One of the greatest challenges facing Sri Lanka today is to restore its image in the realm of human rights. There’s not a day that goes by without the media highlighting war crimes, the lament of families of missing persons, arbitrary land acquisition, impunity, police brutality, ethnic and racial abuse to name a few. It is true that rights are violated every day around the world and Sri Lanka is not alone in this respect.

As reported in the Guardian, “Last year the United Nations said it had found evidence strongly indicating that war crimes were committed in Sri Lanka in the closing phases of its civil war, and called for the establishment of a special court to investigate individuals responsible for the worst atrocities. Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, said it described horrific abuses including torture, executions, and forced disappearances by security forces.”

Of the many alleged atrocities and violations currently being investigated, addressed and redressed by multiple sources, the mission of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) is a critical one. It is critical because we are not dealing with facts and figures, reparation and reinstatement alone. We are dealing with death and loss, a topic that is relevant to us all, and yet is painful and unpleasant to talk about.

Of utmost urgency therefore is that Sri Lanka must acknowledge the responsibility of the government to swiftly and severely deal with these violations and provide for restorative justice to victims and families that have come forward. Those of us working in the field of peace and restorative justice know well the adage, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Death, Loss and Trauma

Everyone knows the universality of death. We also experience a common kind of grief where the circumstances of the loss are similar. However individual grief is as unique as the person experiencing it. No one can completely comprehend the grief of another. I believe we can safely conclude that traumatic death, especially violent death and unresolved disappearances, can lead to increased distress.

Wortman & Latack (2015) describe traumatic death as follows –

“A death is considered traumatic if it occurs without warning; if it is untimely; if it involves violence; if there is damage to the loved one’s body; if it was caused by a perpetrator with the intent to harm; if the survivor regards the death as preventable; if the survivor believes that the loved one suffered; or if the survivor regards the death, or manner of death, as unfair and unjust.”

The relatives of missing persons who are seeking to know the circumstances in which such persons went missing and the fate and whereabouts of such missing persons must be treated as a special category. These victims have two battles to fight. They must learn and know how to cope with trauma and grief. Every day they step into an extremely delicate emotional state, utterly lost in the bleak realities of trauma, grief, life and loneliness, more deeply looking for belonging, comfort and reassurance.

Investigating this loss of life must be given a high priority by the OMP. It is not only the devastating impact such death and disappearances have on families and communities, but also because groups that have not had the full recourse to the law and justice, are more likely to preach hatred and intolerance and can re-plant the seed of terrorism here in our country.

Great Beginnings

The Office on Missing Persons Act, No. 14 of 2016 was established to provide appropriate mechanisms for the tracing of missing persons, and to clarify the circumstances in which such persons went missing, their fate and to protect the rights and interests of missing persons and their relatives whilst identifying proper avenues of redress to which such missing persons or their relatives may have recourse.”

The Act though well intended lacks strong legal provisions for prevention and accountability. As much will be continued to be said and much will continue to evolve, the hard work at hand, must move forward with great speed and momentum.

We must acknowledge that, much has been done in the past, by the Government in terms of fact finding, developing case specific studies and theory, working with survivors, legislative advocacy, communication with partners and stakeholders.

But have these programs delivered the desired results? Has there been consistency? Has it yielded long term success? What has been the strategy, or is there a strategy to proactively face emerging challenges on the horizon?

We must also acknowledge that, much has also been undone by successive governments where domestic investigations and inquiries have been ineffective and recommendations by credible authorities went largely unimplemented.

Every Enemy is Someone you Don’t Know

Investigating human rights violations and preventing such in the future requires the OMP to maintain at its center a psychological campaign. One that is genuinely well geared to win hearts and minds of the families of the victims. Appoint a public advocate, I also say a chief compassionate officer, who will be in charge with representing the interests of the families of the missing persons.

Crucial is that, this advocate live, listen and learn from the people in the margins. Because “The margin” is not a place of weakness or self- depreciation, but rather a place pulsating with critical activity, that is alive with argument, controversy and creative discourse..”

It is here that breakthroughs will take place in terms of knowing the maladministrations or the violations. It is here that true understanding the needs and feelings of the families will take place, it is here that grievances and misgivings, genuine connections and rapport can be established.

Winning Hearts and Minds

Decades after death and loss, is justice possible? Can the very people in law enforcement who fought the war and ended the war be held responsible or will they be granted immunity?

It is never too late to hold people accountable. We must all know of the slogan, “Impunity then is impunity now.” 70 years after the Second World War criminals are being prosecuted. The OMP must set up some justice mechanism, quasi courts, truth commissions to at least investigate some severe cases of breach. What was the policy in using violence? What did they do? Can there be atonement by way of facing the families and accepting responsibility? Can the perpetrators build a house for the victims or tend the gardens of the victims’ families? We must creatively explore these possibilities. If we fail to do so, we will add salt to the wounds. And we will forget, neglect and abandon our commitment to serve justice as a community.

The OMP must mobilise strategic leadership within the groups. Break the cycle to prevent disgruntled and disappointed sub groups rising from within the main groups. Assimilate the hopeful majority who are open and seeking transformation. Persuade, motivate and inspire the families to make a paradigm shift.

Deliberately create an environment of safety, healing and empowerment that ultimately assists the victims and their families to make sense of their experience and move toward healing.

Remain sensitive to trauma history because most of the time trauma is denied, ignored or shrouded in secrecy.

Open and maintain robust and open lines of communication because there will be much debate and discussion that can eventually be healthy for both camps.

In brief every attempt should be made to engage not alienate.

Facilitator of the AFF, (Affected Families Forum – who are seeking representation at the OMP), Ranjith Perera – Points out that in South Africa, while the process of reconciliation and amnesty had taken place along with the involvement of the perpetrators and the victimised, in Sri Lanka it was not the case.

“The affected must be taken in and listened to. Politicians cannot represent them. Right now, in the absence of the affected, groups are talking on behalf of them. The affected are not happy with the process, which is problematic,”

He also said that around 90% of the affected families do not know what the OMP is about while the balance has not even heard about it. “The Government has not gone to the grassroots level, reached out through village officials and made them understand,”

If not now, when? If not you, who? 

It is true that the situation in Sri Lanka is unique and different. In that, we suffered a crippling 26-year civil war pitting government forces against violent Tamil separatists of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The series of bloody battles obscured the lines and often the rules of engagement.

But now the war is done. Our strength must never be measured by the fact that we ended a war. Our strength must be measured by how we came together to make peace and promote justice.

A new era has dawned in Sri Lanka. Are we ready to seize this moment in history? How do we want to be remembered as individuals? How should we be remembered as a nation? Active citizenship begins with the envisioning of the desired outcomes, and a conscious application of spiritual principles.

What is important is not what happened or what they did, what is important is what we do now for those who have lost their loved ones. How can we show we care? As Cicero would say, “The life of the dead and missing is placed in the memory of the living.”

The dead cannot cry out for justice, it the duty of us who are living to do so on their behalf.

Editor’s Note: Also read “The Office on Missing Persons: A New Chapter or Another Empty Promise?” and “The Process Behind OMP: Video interviews”