Avoid Repetition: Importance of Prevention rather than Countering Armed Conflicts


By Hon. Karu Jayasuriya, M.P.

Speaker of the Democratic Socialist

Republic of Sri Lanka

Text of the Key Note Address delivered at the Inaugural Session of International Steering Committee of the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC) co-hosted by the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) on 4 June 2018

You have all heard the simple proverb "prevention is better than cure", or in other words "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure". These are very simple words which carry a deep and powerful message. They apply to everything in life including situations of armed conflict, and I don’t think anyone needs convincing regarding the importance of preventing armed conflict, as opposed to countering armed conflict. Yet, looking around at the world today, one wonders what it is that prevents people and leaders at different levels, including some religious leaders, from comprehending this simple truth.

Two world wars don’t appear to have made us wiser. Or is it that the painful memories of not so long ago have already been forgotten? It appears to me that there is an increasing sense of inhumanity in the world today, and the fundamental lessons of respect for human equality, freedom and dignity are being disregarded. The safeguards that were put in place to prevent conflict after the two devastating world wars are being dismissed. In many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, there is open warfare. The internationally agreed laws that set limits to war in order to prevent civilians from being harmed are constantly being violated. People, including little children, are being forced to flee their cities and villages in fear; and when these helpless human beings flee, they often find fences, detention, discrimination and more violence, in place of the hope and safety that they seek. Some, sadly, may even fall prey to human traffickers. New forms of extremism keep rising up from different corners of the world. There is also violence unleashed on our environment, resulting in unprecedented levels of natural disasters, climate change and famine, which in turn results in the pain and death of human beings. The media can be a force for good, but instead seems to fuel violence without focusing on what unites us as human beings. They unfortunately tend to always paint a picture of doom and gloom and fail to say things that will make each citizen feel that he or she is equally wanted, and has a role to play in building a peaceful, reconciled, stable and prosperous nation. There are also new forms of media, that we call ‘social media’, that enables users to create and share content or participate in social networking, which is being harnessed to spread hate and mobilize people to cause harm to others, instead of good.

Sri Lanka has had its own share of conflict. Two youth insurrections and nearly three decades of violence related to separatism, have taken an unimaginable and inexplicable toll on our nation’s post-independent development and progress. Unfortunately, we failed to seize the moment immediately following the end of the conflict in May 2009, to work on introspection and healing based on consultative approaches inclusive of all victims. The approaches followed were often ‘top-down’ initiatives, with the Government of the day taking decisions that it thought were best for the security forces, the families of missing security forces personnel, the families of missing civilians, the injured, the war widows and others. There was resistance to consult; there was resistance to learn from the examples of others; and there was resistance to obtain assistance from international organizations and experts. The appointment of boards and commissions of an ad hoc nature, which was done throughout our tormented post-independent history of 70 years, to deal with the Southern insurrections as well as issues relating to the North and the East, failed to address real issues of concern of the people, and find solutions that would sustain peace.

Consultative ‘bottom-up’ processes which also involve required changes to the constitution; establishment of permanent, empowered independent institutions; law reform; adopting good governance practices; and the nurturing of a society that respects individual rights, and acknowledges and appreciates the importance of resolving problems through means other than conflict – that is, through consensual approaches and democratic means, in a spirit of tolerance, accommodation and compromise – are essential to ensure prevention and non-recurrence of conflict. Following the January 2015 Presidential Election, the National Unity Government has indeed taken a victim-centric, consultative and ‘bottom-up’ approach to reconciliation and healing, with the clear objective of ensuring non-recurrence of conflict. Yet, the challenges to the processes that have been initiated are numerous. In dwelling on the problems that Sri Lanka faces as a conflict scarred nation that is determined to work on ensuring non-recurrence, and the problems and challenges that other countries, communities and societies face, what often comes to mind are the words in the UNESCO Charter - "since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defences of peace must be constructed; ignorance of each other’s ways and lives has been a common cause, throughout the history of mankind, of that suspicion and mistrust between the peoples of the world through which their differences have all too often broken into war; the war which has now ended was a war made possible by the denial of the democratic principles of dignity, equality and mutual respect of men, and by the propagation, in their place, through ignorance and prejudice, of the doctrine of the inequality of men and races; the wide diffusion of culture, and the education of humanity for justice and liberty and peace are indispensable to the dignity of man and constitute a sacred duty which all the nations must fulfil in a spirit of mutual assistance and concern; that a peace based exclusively upon the political and economic arrangements of governments would not be a peace which could secure the unanimous, lasting and sincere support of the peoples of the world, and that the peace must therefore be founded, if it is not to fail, upon the intellectual and moral solidarity of mankind."

Human beings are intelligent. We are capable of using our intelligence to create problems, and we are equally capable of finding meaningful solutions to problems. We are capable of causing misery. But we are equally capable of compassion and healing. This capacity was amply demonstrated by Gautama Buddha as far back as over 2600 years ago when he explained ways for human beings to heal themselves, their surroundings, and each other. What is important is for individuals to commit and resolve to use their intelligence in constructive ways. The words in the Charter of UNESCO, the words in all our religious texts – all these commit to the same goal, and help us, if we are sincere, to find ways to imbibe in our children, and in our people, the values of equality, respect, tolerance, empathy, personal integrity and appreciation for what unites us as human beings.

Parents, teachers, the media, religious leaders, business leaders, trade unionists, community leaders, politicians, and each and every individual human being have a role to play in ensuring the prevention of conflict at a micro and macro level. It is not something a Government alone can do at national level, through ‘top-down’ approaches, regulations, orders, strictures and censorship. The key is to take individual ownership. To seek ways to ensure that each human being is driven by his or her conscience to care for others, to be concerned about others, to respect others and treat each and every one with dignity, and share a vision of a better class room, a better school, a better community, a better work place, a nation, and a better world where every human being is considered equal, where development is sustainable and inclusive; and the rule of law is impartial. It is necessary to resolve problems as individuals, as communities, and as nations, to find solutions through dialogue, cooperation, mutual appreciation, and respect for the rule of law. Even after long years of conflict, Sri Lanka is still looking for answers. Where everyone in the country, irrespective of race, religion and language, has suffered, some in our country still refuse to look at what unites us as human beings and to resolve to rise up and work together for our common good.

As cultures and peoples in the world are now brought closer together in physical terms through technological advancements, air travel and trade, we must face the challenge of accepting diversity as an inevitable reality, and focus on what unites us, including the need to care for our planet which is our common and only home. It is necessary that international organizations must look for ideas, methods and tools that schools, communities, States, media organizations, as well as individual citizens, can use to identify and respond to warning signs as a way to pre-empt the eruption of violence. Learning from each other, and sharing the best practices can be important in this regard.

At an international level, and even at a national level, it is often still only after violence erupts that one steps in, reacts, and intervenes. In the means used to prevent further escalation of a violent situation, it is possible that violations of human rights can occur, leading to even greater cycles of violence as communities may feel targeted, victimized and aggrieved. Prevention therefore, must always hold a level of importance and priority that is equal to resolving current conflicts and rebuilding post-conflict states. An organization like the Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict (GPPAC), which brings together civil society organizations from across the world, and who organized this event along with the Regional Center for Strategic Studies (RCSS), is crucial in this task.

Now more than ever, in an era of social media, citizens have a far greater role than before in everything, including influencing the decision-making processes with regard to the use of force or otherwise by governments, in responding and reacting to conflict, and in inciting or quelling hatred and intolerance. In an era of social media, where mobilization of the citizenry is possible within a matter of minutes, and the tools to enlighten and inform the masses lie at one’s fingertips, it is imperative that we use these innovations for the betterment of our societies, to ease tensions and build trust across all sections of society. These new communication tools can be a source for dialogue, for outreach beyond our communities, and a tool for healing deep-rooted mistrust and misconceptions. Civil society has an important role to play in these endeavours.

Despite Sri Lanka’s violent post-independence history, there are many reasons to be optimistic for its future. It is important that the country looks to the future with optimism. Without optimism, without hope, without focusing on the positive, we cannot dream or envision ways and means of charting our way forward to build the peaceful, reconciled, stable and prosperous nation that all our citizens deserve and yearn for. We have challenges to overcome, and we have wounds to heal, but, I have faith that we are finally on the right path.

The current administration under the leadership of President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are committed to strengthening our democratic institutions. In fact, just last week, Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission was once again re-accredited with ‘A’ status by the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutes. This is an important achievement for the Commission, as well as the Government, our people, and our nation. The political space that has opened up presents us with an opportunity to address concerns and issues in a non-violent and responsible manner. The JVP, which was the protagonist in the uprisings of 1971 and 1987, is now very much a part of the political mainstream. In fact, they have often acted as custodians of democratic values and institutions and watchdogs against corruption. The JVP, even while still a minor party represented in Parliament, has been at the forefront of delivering national reforms that have strengthened our democracy through their support for the 17th and 19th amendments to the constitution. I believe the JVP stands as resounding proof of the transformative power of individuals and organizations when an opportunity is granted for this kind of change and reform.

The constitutional reform process that is currently underway, which is a ‘bottom-up’, all-inclusive process, aspires to address the problems of the minorities, ensure the equitable and just sharing of power and resources among all people of Sri Lanka, and address discriminatory provisions in the existing constitution. It is hoped that a new constitution will address social inequalities and deliver on a promise of social justice. The Tamil National Alliance, the main Opposition Party in Parliament is an active participant in these processes. The country has thus come a long way since the end of the conflict, and representatives of all communities are active stakeholders in shaping Sri Lanka’s future. The current Parliament has also enacted several important pieces of legislation including on the Right to Information, Witness and Victim Protection, Criminalizing Enforced Disappearance, and the establishment of a permanent Office on Missing Persons.

Despite the frequent bellowing of a few loud voices raised in hate and intolerance, both within the country and beyond its shores, the voices of moderation, restraint, compassion, empathy and tolerance have not been silenced. The power of these voices of reason and moderation was witnessed during the recent unfortunate incidents of violence in Kandy. When certain extremist elements attempted to orchestrate violence against our Muslim brothers and sisters, it was these voices of reason that prevailed over the screams of hatred. Possible escalation of violence was averted by the timely intervention of the clergy, community leaders, and members of the civil society. Even in moments of despair such as this, it was apparent that Sri Lankans had indeed learnt bitter lessons from the past and would do everything possible to avoid repetition.

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