Reparation for the missing | Daily News

Reparation for the missing

Despite many challenges, the OMP is determined to bring closure for their kin
The site of the mass grave in Mannar.
The site of the mass grave in Mannar.

It’s almost 10 years since the war ended and many in the country have got back to their lives. Today, the war is nothing but a bitter memory of the past. However, according to estimates, thousands are still missing in Sri Lanka in the last 30 years, the vast majority during the insurrection in the 1980s or throughout the war.

Although the majority of the country is now least concerned about the bitter past, for the families of the missing, their agony and torment continues. For many of us, oftentimes the disappeared are ‘out of sight out of mind,’ but for those whose family members are gone, the grief is unending.

With the aim of addressing the issue of missing persons, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) was set up in 2017, to address these cases, some dating back decades.

Accordingly, President Maithripala Sirisena signed the gazette notification for the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons Act in July, 2017. This topic had been discussed for many years and the current government gave a pledge to the people that it would implement it. However, even if its implementation took a long time, many civil society organisations have expressed satisfaction that even though delayed, the OMP Bill was presented to Parliament by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and was passed by the House unanimously.

The signing of this gazette paper can be seen as a step in the right direction for the establishment of sustainable peace. The Bill for the establishment of the Office of the Missing Persons was unanimously passed in Parliament on August 11, 2016. Thereafter, on August 23, 2016, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya signed the Bill. Then the President’s signature to this bill took around a year, which led to a lot of opinions being expressed in this regard and much hype.

In March 2017, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya assured the members of the Office of the Missing Persons and those of the Constitutional Council that he would instruct the Public Administration Ministry and the Treasury to provide necessary funds and infrastructure for the setting up of offices for the OMP.

The Speaker told the meeting that the OMP’s primary task was to find the truth with regard to the persons gone missing and inform their families of the results of the findings.

With the appointment of the OMP Commissioners in February 2018, the operation of the Office commenced. Furthermore, the OMP is engaged in inquiries on specific cases, supporting the ongoing excavation and exhumation of a mass grave in Mannar, consolidating existing records of missing persons, and preparing recommendations and clarifications on legal issues affecting victims and families.

The armed conflict is only one of the situations in which the OMP investigates disappearances. It also conducts searches for those who went missing in other periods of political instability or civil disturbance, including for example, the youth insurrection in the South in the 1970s and 1980s, or any case of enforced disappearance as defined in the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.

The LLRC was set up to investigate disappearances and abductions of persons and ensure accountability and responsibility on missing persons. The established Presidential Commission headed by Maxwell Paranagama had received 23,586 complaints inclusive of approximately 5,000 complaints from families of security forces personnel.

However, later, the Presidential Commission was disbanded and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) was established to look into the fate of the missing family members.

According to the OMP interim report in August 2018, the challenges faced by the Office are many and need to be balanced with the urgency of the needs of families of victims enduring years of physical and mental suffering. “The failure of successive state institutions to provide families with truth, justice and reparations has created a deep distrust of the State and by extension, the OMP. The OMP recognises the multiple needs and positions of various families and the importance of securing their trust. For the OMP to be effective, it requires the active cooperation of other arms of the State. The harms suffered as a result of the violation of the rights of the missing and disappeared need to be addressed through reparations. Therefore, the enactment of a bill for a credible and effective Office for Reparations is vital,” the report said.

“The OMP, however, recognises the urgency of the needs where families have become destitute due to the disappearance of a family’s sole or primary breadwinner. Hence the OMP identifies the provision of interim relief to families of victims as a priority and is recommending a number of such measures. It is duly noted that interim relief in the form of welfare or other measures does not amount to reparations. Victims retain their right to reparations even if they accept interim relief from the State. The OMP also recognises the critical need for justice to address the issue of the missing and disappeared,” the report stated.

An immediate task of the members of the OMP has been to operationalise the Office. Whilst designing the separate units for carrying out its mandate, the OMP is currently engaged in developing codes of conduct, guidelines, rules and procedures so as to ensure victim-centric, responsive and effective assistance. For this process of conceptualisation and operationalisation, the OMP has relied on the OMP Act, the recommendations of previous commissions, including the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF), and consultations, as outlined below, whilst consulting relevant national and international laws. The OMP has hired temporary staff and having secured approval from the government, it is currently engaged in recruiting permanent staff to its cadre, OMP Chairman Saliya Peiris said.

During the past several months, the OMP has initiated measures in relation to its primary task of investigation and tracing, taking preliminary steps to ensure that the rights and interests of the victims are protected, including to carry out inquiries with relevant authorities on specific cases. In particular, the OMP has supported the excavation and exhumation work in the Mannar Mass Grave at the Sathosa building, including by providing financial assistance. The Chairman noted that the OMP will continue to support and engage with the investigation in order to ensure the integrity, as well as the uninterrupted and transparent continuation of the process.

Sadly, so far there is no one accepted statistic for the total number of the missing and disappeared in Sri Lanka. Therefore, the OMP will take on the critical role of compiling these records and developing a centralised list for its work and the interventions of other agencies and institutions. The OMP is currently in the process of consolidating existing records, including those from previous commissions of inquiry.

However, one of the main obstacles facing the OMP which it has found particularly challenging was to secure the confidence and trust of the relatives of victims, mainly with respect to viewing the OMP as an effective, independent and credible national mechanism. “The deep cynicism, especially amongst some families of victims, about the ability and willingness of state institutions to provide remedies for human rights violations has a direct impact on the OMP. This cynicism is based on the past experiences of the families of victims,” the report stated.

“The OMP has encountered mixed responses during initial consultations. Some families expressed deep scepticism and distrust of the OMP and conducted protests outside the OMP’s public meetings, whilst others were more hopeful and positive. Still others, whilst expressing reservations, have sought to engage with the OMP. Many see the OMP as yet another state institution that they need to work with as they have no other option.

The OMP has also received complaints from civil society and families in the affected areas about how protestors have sought to thwart their access to the OMP’s public meetings. The OMP reiterates the importance of respecting the rights of all families, such as their right to make their own decisions, including to or not to engage with the OMP,” the report said.

However, despite the many challenges they have and will have to face, the Office remains committed to engaging with all affected families, including those who staged and may continue to stage protests, and civil society actors, in order to get advice, secure their valuable information, and ensure that the rights of all those affected are protected.


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