COLOMBO: The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) said here on Monday, that there is an “urgent need” for a public awareness campaign to dispel rumors and counter misleading and inaccurate information being placed in the public domain on the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) which is to be set up shortly having attained parliamentary approval.
“ A concerted effort is required to create understanding and a sense of ownership amongst the public in this regard,” HRCSL’s chairperson, Dr.Deepika Udagama, said.
The OMP is being opposed tooth and nail by Sinhalese nationalists led by the Joint Opposition group in the Sri Lankan parliament. They allege that it will pave the way for the persecution of the heroic personnel of the Sri Lankan armed forces who had defeated the Tamil Tigers to rid the country of terrorism and separatism. The opposition led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa also feels that the OMP is being established at the instance of the US and the West, before which the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe regime is allegedly genuflecting.
On what the OMP should be like, HRCSL chairperson Dr.Udagama said that it has to reach out to families of the disappeared and provide them information about the institution through multiple means in all three languages.
“An important means of ensuring accessibility as well as create public ownership is to establish regional offices of the OMP. Further, the membership of the OMP should reflect the pluralistic nature of Sri Lanka, including meaningful gender as well as regional representation. Members should be persons of unimpeachable integrity and competence,” she said.
“ When establishing the office particular attention has to be paid to the recruitment of staff to ensure they are persons of unimpeachable integrity, have no prior allegations of human rights violations against them, and have the ability to be empathetic to the needs and concerns of victims and the families of the disappeared. In this regard too adequate gender, ethnic, and regional representation should be ensured as well as language proficiency since the ability to serve the various communities in a language they understand is critically important.”
“The staff should be provided training in gender sensitivity, since most of the complainants are women, as well as how to deal with victims who have suffered trauma,” Dr.Udagama said.
“ To ensure transparency, the OMP has to formulate and widely publicize information on its methods of operations and procedures to which it adheres, including rules regarding confidentiality, guidance to families on how to approach the OMP and their rights in relation to obtaining information regarding progress of their complaint.”
“The OMP should have personnel who are qualified to provide on-site psycho-social support to those who require it, for instance, during or after making statements to the OMP. Every effort should be made to avoid re-traumatization of the victims.”
Certificate of Absence
On the issuance of the Certificate of Absence (COA), the concerned families have to be made aware of their rights in this regard. Given previous reports of families of the disappeared being coerced to apply for death certificates, it is important to ensure they are in no way subject to any form of coercion to opt for a death certificate instead of a COA, Dr.Udagama said.
“The COA should be valid for a reasonable period of time to allow for the investigation of the disappearance and the person's fate. If investigations are on-going the COA should be valid until investigations conclude. Since both the OMP Act as well as the proposed Registration of Deaths (Temporary Provisions) Bill refer to the COA, it should be ensured the definitions and processes set out in both laws are consistent and provide maximum benefit to families of the disappeared.”
The OMP Act envisages a Victims of Crime and Witness Assistance and Protection Division. On this Dr.Udagama said: “When establishing the Division, given limited internal relocation options within the country whether public skepticism that they will receive protection from existing mechanisms, the OMP should find feasible alternatives that foster public trust and ensure protection to victims and witnesses. In order to do this the OMP will require adequate resources as well as support from government authorities at the highest levels.”
“Further, the OMP should establish an internal mechanism to address grievances of complainants regarding shortcomings in the functioning of the Office, which will enable the Office to strengthen its methods, functions and service to the public. Attention should be paid to achieving and establishing databases to document and preserve the work and records of previous commissions of inquiry as well as from diverse reliable sources after verification of facts to consolidate data on the disappeared and construct a single database.”
“Where data that has never been made public is concerned, the OMP should formulate and strictly adhere to protocols that preserve the integrity of the data and also protect the provider of the information who may be vulnerable to threats, including to physical integrity,” Dr.Udagama said.