COLOMBO: An estimated 65,000 Sri Lankans have gone missing since 1994 due to war and terrorism, the Lankan cabinet noted on Tuesday. “Sri Lanka has one of the largest case loads of the missing in the world,” a cabinet paper said.
To address the humanitarian, social, legal and economic issues emanating from the phenomenon of forced disappearances, even as efforts are being made to set up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) through an act of parliament, the cabinet decided to issues “Certificates of Absence” in lieu of Death Certificates.
The cabinet approved draft legislation enabling the issuance of Certificates of Absence, amending the Registration of Deaths (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 19 of 2010.
“The suffering and distress of the families of those missing is exacerbated as, at this point in time, the government does not recognize the status of missing persons. This means that the families of missing persons face a range of practical issues including inability or difficulty in facilitation of property transfer and ownership, applying for compensation, qualifying for social welfare payments and pensions and accessing frozen assets. Although a number of ad hoc measures have been attempted in the recent past, they have failed to successfully address issues faced by the families of the missing,” a government release said.
“Certificates of Absence have been used in a number of countries with high incidence of missing persons and has been considered as an effective interim measure that balances the psychological and practical needs of family members and loved ones without dismissing the need for active investigation into cases of missing persons,” the release explained.
The Maxwell Paranagama Commission which went into cases of missing persons in the Tamil-speaking North and East between 1983 and 2009, had recommended in its interim report last year, that government should issue “Certificates of Absence” instead of “Death Certificates.”
Earlier, Lankan army personnel had allegedly gone about telling the affected families that they should accept Death Certificates and the compensation offered by the government instead of asking for investigations into disappearances. But the affected families flatly rejected the proposal.
By March 2016, the Paranagama Commission had received 19,006 complaints from civilians, mostly Tamils from the North and East, and 5,000 from families of Security Forces personnel.
In the past, disappearances had taken place in Sinhalese-speaking South Lanka too. The UN had estimated in 1999 that 12,000 persons had gone missing during the Leftist insurgency in South Sri Lanka led by the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the late 1980s.
While disappearances have been a huge issue in the Tamil-speaking North and East since the outbreak of the Tamil-Sinhalese violent conflict in 1983, the Sinhalese South seems to have forgotten the disappearances that had taken place in their areas.
Like the Tamils, who had formed the “Mother’ Front” all over the Tamil-speaking areas to fight for the return of the abducted, Sinhalese leaders like Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mangala Samaraweera also formed a “Mother’s Front” during the JVP insurgency and took the case to the UN in Geneva. But over time, the Sinhalese leaders stopped pursuing the cases .Even the JVP has brushed the issue under the carpet. As on date, therefore, the issue of missing persons is restricted to the minority Tamils.