The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has issued a statement expressing concern over Sri Lanka’s withdraw from co-sponsorship of the Human Rights Council resolution 30/1 as well as statements from the government on the issue of enforced disappearances.
The Working Group stressed the importance of ensuring that the Office of Missing Persons was well funded and remained impartial. They highlighted the recent statement from Minister of Foreign Relations, Dinesh Gunawardena, as a reason for concern. He had stated that he would take “appropriate adaptation in line with the Government policy framework”.
This statement from Gunawardena follows a speech given by the Sri Lankan Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who railed against the resolution 30/1 as well as the OMP.
The Working Group urged Sri Lanka to rethink a withdraw from this co-sponsorship as they state that the Human Rights Council will play an important role in achieving accountability, human rights, and reconciliation.
Rajapaksa’s attack on the OMP
During his speech, Rajapaksa attacked the creation of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) which he claims, “was rammed through Parliament without leaving room for any debate”. Rajapaksa asserts that the OMP is “inquisitorial body that can issue summons, examine witnesses, and collect evidence”. He states that the OMP “can search without a warrant any armed forces installation, police station, or prison and take into their possession any document or thing they deem necessary”.
The UN Working Body also expressed concerns over the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into alleged “political victimisation” which “purported to order the Attorney General to halt legal proceedings in ongoing disappearance cases.
This description of the OMP, as a powerful “inquisitorial body”, is at odds with the views of international legal experts such as Yasmin Sooka, Executive Director of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) who described the OMP as having “no teeth”.
Sooka maintains that the limited progress towards reconciliation has been stunted by the inability “to deal with criminal accountability”.
The ITJP has documented the names of at least 293 people who were seen surrendering to the Sri Lankan military and have seen been disappeared. Among those is Father Joseph, who was last seen boarding a Sri Lankan military bus with several LTTE cadres whose surrender he had facilitated.
"We have reached out to the OMP and said, "truth lies within your hands" you can subpoena the Sri Lanka commanders who were there on those days to find out about these victims’ whereabouts. They have failed to act," Sooka said.
In 2018, the yahapalana government-appointed Mahinda Samarasinghe to head the OMP, a politician who has denounced reports of enforced disappearances.
Sooka has stated that “Impunity is now so deeply embedded that it’s impossible to talk of any kind of institutional reform".
The families of the disappeared in Mullaitivu have asked the international community to “urgently come forward and help investigate the Sinhala chauvinist government’s genocide by establishing a special tribunal” and to take the government to the International Criminal Court to seek justice. The families of the disappeared have been continuously protesting since the 20th February 2017, over 1200 days ago.
The UN Working Group stresses that the OMP must remain impartial and that “any adaptation of the OMP’s work should be done in full consultation with relevant civil society actors as well as victims, and in compliance with international standards”.
“Victims have a right to obtain reparation and prompt, fair and adequate compensation”, the Working Group states.
Issuing death warrants or certificates of absence
The UN Working Body also stresses the need for the government to issue death certificates or certificates of absence, if they are not able to recover the missing individual, whilst also providing “livelihood and other assistance to affected families”.
Former Northern Provincial Council member and minister Ananthy Sasitharan has raised the issue of death certificates in the past.
Many families from Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu that survived the atrocities at the end of the war are still struggling to rebuild their lives and homes, in large part due to their land registry documents having been destroyed or lost during the upheaval.
In several cases where the original deeds were in the name of a disappeared person, officials were refusing any administrative assistance to families unless a death certificate for the disappeared person was obtained.
The Working Group stresses the need for government to take appropriate measures to “locate, respect and return the remains” as well as to uphold relatives rights in matters of “social welfare, financial matters, family law and property rights”.
In March of this year, families of the disappeared protested in Mullaitivu demanding to know what happened to their loved ones.
One of their postcards read:
“When you were Foreign Defence Minister, we handed over our children to you. We don’t want you to delay this any further, we want a proper judicial enquiry”
“Will our fight for justice be forgotten since the 43rd session was left?”
“Gotabaya government, where are the ones you took?”
“If the answers to our children handed over to the military are death certificates, who are the killers?”
"President, did you bury our children alive?"
"How many more have to die for your ignorance?
Pardon on Ratnayake
The UN Working Group also expressed alarm over the pardoning of former army sergeant Sunil Ratnayake who was convicted of the murder of eight Tamil civilians which included children.
The Working Group maintains that:
“Sri Lanka has an obligation to hold criminally responsible perpetrators of enforced disappearances and other serious violations under international humanitarian law”.
Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has threatened to withdraw from any global body that pursues the prosecution of Sri Lankan soldiers for war crimes.
Surveillance and Harassment of Civil Society actors
With regards to the surveillance, harassment of human right activists and civil society actors, the Working Group has raised significant concerns.
They note that the government has not given a response to these allegations and they re-emphasise the need to protect, “individuals including witnesses, relatives and defence counsels […] against any form of intimidation, harassment or ill-treatment”.
It is this climate of harassment and militarisation that has left family members of the disappeared with “heightened fears” and uncertain of the fate of their loved ones.
They request a response from the government within 60 days.
Read the full statement here.