Politics & Current Affairs

TNA’s Sumanthiran says didn’t consult victims on OMP Bill

Tamil National Alliance Parliamentarian M. A. Sumanthiran refused to account for his conduct to the Tamil people of the North when confronted by outraged families of the disappeared who accused him of betraying their interests when the law to establish the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was passed in parliament recently.

A meeting was held on 17 September at Veerakatthi Pillaiyar Kovil hall in Karaikudiyiruppu, Mullaithivu, which was a follow-up to an event on 1 July at the same venue. At the earlier event families of the disappeared demanded an explanation from the TNA for expressing its satisfaction with the OMP Bill although victims were not consulted about their wishes. In reply to the people’s agitated calls for clarification, TNA’s Wanni District MP Mrs. Shanthi Sriskandraja said she as a party member was neither consulted or was aware of what the party had agreed to before the OMP Bill was tabled in parliament. She promised to bring along Mr. Sumanthiran, who had publicly expressed satisfaction for the Bill, to answer their questions.

Repeated protests

The Sri Lanka Government pledged to introduce four transitional justice mechanisms at the September 2015 UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC) meeting in Geneva, which included the OMP, a judicial mechanism, an Office of Reparations and a Commission for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation. These pledges were incorporated in UNHRC Resolution 30/1 which Colombo agreed to implement. Despite repeated protests by families of the disappeared and civil society organisations that they had not been consulted, the Government tabled the OMP Bill on 27 May and passed it into law on 11 August.   

At Saturday’s event, in response to a question on why he expressed satisfaction with the OMP without consulting the victims, Mr. Sumanthiran replied, “I did not speak about the people’s views only my own. It was based on my understanding of international law and legal mechanisms. I can’t consult 100 people where one person says it (OMP) is useful and another person says it’s not. We are not machines who merely convey the opinions of others. We were elected as representatives because people believed we have competence and the ability to think for ourselves. I have never said anything wrong. If I were to reject something good, I would be a liar.”

TNA 'pleased'

Although Mr. Sumanthiran said his views were personal, the TNA issued a statement on 1 July expressing its satisfaction with the OMP Bill: “We are pleased that several of the extensive revisions we urged have been included in the gazetted text.”

The TNA’s disingenuousness on consulting victims on the OMP Bill was reflected in an article that appeared in the Sunday Times on the 18 September.  There highly-regarded legal commentator Kishali Pinto-Jayewardene said, “Deflating rising public anger regarding the non-consultative process followed in finalising this law, the TNA quickly intervened saying that they had examined the OMP Bill as it was at the time and that their ‘concerns’ had been incorporated.”

At the meeting however, Mr. Sumanthiran elaborated why neither he nor the TNA had consulted the families of the disappeared: “We did not speak with the people regarding the OMP law till it was passed because it would be misinterpreted. Now that it has been passed we will go from district to district and explain it to the people. You can tell us shortcoming and we will try to remedy them.”

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Shortcomings in the OMP

He however stopped short of telling participants how it is going to be remedied since the OMP is now law and he also said, “Do not expect to amend the law. We have no intention of doing so. There will be problems if we attempt it.”

Although the TNA stated earlier it would move amendments during the committee stage of the debate it refrained from doing so.

Despite Mr. Sumanthiran not elaborating on the process by which their needs could be incorporated, participants voiced their concerns about shortcomings in the OMP law. One was the prosecutions of perpetrators.

“If the (OMP) mechanism does not prosecute the perpetrator, will there be (other) laws to prosecute them?” asked a member of the audience.

“We can only go step by step. We cannot jump to step 20. First of all, enforced disappearance has to be made a crime in Sri Lanka. Many crimes in international law are not crimes in Sri Lanka. It is only after enforced disappearances are made a crime in Sri Lanka can we go into it.”

Identifying perpetrators

Later another participant queried, “Perpetrators will be identified when there is an investigation into enforced disappearances. Is there any provision in the OMP law to punish them?”

“That what I told you before; weren’t you listening? That’s the four (transitional justice) mechanisms I spoke about, including the judicial mechanism. In accountability there is something known as judicial accountability, where not only (disappearances) but even other violations such as cluster bombs can be examined. There is a way to link (disappearances) with the judicial mechanism.”

Despite repeated questioning, Mr. Sumanthiran did not explain how linking disappearances to judicial mechanisms was possible. Experts and practitioners say that although Article 12 (1) of the OMP states “where it appears to the OMP that an offence … has been committed … the OMP may …report the same to the relevant law enforcement or prosecuting authority” there is no possibility for prosecutions.

'Missing findings'

M. C. M. Iqbal, secretary to three former commissions on disappearances, writing to the Sunday Times says, “[t]hat is exactly what happened to the findings of the [commissions of inquiry] which provided a list of more than 2,000 persons against whom they found credible evidence of being responsible for disappearances. The files were passed on by the President’s Office to the then Missing Persons Unit of the Attorney General’s Department and to the Disappearances Investigation Unit of the CID. What happened to those cases is history.”

The OMP compounds these barriers to justice with Article 13 (2) that reads “findings shall not give rise to any criminal or civil liability.” Mr. Iqbal in his article asks “Can they be told after exhaustive investigations that the OMP could not find the missing person and stop at that? Will a complainant who alleges that a particular person was personally handed over to a particular military officer or taken away by known police officers or other persons be satisfied if the OMP says they cannot now be found?”

At the meeting in Mullaitivu, Mr. Sumanthiran was also asked about political prisoners. He said, “We continue to complain that the Government is deceiving us about political prisoners. But they are releasing them in small groups. They said another 16 are to be released. What were 217 is now reduced to 80. I understand the pace is not fast enough, but we are putting pressure on the government to do so.”

'No good governance'

However, the numbers are disputed. On 8 August Convenor of the National Movement for the Release of Political Prisoners and Anglican clergyman Rev. M. Sathivel said, “There are 150 political prisoners behind bars.” There are no public records of any releases of political prisoners in August and September.

At different times during the meeting asked by irate participants for explanations, Mr. Sumanthiran insisted that they to sit down and listen to him. An instance was when a participant queried why there was no progress in finding the disappeared although seven years had passed since fighting ended. Pointing to a member of the audience he asked, “This lady is the head of a district association of the disappeared. Can you ask her seven years are over and where are our children? [The TNA] is the same…” When the participant, clearly unhappy with the explanation interjected with another question, Mr. Sumanthiran curtly told her to sit down and listen to him.

A participant chastised Mr. Sumanthiran that he was going to Geneva and other international forums claiming that good governance had emerged in Sri Lanka. “What is the good governance that is happening here? There is no good governance happening here sir!”

Mr. Sumanthiran cut her short saying, “We’re did not come here to debate whether there is good governance or bad governance. We came here to explain the OMP and clear your doubts about it…”

After the meeting a participant who wished to remain anonymous said, “By using concepts and words the people found difficult to understand and shutting up people whose questions he found unpalatable Mr. Sumanthiran was neither able explain the OMP or clear our doubts.”

© JDS