The Truth Will Set You Free

When Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka earlier this month, he used the occasion to urge its leaders to include “the pursuit of truth” in the process of healing the scarred and divided country. By heeding Francis' call, Sri Lanka's newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, has an opportunity to put his country on the path toward sustainable peace.

NEW YORK – When Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka earlier this month, he used the occasion to urge its leaders to include “the pursuit of truth” in the process of healing the scarred and divided country. Sri Lanka is still reeling from a 25-year civil war with Tamil separatists that ended in 2009, after up to 100,000 people had been killed – many of them by the government. The pursuit of truth is important, Francis said, “not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing, and unity.”

Francis was no doubt informed by the transition from military dictatorship to democracy in his native Argentina. Immediately upon taking office in 1983, after years of military rule, the newly elected civilian president, Raúl Alfonsín, established the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons and charged it with investigating the human-rights violations carried out by previous regimes. This body, which became known as a “truth commission,” was the forerunner of similar efforts in more than 40 countries around the world. Sri Lanka would be wise to heed the Pope’s advice and follow Argentina’s example.

Many human-rights advocates believe that large-scale abuses – like the killings of an enormous number of noncombatants that took place in Sri Lanka – can be addressed only through criminal prosecution of those with the highest level of responsibility. And yet, in places where the crimes have not been acknowledged, many would argue that it is even more important to put in place a process to establish exactly what happened.

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