In a joint statement released today, a coalition of civil society organizations in Sri Lanka has expressed reservations about the proposed Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) bill, urging the government to allow more time for thorough discussion and dialogue before its passage into law.
The ONUR bill aims to establish an institution dedicated to ensuring equal opportunities for every citizen in the economic, social, cultural, and political spheres. Additionally, the new body is designed to safeguard identity and foster an inclusive society where diversity is respected, and all communities coexist in harmony.
However, the signatories of the joint statement argue that the potential importance of the ONUR bill has been underestimated, with little effort made by the government, policymakers, and drafters to engage in public discussion or educate the general public about its necessity.
The concerns raised by the signatories revolve around three main points:
Composition of the ONUR Board: The statement emphasizes the importance of a multi-partisan approach to appointments on the ONUR Board, ensuring representation from diverse ethnic, religious, and socio-cultural groups. Concerns are raised over the Minister’s power to recommend appointments without a clear time limit for the chairperson.
Role in Reconciliation Process: The signatories propose that the ONUR Board should include ex-officio representatives from various reconciliation mechanisms, such as the Office of Missing Persons, Office of Reparations, NGO Secretariat, and the soon-to-be-established Truth, Unity, and Reconciliation Commission. This, they argue, would foster a common vision and ensure coordination among these institutions.
Prescriptive Role on Civil Society: The statement expresses concern over the ONUR’s authority to guide and facilitate peace and reconciliation programs conducted by local organizations, including community-based ones. The signatories stress the need for clear language in the law to prevent government interference in civil society activities.
The joint statement concludes by highlighting the voluntary nature of the national reconciliation process, emphasizing the need for engagement with opposition parties, especially those representing minority communities, and civil society before the bill’s passage. The organizations call for a multi-partisan consensus that encompasses pluralistic values to ensure a genuine reconciliation process for national unity.
Notable signatories include Ihsaan A. Hameed, National President of the All Ceylon YMMA Conference, Dr. Jehan Perera, Executive Director of the National Peace Council, and Visaka Dharmadasa, Chairperson of the Association of War Affected Women.