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Sri Lanka announces yet another mechanism to probe disappearances

The Sri Lankan government announced the creation of an ‘Office for Missing Persons’ (OMP), in a yet another pledge to tackle the decades long issue of disappearances, on Wednesday.

Announcing the OMP, Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera stated that “Sri Lanka has one of the largest caseloads of missing persons in the entire world”. No time scale has been announced for the OMP’s mandate or the scope of its work. The government is also yet to reveal the composition of the office.

Days before the announcement was made, Tamil organisations from across the North-East submitted a letter to the Sri Lankan government, stating that the authorities had not shown any “genuine willingness to consult the victims” in order to set up a justice mechanism for prosecute for enforced disappearances.

The 12 organisations and 26 individuals criticised the government’s lack of engagement with victims in setting up the OMP. Stating that the “process to date has been handicapped by inadequate resources and has made very little progress,” the organisations said, “We categorically state that an OMP that is designed without proper consultation with the victims and their communities would be unacceptable”.

Over the years several government mechanisms have been announced, including the currently ongoing presidential commission on missing persons, which recently requested an extension of its mandate. Reports of the commission encouraging relatives to accept their loved ones have died have been ongoing, with evidence that officials offered chickens in exchange for accepting a death certificates. The commission has also been criticised by both the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, who have called for its abolition.

Mr Samaraweera himself admitted that government appointed commissions have been in existence for over 20 years, acknowledging “that the vast majority of cases still remain unresolved”. Sri Lanka’s Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe though told an audience of Tamils in Jaffna earlier this year that the tens of thousands of missing were probably dead, a claim that he repeated some weeks later.

The issue of enforced disappearances also continues to plague the North-East, with several “white van” abductions by Sri Lanka’s Terrorist Investigation Division reported in recent weeks. The foreign minister did not comment on any current cases, but stated that the OMP will be “the first of the four mechanisms dealing with conflict-related grievances”.

The current Sri Lankan government, which came into power over a year ago on the back of a massive voter turnout in the Tamil North-East, has longed pledged to address Tamil grievances. However, despite calls from Tamil organisations for international involvement, stating that it “will be extremely difficult for the victims to place faith in the institution” without it, the foreign minister has not announces the composition of the office.

“The OMP will be composed of commissioners and officers of the highest moral integrity, constituted at the highest level by the President,” he said. The statement is unlikely to assuage Tamil fears, given that Sri Lanka’s president has been staunch in his rejection of international involvement, in an accountability mechanism for mass atrocities committed during the final stages of the island’s armed conflict.

"The OMP will be sufficiently empowered to be independent only when qualified foreign individuals known for their integrity, independence and professionalism are included in its composition," the Tamil organisations had said.

Meanwhile families of the disappeared have continued their struggle to find their loved ones, with protests have continued across the North-East demanding answers from the Sri Lankan government. This month, protestors in the Eastern Province were threatened from a mob led by a Buddhist monk. However, no action was taken by Sri Lankan authorities.

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