Can the Office of Missing Persons make a difference?

First published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/can-the-office-of-missing-persons-make-a-difference/77471 on 2nd November 2016

Ruki Fernando, Colombo
Sri Lanka November 2, 2016

Sri Lanka has a legacy of disappearances. According to the government, 65,000 complaints have been received since 1994.

The country also has a legacy of government failure to uphold the rights of victims’ families to truth, justice and reparations.

Sri Lankan society also has a legacy of apathy in the face of mass disappearances — in the past and even now.

Since the end of the civil war in 2009, families of the disappeared have become symbols of resistance and courage — the front line in the pursuit of truth and justice.

The international attention they have attracted has ensured that the present Sri Lankan government has given some priority to addressing disappearances. In August, parliament passed a law to establish the Office of Missing Persons.

The move followed a visit by the United Nations’ Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances in November last year, 16 years after their last visit. The government also ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances in May.

However, the government has stopped short of allowing Sri Lankans to lodge complaints directly with the committee monitoring the implementation of the convention. The criminalization of enforced disappearances, an obligation after ratifying the convention, has not happened.

The government had committed to nation-wide consultations on transitional justice mechanisms such as the Office of Missing Persons. But instead of consulting the people, the government relied on a secret process to come up with a draft bill to establish the office.

In May, the Foreign Ministry held a hastily convened briefing for a few activists. At the insistence of the activists, a further briefing was held with some families of the disappeared. Four days later the draft bill was approved by the cabinet and subsequently passed by parliament with some amendments, but without a substantial debate on the bill.

The Office of Missing Persons Act has some positive features. There are no time limits or geographical restrictions on claims, anonymity is guaranteed for witnesses and there are powers to summon people, obtain documents and issue search warrants and court orders. The Office of Missing Persons can also have branch offices.

But there are limitations. There is little place for victims’ families to participate in the Office of Missing Persons processes. Furthermore, the Act does not give the office the authority to prosecute. One of its clauses states that the office’s findings cannot lead to civil or criminal liability. There is also no requirement for the Office of Missing Persons to work in tandem with prosecutorial bodies.

Despite widespread poverty, there are no initiatives to ensure economic justice for families or offers of interim financial and material relief. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, a totally separate entity that is likely to take longer to establish.

Progress in the courts has been slow and unpromising. While there were regular hearings at the Magistrate Courts for disappeared Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, there have been no indictments against any of the suspects arrested.

This month, the president expressed displeasure about military personnel being detained and his wife had complained of threatening calls. There appears to be no progress for many other cases, including well-known cases of Tamils such as journalist Ramachandran Subramanium, Catholic priests Father Jim Brown and Father Francis Joseph, and human rights activist Stephen Suntharaj.

Catholic priests have been amongst the disappeared, yet, by and large, church leaders and the Catholic community has not been an active supporter of the families of the disappeared. There have been some notable exceptions but these individuals have faced arrest, threats, intimidation and been branded “traitors.”

In the months leading up to the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons, several cases of abductions were reported, with at least 10 between March and 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 and others dumped by the roadside after being abducted.

The Office of Missing Persons, like other transitional justice mechanisms, came out for the Sri Lankan government’s commitments to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva in September 2015. It appears these were more about placating the international community than addressing the grievances of families of the disappeared.

However, there is still hope the Office of Missing Persons can make a difference.

For this to happen the office must appoint individuals of integrity and competence. These appointments should include family members of the disappeared. They should encompass women, ethnic and religious minorities. Independent international involvement is a must. The government should criminalize enforced disappearances before the Office of Missing Persons begins its operations.

But in the end, the success of the Office of Missing Persons will depend on Sri Lankans. The families of victims and activists, including Catholics, will have to critically engage with the Office of Missing Persons in order to ensure it delivers on what it promises.

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist and consultant to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

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