5 1 2017

Justice in divided societies: the role of competing narratives in Sri Lanka’s transitional justice landscape

Nipunika O. Lecamwasam


This paper explores the contested nature of truth and memory in Sri Lanka’s transitional justice debate. It delves into the predominant Sinhalese and Tamil narratives that present opposing demands for justice in the aftermath of the armed conflict. It maps how Sinhalese and Tamils have come to view criminal justice and truth commissions as mutually exclusive mechanisms based on their respective understandings on the history of the ethnic conflict and ending of the armed struggle. An exploration of competing narratives is important in search for appropriate mechanisms of transitional justice in the heavily polarised Sri Lankan society. The paper argues that truth should be established objectively to the furthest possible extent by exploring a multitude of existing narratives. It concludes that addressing these competing narratives is central to any meaningful process of transitional justice in Sri Lanka. The paper also proposes a combination of mechanisms of retributive and restorative justice. It emphasises the timing factor of criminal justice: given the sensitivity of the situation, it cannot be the first mechanism to apply, but should not be delayed for too long either. Most importantly, the paper calls for a societal reckoning with its criminal past by opening up one-sided ethno-national narratives.

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