Written by Julie Bishop Thursday, 18 October 2012
Former US president Harry S. Truman once observed that “Experience has shown how deeply the seeds of war are planted by economic rivalry and social injustice”. Few things in life give rise to greater feelings of indignation than when we believe we have been victims of an injustice.
In a country like Australia, perceived injustices can be experienced many times throughout our lives but we ignore most situations as being too minor to warrant attempts at redress. Where there are genuine grievances we have avenues of recourse including the justice system where we can have our day in court.
While there are shortcomings in Australia’s judicial process, as it is not perfect, there is a general respect for our legal system. Most people understand the concept of the rule of law and recognise that all are deemed equal before the law.
This is not the case in many countries throughout the world where corruption and abuse of power are commonplace. There can also be institutionalised bias against groups of people within countries, based on ethnic and religious divides.
President Truman understood that when whole sections of society are marginalised economically or suffer ongoing injustice there is the potential for upheaval and conflict as those with a grievance rise up against those in power.
He was US President from 1945 to 1953 and there is little doubt that his views played a major role in the Marshall Plan that underpinned reconstruction of Europe, including Germany, after the ravages of World War II.
This visionary plan resulted in former bitter enemy Germany becoming an economic powerhouse and playing a major role in European unity and stability. Few people would have predicted the role that Germany has played in Europe since 1945 in the wake of the destruction unleashed by its armed forces on the entire continent and beyond.
While on a vastly different scale and context, there is hope that the end of the long running civil war in Sri Lanka will provide a window of opportunity for the nation to move forward and to grow into a regional power. Sri Lanka is dominated by the Sinhalese ethnic majority which makes up an estimated 75% of the population, with Tamils the largest ethnic minority with almost 20% of the population.
A Tamil-backed insurgency fought for more than 25 years against the Sri Lankan government, and the conflict resulted in the deaths of more than 80,000 people. The conflict grew out of the sense of injustice felt by the Tamils during the 1970s and early 1980s when they believed they were being marginalised by the Sinhalese majority who were perceived as being indifferent to their concerns.
The war came to a bloody conclusion in 2009 when the Sri Lankan armed forces cornered and destroyed the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in a final showdown. There have been allegations of crimes against humanity levelled at both sides, particularly in the final desperate days of the conflict.
Many Tamils were placed in camps as the authorities sought to identify any combatants within local populations. The nation has embarked on a difficult process of reconciliation and reconstruction since that time.
Those detained in camps are being released and a new normality is slowly returning to the areas formerly under the sway of the LTTE. It is important for the Sri Lankan government to win the peace, which can often be more challenging than winning the war.
A first step must be to de-militarise the former war zone and establish civilian policing and administration. Serious investment in Tamil communities also has the potential to unleash the economic drive of those regions of Sri Lanka and encourage investment by the huge Tamil diaspora.
That will require a generosity of spirit on a scale displayed by the US in the aftermath of World War II, when billions of dollars were provided to recent former enemies. It is important that Tamils become full economic partners in the future prosperity of the nation and that they do not feel excluded from the opportunities of the mainstream economy.
Steps must be taken to ensure that Tamils do not have a lingering or ongoing sense of injustice about past events. An important step is for the government to credibly investigate allegations of war crimes and bring to justice anyone responsible for such acts.
Investigations and trials can be challenging and painful but they play the important role of sending a message that the law applies equally to all, regardless of rank, title or ethnicity. The Sri Lankan Government should be supported in its peace and reconciliation efforts which should unite the nation and avoid the potential of entrenching a sense of injustice in current and future generations.