Community Mediated Justice in Post-War Sri Lanka
May 25, 2016
Seven years after a bloody, 26-year civil war ended, the Northern Province of Sri Lanka is still limping back to peaceful living. Issues related to security, housing, and livelihoods are rife, and negotiations over transitional justice mechanisms cloud the peace-longing landscape of the region.
Yet, amid these more publicized issues, the people of the Northern Province are getting back to some degree of normalcy – plowing fields, educating their children, and socializing. With this, more mundane, community level disputes, long ignored given the more life-threatening realities of war, are surfacing once again. However, in such a sensitive post-war environment after decades of not being able to trust anyone, identifying trusted options for resolving such disputes is difficult.
Recently, communities in the North are turning to an alternate dispute mechanism — known as community mediation boards – as a way to resolve inter-personal disputes. In 2008, at the height of the war and as areas of the Northern Province were being liberated, The Government of Sri Lanka moved quickly to set up the first six community mediation boards in the Northern Province. During this time, access and travel to the war-torn area was extremely difficult.
The Asia Foundation played a critical role in providing much-needed assistance, both logistical and financial, to enable members of the Mediation Boards Commission to travel to the North to interview and select mediators. As in other parts of the country, mediators for the Northern Province were selected from within the community, appointed through an established selection process, then subsequently provided with the required technical training to practice interest-based mediation. This type of mediation involves a process by which a neutral third party facilitates the amicable resolution of a dispute, helping disputing parties through specialized skills and techniques to discuss, negotiate and come to their own resolution. Anecdotal information provided by mediators and from members of the community at the time revealed that, even the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) which fought a 30-year war with the government of Sri Lanka, were supportive of the mediation boards as they were seen as a mechanism by the people, for the people, and therefore non-threatening despite its government affiliations.
When the war ended in May, 2009 the Ministry of Justice started expanding mediation boards to cover the entire Northern Province with the aim of establishing one board in every Divisional Secretariat Division (DSD), similar to other parts of the country. By the end of 2011, the Government of Sri Lanka had successfully established mediation boards covering all 33 DSDs in the five districts in the Northern Province. In 2015, these boards attracted 11,200 disputes (about 6% of disputes overall), and recorded a settlement rate of 60 percent, compared to the national settlement rate of 52 percent.
Recent analysis on access to justice has shown a marked interest in understanding the role that hybrid or informal justice systems play in other developing or conflict-affected countries similar to Sri Lanka. Interested in moving beyond support to establish mediation boards and training mediators, the Foundation undertook a new study in partnership with a leading research agency in Sri Lanka, the Centre for Poverty Analysis, launched in March 2016, on the nature of justice provided by these boards to the war-affected people of the Northern Province.
The study provides in-depth insights via interviews with disputants into this hybrid system of mediation in the Northern Province. Now, almost seven years after the end of the war, despite well-established formal institutions, the study suggests that people of the Northern Province prefer mediation boards for resolving disputes. Interviewees said that the informal and supportive space within mediation boards provide opportunities to speak freely and talk about things that superficially seem irrelevant to the dispute and yet are intrinsic to root causes.
People also said they value mediation boards because they offer an alternate means of justice without the costs, which are prohibitive to most people in the Northern Province, and the rigid structure of the formal courts. Speedy redressal for disputes is also valued by disputants, especially in complex disputes over land that can take decades in formal courts. As one disputed said: “We’ve had a land issue in the formal courts for the past 30 years. This case was filed when I was small. But when we took it to the mediation board, they were able to solve the issue within a few sittings.”
Most importantly, we learned that people value mediation boards simply as a space to talk and be heard by people who speak Tamil, and understand their experiences and the context in which they live.
One of the study’s most valuable findings is that women prefer mediation to the formal courts system due to its welcoming process and lack of rigid formality. Women also support women mediators to be present when they share their problems with the boards.
During the coming year, The Asia Foundation plans to replicate this study in other parts of the country, including the war-affected Eastern Province where Sinhalese, Muslim, and Tamil communities reside, and in the poverty stricken rural Uva province where a majority Sinhala population live amid depressed minority Tamil communities. These studies will provide a unique point of reference to better understand the justice needs of the Sri Lankan population and develop a more nuanced understanding of people’s faith in the systems of justice accessible to them to resolve community disputes in Sri Lanka.
Dinesha de Silva is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Sri Lanka, Ramani Jayasundere is a senior technical advisor, and Rimash Rahman is a program officer there. De Silva can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funder.
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