The facts behind consultation | Daily News


The facts behind consultation

Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera addressing the General Debate of the 30th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on September 14, 2015.

In his speech before the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) on the 14th of September last year, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera announced that the Sri Lankan Government was to set up four mechanisms to ensure genuine and sustainable reconciliation, relating to missing persons, reparations, accountability and truth and reconciliation. He noted that the implementation of such mechanisms would be critical in 'winning the peace' and preventing violence from recurring.

One notable feature of his announcement was the fact that public consultations would precede the design of these mechanisms. Indeed, in other fora it was noted that the structuring of the Truth Commission, Special Court and Office of Reparations would occur only after the consultation process is complete.

This promise marks a welcome break from the past. Over the years, victims and the public have languished in a culture where their concerns and issues were not only ignored but where the state would paternalistically decide what their needs were and what solutions would solve those needs. Therefore, the state listening to the public and seeking their views is important. There is no doubt that as a result these mechanisms will be better able to pave the way for reconciliation, but will also address Sri Lanka's culture of impunity, entrench good governance and uphold the rule of law than without the collective input of victims, experts and all other stakeholders.

What are public consultations?

Public consultation is a widely tool used in all areas of policy-making to improve the transparency, efficiency and effectiveness of any proposed policy, regulation or legislation. To this end, there are three related forms of interaction with the public and they often act as a compliment to each other.

(a) Notification generally involves the communication of government decisions to the public. It is a one-way process of communication in which the public plays a passive consumer role of government information. Notification does not itself constitute consultation, but can be a first step.

(b) Participation is the active involvement of interest groups in creating policy and regulatory objectives. Participation is usually meant to facilitate implementation and improve compliance, consensus, and support. Stakeholders are offered a role in the development, implementation and/or enforcement of policy.

(c) Consultation is a process where matters of pertinence and/or interest are discussed within and across a range of stakeholder groups. The objective of a consultation is to seek information, advice and opinion. In any consultative process, the convener is not only gathering input but shares information as well. The organizer thus strives to identify and clarify interests that are at stake with the eventual objective of developing a clear approach that has a good chance of garnering support and duly implemented. To that end, gathering and sharing information forms the bedrock of an effective consultation process.

It must be highlighted that national consultations are not outreach activities. They are not intended as mere one-way information channels to keep the community informed of work that may be under-way nor can they be mere public relations exercises. Rather, national consultations are a form of dynamic and civil dialogue whereby the consulted parties are given a space to express themselves freely in a secure environment, with a view to shaping and enhancing the reconciliation effort.

It is important to note that consultations may also act as a series of dialogue opportunities aimed at creating understanding about reconciliation. This makes it a particularly effective tool in agendas that are sensitive to social conditions and concerns, such as the reconciliation effort in Sri Lanka. Thus, it is not surprising that public consultations have been used by a number of countries in their respective transitions post-conflict. These countries include South Africa, Sierra Leone, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Guatemala, Colombia and Uganda.

Sri Lanka too is no stranger to public consultations. In the past, they have been conducted with a view to enhancing participatory decision-making in formulating strategies towards poverty reduction and tackling violence. The best known instance of such public consultations was the consultations held by the Presidential Commission on Youth (1990) following the second JVP insurrection. A sub-committee established by the Commission, comprising of a panel of experts, was tasked with holding consultations with antagonistic youth groups that were involved in the insurrection movement. Although many of the findings and recommendations of the commission was not implemented, provisions such as halting further liberalization of the economy, the creation of the Janasaviya Programme and state-led employment creation schemes, ensured that the possibility of future belligerence in the South was significantly reduced.

In addition, sessional papers over the years demonstrate that the Commission of Inquiry too has utilized the feature for the purposes of obtaining expert and representative views in the process of developing or modifying policy. The last decade saw that public consultation had been used by market regulators, including the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka and the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, for matters beyond assessing the environmental and socio-economic impact of major infrastructure projects. The Central Environmental Authority also engages in public consultations and has even provided guidelines for public consultation.

Why are National Consultations needed?

Certain political groups and members of the public are of the belief that a reconciliation process can be built without the participation of the public. However, given the inherent nature of the conflict, it is important that public consultations precede the reconciliation process, for the following reasons.

In pursuit of true reconciliation

Sri Lanka's conflict has been complex and protracted; and therefore any solution to it will require compromise, confidence building, empathy and ingenuity. The civil conflict recorded an estimated 80,000-100,000 deaths over the course of the war. This not only included the deaths of members of the military and the LTTE, but also victims of war and terrorism. Similarly caught in the cross-fire were other victim groups, family members of victims of war, war widows, civilians and soldiers maimed by military and terrorist activities. Forging and implementing a solution is no simple matter. In a democratic society, such complex tasks must be conducted considering and using the views and ideas of the people and experts.

The transition from war to peace itself must be engineered in such a manner that no group or community feels ostracised or polarized further. Public consultations are a platform for victims (regardless of what ethnicity they belong to) to tell their stories, and find a common ground with their fellow victims. This in turn could lead to mutual trust and understanding, as well as the desire to move forward as a country.

The right to be heard

It is important to uphold the fundamental right of the public to be heard in government decision-making, and include the entire country in the reconciliation effort. More often than not, many decisions made at government level do not have a trickle-down effect to grass-root levels of society, and policies and laws are not a reflection of the needs or wishes of victims. A victim-centred approach such as public consultations empowers the previously powerless, and allows victims to decide what their entitlements and forms of redress should be.

In addition, a careful and effective process of consultations will also ensure that there is a strong sense of ownership over decisions and ensure that the proposed solution will be durable over time. If the decisions made by government resonate with the common man and victims of war, reconciliation itself will be desired and organic, and more likely sustained.

Facilitating transparency and accountability

Finally, national consultations would greatly enhance the transparency of government processes and mechanisms. Following a period of widespread conflict and massive abuse, it is vital that steps are taken to reform state institutions, in order to restore faith in the government. Under the former government, the post conflict agenda and the decision making process remained clandestine, with little or no information disseminated in public. Though secrecy can be justified when the reconciliation process is in its infancy, prolonged application of surreptitious conduct can damage the legitimacy of any reconciliation agenda.

A consultation process allows for various views to be brought to the table.

This will provide a system of checks and balances, which in turn, will allow the people to hold government and other leaders accountable. It will also allow for the expression of opposing ideas and claims, causing decision-makers to test the veracity and quality of their own decisions.

It is for these reasons national consultations should be encouraged: they allow for active participation of the public and promote trust and accountability, ultimately influencing which decisions are made and why. At a rudimentary level, national consultations provide decision-makers with varied opinions and counter-arguments, informing their choices and testing the veracity of their own information.

This in turn will lead to the making of rational, well-informed decisions in formulating policy, improving service provision and managing resources.

In conclusion, the importance of bringing the public to the forefront of the reconciliation dialogue must be reiterated, if Sri Lanka is to leave its legacy of violence and antagonism behind. Drawing from case studies where national consultations have helped build peaceful societies, Sri Lanka too should avail itself of the tangible benefits accrued from effective national consultations. 

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