COLOMBO: Despite a disruptive protest staged by the Joint Opposition Group (JOG) led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Sri Lankan parliament on Thursday passed the controversial bill to set up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) without a vote.
The OMP is being set up as part of the government’s resolve to implement a resolution of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) which was jointly sponsored by the US and Sri Lanka during the September 2015 session of the organization.
The OMP will collect, collate, analyze and document all cases of forced disappearance; provide detailed information to the victims’ families; and make available evidence to judicial and non-judicial processes connected to justice and accountability.
But the OMP got heavy flak from the ultra nationalistic Sinhalese groups and also the Joint Opposition Group (JOG) led by former President Rajapaksa. Their main objection was that the OMP will result in Sri Lankan armed forces personnel being hauled up before an international Judicial Mechanism on accountability, which the UNHRC had sought and which the Sirisena government had agreed to. The JOG believes that it would be utterly unpatriotic and unjust to humiliate the Lankan armed forces which had defeated the Tamil Tigers, a dreaded terrorist group.
“The Office of Missing Persons is meant to be an integral part of the judicial mechanism to deal with allegations of war crimes that the Yahapalana (Sirisena) government has undertaken to establish. If this draft legislation becomes law, every member of parliament who votes for it will be held responsible by the people for betraying the country and the armed forces,” Rajapaksa had warned.
But the former President’s allegations against the OMP were demolished by Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera point by point. He said that the OMP is not a judicial body and will be working within the laws of the country. He assured that no innocent army man will be punished.
The liberals of Sri Lanka also had reservations about the OMP. The Women’s Action Network (WAN), for example, complained that the OMP bill was drafted without consulting the victims’ families, especially the women, the main sufferers.
However, now that the OMP bill has been passed, WAN suggests that the government should ensure the witnesses’ protection. As part of this, surveillance and harassment of witnesses and victims’ families must stop; the questioning in the inquiries must be sympathetic to the person who is testifying; the questioning should be done in a scientific way so that the evidence provided can be used in a judicial process; and if material is already available on a victim, those who had testified should not be made to repeat it over and over again at various stages of the inquiry. The OMP’s investigations should take into account the wishes of the victims’ families so that they feel that the process is credible.
The OMP should not only recommend reparations but also see that the victims’ families get reparations in the form of jobs, educational opportunities and also psycho-social support to cope with the loss of a family member.
WAN pointed out that the women in the victims‘ families do not like the term “missing persons” and would like it to be substituted by the term “the disappeared” because their kin did not just go missing but had been abducted or forcibly taken away. They do not want “Certificates of Absence”, that the government is going to give, but a “Certificate of Disappearance”.