Rights and Development

Seen and not heard: Women in Sri Lanka’s reconciliation commission

Open Democracy & 50.50 Inclusive Democracy  ,  also carried by the International Centre for Transitional Justice website, and Salem News, 24 Nov 2011 

If and when Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) releases its report later this month, as scheduled, it will do so amid wide scepticism on many critical fronts – except, it seems, for one. The credibility, independence and the ethnic balance of the post-war commission have been well-challenged internationally, since it was established by the President last year to ostensibly help reconcile the nation.  But for the war’s tens of thousands of female survivors there has been little space and little said, by either the commission or its critics. The LLRC’s weaknesses in this area deserve greater attention. They also add significantly to the impression of an instrument trailing far behind modern truth and reconciliation efforts elsewhere.
Falling short of international standards
Many governments in countries recovering from conflict are taking steps to better include women in post-conflict processes, whether through peacekeeping strategies, reparations programmes or truth commissions. They do so to better secure lasting peace and stability - and to improve their image at home and abroad. New expectations have been set by international developments such as UN Security Council Resolutions 1325 and 1889 on women, peace and security, and advances in international criminal law. These were bolstered by sustained women’s rights campaigning, and underscored by states’ legal commitment to equality. Under non-discrimination provisions, States must now show that they have strategies in place that will overcome the underrepresentation of women, and redistribute resources and power equally, and in the last decade or so experts have helpfully applied these to transitional mechanisms. In the mid-nineties and early 2000s for example, South Africa and Peru’s Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (TRCs) were able to uncover the shocking scale of crimes against women during apartheid and internal conflict respectively, and then respond with gender-specific reparations and reforms. A few years later, commissions in Sierra Leone and East Timor built strongly on these improvements by broadly consulting women in their design and procedures, with mandates that explicitly took the gender of victims into account.

These steps and others show a growing acknowledgement that women’s concerns, needs and abilities have historically been a low state priority, and that they face greater barriers in accessing state machinery. They recognise that women generally experience conflict and displacement differently to men and that, in outnumbering them as survivors, they have greater post-war roles and responsibilities, and differing needs. And they show an improved understanding of the ways that truth commissions and commissions of inquiry (CoIs) have long worked from a male standpoint, excluding women from an instrument meant to shape a state’s future priorities and practices, and producing, as noted by the ICTJ’s Vasuki Nesiah, a ‘narrow and partial truth’. 1
A voiceless majority
In Sri Lanka, large numbers of mostly-Tamil minority women in the North and East are bearing the brunt of the post-conflict period. Displaced, widowed, injured and traumatized, many are primary carers for other maimed and traumatized persons in environments where resources are scarce and security concerns are extremely high. The military has replaced most civil administrative systems in the North and East, and reports on the increase of sexual assault throughout high-security zones are also citing a rise in prostitution, trafficking and STDs, since vulnerable minority women must now deal with male Sinhalese soldiers as part of their daily routines.2Compounding their disadvantage is an administration perceived as having little interest in addressing legitimate minority grievances, sex equality or crimes against women, and which has presided over a widening gender gap.3 And added to this is the disabling effect of often stricter Tamil traditions and stigmas, which tightened during the war. These women therefore have specific needs, concerns and grievances that any post-conflict initiative will only be able to address, effectively and legally, with strong positive measures.

So it is critical to ask what the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) has done to ensure that the LLRC has served Sri Lanka’s women; particularly those from its beleaguered minorities. Floods of women may have clamoured to access the LLRC – as they did for a series of previous, similarly flawed Sri Lankan processes. But have they been able to effectively use them on a par with men?  There is not the space to consider this in detail here: but it is possible to look briefly at what has notbeen done.
Lessons ignored 
Similar commissions in East Timor, Sierra Leone and Peru, offer positive, recent examples. Between them they have: developed the use of outreach workshops that prepare and manage the expectations of female testifiers; employed staff with expertise in gender, and sensitive forms of statement-taking (to  encourage the sharing of sexual or gender-specific violence);  sent information through channels that women are more likely to understand; and have provided basic support, like food and transport costs, since many women work in the informal sector and are less likely to be compensated for missed hours. They held public and private thematic sessions for women’s testimony of their experiences, expectations and needs, and programmes to address community stigmas for female breadwinners, or victims of sexual abuse. These features, among others, have allowed for some rehabilitation on both individual and social levels, among men and women.

The LLRC (and predecessor processes in Sri Lanka) can boast few if any of these features. Instead it has been criticised for demonstrating a bias to (male) seniority and for spectacularly failing to address the emotional needs of victims, or ensure their physical security. Women have been chastised and disregarded for crying while testifying, received little help in negotiating the system, have been told to write their submissions rather than speak them - on forms only in Sinhalese and English, and have in various ways have been left profoundly frustrated, stigmatised and intimidated.4

Yet sex discrimination runs deeper than a commission’s operation.

Open Democracy & 50.50 Inclusive Democracy ,  also carried by the International Centre for Transitional Justice website, and Salem News, 24 Nov 2011

If and when Sri Lanka’s Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) releases its report later this month, as scheduled, it will do so amid wide scepticism on many critical fronts – except, it seems, for one. The credibility, independence and the ethnic balance of the post-war commission have been well-challenged internationally, since it was established by the President last year to ostensibly help reconcile the nation.  But for the war’s tens of thousands of female survivors there has been little space and little said, by either the commission or its critics. The LLRC’s weaknesses in this area deserve greater attention. They also add significantly to the impression of an instrument trailing far behind modern truth and reconciliation efforts elsewhere.
Falling short of international standards
Many governments in…

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Update: Gender analysis of Sri Lanka’s LLRC published by local and international media, and cited in political report

Groundviews and various, Nov 2011. A renowned Sri Lankan site for independent journalism has published an abridged version of my legal study on the exclusion of Tamil women from the country’s flawed Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in ‘Long Reads’. The section publishes long-form journalism found in publications such as Foreign Policy and the New York Times . This article was later cited and quoted by the Tamil National Alliance, in its critique of the LLRC report  , and featured elsewhere, including the media site of the LLRC itself, and War Crimes Prosecution Watch. The shorter Op-Ed, written for Open Democracy , was carried by various international news sites and blogs, including the site of the International Center for Transitional Justice (ICTJ).

The power and promise of national exercises like the LLRC lies in the way that they can access the voices of those who have not traditionally been heard, and use them to build a more  inclusive collective memory….

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Update: Presenting ‘Defamation of Religions’ research at the UN HRCouncil

I joined NGO and OHCHR staff to present research at the panel,

I joined NGO and OHCHR staff to present research at the panel, ‘Evolution of the recent debate on defamation of religions‘, on behalf of the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), and the SOAS Human Rights Clinic, during the 16th UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva.  The study (available here in full, co-written with Julia Alfandari and Regula Atteya) charts the development of discourse on religious defamation at the United Nations, and analyses blasphemy cases in Pakistan, Syria and Algeria using the international human rights legal framework.  It has been published by the Social Science Research Network , and was well used by NGOs and delegates at the Session in the lead up to a groundbreaking draft resolution that better preserved the right to free expression. The resolution was pronounced a ‘landmark’ by then-US Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton.

Other panelists included the Director of the Human Rights Treaties Division at the Office of the UN High Commissioner…

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