The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) has proposed a series of recommendations to the Sri Lankan Government including an urgent public awareness to dispel rumours on the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) legislation which was passed in Parliament recently, as well as to ensure that the staff at the Office will be of ‘unimpeachable integrity’ with no prior allegations of human rights violations against them.
While welcoming and commending the adoption of the OMP, the HRCSL said that the OMP legal framework would have had greater legitimacy if it was enacted after the on-going public consultations process so that the insights and concerns of the affected families could have been incorporated.
The Commission’s Chairperson Dr. Deepika Udagama submitting recommendations said, “We reiterate the importance of ensuring future mechanisms incorporate and reflect the concerns and insights of victims and affected persons, and urge the government to undertake a transparent and inclusive process to establish these mechanisms.”
The Commission reiterated that a number of important elements have to be given serious consideration if the OMP is to be victim-centred and function effectively to provide redress to families of the disappeared.
The commission said that public awareness is a must. “There is an urgent need for a public awareness campaign to dispel rumours and counter misleading and inaccurate information being placed in the public domain regarding the OMP. Hence, a concerted effort is required to create understanding and a sense of ownership amongst the public in this regard. Further, the OMP has to reach out to families of the disappeared and provide them information about the institution through multiple means to ensure they are able to access the OMP. Hence, an effective communication strategy in all three languages is essential,” the Commission said.
According to the recommendations, an important means of ensuring accessibility as well as create public ownership is to establish regional offices of the OMP.
“The membership of the OMP should reflect the pluralistic nature of Sri Lanka, including meaningful gender as well as regional representation. Members should be persons of unimpeachable integrity and competence,” the Commission said.
HRCSL said that when establishing the office ‘particular attention’ has to be paid to the recruitment of staff to ensure they are persons of unimpeachable integrity, have no prior allegations of human rights violations against them, and have the ability to be empathetic to the needs and concerns of victims and the families of the disappeared. “In this regard too adequate gender, ethnic, and regional representation should be ensured as well as language proficiency since the ability to serve the various communities in a language they understand is critically important. The staff should be provided training in gender sensitivity, since most of the complainants are women, as well as how to deal with victims who have suffered trauma and loss,” HRCSL said.
To ensure transparency, the Commission said that the OMP has to formulate and widely publicise information on its methods of operations and procedures to which it adheres, including rules regarding confidentiality, guidance to families on how to approach the OMP and their rights in relation to obtaining information regarding progress of their complaint. “Communication with victims should be in a language they understand,” the recommendations said.
HRCSL also said that the OMP should have personnel who are qualified to provide on-site psycho-social support to those who require it, for instance, during or after making statements to the OMP. “Every effort should be made to avoid re-traumatisation of the victims,” the Commission said.
Where the issuance of the Certificate of Absence (COA) is concerned, the Commission said that the families have to be made aware of their rights in this regard. “Given previous reports of families of the disappeared being coerced to apply for death certificates, it is important to ensure they are in no way subject to any form of coercion to opt for a death certificate instead of a COA,” the recommendations said.
The Commission also highlighted that the OMP should establish an internal mechanism to address grievances of complainants regarding shortcomings in the functioning of the Office, which will enable the Office to strengthen its methods, functions and service to the public.