After a lapse of over a year, families of people who disappeared during the war will be watching Parliament again as the Permanent Office of Missing Persons (OMP) legislation is debated this week. Many will be hoping that this will finally be a start to genuine truth-seeking and repatriation as pledged by this Government when it came into power in 2015.
President Maithripala Sirisena in May told a gathering in Sampur if information pertaining to the locations of missing persons being detained was revealed, the Government would then formulate a program to inspect those places. The President also promised that the reports and recommendations of former commissions would be taken into consideration by the new committee.
In the context of the promises of good governance and the ‘Yahapalana’ ticket that this regime strode in on, any assurances of justice, or even simply answers, for the families of those forcibly disappeared should be reassuring. Unfortunately for the ‘good governance’ crusaders it is not in this context that the latest bout of promises are being appraised, rather, they are coloured by the fact that since the early ’90s at least 10 Presidential Commissions of Inquiry have been launched into the matter of enforced disappearances with little by way of recompense.
The latest commission being referred to by the President is of course the long-touted OMP, the establishment of which was approved by Parliament last year. To date it is still to be established but the President for his part noted that he had advised the Prime Minister and the Cabinet to take necessary measures to make amendments to the Act approved by the Parliament to establish the OMP.
Nevertheless, the longer the wait for its establishment goes on the more sceptical those who wait become. It is true that the OMP is set to have more power than the commissions that preceded it; previous commissions merely handed over their findings to the Government, which was then expected to take necessary action, whereas the OMP will on its own be able investigate further findings uncovered by it or any previous commissions. However, questions remain over whether that will indeed be allowed to pass.
While the final report of the Paranagama Commission - appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to look into disappearances - was never released to the public, the final report of the commission appointed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga – the Commission of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons (All-Island) - is available at the National Library. In it, it is revealed that 90% of disappearances at the time were attributed to the Sri Lankan Military and Police, while the remaining 10% were chalked up to paramilitary groups such as the LTTE.
In fact, the report named several police and military personnel, whom there was enough evidence on to prosecute. That out of the 21,215 verified cases of enforced disappearances in the report, less than 500 have resulted in an indictment, is damning.
Once passed by Parliament, the OMP could quite literally be a game-changer, provided the legislation has not been watered down, but until then questions need to be asked over why the findings of the previous 10 commissions are not being investigated further. Successive governments have kicked the proverbial can further down the road and the OMP will have to work very hard to shake the feeling that this latest one is not doing the same.