Sri Lanka will not prosecute those responsible for disappearances

The government of Sri Lanka will not take legal action against those found to have been responsible for enforced disappearances.

Sri Lanka's cabinet of ministers gave its approval on 24 May to set up a Office on Missing Persons (OMP) to seek the disappeared tens of thousands and those missing in action.

However, "The findings of OMP will not give rise to civil or criminal liability,” states the proposal to establish the office signed by Prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.

The new office would be empowered to search and trace missing persons, clarify the circumstances of enforced disappearances, and identify ways to provide redress.

Although the OMP 'will not engage in prosecutions,' the government plans to shut down the cases of those who have been made to disappear or have gone missing.

The government hopes that families 'may be reunited, may have closure with regard to such disappearance and may be granted reparations and other relief and support'.

Certificate of absence or death

Premier Wickremesinghe has also presented a bill seeking parliamentary approval for the setting up of this office.

The OMP upon completion of investigations "is to issue a report to the Registrar General for the issue of a Certificate of Absence or a Certificate of Death," said the Colombo based Sunday Times referring to the bill.

It also reported that the prime minister once again assured military top brass last week that any probe into alleged war crimes will be purely domestic.

The long wait for justice

Victims organisations from the war ravaged North and East as well as international human rights watchdogs have heavily criticised government moves to set up the OMP in haste without adequate consultations with the war affected.

"The International Convention on Enforced Disappearances, which Sri Lanka is signatory to, provides that the state is obliged to investigate acts of enforced disappearance and bring those responsible to justice." grassroots organisations led by the Tamil Civil Society Forum said in an open letter to Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera.

Recalling the government's commitment at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva last year, to hold nationwide public consultations on all transitional justice mechanisms, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a statement that the approval to set up the OMP has been given 'without talking with the families who have long waited for justice'.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (UNWGED) that visited the country last November who had observed that 'families have waited too long' strongly recommended that any mechanism to search those missing should adopt a victim-centered approach.

“Reconciliation, however - while extremely necessary in Sri Lanka - cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights of the victims,” they said.

Identifying perpetrators

The Committee for the Investigation into Disappearances (CID) said that the loved ones of victims had been consistent in their demand for the government to act against perpetrators.  

"Many know of the military officer to whom their loved ones were handed over. Many are able to identify those who abducted their family member," CID Convener Sundaram Mahendran told JDS.

Sri Lanka's ruling coalition is in an apparent race against time to demonstrate its commitment to the United Nations resolution on accountability adopted in October 2015.

It is expected to submit a progress report on issues of transitional justice at the UNHRC June session which runs from 13 June to the 1st of July.