evangelization today takes the name of reconciliation – Pope Benedict XVI
In September, I was in two countries on the great continent of Africa. In these countries of East Africa, what I saw were different realities. In one country, I had the feeling that development was given priority. But on the other hand, there is respect for the rule of law. There are safeguards for the rights of civilians.
The reality of the other country was much different. One can find expressions of poverty everywhere. The roads are terrible even in the capital city. The rule of law is taken for granted. The corruption level is high. The citizens have little guarantee for the protection of their rights. Inter-tribal conflicts are rampant.
However, if there is one common yearning in the people of both countries, it is the desire for peace. In the latter, it is more. In the former’s capital, numerous schools and organizations work for and study the themes of peace, justice, healing, and reconciliation.
At present, the desire for peace is strong everywhere. However, the current havoc in Eastern Europe with the war on Ukraine makes the whole world suffer in various ways and varying degrees. In addition, there are fears that Russia might use nuclear weapons.
The desire for peace is no less in Sri Lanka. The civil war of 26 years came to an end in 2009. The guns fell silent. We stopped hearing about bombs exploding in public places or around human settlements. But, after ten years, in 2019, we heard again about bombs exploding. This time it was not as part of the civil war but due to a plot of a different kind. I was referring to the famous Easter Day tragedy in Sri Lanka in April 2019. It took away the lives of nearly 300 innocent people worshipping in churches or enjoying holidays.
Thirteen years after the civil war and three years after the Easter Day disaster, where is Sri Lanka? Has peace dawned? Has justice been served? Does truth have a place? Is reconciliation a reality?
To a large extent, the above is still an elusive dream and not a reality. A golden opportunity for reconciliation was lost forever. When the war ended in 2009, the government should have committed to working towards a united Sri Lanka within a federal framework. A program for healing past wounds, including wounded memories, should have been in place. Mechanisms to deal with questions of accountability, justice, and truth should have been established.
However, although, on the surface, it appeared that all these were being done, deeper analysis and the present state of affairs (economic and political crisis, people’s agitation and rebellion, etc.) amply show that they were not real commitments. They were primarily attempting to hoodwink the people and the international community. Some were mere election tactics used to come to power. The successive governments in post-war time have not maintained a consistent policy or program for reconciliation. There was no continuity. There were piecemeal attempts that have not led to any durable outcome. As a result, unresolved issues related to persons who disappeared during the war, justice to victims, and reconciliation and peace. The recent mass protest that ousted the democratically elected president when he had more than two years to go indicates that something is wrong with the entire system.
Four areas need attention. I treat them below in pairs.
Truth and Justice
Peace and reconciliation are not possible where justice is denied. For justice to be served, the truth about what happened must be told honestly. Of course, the whole truth, the complete truth, and the absolute truth may take years to alight. Or, it may never see the day. However, based on the available evidence, the fact can be recovered to a greater extent. But for that to happen, the government must be ready to admit its shortcomings in the conduct of the war or the investigation into the Easter Day bombing. Sadly, no government dared to take up that challenge. Hence, be it the tragedy of the war or the Easter Day tragedy, the truth about what happened is being denied despite the plethora of evidence. This means justice is denied to those affected. This situation cannot lead to healing, reconciliation, and peace.
Healing and Forgiveness
If truth and justice are denied, it will hamper healing. Without the recovery of individuals and communities suffering, reconciliation and peace cannot be realized. Healing happens when persons and communities are ready to let go of the past after knowing the truth about what happened. When there is an acknowledgment of wrongdoing and remorse on the part of the perpetrators, it aids the healing of the victims. The closure is essential for recovery. If issues related to truth and justice remain unaddressed, healing is not easy.
At the same time, victims should be ready to forgive the perpetrators, fully accepting that what has happened cannot be undone. However, forgiveness is not to be romanticized or spiritualized. Instead, the persons/communities should be helped with a systematic process to make that decision themselves.
I believe Sri Lanka remains far from truth-telling, justice-serving, healing, and forgiving. These are areas in which the church can make its voice heard. The church can use its resources and structures to work towards these ends. Some attempts have been made. But these have to be consistent, more visible, and large-scale.
John D. Brewer et al., in their book (2013), propose several modes of interventions that the Church can engage in. They very well apply to the Sri Lankan reality: truth recovery, managing the past, new forms of memory work, assisting in the social reintegration of ex-combatants, working with victims and the like, and aiding reparations.
J.M. Joseph Jeyaseelan CMF