Respect for the right to truth is recognised as central to post-war justice. The rightful demands of victim-survivors and their families for justice and the truth regarding many grievous harms and human rights abuses are at the heart of emerging transitional justice processes in Sri Lanka. But what about economic harms and injustices? After all [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Why is economic justice not on the transitional justice agenda?


Respect for the right to truth is recognised as central to post-war justice. The rightful demands of victim-survivors and their families for justice and the truth regarding many grievous harms and human rights abuses are at the heart of emerging transitional justice processes in Sri Lanka.
But what about economic harms and injustices? After all many of those grappling with harms associated with disappearance, killings, torture, displacement, militarisation, etc are also grappling with poverty, low incomes, indebtedness or insecure livelihoods and employment. What place do claims for economic redistribution and justice have in the transitional justice processes and agendas as they are currently evolving?

File picture of a vegetable market. Development and poverty professionals do not speak about economic crises like the rising COL in terms of justice.

Given all the looking back at South Africa, it is worth pointing out that alongside an ambitious truth and reconciliation process it also embraced a neoliberal political economic trajectory that failed to transition out of the economic structures of apartheid. For instance, research shows that by the mid-2000s income inequality overall as well as between races in South Africa had increased significantly as did wage inequalities in general.
Notwithstanding the decline in non-income inequality due to expansion of public infrastructure and services, large sections of black South Africans remain in poor or in precarious socio-economic conditions. That even the world’s most progressive constitutional guarantees of social and economic rights have failed to ensure far-reaching political economic change underlines how little transformation transitional justice actually enabled in South Africa.

Non-recognition of political
economic harms
A key problem is that political economic harms are not really on the post-war justice agenda in Sri Lanka. For instance, available data suggests that in the post-war North and East incomes are lower and in many parts poverty rates much higher than elsewhere on the island. Further, apart from lower labour force participation, not only is the informal sector employment larger in the north and east but wages in non-elementary occupations are also significantly lower when compared to the rest of Sri Lanka. In addition, there are also serious gender inequalities in labour force participation and wages within both regions.

It is no surprise then that there is burgeoning indebtedness, also actually fuelled by post-war development interventions such as inadequately financed housing projects and the explosion of micro-finance and lending initiatives. In fact, alongside all the talk about post-war and transitional justice, multiple housing projects are being rolled out by different ministries and agencies. Neither empowerment nor equity across different communities in the north and east are amongst their goals, which are limited to building structures rapidly rather than empowering communities.

One area that has received some attention in conversations around post-war justice is land, which because it embodies a certain territorialising of politics has long been a lightening rod. But all the attention has not really translated into solving the many land related problems in the north and east.  Land rights and their restoration are mostly narrowly interpreted in terms of private property and an asset-base. Isolating land from broader agro-ecological development sidelines it from being seen as a vital productive resource and as commons. Land is also seldom seen in relation to the social structure, especially caste and gender relations. All of this will only lead to commodification, unsustainable use and eventually dispossession.

How far can reparations go?
The discussion on reparations can bring to the fore the question of economic losses, including destruction of assets or resources and disruption of livelihoods. Attempts at replacing or augmenting lost assets and resources—whether cattle, paddy, tools, vehicles, etc.—have been piecemeal and ad-hoc. But merely providing such assets or vocational training or even loans on an individuated basis through multiple fragmented projects shaped by donor and NGO priorities and weak public policy will not be effective. The challenge is to build and strengthen local economic networks and institutions through strategic public investment and guided private initiative. This is crucial to making assets and allied livelihood strategies meaningfully productive and sustainable.

For example, a large-scale housing programme that sources labour, expertise and materials locally can generate livelihoods, expand local capacities and industry. But this does not appear to be where policy is currently headed.
The discussion on reparations itself is divorced from wider questions of political economy, economic justice and redistribution. Rethinking reparations in this way calls for an approach that is informed by and addresses local, regional and national political economic realities. Not doing so risks repeating interventions that have not only failed but actually worsened the precariousness of war-affected communities.

Why are questions of economic
justice missing?
Economic injustices impinge as much on the human rights of people and communities as do disappearances or other grievous abuses or harms. Why then are they getting very little or next to no traction at all in debates on post-war and transitional justice? Indeed, even the discussions on constitutionalism are marked by a similar disappearance of economic justice, redistribution and social justice issues.  For one, neither the state nor international donors are interested in them. Equally importantly, human rights organisations and activists as well as experts and others at the centre of post-war justice processes have had little or nothing to say about economic policy. Note their silence on the economic policy statement or the budget for instance.

At the same time, development and poverty professionals do not speak about the economic crises in the north and east or indeed elsewhere in the country in terms of justice.  Another factor is that victimhood, responsibility, reconciliation, and healing are far too often cast only in ethnic or communal terms. Of course ethnicity is relevant but how is to be positioned? What does the routine and unquestioned privileging of ethno-communal identities mean for class, caste, gender and the political economic relations and structures that underpinned the conflict? All of these have been consigned to the margins of the dominant discourses around post-war reconciliation and transitional justice.

Dangers of sidestepping
economic justice
Taking economic justice and redistribution seriously is not about fetishizing economic development and growth. The rule of law, accountability for crimes like disappearances or torture, pluralism, and tolerance are actually perfectly compatible with exploitative economic growth and development and, in our case, a neoliberal economic order. It is hard to see the justice in any process that hinges only on institutionalising these transitions.  The absence of an economic justice agenda in fact reflects an undeclared bias towards the political economic status quo.

One marked by rising inequality and growth driven by financialisation, precariousness of labour and subservience to capital, weakening of social welfare and public provisioning, and integration at any cost into the global supply chain. One only has to look at today’s South Africa to see the dangers of a transition that ignored economic justice and redistribution. Closer home, on the eve of India’s formal transition to a constitutional republic, its prime architect Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar pointed to the contradiction between political equality and social and economic inequality the constitution would inaugurate. “We must remove this contradiction at the earliest possible moment” otherwise “those who suffer from inequality will blow up the structure of political democracy”, he warned.

Sri Lanka would do well not to follow India’s lead in ignoring the warning. It would be a mistake to dismiss this on the grounds that Sri Lanka does not have the magnitudes of extreme deprivation like India or South Africa. Such political and ethical short-sightedness ignores the economic realities and vulnerabilities of a significant proportion of Sri Lanka’s population. It also forgets the link between economic marginalisation and violent radicalisation that underpinned the JVP insurgency and the three decades-long ethnic conflict.

Developing and committing to an economic justice and redistribution agenda is an imperative. Needless to say this also means thinking beyond the north and east as such. In this sense, a process of building a more inclusive and just post-war polity offers an opportunity to rethink not just its social, political and legal character but also its economic and distributive character. Such an approach may in fact help build broader support and legitimacy for a transformative post-war justice agenda.

Realising economic redistribution and justice is far easier said than done but that applies equally to truth and reconciliation or accountability for crimes such as killings, disappearances, or torture. Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process is all but asking war-affected communities to ignore economic injustice and live in hope of the redistribution of truth alone. How just is that?

(The writer is a member of the Collective for Economic Democratisation and works with the Centre for Poverty Analysis. He can be reached at

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