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Sri Lanka Is Establishing An Office On Missing Persons – And It’s About Time

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Maryam Azwer

Maryam Azwer

Staff Writer

In post-war Sri Lanka, the photograph of weeping people – mostly women – holding up pictures of missing relatives, has become the one image that speaks volumes about the issues we have failed to tackle since the war ended in 2009.

Although there are many such photographs out there, each featuring different faces at different protests and at different times and places, the stories are often the same: loved ones went missing without a trace years ago, and families are demanding answers.

After these countless calls for justice, or at the very least, information, after much criticism from the international community, after countless forms have been filled by hundreds of families, and after about as many statements have been recorded, Parliament last week finally passed a draft Bill to establish an Office on Missing Persons (OMP). According to news reports, the Act is expected to come into force by this Friday.

Last week’s passing of the Bill came just weeks after a report by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) shed light on the fact that over 16,000 people remain missing after the armed conflict.

Background

Colombo, March 13, 2013: Women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the U.N. Image credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Colombo, March 13, 2013: Women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the U.N. Image credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The Office on Missing Persons is among four establishments recommended by a 2015 UN Resolution titled ‘Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka’. However, the need to address the issue of missing persons has been a pressing concern for much longer than that.

In 2013, then President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed a five-member Presidential Commission to ‘Investigate into Complaints Regarding Missing Persons’, headed by retired High Court Judge Maxwell Paranagama. This Commission handed over its final report to the Presidential Secretariat on Sunday (August 14), and according to reports, these findings are to be handed over to the proposed OMP.

Over the years, however, public faith in such Commissions has been dwindling, mostly because repeated calls for post-war investigations, including into the issue of missing persons, have resulted in little action being taken. As a result, even ongoing efforts in post-war reconciliation are met with much scepticism.

On May 22 this year, the Government finally introduced a bill to establish the OMP and the Bill was gazetted on May 27.

What Exactly Will The OMP Do?

A consultation task force was appointed to gather information from the public on a number of reconciliation-related issues, including missing persons. Image courtesy CTFSL

A consultation task force was appointed to gather information from the public on a number of reconciliation-related issues, including missing persons. Image courtesy CTFSL

Going by what’s included in the draft legislation, the OMP appears to have a rather comprehensive mandate.

According to the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), which in July drafted a brief guide to the draft legislation, the primary mandate of the OMP will include:

  • searching for and tracing missing persons
  • identifying appropriate mechanisms to do this
  • clarifying the circumstances under which such persons went missing

Apart from receiving and investigating complaints and tracing missing persons, the OMP will also be given the authority to make recommendations to other authorities involved in addressing the issue of missing persons, maintain a centralised database, and provide status reports to families of the missing.

The OMP, according to the CPA guide, is to address issues concerning ALL missing persons, “regardless of the time period during which such person became a missing person.”

This means that the Office won’t be looking only into those reported missing during the course of the conflict. Furthermore, it will address disappearances, abductions, those reported missing in action during the conflict, and even instances of former LTTE cadres who were witnessed surrendering themselves to the military, after which there has been no information of their whereabouts.

The OMP is expected to consist of a secretariat, a tracing unit, and a witness and victim protection division. The head office is to be located in Colombo, with regional offices established as required.

Families’ Concerns

Families of the disappeared want more than just information. Image courtesy AP

Families of the disappeared want more than just information. Image courtesy AP

Although hundreds of families, since the end of the war and even much before, have been demanding to know what has become of loved ones who disappeared, information is not the only thing that they are seeking.

According to a March 2015 The Sunday Times report, the ICRC was actively involved in recording statements from families of missing persons. According to this report, “A majority of the 177 families already interviewed have said their first requirement was to know what had happened to their loved ones. The second was economic support. In most cases, the person that went missing was the main income earner.”

Given that many of these families have spent a lot of time moving from one authority to another, voicing their concerns, most of them now have a very clear idea of what they want, and what they expect of the Government.

A recent initiative to consult with families of the disappeared, and others who have shown an interest in the matter, has resulted in these concerns being documented and made available to the public.

If you’d read our previous article on transitional justice, you’d be aware that the Government has appointed an independent, eleven member consultation task force (CTF) to gather recommendations from the public on, among other things, the proposed OMP. Over the last few months, the CTF, consisting civil society members has been conducting public consultations across the island, as well as receiving written submissions.

Last month, the CTF conducted a public sitting to hear public concerns and recommendations on the OMP in particular, from families of missing persons, and civil society organisations.

Among the concerns raised were questions on the prosecution powers of the OMP. As expected, a lot of people have expressed apprehension about what would actually come out of the OMP, which has been bestowed with more truth-seeking and investigative, rather than prosecutorial, powers.

What they want, essentially, is that justice be meted out wherever possible, so that perpetrators are punished and so that such incidents do not take place again.

This latter need remains crucial, because, going by what the CTF has gathered from its consultations and the submissions they received, rights violations continue to occur in the North and East, to this day. It doesn’t help that Sri Lanka has also been known for a longstanding culture of impunity.

According to the CTF interim report, released last week:

“Grave concerns were expressed in the submissions about on-going human rights violations in the North and East, including allegations of abductions and incidents of intimidation of victims and human rights defenders. The continuation of these incidents is a matter of serious concern, having a detrimental impact on the credibility of the TJ process. The submissions call on the Government to demonstrate its commitment to the stated goals of reconciliation, truth, accountability, justice and non-recurrence.”

As a result, those directly affected (mostly families of missing persons) have specific demands and requests of their own – among these being that a court be set up to make prosecutions according to evidence gathered by the OMP, that family members of missing persons be a part of the OMP, and that the state provides victim and witness protection. There have also been requests that the term ‘forcibly disappeared’ or ‘involuntarily disappeared’ be used in place of ‘missing persons’, in order to highlight the true nature of the problem.

A detailed compilation of recommendations can be found in the CTF report here. This report serves to inform the Government and influence the setting up of the OMP, but the extent to which the state acts on these recommendations remains to be seen.

Not Without Controversy

Among the concerns voiced againts the Bill is that this could be a 'betrayal' of the military. Image credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

Among the concerns voiced against the Bill is that this could be a ‘betrayal’ of the military. Image credit: REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

The fact that the Government finally appears to be taking a step towards resolving these issues should come as good news, but Thursday’s passing of the draft Bill was not without controversy. During the passing of the Bill, the Joint Opposition reportedly created a disruption in Parliament, after which the Bill was passed without a vote.

According to this report, the Joint Opposition feels that the OMP Act is “the result of an international programme, rather than a local programme.”

Even afterwards, there appear to have been some misgivings regarding the nature of the OMP Bill, to which President Maithripala Sirisena responded via a television interview on Saturday: “Those who claim that this Office on Missing Persons would betray the security forces, I would like to tell them that I am ready to meet them and argue our case.” He went on to say that the purpose of the OMP was to provide redress to those who have been affected.

Evidently, there are factions of the public who feel that the passing of the OMP Bill is in some way a betrayal of the military. The fact that both the international community and diaspora groups have welcomed the Bill does not appear to sit well with groups harbouring nationalist tendencies. However, the Government seems determined to see this through – and about time, too. The next few months ought to witness the creation of a feasible mechanism by which the OMP can operate, so here’s hoping it does address the issues and concerns of a people who have been forced to wait too long to know the fate of their loved ones.

Featured image: November 2013: Families of missing individuals hold up photographs as they take part in a protest in Jaffna. Image credit: AFP/Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/Getty

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