(OFFICE ON MISSING PERSONS/MEDIA RELEASE/15 January 2020)
Recent media reports have claimed that the government plans to review the Office on Missing Persons (Establishment, Administration and Discharge of Functions) Act No. 14 of 2016 (the Act) with a view to amending the same. The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) officially communicated its position by letters dated 9th January 2020 to His Excellency the President, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, the Honourable Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapaksa and the Honourable Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Nimal Siripala de Silva. In its communications with the government the OMP highlighted that the OMP was created in recognition of the long-standing demands of the families of the missing and disappeared and with a view to addressing the recommendations as well as the failings of past State mechanisms that sought to address issues related to the missing and disappeared.
The OMP further recalled that Sri Lanka has suffered from widespread disappearances for over four decades in multiple contexts including the civil war and the southern insurrections. Over the past three decades successive governments belonging to multiple political parties, have sought to address the issue of the missing and disappeared by establishing temporary mechanisms with limited mandates including a number of Presidential Commissions of Inquiry (COIs). The OMP further observed that previous mechanisms such as Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, in 2011, recommended that the State establish a permanent institution, with a broad mandate and robust investigation powers to address issues related to the missing and disappeared.
In 2018 the OMP was established as a permanent and independent State institution, akin to other independent commissions. The OMP’s mandate is not limited to any particular period, region or community and as per section 27 of the Act, its mandate extends to persons who went missing in relation to the conflict which took place in the North and East, due to political unrest or civil disturbances, as enforced disappearances or as a member of the armed forces or the police reported missing in action.
The OMP is a specialized institution that has a mandate as per section 10(1) of the Act to a) take all necessary measures to search for and trace missing persons; b) make recommendations towards addressing the incidence of missing persons; c) protect the rights and interests of missing persons and their relatives; d) identify avenues of redress and e) collate data related to missing persons. As acknowledged by previous COIs, investigations regarding the missing and disappeared are an inherently complex task which require robust investigative powers, which the OMP has been empowered with, under section 12(a)-(i) of the Act.
The OMP was established following the appointment of seven commissioners in February 2018 by His Excellency the former President on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. In its first year, the OMP arranged public consultations in a number of districts with members of families of the missing and the disappeared. Families highlighted their suffering and past failures of the State,
including focusing only on providing limited compensation. Regardless of region or ethnicity, families demanded that the OMP conduct investigations and provide answers as to the fate and whereabouts of their missing loved ones. In the past 22 months, the OMP has operationalized its head office in Colombo and opened four regional offices in Matara, Mannar, Jaffna, and Batticaloa.
The OMP has in the said communications acknowledged that proposing amendments to the Act is a prerogative of the Government, although any changes will need to be enacted by Parliament. However, the OMP expressed the view that any amendments to the Act should be proposed pursuant to wide consultations with families of the missing and disappeared, organizations that work with them and the OMP and that in doing so it is necessary to keep in mind the needs of the families and their right to know the fate of their missing or disappeared loved ones.
Saliya Pieris P.C. Chairperson Office on Missing Persons