Sri Lanka with one of the worst records in human rights violations has come up with a positive step. It has passed the missing person bill with some amendments in unanimous way. The bill was passed with the support of TNA and JVP. The passed bill has certain good features; it will try to search and identify about 65000 missing people who have been missed during the long civil war in the country.
An Office of The Missing Person will be established, this institutional structure will help to locate missing persons for which since long time need was being felt. The Office of The Missing Person is a permanent institutional arrangement with seven members who will interact with family members of the missing persons though the findings of the office of the missing parsons will not establish any sort of criminal or civil liability, former President Mahinda Rajapaksa has voiced his open displeasure with the bill and has castigated the government. The Joint Opposition (JO) has also gone in the opposition, did not participate in the discussions when the bill was being deliberated showing that a section of the people have different views on the legislation but their opposition is antithetical to the basic human rights fundamentals.
President Maithripala Sirisena has stated that the bill is in no way in opposition to the security forces and is only aimed to know whether the missing person is alive or dead and if dead then to know the circumstances of death.
There had been consistent pressure on the new government since it assumed the power that something substantial needs to be done for the restoration of the human rights as well to redress the grievances of the people about human rights violations which had taken place abundantly under the Mahinda Rajapaksa. The United Nations Human Rights Council had taken strong stand on the issue and in fact legislation was undertaken in the light of such criticism on the government of Sri Lanka. It is likely that without the international pressure establishment of the Office of The Missing Person would not have come into existence though it is well known that during the final Eelam War IV which led to the elimination of Velupillai Prabhakaran in 2009 by the Sri Lankan army; the gross violation of civilian lives had taken place and its direct responsibility was placed on Mahinda Rajapaksa. In fact Rajapaksa in later years found hard to fight burden of this violation which ultimately led to his departure from the power.
The history of missing persons in Sri Lanka is well evidenced. It is a clear fall out of the discriminatory policies adopted by successive regimes and the civil war which engulfed the island nation. Tamils were at receiving end since the time Sri Lanka got independence in 1948 and it was accentuated during Sirimavo Bandaranaike regime who initiated pro Sinhalese policies. After 1971 when a clear hegemony of the Sinhalese was observed the people started to miss in substantial numbers. The government had not taken any strong measures to investigate these disappearances.
In 1991 the first time President Premadasa established a Presidential Commission of Inquiry with no noteworthy results; followed by the Chandrika Kumaratunga in 1994 but nothing concrete resulted and the number of missing persons continued unabated. No authentic information was available about the nature and status of the missing persons.
Though in the country several mass graves were found. In the northern parts of the countries mass graves have suggested that several missing persons may be buried there and either LTTE or army may have been responsible for their final annihilation. TNA leader M.A. Sumanthiran had stated in 2014 that in between 75000 to 150000 number of people had died during the war, but where their remains are?; is unknown.
Mahinda Rajapaksa, who has been severely criticized for his human rights violations at the international level, had appointed in 2006 a Presidential Commission of Inquiry and in 2010 The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) which on 15 November, 2011 completed its assigned work but Amnesty International found the commission quite useless and incompetent to deal with the issues of the human rights violations.
The Amnesty noted down its ineffectiveness with respect to the missing persons stating that “the LLRC received numerous complaints from people searching for missing family members, including some that appeared to be victims of enforced disappearances. The witnesses’ testimony potentially implicated the Sri Lankan military and security forces (in particular the Army and the STF – an elite police commando unit); paramilitary forces now allied with the Sri Lankan government, such as the Karuna Group, the EPDP; and the LTTE. But in the cases publicly available the Commissioners demonstrated a lack of interest in pursuing the details of these allegations. In particular, the Commissioners repeatedly failed to ask for information that could be used to identify individual perpetrators, or initiate an investigation that would lead to locating the missing person. Enforced disappearances are a gross violation of human rights and a particularly persistent form of abuse in Sri Lanka – where tens of thousands from earlier periods of conflict still remain unresolved and unpunished – but enforced disappearance is not specified as a crime under Sri Lankan law (instead authorities apply laws governing abductions and related offenses), and the LLRC made little effort to address accountability for such cases.”(When will they get justice, https://sydney.edu.au)
These realities clearly show that Mahinda Rajapaksa was not serious about the missing persons and his criticism of the new office for the purpose therefore carries no weight. There are several aspects of the human rights violations in Sri Lanka but the new step may initiate a positive movement towards the reconciliation but for that very purpose office will have to be impartial and autonomous; such hopes have been belied previously. Now the government needs to alter this; otherwise missing persons will remain missed forever with no idea about their whereabouts and history of island will remain incomplete with imprints of severe violations.
Dr. Vivek Kumar Srivastava is Consultant CRIEPS, Kanpur, e email@example.com