OMP

දින 900 ක් පුරා විරෝධතා: තවමත් සත්‍යය සහ යුක්තිය සොයා යමින්

First published on 9th Sept. 2019 at https://www.vikalpa.org/?p=35684

බලහත්කාරයෙන් අතුරුදන් කිරීමේ වින්දිතයන්ගේ අන්තර්ජාතික දිනය අගෝස්තු 30 වැනි දින ට යෙදී තිබිණි. රජයේ සංඛ්‍යාලේඛනවල ට අනුව ශ්‍රී ලංකාවෙන් වාර්තා වී ඇති අතුරුදන් වීම් පිළිබඳ ව 65,000ක ට වැඩි පැමිණිලි සංඛ්‍යාවක් ගොනු වී තිබුන ද, බහුතරයක් ශ්‍රී ලාංකිකයන්ට, බහුතරයක් මාධ්‍යයන්ට සහ ආණ්ඩුවට එය තවත් එක දවසක් පමණක්ම විය.

අතුරුදන් වූවන් ට සිදු වූයේ කුමක්ද යන්න සහ ඔවුන් සිටින්නේ කොහේද යන්න විමසීම සඳහා ක්‍රියාත්මක වන රාජ්‍ය ආයතනය වන ‘අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය’ විසින් කොළඹ දී සාකච්ඡාවක් සංවිධානය කර තිබුණි. එම අවස්ථාවට සහභාගී වූ අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල්වල සාමාජිකයන් විසින් සංවේදී මතකයන් අකුරු කොට තිබූ අතර, ඔවුන්ගේ ආදරණීයයන්ගේ ඡායාරූප ද එහි ප්‍රදර්ශනය කර තිබුණි.

කෙසේ වුවද, උතුරේ සහ නැගෙනහිර මේ තත්ත්වය වෙනස් ව පැවති අතර, දමිළ ජාතික අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල් මහපාරේ විරෝධතා පැවැත්වූහ. ඔවුන්ගෙන් බහුතර දෙනා දින 900ක ට අධික කාලයක් මහපාර අද්දර විරෝධතාවේ යෙදෙන අතරතුර, අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය, ජනාධිපතිවරයා, ඇමතිවරු, වෙනත් දේශපාලකයන් සහ නිලධාරීන් සමග සාකච්ඡා ද පැවැත්වූහ. නැගෙනහිර පළාතේ විරෝධතාව කල්මුණේ හි දී පැවති අතර, උතුරු පළාතේ විරෝධතාව ඕමන්තෙයි හි දී පැවැත්විණි. ඕමන්තෙයි හි පැවති විරෝධතාව ට කොළඹින් මා හා තවත් මිතුරන් කිහිපදෙනෙක් සහභාගී වූ අතර, ඒ අතර සිය සැමියා හා පුතුන් අතුරුදන් වූ මුස්ලිම් හා සිංහල ජාතික කාන්තාවන් දෙදෙනෙක් ද විය. එහි සිටි පවුල් මා හා පැවසුවේ ඔවුන් විරෝධතාව සඳහා ඕමන්තෙයි තෝරාගැනීම ට විශේෂ හේතුවක් ඇති බව යි.

ඔවුන්ට අනුව, ඔවුන්ගේ ඥාතීන් යුද්ධයේ අවසාන කාලයේ හමුදාව විසින් කැඳවාගෙන යාමෙන් පසු අතුරුදන් වූ අය වූහ. අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ කාර්යාලයේ සාමාජිකයන් අතුරින් පවුලේ සාමාජිකයෙක් අතුරුදන් වීමට ලක් වූ එකම සාමාජිකාව වන, මඩකලපුවෙන් පැමිණි ජෙයදීපා පුණ්‍යමූර්ති නම් දමිළ ජාතික කාන්තාව විසින් කොළඹ පැවැත්වුණු අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ කාර්යාලය මගින් සංවිධානය කළ උත්සවයේ දී ඉස්මතු කළ කරුණක් වූයේ අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල්වලට අවශ්‍ය වන්නේ කුමක්ද යන්න පිළිබඳව රජයේ ආයතනවලට කිසිදු අවබෝධයක් නොමැති බව යි. එමෙන්ම අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල්වලට අවශ්‍ය අනුකම්පාව නොව ඔවුන්ගේ ප්‍රශ්නවලට පිළිතුරු බව ද ඇය වැඩිදුරටත් පවසා සිටියා ය.

වසර ගණනක් පුරාවට හැකි පමණින් සිය දායකත්වය ලබා දී තිබියදීත්, පිළිතුරු නොලැබීම පිළිබඳව අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය ඇතුළු රාජ්‍ය ආයතන ගැන වූ කලකිරීම සහ විශ්වාසය කඩවීම ඕමන්තෙයි විරෝධතාවේ දී පැහැදිලිව පෙනුනි. මේ නිසා ජාත්‍යන්තර මැදිහත්වීම් අත්‍යවශ්‍ය බව ට වූ අඛණ්ඩ ඉල්ලීම් සඳහා මඟපෑදුවේය. එහෙත්, අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල් ඔවුන් වෙනුවෙන් පිහිටුවන ලද නවතම රාජ්‍ය ආයතනය ට එක් අවස්ථාවක් ලබා දීම සඳහා උත්සුක විය. ඔවුන් විශේෂයෙන් සඳහන් කර සිටියේ තමන් සිද්ධීන් 5ක් පිළිබඳව පසුගිය මාසයේ දී අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය ට තොරතුරු ලබා දුන් බවත්, තමන් ඔවුන් ගැන විශ්වාසය තබන්නේ අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය ඒවා ගැන සත්‍යය විමර්ශනය කරන ආකාරය මත පදනම් ව විනා ඔවුන් විසින් විවෘත කරන කාර්යාල ගණන හෝ ඔවුන් විසින් ප්‍රදානය කරන හානිපූර්ණය කොපමණද යන්න මත පදනම්ව නොවන බවයි. කෙසේ වුවද, සමහර පවුල් තවමත් පවසා සිටින්නේ තමන්ට අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය ගැන කිසිදු විශ්වාසයක්, හැඟීමක් නොමැති බවයි.

වසරකට පෙර, අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය විසින් වැදගත් නිර්දේශ කිහිපයක් නිකුත් කරන ලදී. කෙසේ වුවද, ඒවා ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීමේ ප්‍රගතිය ඉතා සුළු බව එහි සභාපතිවරයා මේ වසරේ පිළිගත්තේය. ඔවුන් විසින් නිර්දේශ කරන ලද අන්තර්කාලීන සහන ලබාදීමවත් අවම වශයෙන් සිදු වූයේ නැත. මෙය අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය ට පමණක් නොව හානිපූර්ණය පිණිස වන කාර්යාලය ට ද කළු පැල්ලමකි. වින්දිතයන්ගේ අයිතීන් සුරැකීම සඳහා අවශ්‍ය පියවර ගැනීමට බලතල ලද ව්‍යවස්ථාපිත ආයතනයක් ලෙස අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලය තම නිර්දේශ ක්‍රියාත්මක කිරීම සඳහා මීටත් වඩා ක්‍රියාකාරී ප්‍රවේශයක් ගත යුතු අතර, අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල් විසින් ගන්නා අධිකරණ ක්‍රියාමාර්ග, අනුස්මරණ, ලේඛනගත කිරීම් සහ වෙනත් දුක්ගැනවිලි සඳහා සෘජුවම මැදිහත් වෙමින් සහයෝගය ලබාදිය හැකි ආකාර මොනවාද යන්න සලකා බැලිය යුතු ය.

ඕමන්තෙයි විරෝධතාවේ දී මෙන්ම ඊට පෙරත්, සමහර පවුල්වල සාමාජිකයන් පවසා සිටියේ සත්‍යය සහ යුක්තිය වසන්කිරීම සඳහා හානිපූර්ණය යොදාගැනීමේ අවදානමක් ඇති බවත්, ඔවුන්ට අවශ්‍ය යුක්තිය විනා හානිපූර්ණය නොවන බවත් ය. කෙසේ වුවද, අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල් බහුතරයකට එවැනි අන්තර්කාලීන සහන සහ හානිපූර්ණ අත්‍යවශ්‍ය වන අතර, ඒවා ප්‍රතික්ෂේප කිරීම ඔවුන්ට අවාසිදායක විය හැක. නමුත් එක් අයිතියක් තවත් අයිතියක් සඳහා හුවමාරු කරගැනීම පිළිබඳව අපි අවධානයෙන් සිටිය යුතු ය. අතුරුදන් වූවන් පිළිබඳ කාර්යාලයේ සාමාජිකා ජෙයදීපා අවධාරණය කර ඇත්තේ නිර්දේශිත අන්තර්කාලීන සහනාධාරය (මසකට රු. 6000 බැගින්) යනු අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල් විසින් සත්‍යය සොයායාම වළකාලන ආකාරයේ යමක් නොවන බවයි. මගේ අත්දැකීම්වලට අනුව නම්, එවැනි සහායන් හරහා විරෝධතා, අධිකරණ නඩු සහ අන්තර්ජාතික උද්දේශනවල නියැලීම පිණිස අදාළ පවුල් ශක්තිමත් කරන අතර, ඔවුන් දානපතියන්, රාජ්‍ය නොවන සංවිධාන, කතෝලික දේවස්ථාන, විදෙස් ඩයස්පෝරාවන් ආදීන් මත යැපීම ද අවම කරයි.

අතුරුදන් වීම් පිළිබඳව ගැනෙන උත්සාහයන් ආවරණය කරමින් ආරක්ෂක හමුදාවේ අඳුරු සෙවනැල්ල පැතිර ගොස් තිබේ. මාධ්‍යවේදියෙකුගේ සහ තරුණයන් කිහිපදෙනකුගේ අතුරුදන් වීම සම්බන්ධයෙන් පසුගිය වසර කිහිපය තුළ දී හමුදා සහ නාවික හමුදා නිලධාරීන් කිහිපදෙනෙකු අත්අඩංගුවට පත්ව ඇත. එමෙන්ම පසුගිය කාලයේ ශ්‍රී ලංකා අධිකරණය විසින් හමුදාව අතුරුදන් කිරීම් සඳහා වගකිවයුතු බවට තීන්දු කර ඇති අතර, සමහර විටෙක ඒ සඳහා වරදකරුවන් කර ඇති අවස්ථාවන් ද දක්නට ලැබේ. මානව හිමිකම් කොමිසම විසින් පත්කළ විශේෂ කමිටුවක් මගින් අතුරුදන් වූ බවට සැලකෙන පුද්ගලයන් හමුදාව විසින් සිය භාරයට ගත් බව සාක්ෂි සහිතව සොයාගෙන ඇතිමුත් ඔවුන්ව නිදහස් කළ බවට හෝ වෙනත් යම් තැනක රඳවාගෙන ඇති බවට හෝ ඔවුන් ජීවතුන් අතර සිටින බවට කිසිදු සාක්ෂියක් මෙතෙක් සොයාගෙන නොමැති වග ද ද මෙහිදී විශේෂයෙන් සඳහන් කළ යුතුය. ඔවුන්ගේ ආදරණීයයන් හමුදාව විසින් රැගෙන ගිය පසුව නැවත නොදුටු බවට හෝ ඔවුන්ව අවසාන වරට දුටුවේ හමුදා කඳවුරුවල බවට අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල්වල අය කඳුළුබර දෙනෙතින් යුතුව හඬමින් කියා සිටින විශ්වාස කටයුතු කතා මම ද අනන්තවත් අසා ඇත්තෙමි. එහෙත් දැන්, අතුරුදන්වීම්වලට වගකිවයුතු බවට විශ්වාස කෙරෙන, හිටපු හමුදා සොල්දාදුවෙක් සහ ආරක්ෂක ලේකම්වරයෙක් ජනාධිපති අපේක්ෂකයෙක් ලෙසින් අප හමුවේ සිටී. අපරාධ සැකකරුවෙකුට ආරක්ෂාව ලබාදුන් බවට සහ අතුරුදන් වීම් පිළිබඳ ව විභාග වෙමින් පවතින අධිකරණ නඩුවක සාක්ෂිකරුවෙකුට තර්ජනය කළ බව ට චෝදනා ලබා අත්තඩංගුවට පත් වූ පුද්ගලයෙක් අප රටේ ආරක්ෂක මාණ්ඩලික ප්‍රධානියා ලෙස කටයුතු කරමින් සිටී. එමෙන්ම අපේ නවතම හමුදාපති, යටත් වූ පුද්ගලයන් සියගණනක් යටත් වීමෙන් පසු අතුරුදන් වීම සම්බන්ධව වගකිවයුතු බවට චෝදනා ලද්දෙකි.

ඕමන්තෙයි හි පැවති විරෝධතාවේ ප්‍රදර්ශනය කර තිබූ තවත් බැනරයක, සිය අතුරුදන් වූ ඥාතීන් පිළිබඳ සත්‍යය විමසන අතරතුර මරණයට පත් වූ අතුරුදන් වූවන්ගේ පවුල්වල සාමාජිකයන් 52 දෙනෙකුගේ ඡායාරූප මුද්‍රණය කර තිබිණි. යුද්ධයෙන් යන්තමින් දිවි ගලවාගත් ඔවුනට මහාපාර අද්දර විරෝධතාවේ යෙදෙමින්, බියගැන්වීම් සහ තර්ජනවලට නිර්භීතව මුහුණදෙමින්, අව්-වැසි, දුහුවිල්ල නොතකා, අවම පහසුකම් සහිතව සහ ඉතා සුළු ආහාර සලාක මත යැපෙමින් දරාගැනීමට සිදුව තිබුනේ සුළුපටු ශාරීරික සහ මානසික පීඩාවක් නොවේ.

තව බොහොමයක් දෙනා දුක්විඳිමින් සිටිති. ඔවුන්ගෙන් කීදෙනෙක් අතුරුදන් වූ තම ආදරණීය ඥාතීන්ට සිදු වූයේ කුමක්ද යන්න නොදැනම මරණය වැළඳගනීවී ද? අතුරුදන් වීම් සම්බන්ධ දැඩි නීතිමය තහනම් සහ ඒ පිළිබඳ වන අතිශය දේශපාලනික ස්වභාවයක් තිබුන ද, අතුරුදන් කිරීම් පිළිබඳ කතිකාවේ වැදගත්ම ස්ථානයක් ලැබිය යුත්තේ එම දුක්ඛාන්තයේ ඇති අතිශය පුද්ගලික ස්වභාවය සහ එහි අර්බුදකාරී තත්ත්වය සඳහා ය. මරණයට පත් වූ 52 දෙනාගේ සහ අනෙක් අයගේ නොනවතින අරගලය නිෂ්ඵල ව්‍යායාමයක් බවට පත්නොවිය යුතු අතර, ඒ සඳහා ඔවුන් ට ශ්‍රී ලාංකිකයන්ගේ සහ අනෙකුත් යහපත් ප්‍රාර්ථනාවන් ඇති මිනිසුන්ගේ සහයෝගය වැඩි වැඩියෙන් අත්‍යවශ්‍ය වේ.

(2019 සැප්තැම්බර් මස 01 වැනි දා ද සන්ඩේ ඔබ්සර්වර් පුවත්පතේ පළ වූ රුකී ප්‍රනාන්දු විසින් රචිත ලිපියක සිංහල පරිවර්තනයකි.)

900 days of protests: Still searching for truth and justice

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/09/01/opinion/900-days-protests-still-searching-truth-and-justice on 1st Sept. 2019

August 30 was the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Despite Government figures indicating more than 65,000 complaints of disappearances in Sri Lanka, for most Sri Lankans, most media and the Government, it was just another day.

The Office on Missing Persons (OMP), the state institution responsible for tracing the fate and the whereabouts of disappeared persons organized a discussion in Colombo. Families of the disappeared had written moving memories and placed photos of their loved ones at the event.

In the North and the East, Tamil families of the disappeared took to the streets. Many of them had been at roadside protests for more than 900 days, engaged in discussions with the OMP, the President, Ministers, other politicians and officials. There was one protest in Kalmunai in the East and another in Omanthai in the North. I joined the one in Omanthai with some friends from Colombo, including a Sinhalese and a Muslim, women whose husbands and sons had disappeared. The families told me they chose Omanthai for its significance – according to them, their relatives had disappeared on the last days of the war, after being taken away by the military.

At the OMP event in Colombo, Jeyatheepa Punniyamoorthy, a Tamil woman from Batticaloa and the only member of the OMP who had a family member disappeared, highlighted that state institutions didn’t realize what they (families) wanted, and that families of disappeared didn’t want pity, they just wanted answers.

At the Omanthai protest, frustration and lack of faith in state institutions, including the OMP, were strong, based on a history of engaging and not getting answers. This led to continued demands of international involvement. But the families were still willing to give the latest state institution a chance – they highlighted that they had presented details of five cases to the OMP last month and that their trust in the OMP would be based on how the OMP finds the truth about these, rather than the number of offices opened or reparations awarded. Some families still insist that they don’t feel the OMP is their office.

A year ago, the OMP issued some important recommendations. This year, its Chair admitted that there had been little progress in implementation. Even the disbursement of interim relief that they had recommended had not commenced. This is ominous, not just for the OMP, but also for the Office of Reparations. As a statuary institution mandated to take measures to protect the rights of victims, the OMP may have to adopt a more activist approach to have their recommendations implemented, and consider ways of intervening directly to support the initiatives of families in court cases, memorization, documentation and other agitations.

At the Omanthai protest, and even before, some family members shared their feelings that reparations may be used to sidestep truth and justice, and said they want justice, and not reparations. However, many families of the disappeared desperately need interim relief and reparations and it would be a pity to reject them that. Trading off one right over the other is something we should be careful about. OMP member Jeyatheepa had said the interim relief (Rs. 6,000 per month) recommended by the OMP is not something to deter families from finding the truth. In my experience, such assistance could strengthen the family’s struggles such as protests, court cases, and international advocacy and make them less dependent on donors, NGOs, churches, diaspora, etc.

The dark shadow of the military hangs over the efforts to address disappearances in Sri Lanka. In the last few years, Army and Navy personnel have been arrested in relation to the disappearance of a journalist and some youth. In the more distant past, the Sri Lankan courts have determined the military to be responsible for disappearances and even convicted some. A special committee of the Human Rights Commission has found evidence of disappeared persons having been taken into custody by the army and no evidence of them being released or detained elsewhere or that they are alive. I have also heard crying family members narrate compelling stories of how their loved ones had disappeared after being taken away by the military or were last seen at military camps. And now, we have a former soldier and defence secretary as a presidential candidate who is widely believed to be behind disappearances. We have a Chief of Defence Staff who had been arrested after being accused of harbouring a suspect and threatening a witness in a pending court case related to disappearances. And an Army Commander who is implicated in disappearances of hundreds after surrendering.

The Omanthai protest had a banner with 52 photos of family members that had passed away while searching for truth. The gruelling days at roadside protests, braving intimidation, the sun, the rain and dust, with meagre meals and facilities would have had to bear a heavy physical and emotional cost, who had barely survived the war.

Many others are ailing – how many of them would pass away without knowing what happened to their disappeared family members? Despite the strict legal prohibitions and immensely political nature of disappearances, it’s the deeply personal nature of the tragedy and struggles that must be central to the discourse on disappearances. The struggles of the 52 who had passed away and others continuing must not be in vain and they need more support from all Sri Lankans and people of goodwill.

Families of the disappeared: Two years of protests, what must they do next?

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/03/03/news-features/families-disappeared-two-years-protests-what-must-they-do-next on 3rd March 2019

The biggest protest I had ever participated in or seen in Kilinochchi took place last week. It was organised by the Tamil families of the disappeared, to mark two years of roadside protests and demanding information about loved ones who had disappeared. It was a gruelling march of more than six km that took over two hours, through the sprawling A9 road in Kilinochchi, braving extreme midday heat.

Perhaps, this pales in the context of the families having braved the sun, rain, dust, fumes, intimidation, threats and assaults for two years. Several elderly mothers collapsed during the march. But more died in the course of continuous protests, not knowing what happened to their loved ones.

Colombo

Colombo seemed indifferent. When one of the women leading the Kilinochchi protest called me, she had a clear request. She asked me to join them on February 25, bringing the Sinhalese and English media, colleagues from Colombo and others from the international community. I did ask many, but predictably, there was not much of a response. The protest coincided with the first year anniversary of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP).

The OMP it had initiated inquiries and made interventions on some cases and referred to its primary mandate as being to ‘Search and trace tens of thousands of missing and disappeared persons’.

But the Office provided no information on the number of persons it had made progress searching for or specific progress made in a single case. Neither did it provide an assessment about progress made in implementing recommendations made in an interim report six months ago. In this context, it was not surprising to hear families of the disappeared protesting in Kilinochchi reiterating that they had no hope or confidence in the OMP.

One woman at the protest was clutching a letter sent by a previous Presidential Commission of Inquiry led by Maxwell Paranagama, which had functioned under President Mahinda Rajapaksa and President Maithripala Sirisena, The letter promised investigations, but the lady had not heard of any progress or results on investigations. Protesters told me that might be what the OMP might end up doing as well.

Geneva

Geneva also seems indifferent. Last week, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) started its 40th session, where it is due to review progress made by the Sri Lankan Government in terms of commitments made on accountability and reconciliation at the UN body three and half years ago. At the Kilinochchi protest, there were many references to the UN, demanding an increased role from it. The protesters recalled that resolution 34/1 of the UNHRC was due to inaction of the Sri Lankan Government on resolution 30/1 and commitments therein.

They demanded the UN to ‘Stop giving Sri Lanka more time’, instead to consider other options of ensuring reconciliation and accountability. But the first draft of a resolution on Sri Lanka to be adopted by the Council dated February 27, two days after the Kilinochchi protest, had no reference to, nor reflected the spirit, grievances, aspirations and efforts made by families of the disappeared on the road continuously for two years.

For me, it seemed that protesting families increased demands from the UN were not based on faith in the UN, but deep frustration and disappointment in the political leadership, and institutions such as the judiciary and the OMP.

Indeed, when I joined the same families at a similar protest on the 100th day of their continuous roadside protest, they blocked the A9 road for about five hours and their primary demand was to meet the President. The families also seem to have very little faith in Tamil politicians and insisted that Tamil politicians with access to the international community, donot represent them.

Hartal

A significant feature of the Kilinochchi protest last week was the hartal across the Northern Province. Shops, eateries, some supermarkets and banks were shuttered. There were no local buses and very few vehicles on the main roads. Hartals usually inconvenience the poor. Those who use public transport end up being stranded, daily wage earners lose their income. But my impression was that many joined the hartal sympathising and supporting the struggle of families of the disappeared. The popular women led eatery in Kilinochchi, Ammachi was closed, which meant loss of income.

I met some of the women at the protest, easily identifiable by their Ammachi t-shirts. After the protest, a shop keeper in Iranaipalei in the Mullaitivu District, about an hour’s drive away from the Kilinochchi protest, told me he could not go for the protest, but closed his shop in support of the protest. A trishaw driver who had stayed home in Mullaitivu expressed similar sentiments. Some of the female community leaders of the Kepapilavu community, themselves at a roadside protest for two years demanding release of military occupied land, also joined the Kilinochchi protest.

So did families of the disappeared, women’s activists, Christian clergy from across the North and the East. Many Tamil journalists from the North were covering the protest. Some Tamil politicians also joined, but played a low profile role, heeding the explicit demands from protest leaders that politicians should not be at the forefront of the demonstrations.

Reprisals

The day of the protest and hartal was also the day three habeas corpus cases in relation disappearances were being taken up in Jaffna courts, where a serving senior military officer is implicated. A female activist involved in the case had allegedly been assaulted and hospitalised last year and lawyers have allegedly been intimidated.

Even on this day, a lawyer was reportedly subject to intimidation as she was leaving courts after appearing in the case, with men on a motorbike trying to crash into her car. Last year had allegedly seen several incidents of reprisals against both Tamil and Sinhalese families of the disappeared.

Importance of solidarity

My visits and interactions with protesting families had led me to write about my experiences and reflections. The last two pieces I wrote to this paper on disappearances was about 366 days and then 500 days of the continued roadside protests. As I contemplated writing about the 730 days of the protests, I wondered what new things I could write. Not much seems to have changed, except continuing reprisals, increasing frustration and desperation.

The same lines with which I finished off my 500 days articles sums up my feelings today.

“As they wait for answers from the Government and institutions such as the OMP and judiciary about their loved ones, families of the disappeared deserve more coverage by mainstream Sinhalese and English media. They need continued solidarity from society – Sri Lankan and international. The struggle of the families must become a struggle of all Sri Lankans”.

The hartal showed that the North is listening and in solidarity with Tamil families of the disappeared. But Colombo (and the rest of Sri Lanka) and Geneva (and the world) doesn’t seem to be listening. What the families can do next remains a big question mark.

The Struggle for Justice

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/10/20/the-struggle-for-justice/ on 20th October 2018

Editor’s Note: The following are excerpts from a speech made at the Human Rights Education Award ceremony at the Law & Human Rights Centre in Jaffna, on 19th Oct. 2018

Dear friends,

I want to congratulate the Law and Human Rights Centre for organising this course. It is difficult but very important to do this in Jaffna, a place that sees continuing rights violations, impunity for serious violations in the past and courageous dissent and resistance, be it through protests, the arts, writing, or filing court cases.

Rights violations and struggles for justice

Today, after this event, I will be going to the Jaffna Press Club – for a commemorative event to remember life and work of Nimalarajan, a Tamil journalist killed on 19th October 2000. He is among many Tamil journalists killed, disappeared, assaulted, threatened, and intimidated during and after the war. No one has been held accountable. For many, justice for Tamil journalists appear to be less important than justice for Sinhalese journalists. Even now, Tamil journalists continue to face threats, intimidation, surveillance, interrogation. Not just them, but also families and friends.

This year and last year has been a year of protests in Sri Lanka – especially in the North and East. This includes continuous protests for more than one and half years by families of disappeared and by communities whose lands are occupied by the military. In addition to long drawn out roadside protests, families of the disappeared in Mannar and Vavuniya have published books documenting their stories. Some have met the President, others have made representations to international community representatives in Sri Lanka and Geneva. Some have filed court cases. Some of the leaders have been assaulted, threatened, intimidated and subjected to interrogation and surveillance. Even those inside prisons have been protesting – such as female detainees and political prisoners engaging in hunger strikes.

There have been a few significant victories emerging from these struggles. For example, last year, month long overnight roadside protests by communities in Pilakudiyiruppu and Puthukudiyiruppu led to the release of Army and Air Force-occupied lands. This year, the people of Iranaitheevu made a daring landing on their Navy-occupied island and reclaimed their traditional lands. Hunger strikes by political prisoners have led to reversal of unjust transfer of cases from Tamil areas to Sinhalese areas, and release on bail of some. Sandya Ekneligoda, whose husband disappeared, was threatened by a rough Buddhist Monk Gnanasara while inside court in 2016 – she refused mediation, insisted and courageously pursed justice in courts and finally, Gnanasara was convicted and put behind bars. These are exceptions to the rule, but it’s good to recall these struggles, and see what we can learn from those that were leading and involved in these.

We also need to be conscious of rights abuses, injustice and repression from non-state parties. Last month, a film looking at Tamil militancy, including the LTTE, in a critical way, was removed from the Jaffna film festival due to pressure from some people in Jaffna. Earlier this week, a photo exhibition, a substantial part of which included photos about rights violations in the North and East including disappearances and land, was not allowed to be held in the Peradeniya University by a student group. Last year, several months long protest was held against caste based oppression in Jaffna.

Protests have been held across the North and East against unjust schemes by microfinancecompanies that pushes people into debt and even suicide. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo preached that human rights are not so important, that it’s a Western concept, that it’s only for people without religions, despite strong views supporting international human rights framework by successive Popes including Pope Francis. Most Muslim men and clergy resist reform of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) which legalises blatant discrimination of women and child marriage of girls. Some Buddhist clergy and their followers have been at forefront of violence against Christians and Muslims. Even as we try hold the state accountable, we must also expose and challenge armed groups, business enterprises, religious groups and in general oppressive social – cultural practices that facilitates, justifies and promotes rights abuses and undermines struggles for justice.

It is also a challenge to critically engage with new laws and institutions that we are faced with. These often fall short of legitimate expectations of survivors, victim families and affected communities. They are often compromised, or seek to whitewash old and existing violations and paint a rosy picture of the present situation. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) established earlier this year and the Act on Reparations approved in Parliament last month are examples. But they also offer tiny rays of hope for a minimal degree of redress to at least a few survivors, victim families and affected communities and thus, we should be careful about rejecting them totally or boycotting them. The Right to Information Act and the Commission is an example of a recent development that have provided answers to some citizens who proactively sought answers about what’s hidden – such as military occupied land and military run businesses, entitlements in terms of flood relief etc.

I want to spend some time to talk about another draft law that’s before parliament now. The Counter Terrorism Bill. We must all stand for immediate and long overdue repeal of the PTA – the Prevention of Terrorism Act. But we must resist the temptation to compare the Counter Terrorism Act with the draconian PTA, and instead, focus on looking at extremely problematic clauses of the CTA which have the potential to restrict our rights and takes away essential lifesaving checks and balances in face of arrest and detention. It is not even compulsory to have a female officer question a female. It is not compulsory to serve acknowledgement of arrest and detention to family of the detainee. The draft restricts roles of the judiciary and confers extraordinary powers to the police, military, the Minister and the President. But we must also ask the more fundamental question of why we need a CTA, especially when we have a Public Security Ordinance, which gives enormous discretionary powers to the President to declare emergency regulations? Why do we need a CTA when our constitution allows restrictions on fundamental rights in special circumstances including for national security? When we have around 15 other laws, including those dealing with terrorism, hate speech that may cause communal disharmony, and money laundering? Laws such as the PTA, have served as license for enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and prolonged periods of detention, torture and sexual violence, and crackdowns on freedom of expression, assembly, association and movement. This is true for Sri Lanka and across the world. In Sri Lanka, it is Tamils who have been disproportionately affected by PTA and it is crucial that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) which is the major political alliance representing Tamils in parliament, and also the opposition party, stands for the full repeal of the PTA, highlights the problematic clauses of the new counter terror law and oppose it’s enactment. And I believe all of us, especially Tamils in the North and East, must demand this from the TNA.

Human Rights Education and certificates

We cannot talk about human rights education, human rights courses and diplomas isolated from the above context. I would like to mention three elements I consider to be important in human rights education. One is the need to study philosophy, history, laws, institutions, gaining skills to research, theorise, analyse. Secondly, to learn about rights violations and abuses. Thirdly, to learn about struggles for justice. I have not followed any course or diploma in human rights, and learned the first in the process of the being involved in the second and the third. Unlike the first, the last two cannot be studied from the comfort of meeting rooms, or in hotels, classrooms, libraries or research online. We have to learn about violations and struggles against them from survivors of violations, families of victims and affected communities. By meeting them where they are – such as in their homes, in hospitals, prisons, IDP camps, or by joining them in their struggles – at a roadside protest, a hunger strike, an overnight vigil, in court battles, or negotiating with authorities.

I’m aware that some of you in the class, your friends, and your family members may also be survivors of violations. Some of you maybe already be involved in struggles for justice. I was impressed when most of you following the course agreed to visit the families of disappeared at the overnight roadside protest. And I’m happy to hear that some who participated are involved in LHRC work as volunteers.

Today, you will get a certificate. Receiving a certificate can be a nice feeling, give a sense of achievement, and practically, they can help you advance in your education and career. The certificate is a small indicator of you completing the course on human rights. But the real indicator of learning about human rights will be from what you do to prevent violations, fight against them, and support the struggles of survivors, victim families and affected communities. You may not get certificates when you do this, but instead, face persecution and reprisals from state, from your own community, colleagues, friends and families. I have faced and still face such challenges and often ask myself whether it was worth it. I hope you will rise to this challenge. I hope the course will support the emergence of a new generation of activists and strengthen ongoing struggles for justice.

Sri Lanka’s Stalled Reforms

First published at https://intpolicydigest.org/2018/09/12/sri-lanka-s-stalled-reforms/ on 12th September 2018

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. This interview has been edited lightly.

Three years on, what’s your broad take on the coalition government’s performance? Where does the reform agenda currently stand?

Some reforms have happened since 2015 to varying degrees, but many of the promised reforms have come to a standstill and seem unlikely to happen by next year.

The release of some lands occupied by the military after months of protests, the release and indictments of some political prisoners, more space for free expression and assembly compared to years under the previous regime, arrests of some Navy and Army personnel in relation to a couple of disappearance cases, convictions of Police and Army personnel (for torture, killing of civilians and rape), are also some positive things seen since 2015. The passing of the 19th amendment to the constitution reducing the powers of the executive president and strengthening independent institutions and checks and balances, the ratification of the International Convention Against Enforced Disappearances and making this a crime in Sri Lanka, the passing of the Right to Information Act were some progressive legislative changes – while the proactiveness and independence displayed by the leadership of the Human Rights Commission and the Right to Information Commission were also positive features.

But the reluctance of the government and lack of leadership by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe to carry forward the reform agenda overshadows these gains. Much of the land occupied by the military during and after the war still remains in their hands. Releases were often due to long drawn out overnight protests and direct action by affected communities. The possibilities of reconciliation through land releases was negatively affected by the arrogance and viciousness of the military – who after benefitting from decades of occupation, called the return of lands “gifts,” organized ceremonies for themselves where military leaders were glorified and had destroyed and damaged some properties just before handing them over.

Political prisoners acquitted by courts after up to 15 years in detention have received no apology or reparations and many still languish in prison, including based on confessions made during detention, which are likely to have been under duress. The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) has not been withdrawn despite the commitment to do so three years ago. Alternatives to the PTA were drafted in utmost secrecy from the citizenry and leaked versions contained draconian provisions. Abduction, assaults, death threats, intimidation, discrediting and surveillance of activists continues. An attempt to bring in a draconian amendment to the Voluntary Social Services Organizations Act was only withdrawn in the face of stiff opposition from civil activists and organizations. Violence against Muslims and Christians continued, including on a mass scale, such as in March this year around Kandy. Debt has reached life-threatening proportions.

Three years after ambitious promises to set up institutions to deal with wartime abuses, only one, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up, and that too is limping forward. A draft bill was rushed through the cabinet to establish an Office for Reparations. There is not even draft legislation for the two other institutions promised – a truth commission and judicial mechanism with a special counsel. The president, prime minister and other politicians have backtracked on the promise to include foreign judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and investigators in the judicial mechanism. 

More specifically, what do you expect to happen in terms of constitution-building?

There has been some progress, with some public consultations, six subcommittee reports and a steering committee report from the Constitutional Assembly, consisting of all the parliamentarians. However, there is a lot of uncertainty about whether a new constitution will see the light of day. Even if it does, there are serious concerns about whether it will bring substantial changes – such as the inclusion of economic, social and cultural rights as justiciable rights, doing away with ancient laws that facilitate the applicability of discriminatory laws against women and children, providing the foremost place to the majority religion and a lesser place to other religions, abolition of the executive presidency and power-sharing arrangements, which is also crucial for resolving the ethnic conflict that led to war.

How effective will the Office on Missing Persons be?

The OMP has been functioning for just over six months, but it’s too early to tell how effective it will be. OMP members tried make up for a lack of consultations before it was set up, by having a series of consultations about how it should function. It has stronger enabling legislation than previous Commissions of Inquiry and the chairperson and members have shown sensitivities in acknowledging the frustration, disappointment and anger of many families of the disappeared and missing who have approached multiple commissions, police, courts, et cetera and not received the answers they are seeking. But other than passionate appeals to give the OMP a chance and stating that they will try to do better than previous government initiatives, and publishing an interim report, I have seen nothing to indicate the OMP will be more effective than the large number of previous Commissions of Inquiry. The inclusion of a senior retired Army officer as a member of the OMP, in a context where many families believe their relatives were taken away by the Army (and where Army personnel have been convicted by courts and both Army and Navy personnel have been arrested on suspicion in relation to disappearances), has also contributed to making many families of the disappeared lose confidence in the OMP and be skeptical. It is this anger, suspicion and frustration that have led to protests against the OMP by some families of disappeared, leading to even the unacceptable situation of them blocking other families of the disappeared from engaging with the OMP. 

The first major specific public promise made by the OMP was to release an interim report on the 30th of August – the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. But instead of fulfilling this promise, the OMP postponed the release of the report – in order to hand over the report first to the president, though they have no legal obligation to do so. Though this may be a strategic decision by the OMP, it has led to concerns that the OMP is prioritizing presidential appeasement and not giving primacy to the families of the disappeared and missing. The report dated the 30th of August was presented to the president on the 5th of September and released to the public on the 6th.

Despite the history of reports and recommendations by previous Commissions of Inquiry, much of which have been ignored by successive governments, the OMP too has opted to prioritize another report with observations and recommendations. This is despite the OMP being legally empowered to provide welfare services, trace the disappeared and inform the families.

The recommendations in the report include amendments to existing laws to strengthen the legal framework in criminalizing and prosecuting enforced disappearances, that state officials including members of the armed forces and police who are named as suspects or accused in relation to abductions and enforced disappearances should be suspended and not transferred, promoted or offered any other office, publishing a list of detention centers and detainees, designating a national day for the disappeared, preserving sites of mass graves as memorial spaces and restoring a monument for Sinhalese youth that disappeared in late 1980s that was destroyed by the previous government.

Disappointingly, the OMP has not called on the government to release a list of those who surrendered to the Army at the end of the war, many of whom disappeared afterwards. The release of this list has been a central demand made to the president and also to the OMP by Tamil families who have been at continuous roadside protests for more than 550 days. The OMP has also opted to call for reform of some provisions of the draconian PTA instead of total repeal, without questioning the need for counterterrorism legislation, which has a history of abuse in Sri Lanka and across the world. 

The report also has some constructive and practical recommendations on “interim relief,” including a monthly cash payment and other facilities related to debt relief, housing, education, employment and livelihood development.

Observations and recommendations in the interim report are significant and important, but unlikely to impress families of the disappeared. What would have made a difference is if the OMP had done in the first six months or will do in the next few months what many families of disappeared have asked them to do and that they have a legal mandate to do: Establish the fate and whereabouts of a few of the disappeared and inform their families. Or at least start providing information relating to the status of investigations, on individual cases, to respective families. The interim report says the OMP started to carry out inquiries with relevant authorities on specific cases. However, even statistical and general information about progress made is not mentioned in the report.

Would you talk about some of the criticisms surrounding the creation of the Office for Reparations?

As is the usual custom of this government, the draft bill had been drafted in secret, without adequate consultations before it was approved by the cabinet. On the draft bill, there are concerns about unnecessary powers being granted to the cabinet and parliament, making the awarding of reparations a long drawn, politicized process and the office not being an independent one with decision-making powers.

What about President Sirisena’s plan to reinstate the death penalty?

This was a shock, as for more than 40 years, through civil war and insurrections, Sri Lanka was one of 29 countries that had maintained a moratorium on the death penalty. Another 106 countries had abolished it fully by 2017, and only 23 countries were known to have carried out executions in 2017. There is no evidence in Sri Lanka, or in other countries, that the death penalty has reduced crime by having a deterrent effect. In Sri Lanka, there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system, including a lack of easily accessible, quality legal aid. 

The death penalty is an irreversible form of punishment which grants no space to consider new evidence that may emerge after a conviction is made, for example through new technology, indicating a wrongful conviction. It has been pointed out that in countries such as America, Canada and the United Kingdom, people wrongly convicted have been released from death row decades after they were put there as new evidence has shown they were wrongfully imprisoned.

If some detainees are engaged in drug-related offences from within prison grounds, cited as a reason to reintroduce the death penalty, security in prisons must be strengthened, including by using new technology, without infringing on the rights of detainees. Prison officials responsible for such crimes from within prisons must be held accountable.

What Sri Lanka must do is ratify the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that calls for the abolition of the death penalty and abolish the death penalty from our books, as about 85 countries had done by the end of 2017.

How concerned are you about reports of abduction and torture since Sirisena became president?

Abductions have continued since President Sirisena took office – in the war-affected North, and even in Colombo in 2017, such as the abduction of the trade union leader and attempted abduction of a student activist. However, many abducted appear to have been released, though I’m also aware of those who have disappeared under this government and not been found.

Attacks, threats, intimidation and surveillance of families of the disappeared campaigning for truth and justice have also continued under President Sirisena. Their supporters, including activists and journalists have also been attacked, threatened, obstructed and interrogated. Several such incidents were reported in July this year; I had mentioned two in an article I wrote last month.

The continuation of torture too has been a major concern under the Sirisena presidency.

Will provincial council elections be held this year?

There is no certainty when provincial elections will be held.

What’s your assessment of a possible Gotabaya Rajapaksa presidential campaign? Who do you see as viable candidates for the presidency?

Rajapaksa political forces have always been strong, even in 2015, and appear to be gaining ground in the face of failures by the present coalition government. Despite much hype beforehand, the “Jana Balaya” (People’s Power) rally in Colombo on the 5th didn’t indicate mass public support for Rajapaksa-led political forces and there didn’t even appear to be a clear and strong political message from the rally. Though Gotabaya was seen participating in the rally, he didn’t play a leading role and there is also uncertainty about whether he will be a presidential candidate for the Joint Opposition, representing Rajapaksa political forces. There is also no clear indication whether Sirisena – Wickremesinghe and their allies will contest together or separately, and if together, who might be a “common candidate.” But the rather unexpected emergence of Sirisena as a successful presidential candidate, with a broad alliance of political and civil forces’ support, makes me wonder whether there could be another person who could gain widespread support, across political and civil forces – but I only hope it would be one that will not let us down like Sirisena has done.

DISAPPEARANCES IN SRI LANKA: 500 DAYS OF PROTESTS

First published in the Sunday Observer of 29th July 2018 http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2018/07/29/opinion/disappearances-sri-lanka-500-days-protests

Earlier this month female activists in the North and the East were subject to assault and other intimidation, which allegedly appears to be in relation to their work on disappearances, in courts and at the UN.

The Office of Missing Persons consultation meetings in Jaffna and Kilinochchi also met with fierce resistance by some families of the disappeared. July also saw the first significant solidarity protest in Colombo to mark 500 days of roadside protests by families of the disappeared in the North and the East.

Two weeks ago, I went to Jaffna Hospital to visit an activist I have known for many years. Her head was bandaged, left eye and cheek swollen and bruised. She had been attacked with an iron rod close to the Vaddukottai Police Station in the Jaffna district. The activist had been assisting families of the disappeared and lawyers in habeas corpus cases in Jaffna courts. According to documents filed in court and based on the magisterial inquiry, the military is allegedly implicated in the disappearances.

These disappearances had happened in 1996, when Jaffna was under Army control, under the Presidency of Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is now Chairperson of the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR). The activist was attacked three days after the last hearing of the case.

She had been warned by an unidentified person not to get involved in the case. Others involved in the case have also been subject to intimidation in the past few months.

Two days before, I had met a Tamil activist from the East, whose husband had been a victim of an enforced disappearance. Having had no response from Sri Lankan authorities, she had for the first time, gone to Geneva to seek help from the UN Human Rights Council.

There, an event she was speaking at was disrupted by group of persons she suspects to be linked to the military. After the disruption, she fainted while at the head-table, had to receive immediate medical treatment and was later hospitalised.

Her trauma continued when she returned. She told me that as she was looking for her baggage in the airport, she was questioned by some officials at the airport. After reaching home, she alleged that she was interrogated by people suspected to be from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) about meetings she had at the UN in Geneva.

A few days later, an iron rod was thrown at her, when she was on a bicycle with her son in her hometown.

The brutal attack on the Jaffna disappearance activist happened while the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was holding consultations in the town. The next day, OMP held a similar meeting in Kilinochchi. From the Jaffna hospital, I went to the OMP meeting in Kilinochchi, arriving earlier than the scheduled 9.30 a.m. I found the small access road crowded with protesters, mostly Tamil mothers and wives of those disappeared. Some of them had been protesting for more than 500 days continually, had met the Sri Lankan President several times, and complained to various state institutions and Commissions of Inquiries.

Frustrated and fed up, they had no faith in new institutions. They politely and patiently explained this to the equally polite and patient Chairman of the OMP, who had come out to the street to talk to them. The protest leaders agreed with OMP Chair’s appeal not to obstruct families who wanted to attend the OMP meeting, but insisted on their right to communicate their message to families going for the meeting. I observed that some such attempts bordered on physical obstruction, though the road and gate was cleared for anyone to go to the OMP building.

Some families who were keen to go to the OMP meeting, argued with protesters, with one elderly lady telling a protest leader “you deal with your son’s disappearance the way you want, I will deal with disappearance of my son the way I want”.

While I share the frustrations of protesting families, I hope their leaders will find more respectful ways of engaging with families of disappeared who want to engage with the OMP.

In the end, only about 10 families attended the meeting with OMP. During the meeting, one family of the disappeared asked the OMP to deliver justice instead of having meeting-after-meeting. Another shared the belief that a 15 year old child taken away by the LTTE was still alive and another stressed the importance of livelihood assistance. The question of those who had disappeared after surrendering to the Army was also raised.

500 days of day and night protests

From the Kilinochchi OMP meeting, I went to Vavuniya, to spend some time with families of the disappeared who have been protesting day and night at a roadside tent for more than 500 days. They shared difficulties of sustaining such a long protest. Anger and disappointment with the Government, Tamil politicians, media, activists and society in general was visible. I again felt weakening health conditions and resolve of some protesters and a few days after my visit, I heard about the death of the eighth protestor who had died during the 500 days. It was also sad to see escalating tensions between protesting families with activists, politicians and even non-protesting families of the disappeared, inevitable given their hostile, inhospitable, frustrating and traumatic experiences.

Although the families must finally decide about how to protest, it would be insensitive to encourage continued protests in the context of authorities, media and society at large that are not sympathetic to their plight. Elderly and physically and emotionally frail mothers and fathers who are protesting are vulnerable to harsh conditions. I had always hoped protesters will consider forms of continuing protests less harmful to themselves, so, I was relieved to hear last week that some of the protesters had decided to change strategy.

Challenges facing families and the OMP

In my conversations with families of disappeared, food, education, healthcare, housing and livelihoods have emerged as major challenges to families of the disappeared – and especially to those protesting for 500 days. Once, when I arrived at a protest site late morning, the protesters had not had any breakfast. Families at one protest site told me that they get five lunch packets from a local trader and share them.

The latest attacks on Tamil women disappearance activists in North and East comes after the vicious hate campaign including death threats against the brave and determined Sandya Ekneligoda, a Sinhalese from a Colombo suburb and wife of a disappeared journalist. Such attacks may deter activism and increase anger, frustration and suspicion against the judiciary or institutions such as the OMP, and radicalise families and others.

Families of the disappeared confront the OMP with the legacy of broken promises by successive Governments and the failures of past Commissions to provide redress. To their mind, there is no compelling reason to trust that the OMP will deliver. Families who have been deceived and dismissed repeatedly even by the current ruling administration will not be convinced by technical answers about how the OMP is different to other mechanisms.

Discussions between protestors and the OMP Chair and Members in Kilinochchi and their memo to the Office indicate they were open to engage conditionally with the mechanism and should be taken seriously. After five months of operation, the OMP does not appear to have started tracing the disappeared and missing. The challenge for the OMP is to deliver on actions and in months, rather than years.

Solidarity

This note would not be complete without mention of the 30-hour overnight protest vigil in Colombo to show support and solidarity towards the 500 days continuing protests by Tamil families of the disappeared in the North and the East. It was a first such solidarity action in Colombo and a personal initiative of a small group of committed young activists. It was heartening to have few Sinhalese and Muslim families of the disappeared from around Colombo such as Sandya Ekneligoda, Mauri Jayasena and Sithi join us. Some people walking by and the occasional trishaw and motorcycle stopped and asked for details. Both drivers of the two trishaws I got in chatted with me about it. Others in vehicles, including Army officers, opened their windows and accepted our information leaflet.

As they wait for answers from the Government and institutions such as the OMP and judiciary about their loved ones, families of the disappeared deserve more coverage by mainstream Sinhalese and English media. And they need continued solidarity from Sri Lankan society and internationally. The struggle of the families must become a struggle of all Sri Lankans.

(The writer is a human rights activist)

366 days – Roadside Protests in Kilinochchi

First published at http://groundviews.org/2018/02/22/366-days-roadside-protests-in-kilinochchi/ on 22nd Feb. 2018

366 days (as of 20th Feb) is a long time to be at a 24 hour roadside protest. That’s how long Tamil families of disappeared in Kilinochchi have been there. In the coming days and weeks, protests by families of disappeared in Vavuniya, Mullaithivu, Maruthankerny (Jaffna district) and Trincomalee will also reach one year.

Most of the protesters were elderly mothers and fathers and those physically and mentally injured by the war. They have been braving the sun, rain, cold, dust, insects, mosquitos etc. Some had been hospitalised. I was told 7 women had died during the past 366 days. One woman leading the protest in Mullaitivu was assaulted, and received threats to stop. The protestors have been subjected to constant surveillance. While protesting, they had also struggled to take care of their other children at home, engage in livelihoods, find the bus fare to come to the protest site and a range of other practical problems. From the day I first met them one year ago, and through subsequent visits, I have seen them getting sick, hungry, cold, sweating, their spirit and physical strength deteriorating. But they have not given up.

They have told me that their protest is not leveled against the government, military or anyone else. They just want to know whether their disappeared children, grandchildren, husbands, are alive or dead. Many believe their loved ones are alive and want to know where they are being held. They want to see them. If dead, they want to know what happened and to receive their remains. Many protesting families had seen their loved ones surrendering to the Army in front of their own eyes, after which they were never seen again.

The beginning and evolution of the protests  

The protests started with some families of the disappeared in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January 2017. One of the leaders, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, has a 2015 election campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of the elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting happened, but was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, who the families didn’t want to attend. The TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, the TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. The meeting never yielded anything, and after waiting for two more weeks, the families in Vavuniya recommenced their protests, which will reach one year on 24th February 2018. Around the same time, protests started in four other places in the North and East.

Other forms of struggles and the ethnic factor

Not all Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East are involved in these protests. Several have filed Habeas Corpus cases, which are pending in courts in Jaffna, Mullaithivu, Vavuniya, Mannar and Colombo. Last year, some families of Tamil men who were taken away by the Army in 1996 in Jaffna, filed fresh Habeas Corpus applications. Based on this, an Army officer alleged to have been responsible and now serving as a Major General in Mannar, has been summoned to appear before courts. In different cases filed in Mannar and Colombo in relation to different incidents, Police investigations have revealed the complicity of the Navy in disappearances. Last year, families of the disappeared in Mannar published a book with the stories of their loved ones. There have also been been protests on significant days, such as on International Human Rights day and the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

To me, in a way, the yearlong protests in five places symbolises the hard and long struggles waged by vast majority of families of disappeared.

There is also an ethnic factor in the protests and campaigns. A large number of Sinhalese have also disappeared, mostly in the late 1980s. Their families, through movements such as the Mothers Front and supported by domestic and international rights activists and politicians that included former President Mahinda Rajapakse and present Minister Mangala Samaraweera, campaigned heavily for truth and justice in the 1990s, which was a factor in toppling the repressive UNP government of that time. But in recent years, Sinhalese families have not been campaigning so visibly, with a few exceptions like Sandya Ekneligoda and Mauri Jayasena, whose husbands had disappeared in 2010 and 2013 respectively.

Support for the protests

The last few years, especially in 2017, have also seen many protests in Sri Lanka. The most visible had been a series of sustained protests by students against the privatisation of health & education. There was also a several month-long overnight protest in Colombo against the exploitative manpower system by workers. Communities negatively affected by development projects, such as in Jaffna, Bandarawela and Colombo have also been protesting, while there were also protests against caste-based oppression by communities in Jaffna and campaigns demanding justice and freedom for political prisoners, which included a fast by 3 prisoners.  Month-long day and night protests were also held in the North, demanding back lands occupied by the military. Some of these protests had achieved their aims, while some ended without clear results.

But along with protests to regain military occupied lands in the North, the protests by families of disappeared are the longest running. The protests by families of disappeared has also been internationalised and seem to be protests that had become most controversial and immensely political, despite the deeply personal nature of the problem. This is probably why there have been very few sympathisers and even less number of people who want to actively support the protests.

Although some Northern Tamil politicians and political commentators appear to be ignoring the protests and not recognising their significance, the protests had received significant support and sympathy in the North. Hindu and Christian clergy and institutions, journalists, university students, three wheel taxi drivers and shop owners etc. have extended support, in addition to politicians and activists. However, solidarity and support from rest of the country, especially from Colombo, has been minimal. Despite all the protests being led by women, with the majority of participants also being women, Colombo-based women’s movements both new and old, don’t appear to be actively supporting their sisters at the protests.

A prominent exception has been Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, who had been travelling to the North and East to join the protesters regularly. She was also able to mobilise a few other Muslim, Sinhalese and Tamil families of disappeared from around Colombo to join in solidarity.

Considering the unprecedented longevity, widespread nature and intensity of the protests and the desperation of the protesters, there has been minimal media coverage of the protests on mainstream Sinhalese and English media. Other Colombo-centric protests and struggles, such as one against the privatisation of health and education by university students and against the sexual abuse of children in an orphanage in Colombo, received much more mainstream media coverage. I can’t help wondering whether the political controversy about the protests, the ethnic factor and the fact that these were happening in the North and East may have deterred Sinhalese and English media from giving adequate coverage.

Domestic and International dimensions

On the 100th day of the protest in Kilinochchi, the protesters blocked the A9 road for about 5 hours and demanded to meet the President. Since then, the President had met the protesters at least thrice, but he had let them down badly – breaking the promises and also the trust and hope they placed on him. The protesters had also met Ministers and other Government officials. They had also tried to engage with Sinhalese public, with appeals and banners in Sinhalese. But in contrast to this approach of the families, a statement issued in solidarity with the protests by organizations working primarily in the North and East focused their demands on the international community. However, a lack of response, support and sympathy from within Sri Lanka, coupled with a push from some Tamil activists and politicians, appear to have made the families also lean more and more towards foreign diplomats and UN officials to find the answers they are seeking.

The future of the protests

The protests are far from over. And the answers sought by the protesters still seem distant. Their courage and determination has been exceptional, but the cost on protesters has been very heavy. The future of the protests has to be and will be decided by the families. But as the five protests complete one year, I hope they can have the space to assess what has been achieved and plan ahead, perhaps to a transit to a different form of struggle, which may be more sustainable, less costly on themselves and have the potential to bring them closer to the answers they are seeking.  It is also a time for those of us who have been associated or sympathetic towards the protests and the cause, to have self-reflections about roles we have played and could have played, and see how better we can support continuing struggles in the longer term, and mobilise more support.

Sri Lankans must push the government to fulfill its undertakings

First published at https://international.la-croix.com/news/sri-lankans-must-push-the-government-to-fulfill-its-undertakings/6374 on 18th Nov. 2017

The people of Sri Lanka should be wary of depending too much on international involvement – like UN experts – in ensuring the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

Successive Sri Lankan governments have ratified various international human rights’ treaties, but they are still being found wanting on home turf.

These treaties include provisions against torture, discrimination, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention. They protect freedom of expression, assembly, association and religion as well as rights to equality before the law, housing, education, and healthcare.

There are also specific measures set out in these treaties covering women, children, migrant workers and people with disabilities.

However, many Sri Lankans are still denied these rights and justice after violations during the war. The government has received more than 65,000 complaints of disappeared persons and there is no clarity about numbers killed – UN has said it could be about 70,000.

The Sri Lankan government has made a series of commitments to all its citizens, focusing on abuses of the 26-year civil war that ended in 2009 with the defeat of the LTTE which fought for a separate state.

This includes prosecution of human rights violations and establishing an effective “Office of Missing Persons” as well as a mechanism to deal with reparations. Lack of progress on these issues led to series of public protests.

There have been a series of visits by United Nations rights’ experts and officials. Superficially, this looks impressive.

However, an actual implementation of their recommendations — as well as fulfillment of commitments the government has made to Sri Lankans — is far from imposing.

And during a recent visit by UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Greiff, the government took the unprecedented step of stating it is not bound to implement UN expert recommendations.

Anyway, a democratically elected government should not be waiting for UN findings and recommendations in order to ensure the upholding of rights, dignity, and well-being of its citizens.

As I write this, the Sri Lankan parliament is debating proposed constitutional changes following a public consultation process.

People from all walks of life presented their grievances, aspirations, and suggestions, about a wide range of issues, covering historical and structural injustices related to the war and beyond.

However, many recommendations on issues such as power sharing — as well as gender, economic and social rights — appear unlikely to be implemented.

Some leading Buddhist monks and the Bar Association of Sri Lanka, are now questioning even the need for a new constitution. If there is a new constitution, it’s likely to be a political compromise.

But at the minimum, I hope it will include a strong bill of rights and a further devolution of power. And measures to address injustices committed during or arising from the civil war and preventing such occurrences again.

On the ground, despite some positive changes, recurrence of old abuses is part of daily life, especially for Tamils in the war-ravaged north.

For example, restrictions continue on the formal mourning of war dead. The military is still occupying large amounts of public and private lands and intruding into civilian activities.

And although the level of abuses is less than under previous government, even in 2017, there are reports of abductions and torture. There are also fresh arrests under a draconian anti-terror law that the government promised to repeal two years ago, under which I’m still under investigation after nearly 4 years.

De Greiff rightly suggested it was wrong to equate reconciliation and transitional justice only to criminal accountability.

But it is surprising that he did not highlight the government’s backtracking on a commitment it made two years ago to establish a special judicial mechanism.

It envisaged the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and investigators, in context of a large number of Sri Lankan survivors and victim’s families failed to obtain justice through domestic legal mechanisms.

And it is strange that De Greiff presented the cost of delaying land releases in terms of a disincentive for foreign investors more than as a major problem for ordinary local people. Overall, his comments don’t appear to reflect the desperation, frustration, and anger of victims and their families.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is preparing to present an update on Sri Lanka to the UN Human Rights Council in March next year.

I hope the update will present a realistic assessment and insist on a timetable with clear benchmarks for implementation of commitments the government has already made to its citizens.

I also hope member states of the UN will be wary of heaping premature and disproportionate praise on Sri Lankan government’s empty rhetoric and promises.

International involvement in transitional justice is essential.

However, Sri Lankans should be wary of depending too much on international involvement without pushing our government to fulfill its own undertakings.

“We vehemently refuse to be deceived again”: Protests by families of disappeared, continuing abductions and empty promises

First published on 30th August 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/08/30/we-vehemently-refuse-to-be-deceived-again-protests-by-families-of-disappeared-continuing-abductions-and-empty-promises/

Above was the last line in a press release issued on 17th August, by Association for Relatives for Enforced Disappeared in Kilinochchi district, at a press conference in Colombo. It came in context of 6 month long protests by Tamil families of disappeared in the North and East, and empty promises by President Sirisena and much talk about a new Office of Missing Persons.

Today, 30th August, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances[i]. The above could be a good start to reflect about preventing disappearances and searching for truth, justice and reparations for disappearances that has happened in Sri Lanka. Three trends come to my mind.

Reports of continuing abductions / disappearances and threats to those campaigning

Earlier this month, an activist based in the North was reported to have gone missing[ii]. Last month, there were reports of an attempted abduction of a student activist in Colombo[iii]. Earlier this year, a trade union leader was abducted in Colombo and released after being warned to “mind his own business”. The latter two had happened at the height of protests by students and workers. Based on sworn statements of survivors, the International Truth and Justice Project has reported 21 persons having been abducted / illegally detained and subjected to torture or sexual violence in 2016 and 3 in 2017[iv]. I couldn’t find information about the fate of the first person, but the others have been released, some after warnings and some after paying money. Two weeks ago, the wife of a disappeared man reported having being slapped and warned of “severe consequences” if she didn’t give up the (6 month long) protest she had been part of[v]. And in March 2017, soldiers were reported to have photographed, followed and threatened Northern journalists who were on an assignment to cover a protest by families of disappeared. The soldiers had insisted that the journalists needed to get soldier’s permission[vi]. All of the above, except the trade unionist and student activist, were Tamils.

Lack of answers after six months of protests and meetings with the government

Tamil families of disappeared, largely women, have been engaged in continuous and indefinite protests in five locations in the North and East, for about 6 months. One of their primary demands is that President Sirisena keep a promise he made to them to “release lists of persons who surrendered to the Armed forces in the final phase of the war”[vii] on 12th June 2017. Sinhalese family members of disappeared, like Mauri Jayasena from Anuradhapura also continued their unceasing campaigns to find truth and justice for their disappeared husbands. But despite multiple engagement and dialogues with the government, there have been no answers to them.

Empty promises of institutions and laws

The above trends appear to be largely ignored by the government, and those sympathetic and supportive to it. Instead, they there is optimistic talk about the OMP and a draft bill criminalizing disappearances. Almost as if disappearances in Sri Lanka could be addressed only through these, while ignoring continuing abductions, threats to campaigners, long protests and empty promises.

These three trends indicates a serious disconnect in addressing disappearances in Sri Lanka. But it doesn’t have to be so. The protesting families and many of their supporters are also expecting the law criminalizing disappearances to be enacted sooner than later[viii]. And they are supporting a victim centric, effective, independent OMP to be set up soon and have repeatedly made practical contributions towards this[ix]. They have been engaging with numerous Ministers, Government officials, at the protest sites and also by coming to Colombo. Several families leading the protests and some of their supporters had also served in the Zonal Task Force of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, a government initiative.

But how could families of disappeared have faith in promised institutions and laws when reports of abductions continue to emerge and there are reprisals against campaigners, and when there is no indication of firm, fast and transparent action against those responsible? Other key factors to bridge the disconnect will be if President can keep the promises he made, and if there is more sensitivity and support towards mothers, wives, fathers who have been at roadside protests in the North and East from rest of the country.

Evolution of the protests

The protests started with families of disappeared persons in Vavuniya staging a fast unto death in January this year, demanding information about their family members who had disappeared. Their leader, Jeyavanitha, a Tamil mother, clutches a campaign leaflet of President Sirisena and asserts that one of the school girls in uniform next to the President is her daughter.

As health conditions of elderly women fasting in Vavuniya deteriorated, the State Minister of Defense met the families at the protest site. He promised a meeting with several senior Ministers in Colombo, and families agreed to temporarily suspend the protest. That meeting was marred by controversy, as the government had invited some Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MPs, which the families didn’t want. TNA MPs had eventually left, but based on what the State Minister for Defense had told him, TNA Spokesperson reported to media that the families wanted priority for their own family member’s cases. Several of those actually present at the meeting till the end told me that they never asked for this, and insisted on answers to all families of disappeared. More than 6 months after, the meeting had not yielded anything. But in meantime, the families had waited for two weeks and recommenced their protests, which has now exceeded 6 months in it’s second phase.

The Vavuniya protests appeared to have triggered series of protests by other Tamil families of disappeared, with protests starting in Maruthankerny, Mullaithivu and Killinochchi in the North and Trincomalee in the East. Most at the vigil were women. They had to battle cold nights at the beginning and then the heat, dust and rain. While participating in these protests on behalf of disappeared children, women had to send other children to school and worried about safety of teenaged girls at home. Some went to work and came to the protest site in the night. During my visits to them from January to August, I sensed dejection, desperation and waning of spirit and physical strength. But families have disappeared have held on till now.

On 30th May, after 100 days of protesting, the families in Kilinochchi, convened a larger protest, with families of disappeared from all major districts in North and others from East and few from Colombo joining them. Police tried to obtain a court order to prevent it, but the Magistrate refused. Protesters rejected meetings with the Prime Minister and yet another “Committee”, but after a 5 hour blockade of the major A9 road to north, during which only ambulances were allowed to pass, they obtained a meeting with the President, which happened on 12th June – in which the President made promises that have not been fulfilled todate.

The protesters had tried to reach out to Sinhalese, through appeals, letters and banners in Sinhalese. Despite their desperate situations, and weariness in repeating their stories and being photographed by strangers I took with me everytime I visited, we were always warmly welcomed and even offered meals. Some expressed disappointment about lack of support from activists from Colombo and other parts of the country, and from Tamils in the North itself. Two weeks ago, the families came to Colombo to reach out to Colombo based media.

A few Hindu Temples, Churches, shop owners, journalists and Tamil diaspora groups had extended support by providing food. The protest in Kilinochchi has been held in the premises of the Kandasamy Temple. University students, auto drivers, shop owners, clergy have also extended symbolic support by visiting and in April, a day of hartal was observed across the North. Few Sinhalese, Muslim and Tamil families of disappeared, including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda and an award winning prominent activist, travelled several times from Colombo to extend solidarity and support. 

OMP

The President has been stalling the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP), promised in September 2015, and for which legislation was rushed through in August 2016, bypassing promised consultations with families of disappeared and public. Then, after 10 months of silence and apparent loss of interest, an amendment was passed by parliament, removing an article that enabled the OMP to enter into agreements with external parties. Suggestions by families of disappeared were not even considered as amendments. And finally, last month, a gazette notice was issued, assigning the OMP to a ministry held by the president – when the constitution prohibits the President from holding this ministry. The requirement in the OMP Act to gazette a date OMP will come into effect is yet to be fulfilled, and there is no indication when this will be done. If the OMP is established under the present ministry it has been assigned to, it’s legal standing is questionable. And so, nearly 2 years after the promise, there is still no OMP, there is no time line for its establishment, leave alone when it will give answers to families who have been waiting for decades.

The OMP is latest of number of Commissions of Inquiries appointed by successive Sri Lankan governments, to address disappearances. According to the government, more than 65,000 complaints have been received by these Commissions since 1994[x]. Despite promises made nearly two years ago, the government has failed to publish key reports of previous Commissions, such as the Mahanama Tillekeratne and Paranagama Commission, the latter having functioned under both the previous and present government.

The government has made legislative provisions have been made to issue Certificates of Absence, but it’s not clear what procedures have been put in place to actually issue these.  Earlier this month, I met government officials across the Killinochchi district who told me they had not heard anything about this.

The government ratified the International Convention against Enforced Disappearances, but without accepting article 31 that will allow families of disappeared and other Sri Lankans to complain to the UN Committee monitoring the implementation of the convention.  The government has also promised to criminalize enforced disappearances,  but that too has not happened for nearly two years. A draft bill was expected to have been debated in parliament, but was postponed indefinitely. And at the same time, the government has failed to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and counter terrorism laws are being drafted without any public consultations, containing draconian provisions that can serve as license for enforced disappearances.

Economic justice

Despite widespread poverty amongst families of disappeared, there are no systematic initiatives to ensure economic justice for families. For many families, poverty is linked to the disappearance of the main breadwinner of the family. The right of the families to reparations has been relegated to an Office for Reparations, an entity that is likely to take even longer than the OMP to be established. There has been no response from the government to appeals for interim relief. But, even amongst supporters of families of disappeared, and amongst families themselves, there appears to be reluctance to talk about this important aspect. This is probably due to fear that it may undermine demands for truth and criminal justice, including through offers of minimalistic, temporary and unsustainable financial and material assistance. “We want our children, not chicken or certificates” thus became a slogan at protests and during hearings of Commissions of Inquiries. Administrative measures such as certificates of justice, interim relief measures or sustainable livelihoods, must be seen as a right by itself that compliments and not substitutes rights to truth and criminal justice. Protests, court cases, international campaigns etc. are likely to be more stronger, sustainable and independent if families of disappeared, especially mothers and wives, have stable livelihoods and are able to feed, educate, house, provide healthcare for one’s children who are still with them.

Moving forward

It’s important for the OMP to be operational as soon as possible, firmly rooted within constitutional provisions, with no ambiguity about its legal standing. At least at this stage, the recommendations of the families of disappeared should be taken seriously, including having families of disappeared and individuals of integrity and competence, who have confidence of many families of disappeared, women, ethnic and religious minorities in leadership positions. Independent international involvement is a must. And the government should criminalize enforced disappearances, upholding the spirit and letter of the International Convention, before the OMP begins its operations.

But the OMP should not be the only focus. The families of disappeared await response of the President to promises he made to release lists of detainees, surrendees and detention centres and publishing of Commission of Inquiry reports that many of them gave testimony to. In context of broken promises in the past, they don’t have much faith in the President’s promises. Hence, they have decided to continue the protests while awaiting a response. But there appears to be little support for these 6 month long protests and urgent demands of the families from the mainstream media and most activists in North & East, Colombo and rest of the country.

This is also a time for families of disappeared to assess their long struggles, recognize some achievements and plan next steps and phases of what is likely to be an even long and continuing struggle. This could include thinking of effective, long term and sustainable alternative strategies to present form of continuous protests. It would be important to think about strengthening alliances in Colombo and across Sri Lanka as well as internationally – with families of disappeared across the country and beyond, and potential allies such as activists, artists, academics, clergy, trade unions and mainstream Sinhalese and English media. The disastrous memorandum emanating from protest in Vavuniya in June, literary saying “we only believe in USA, only USA can help us, USA come and save us”, could serve as a wakeup call for all Sri Lankans. To be conscious of various political influences  on the protests, but not to dismiss what’s fundamentally a struggle by desperate families to find their loved ones who had disappeared. And 30th August can also be a day to reflect why our elderly mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers, had to resort to such desperate and drastic calls, undertaking roadside protests for more than 6 months to find disappeared family members.


[i] http://www.un.org/en/events/disappearancesday/

[ii] https://twitter.com/garikaalan/status/900005138412191744

[iii] http://www.hirunews.lk/166456/two-ministers-accuse-police-for-their-attempt-to-abduct-convener-medical-faculty-student-activists

[iv] http://www.itjpsl.com/assets/ITJP_unstopped_report_final.pdf (page 8, section 1 – B)

[v] http://www.jdslanka.org/index.php/news-features/human-rights/702-tamil-woman-activist-campaigning-for-disappeared-threatened-with-death

[vi] http://www.tamilguardian.com/content/tamil-journalists-threatened-sri-lankan-soldiers

[vii] https://english.dgi.gov.lk/news/latest-news/1265-president-meets-family-members-of-missing-persons

[viii] https://www.slguardian.org/2017/07/sri-lanka-womens-call/

[ix] Press Release by Association for Relatives of the Disappeared, 17th August 2017

[x] http://www.mfa.gov.lk/index.php/en/media/media-releases/6502-cabinet-certificates-of-absence

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.

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.

Sri Lanka’s Transitional Moment and Transitional Justice

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

Within the first month after winning the parliamentary elections in August 2015, the new Government made a series of commitments related to transitional justice. These were articulated through a speech by the Foreign Minister at the 30th session of the UN Human Rights Council.[1] These commitments were also reflected in the resolution on Sri Lanka that was adopted by the Human Rights Council on 1 October 2015.[2] The resolution came just after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights had published a report which alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity and other serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian laws, by both the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.[3]

Government’s commitments 

The present Government’s commitments included setting up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP), a Commission for Truth, Justice, and Guarantees of Non-reoccurrence, a Judicial mechanism with Special Counsel, which will have the participation of foreign judges, prosecutors, investigators and defence lawyers, and an Office for Reparations. The Government also committed to reduce the military’s role in civilian affairs, facilitate livelihoods, repeal and reform the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), criminalise disappearances, ratify the Enforced Disappearance Convention[4] , review the victim and witness protection law, and range of other actions. Consultations to seek people’s views on transitional justice is underway across the country, under the leadership of some civil society activists.

The Enforced Disappearance Convention was ratified in May this year and the draft Bill to create the OMP was passed by Parliament on 11 August. There are positive features as well as weaknesses and ambiguities in the Bill[5]. Due to a history of failed initiatives, the minimal ‘consultations’ that occurred during drafting process and the lack of information on details, there appears to be very little confidence in the OMP amongst families of the disappeared. This is likely to be the case for other mechanisms, unless there’s a drastic change in approach from the government.

Reactions to transitional justice within Sri Lanka

Currently, the transitional justice agenda appears to be polarising Sri Lankan society. Opinion polls, and my own impressions, indicate that the Tamil community, particularly in the North and the East, who bore the brunt of the war, appears to favour strong international involvement. But the majority Sinhalese community appears to reject international involvement. Varying opinions have been expressed about forgetting the past, memorialisation, prosecutions, and amnesty. There are also different or contradictory opinions and expectations within each ethnic community and amongst survivors of violations and families of victims.

The Government’s transitional justice commitments have been criticised by the former President and his supporters. Even the release of a few political prisoners, the release of small amounts of land occupied by the military, and the establishment of the OMP to find truth about missing persons have been framed as an international conspiracy that endangers national security and seeks revenge from “war heroes”.

There does not appear to be an official Government policy document on transitional justice. The Government’s commitments have only been officially articulated in Geneva by the Foreign Minister and not in Sri Lanka . The Foreign Minister has been the regular advocate and defender of these commitments. Some of the meetings with local activists have been convened by him and the Secretariat for Co-ordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (SCRM) is housed in the Foreign Ministry. All these contribute to the process being seen as emanating and driven by foreign pressure. Outreach on the Government’s transitional justice plans appears to focus on the international community and not towards Sri Lankan people.

The President and Prime Minister have not been championing the Government’s official commitments. For example, the duo have publicly stated that the commitment to have foreign judges in the judicial mechanism will not be fulfilled. Even this has not satisfied the critics alleging foreign conspiracy, and has disappointed some activists, especially Tamils, as well as survivors and victims’ families.

Developments on the ground

Monuments erected to honour the Sinhalese dominated military during the Rajapakse time continue to dominate the Tamil majority Northern landscape. Army camps that were built over some of the cemeteries of former LTTE cadres that were bulldozed by the Army after the war are still there. The loved ones of those whose remains were in these cemeteries have no place to grieve, lay flowers, light a candle, or say a prayer. While the numbers have reduced from those under the Rajapaske regime, intimidation and reprisals on families, attacks, and threats and intimidation of activists and journalists continue to occur. Limited progress on issues, such as the release of political prisoners, land occupied by military, continuing military involvement in civilian affairs in the North and East, reports of continuing abductions, and arrests under the PTA have raised doubts about the Government’s commitments. Although a few military personnel have been convicted and some others arrested on allegations of human rights abuses, the lack of progress in thousands of other cases only reinforces calls for international involvement for justice.

Towards Rights & Democratization beyond Transitional Justice framework

Unemployment, debt, and sexual and gender-based violence is widespread in the former war ravaged areas. The new Government’s economic and development policies are focusing on trade, investment, and mega development projects, which privilege the rich and marginalise the poor. Pre-war rights issues, such as landlessness, sexual and gender-based violence and discrimination, caste, rights of workers, including those working on tea estates, still need to be addressed.

A consultation process towards a new constitution drew a large number of public representations, dealing with many of the issues mentioned above. But the next steps are not clear, particularly in finding political solutions to the grievances of the country’s ethnic minorities.

The political leadership will have to reach out to all Sri Lankans, especially to the Sinhalese majority, about its reform agenda, while taking principled actions to win the confidence of numerical minorities such as Tamils and Muslims. At the national level, the coming together of the two major political parties and support of the two major parties representing Tamils and Muslims, makes this a unique opportunity to push towards radical reforms.

It will also be a challenge to go beyond a conventional transitional justice framework and use the transitional moment to move towards reconciliation, democratisation, and sustainable development, by addressing civil and political rights as well as economic, social, and cultural rights in a holistic manner, considering the yearnings of war survivors, victims’ families, and the poor, for truth, reparations, criminal accountability, and economic justice.

[1] Speech by Hon Mangala Samaraweera at the 30th session of the Human Rights Council, Geneva, 14 September 2015.

[2] Human Rights Council Resolution, Promoting reconciliation, accountability, and human rights in Sri Lanka, 14 October 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/RES/30/1 (adopted 1 October 2015).

[3] Human Rights Council, Report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (OISL), thirtieth session, 16 September 2015, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/CRP.2.

[4] 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) (“Enforced Disappearance Convention”).

[5] For more on OMP, see http://thewire.in/42687/sri-lankas-disappeared-will-the-latest-missing-persons-office-bring-answers/