Photo courtesy of People for Equality and Relief in Sri Lanka

Until recently, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) was housed in a magnificent colonial building in a leafy Colombo suburb that used to house members of parliament; now it has been relegated to a small office on Galle Road in Colpetty.

Once it was part of the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation; that ministry has ceased to function. After this month’s general election, the OMP was handed over to the Justice Ministry under Minister Ali Sabry. Other reconciliation mechanisms such as the Office for National Unity (ONUR), Office for Reparations and the National Authority for the Protection of Victims of Crimes and Witnesses have also been placed in the care of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s personal lawyer.

While there are State Ministers for brass and batik, not to mention potatoes and ditch construction, reconciliation and integration are nowhere to be found on that illustrious list.

With these ominous signs, what hope is there for a reconciliation process based on Transitional Justice mechanisms and, in particular, for the OMP? Will it survive as a strong operational body or be relegated to the back burner as a toothless, whitewashing tool, paying lip service to appease the international community so Sri Lanka can continue to get aid?

The OMP was instituted in February 2018 with a budgetary allowance of Rs. 1.3 billion and is mandated to search for and trace disappearances arising from all political conflicts in the country. It has wide investigative powers and can summon individuals and authorities, although it is not a judicial authority. It was designed as a humanitarian, truth-seeking mechanism and not tasked to prosecute.

During its two and a half years of operation, the OMP has heard thousands of complaints across the country from relatives searching for their loved ones and has sought to dispel their doubts about the will of the State to address their concerns.

“The failure of the State to provide answers has resulted in some families holding on to the hope that they will return home safely. Family members are unable to grieve and achieve closure and some have waited for over three decades, uncertain whether they should perform an almsgiving in honour of their missing loved one,” the OMP said in a statement to mark its two years of operation, noting that in many cases, the breadwinner had gone missing leaving wives, children and parents with no means of income and a desperate need to pursue their fruitless search.

The OMP has assisted magisterial inquiries into suspected mass graves and advocated for the prosecution of cases involving disappearances and for legal reforms to the process of identification of human remains and detention practices.

The OMP recommended the payment of Rs. 6,000 per month to families as interim relief, which was implemented until the end of 2019. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it urged the Government to include relatives of the disappeared as beneficiaries of its relief measures.

The OMP has commemorated the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances as an acknowledgement of the State’s obligation to recognise that disappearances have occurred in Sri Lanka.

It developed a list of members of the armed forces regarded as missing in action and asked families to give details of their disappeared relatives to be included in the list.

“We note that in order for the OMP to be effective, it requires the unstinted cooperation of the Government and State agencies. The members of the OMP remain committed to furthering the cause of the missing and disappeared and to working with the families of the missing and disappeared and advocating on their behalf,” the OMP statement said.

According to Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, speaking on television on June 28, the OMP was “rammed through Parliament without leaving room for any debate.” He describes it as an “inquisitorial body that can issue summons, examine witnesses, and collect evidence.”

A tool to deter enforced disappearances, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, which was made applicable to Sri Lanka in 2018, was described by Prime Minister Rajapaksa as being “not to facilitate the location of disappeared persons, but to persecute members of the Armed Forces.”

President Rajapaksa at a meeting with UN Resident Coordinator, Hanaa Singer, in January, casually declared that the thousands of missing persons were actually dead. But how did they go missing, how did they die? Where is the evidence, where are the records? Can Sri Lanka just dismiss the fate of thousands of its citizens missing from all regions of the country as “actually dead?”

“Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances, with between 60,000 and 100,000 people vanishing since the late 1980s. The mass disappearance of those who surrendered at the end of the country’s armed conflict is a clear indication of the institutionalization of the practice, with the state concealing the fate and whereabouts of the missing,” said Amnesty International.

Government figures are much lower with the Paranagama Commission that investigated disappearances in the Northern and Eastern Provinces between 1983 and 2009 reporting that it had received 21,000 complaints and the Zonal Commission that investigated disappearances in the Western, Southern and Sabaragamuwa Provinces between 1988 and 1997 reporting that it had received 8,739 complaints.

Enforced disappearances are a worldwide phenomenon found in Mexico to Syria, from Bangladesh to Laos and from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Spain, according to Amnesty International. “They are commonly carried out in internal conflicts, particularly by governments trying to repress political opponents or by armed opposition groups.”

Half way across the world, in Argentina, mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires hold weekly Thursday afternoon vigils asking for the children stolen by the Argentina’s military rulers from 1976 to 1983, a testament to the enduring power of grief.

In Sri Lanka, 69 women from the north and east have died without learning the fate of their family members since the end of the war in May 2009. The number of those who have died in the South and other parts of the country while waiting for the return of their relatives from as far back as 1971 is not known.

Families of the disappeared have been further troubled by the Government’s decision to withdraw from co-sponsoring the United Nations Human Rights Council Resolutions, which had them questioning as to whether they would ever find answers to what had happened to their relatives.

According to Human Rights Watch, activists representing the relatives of the forcibly disappeared have reported a significant increase in government surveillance and intimidation. Many have risked their anonymity, security, and energy to speak up and demand truth or accountability, it said.

“Sri Lankan security forces and intelligence agencies have intensified surveillance and threats against families of victims of enforced disappearance and activists supporting them since Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in November 2019,” the organisation said.

People assisting and supporting relatives of the disappeared are coming under increasing attack. “Persons and organizations that have been supportive of their struggles, including lawyers and NGOs, are coming under more surveillance and intimidation from State agents in the last few months. There is pressure from families, friends and fellow activists to be restrained, even in accompanying and being in solidarity with families of disappeared. I have also been facing such pressures,” said human rights activist Ruki Fernando.

“Overall, it’s a rather bleak, hopeless and helpless scenario in terms of struggles to find what happened to those subjected to enforced disappearances, missing and holding those responsible legally accountable.

“But many families of disappeared have been exceptionally brave and determined and I believe they will continue their struggles. Finding more creative ways to continue struggles collectively will be challenging for families. For activists, the challenge will be to offer continuous support and solidarity despite pressures from state, colleagues, friends and families,” he explained.