By Jehan Perera –
The issue of fulfilling the pledges made to the international community in Geneva seemed to threaten the unity of the government even a month ago. In October 2015 the government co-sponsored the resolution on Sri Lanka that was sponsored by the United States and backed by the majorit of countries in the UN Human Rights Council. There were publicly articulated differences of opinion in which Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera sought to reassure the international community that the government would be standing by its pledges while President Maithripala Sirisena sought to reassure the ethnic majority population that the country’s sovereignty would not be jeopardized or the soldiers who fought in the war would not be hauled before international tribunals.
The passage of the law setting up the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has laid to rest doubts regarding the government’s commitment, and ability, to take forward the reconciliation process, to remain politically strong within the country and also to deliver on the promises it made in Geneva. The OMP is one of the four domestic mechanisms the government undertook to set up in response to the international pressure for Sri Lanka to agree to international mechanisms to ensure accountability for war crimes and serious human rights violations. The other three mechanisms are a truth commission, an office of reparations and a special court.
Due to co-sponsoring the UN Human Rights Council resolution in October 2015 that was originally intended to establish a hybrid special court, the government was able to reduce the international role in the investigation of the past. The government was able to negotiate and obtain a resolution in which the international role was open to interpretation. The current approach indicates that the international community will only be able to participate as advisors and experts, not as decision makers in Sri Lanka’s internal processes. However, the government’s acceptance of even a reduced international role in probing the past has been highly controversial in Sri Lanka as the opposition has been using it to mobilize the nationalist sentiment of the ethnic majority against the government.
The passage of the OMP bill in parliament without a vote demonstrated that the government’s solid majority in parliament that comes from the UNP-SLFP alliance has given it enormous decision making power that the opposition has no answer to. With the SLFP component of the government falling in line with President Sirisena’s support for the OMP bill, there was an overwhelming parliamentary majority ready to vote in favour of the bill. So long as the government leadership, in particular the President and Prime Minister, are united on any matter it will not be possible for the opposition to stall them in parliament.
Unlike in the case of other controversial issues such as the VAT tax rate on which parties such as the JVP are also critical of the government, in the case of the OMP all parties in parliament with the exception of the Joint Opposition were in favour of passing the bill. The Joint Opposition was numerically too small to stand in the way of the passage of the bill through a vote. This may explain why they took the rowdy alternative of imagining themselves at a street demonstration in parliament. Not only did they fail to utilize the opportunity to debate the bill, propose their amendments if any and thereby educate the general public. They also lost the opportunity to vote as they were too busy demonstrating when the vote took place.
It was unfortunate that those who were human rights champions in the 1980 and 1990s, and widely admired for this, displayed their opposition to OMP by word and deed. A widely circulated poster on social media was of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then an ordinary opposition MP, calling for a meeting of the Mothers Front, an umbrella group of organizations that supported the rights of victims during the period of the JVP insurrection at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. The underlying rationale of the OMP is not much different from the message on the poster that former president Rajapaksa was bold enough to put out two decades ago. It is that people, whatever their ethnicity or political affiliation, need to know what happened to their loved ones so that they can stop the endless search for them.
The purpose of the OMP is to find out what happened to those missing that stretch back decades and the insurrections that took place in both the North and South of the country and were bloodily suppressed. The OMP is to help them to end the search, and to bring closure to that open wound that exists in the body politic. The OMP law constitutes the maximum effort that the Sri Lankan state can take to find out where they are if they are living and if not living what happened to them. This is why the law provides that evidence that is not admissible in courts of law is admissible in the OMP investigation. This is also why evidence that is confidential is permissible, which even the Right to Information Act cannot access.
The OMP is a very important element of the country’s transitional justice process and the set of institutions and measures outlined by the government. But it is only one part of the process of transitional justice. After the successful passage of the OMP bill in parliament, government spokespersons have said that the government would set up a Truth Commission, a judicial mechanism to deal with accountability (and punishment) issues and an office of reparations. These additional mechanisms that the government has still to set up will offer more avenues for truth and accountability seeking. Truth, justice and reconciliation will be delivered via the totality of these bodies, and not just the OMP.
The swift passage of the OMP bill into law in parliament is a possible prototype for the reconciliation mechanisms that are to follow. Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has said that the next mechanism that will be making its appearance will be the Truth Seeking Commission. The government is awaiting the outcome of the deliberations of the Consultations Task Force that it has appointed. The Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms (CTF) was appointed by the Prime Minister in January 2016 to conduct public consultations on the design of the four mechanisms that would advance truth, justice and reconciliation in Sri Lanka.
The task force headed by veteran human rights activist Manouri Muttuwegama has already come out with a comprehensive and intensive report on the OMP mechanism. This report distils the experience of a wide range of persons affected by disappearances, including those who experienced the war in the North and East, families of servicemen missing in action, disappearances from the hill country Tamil Community, fishermen of all ethnicities who disappeared in waters in the North and East of Sri Lanka, disappearances attributed to the LTTE and other armed militant groups, or occurring in the context of the political violence of 1987-91 period.
The submissions made to the task force raised concerns about the lack of public awareness of the government’s intentions and objectives with regard to the reconciliation process and the OMP, and the lack of official information available on the consultations, which also impairs public participation. The lack of awareness on the OMP bill among victim families for instance contributes to their feeling of isolation and marginalisation by the government. Some submissions recognise the need for a public awareness campaign in the South to address the lack of awareness and to counter racist rhetoric.
With the passage of the OMP bill it appears that the government’s international relations are at an all time high. The United States was the first country to welcome the OMP, even before local groups could get round to it. In a message it said the passage of the Bill to set up an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) by the Sri Lankan Government was “an historic step in the pursuit of justice, reconciliation and accountability for all.” Interestingly it was the US which was also the driving force behind the UNHRC resolution that started in 2009 and went on getting stronger and stronger till 2015, when the present government succeeded in reversing the worsening trend.
The visit of the Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the welcome accorded to her, with even welcoming billboards announcing her presence, was no doubt in appreciation of the role played by that country in Sri Lanka’s economic development and reconciliation processes over the decades. During the course of a speech on achieving sustainable development she said it was “important to build accountability and engagement at the community level, and local NGOs have a key role to play, involving parents and local communities.” Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s subsequent visit to China, are signs that the government’s determination to take the country forward is able to span the political divide between the old established democracies and the emerging economic powerhouses for the betterment of the country.