The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) will make use of witness statements presented to the Maxwell Paranagamacommission.OMP Chairman SaliyaPeiris told The Sunday Leader that the newly established office intends to make use of the statements when making inquiries into those reported missing.
On 15 August 2013, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, established the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints regarding Missing Persons comprised of three members former Judge Maxwell P. Paranagama (Chairman), Mrs. Mano Ramanathan and Mrs. Suranjana Vidyaratne (‘Paranagama Commission’ or ‘PCICMP’).
The commission held several sittings and obtained written and oral statements from families of missing, both from the North and East and from families of missing soldiers.
The Maxwell Paranagama Commission report, officially known as the Presidential Commission of Inquiry Into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances was later handed over to the current Government and was also tabled in Parliament.
President Maithripala Sirisena recently established the OMP chaired by President’s Counsel SaliyaPeiris.SaliyaPeiris said that it was too early for the OMP to set timelines.
At the recently concluded UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva Sri Lanka was urged to announce a time-bound action plan to meet its transitional justice commitments. Peiris said that the OMP was in the process of establishing the office, including taking key decisions on staffing and other matters.
At the UN Human Rights Council session last month the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights ZeidRa’ad Al Hussein had welcomed the gazetting of the Office of Missing Persons and progress towards its operationalisation, after long delays following the adoption of the original legislation in August 2016.
This is the first transitional justice mechanism to be established. Moreover, the allocations in the 2018 national budget indicate that this body will be properly resourced to start operations. As at 15 January 2018, the process of selection and appointment of the commissioners was ongoing.
“It is to be seen if the new institution will be able to overcome the distrust and frustration that has festered among civil society and victims’ groups, particularly in the North, as a result of the multiple delays, amendments and insufficient consultation with respect to the legislation establishing the Office of Missing Persons. An independent and well-resourced Office, with capable, trustworthy and impartial commissioners, appropriate protection mechanisms for victims and witnesses and a clear policy on gender sensitiveness, has the potential to provide a new impetus to the protracted transitional justice process, including the creation of the remaining three mechanisms. An enabling environment will be essential for commissioners and staff, the families of victims, witnesses and civil society aiming to contribute to the objectives of the Office without the risk of reprisals or other threats,” Al Hussein had said.
The UNHRC had noted that progress in the design of a truth and reconciliation commission and of a reparation programme cannot be properly assessed until the Government unveils the drafts prepared by the technical working groups and opens public consultations and discussion on them.
ZeidRa’ad Al Hussein had said that legislation establishing a truth commission must not be further delayed as it is a key tool for uncovering patterns of serious violations, creating a demand for accountability and fostering consensus around a non-partisan view of victimhood that recognises that victims of the conflict come from all communities.
“While the Office of Missing Persons will hopefully contribute to realising some aspects of the right to truth, only a truth commission with a broad temporal and material scope can attempt to construct a comprehensive narrative that addresses the multiple layers of serious violations and provides sound answers on the number of victims and the root causes of the conflict,” ZeidRa’ad Al Hussein had said.
The OMP is not a law enforcement or judicial agency but a truth-seeking investigative agency. If it appears a criminal offense has been committed, under the OMP Act the OMP may, after consultation, report the same to the relevant authority, who will have to begin a new investigation. But the OMP itself cannot initiate a court case or any prosecutions. In any situation which may call for it, after consideration of the best interest of the victims, the OMP may at most pass on information to law enforcement authorities.
There has been for decades a lack of answers for those who do not know the fate of their loved ones. The Government recognised the need for justice and its responsibility to such families and co-sponsored a UN resolution that calls for the establishment of the OMP.
The Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms said that establishing the OMP is consistent with the continuing policy position of Sri Lanka to plan for a peaceful country, to fulfill obligations willingly made by the State, and to ensure the rule of law and justice.
The Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms said that positive steps made by the Government to facilitate reconciliation had initially helped to rebuild the trust of international allies who contributed critically to the fight against terrorism. Increased engagement with the global community has brought significant economic and cultural benefits to the people of the nation, such as increased trade and tourism opportunities, a greater flow of Foreign Direct Investment, and better opportunities for foreign employment or scholarships.
The OMP was seen by the Government as being established to facilitate peace and prosperity, and to promote the best interests of all Sri Lankans.