Ramachandran Subramanium

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.