Latest measures to address disappearances in Sri Lanka

First published in the report “Human Rights situation in Sri Lanka: 17Aug 2015 – 17 Aug2016” by INFORM Human Rights Documentation Centre on 18th August 2016

 

By the time the new Parliament was elected in August 2015, families of the disappeared had emerged as strong civil movements in Sri Lanka. Their courage and persistence have helped bring about significant developments in relation to addressing disappearances.

The most significant is the Government’s decision to create an Office of Missing Persons (OMP), which received approval by Parliament in August 2016. Almost until the OMP was set up, a Commission of Inquiry, appointed by the previous President, continued to function. In July 2016, the Government introduced a draft law to facilitate the issuance of certificates of absence to families of the disappeared.[1] In November 2015, the UN’s Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances visited Sri Lanka after the Government allowed entry, 16 years after their last visit.[2] In May 2016, the Government ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances[3] and committed to pass legislation to make disappearances a crime under Sri Lankan law.

OMP

Despite a commitment to consult people about the proposed transitional justice mechanisms, the draft Bill for the OMP, the first of four transitional justice mechanisms initiated by the Government, was drafted in secret, even before formal public consultations began. Just before the draft bill was approved by Cabinet, there was a hastily convened briefing for few activists, followed by another slightly broader briefing, both in Colombo.[4]

The Bill was passed on 11th August with some amendments to the draft Bill. There was no substantial debate on the Bill, with the former President Rajapakse’s allies criticising it and the Government limiting itself to defending it. Neither the amendments nor the final version of the Bill, as enacted, are available at the time of writing this article.

The draft Bill had some positive features in relation to the right of the families to truth, with no restrictions on temporal or geographical restrictions, clauses guaranteeing anonymity for witnesses, opportunities for international expertise, powers to summon any person and obtain documents and other materials, make unannounced visits to relevant places, and seek search warrants and court orders for exhumations. The OMP will also have branch offices.

But there were numerous areas where the OMP Bill needed improvement.[5] The draft did not give the OMP prosecutorial authority and this may hamper the possibility to offer plea bargains, immunity in exceptional circumstances, and other forms of incentives to elicit information. Considerations such as gender and ethnicity were not specified. Families were not guaranteed involvement at any level in the OMP’s structures. There was no requirement for the appointing authorities to give time and opportunities to families of the disappeared and others to comment on nominees or make nominations for the seven Members (the highest positions in the OMP). The regularity to provide information to families was not specified and it was not obligatory to provide maximum information to families. There was no process set out for the OMP to take into account existing information and evidence before requiring families to give evidence again.

The right to pursue justice was compromised by the OMP not having prosecutorial authority and being given the discretion to share information with the external investigative and prosecutorial bodies where offences are involved. There was no provision to ensure that tracing investigations would be done in tandem with criminal investigations or that the OMP would ensure information and evidence discovered would be treated with best international criminal investigation standards, to enable them to be admissible during any subsequent prosecutions. Also, if enforced disappearance is not made a crime in Sri Lanka prior to the OMP beginning to operate, there will likely be barriers to holding perpetrators responsible for the crime of ‘enforced disappearance’ (and instead being limited to lower level crimes).

Slow judicial processes 

While there were regular hearings at the Magistrate Courts on the case of the disappeared Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, there were no indictments against any of the suspects arrested. Further, there did not appear to be even minimal progress on many other cases, including well known cases of Tamils such as the journalist Ramachandran Subramanium, Catholic Priest Fr. Jim Brown, and human rights activist Stephen Suntharaj. Habeas corpus cases in relation to those who were alleged to have surrendered in front of eyewitnesses to the Army and then disappeared on the last day of the war dragged on, with the Army refusing to provide a proper list of those who had surrendered, despite repeated requests by Courts.

Continuing abductions

Alarmingly, cases of abductions continue to be reported, with at least 10 cases reported between 30th March and 30th June this year. At least two of those who disappeared have not returned, despite complaints to the Police and Human Rights Commission. Some have been reported to have been found in Police or remand custody after being abducted.

In order to make the OMP effective, the Government should criminalise enforced disappearances and ensure that the discretion and ambiguity in the OMP Act is used in favour of families of the disappeared. But even as the OMP starts its operations, habeas corpus cases and other cases related to disappearances pending for long years in the courts could be expedited. And unless there is a full stop to continuing disappearances and abductions, some of the steps the Government has taken to address past disappearances may not have much credibility.

[1] For information relating to concerns about the draft legislation on certificates of absence, see Memorandum to the Consultation Task Force, dated 23 July 2016, https://www.scribd.com/document/319070165/Memo-to-CTF-COA-22-July-2016.

[2] Preliminary observations at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16771&LangID=E.

[3] International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, adopted 20 December 2006, UN Doc. A/61/488 (entered into force 23 December 2010).

[4] For further information, see Follow-up letter to the Foreign Minister on the OMP, dated 16 May 2016, https://www.scribd.com/doc/312730188/Memorandum-to-the-Foreign-Minister-THE-OFFICE-OF-MISSING-PERSONS.

[5] For further information, see Memorandum to the Consultation Task Force on amendments to the OMP Bill, dated 5 July 2016, https://www.scribd.com/document/317667408/Memo-to-CTF-OMP-Bill-5-July-2016. See also Memorandum to the Consultation Task Force, dated 1 May 2016, https://www.scribd.com/doc/311091283/Memorandum-to-the-Consultation-Task-Force-The-OMP-1-May-2016.

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