Sri Lanka takes major step to establish an Office of Missing Persons

By P.K.Balachandran

July 21, 2017 (LBO)- Sri Lanka on Thursday took a major step towards setting up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP), when President Maithripala Sirisena signed an order allocating the OMP to the State Minister for Reconciliation, A.H.M.Fowzie.

However, the OMP will be effectively under President Sirisena himself, because he is the Cabinet Minister of Reconciliation. Fowzie, as State Minister, is his second-in-command.

According to the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP and leading lawyer M.A.Sumanthiran, the next step would be the appointment of seven Commissioners for the OMP by the country’s supreme appointing authority, the Constitutional Council. The Commissioners will oversee the work of the OMP.

The OMP has taken nearly two years to come into being even though the minority Tamils have been agitating for its setting up with strong support from the domestic and international human rights lobbies and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The bulk of the cases of disappearances are ethnic Tamils.

Further, Sri Lanka had solemnly promised the UNHRC in October 2015, that it would set up an OMP to address the question of tracing an estimated 64,000 disappeared comprising members of all three major communities in Sri Lanka.

In the initial phase, the delay was due to a fear in the government and in the main opposition that if the OMP is set up, investigations might reveal that members of the armed forces were involved, and these men might then be hauled up before the courts.

Most of the abductions were allegedly carried out by military intelligence personnel hunting down Tamil Tiger rebels who were setting up cells in Colombo and other parts of Sri Lanka to plant bombs and assassinate Sri Lanka military and political leaders.

However, the LTTE and pro-government groups like the Karuna group and the Peoples’ Liberation Organization of Tamil Eelam (PLOTE) also carried out abductions.

But while the Tamils complain about abductions by the State and its Tamil paramilitaries, they are silent on the abductions done by the LTTE. UN personnel do call for even-handedness in this matter but their emphasis is also on the wrong doings of the State rather than the LTTE, a fact which irks Sri Lankan nationalists and alienates them from UN human rights institutions.

Pressure from the human rights lobby both at home and abroad and also the UNHRC made the government pass the required law to set up the OMP.

However the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), a nationalist organization, objected to a clause in the bill which permitted the OMP to secure funds from foreign sources on its own. Subsequently, this provision was removed, and the bill was passed.

To meet the fears of Sri Lankan nationalists, the government also announced that the OMP will take up only “future” cases and not cases relating to the last war.

This greatly disappointed the Tamils who were the principal victims of the war. But TNA leader M.A.Sumanthiran noted that since “enforced disappearance” is a crime under the international law and comes under the UN Convention on Enforced Disappearances which Sri Lanka has signed, acts of the past could be taken up for investigation and legal action.

President Sirisena had promised the TNA that he would set up the OMP once the appropriate legislation was passed. And he has kept his promise, Sumanthiran said.