Time for transparency?

Thursday, 27 August 2015 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The second report of the Presidential Commission Investigating Cases of Missing Persons will be presented to President Maithripala Sirisena this week and is expected to have crucial importance as Sri Lanka awaits the report released by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).  

The three-member commission appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa on 15 August 2013, had been given the authority to conduct inquiries and investigations into the alleged abductions or disappearances that occurred from 1983 to 2009 and submit a report to the President.

Maxwell Paranagama who heads the commission told the media that the suspects named before the commission during the public hearings had been referred to the Attorney General for appropriate action. Yet the Government still has to empower the Attorney General to investigate and file legal cases based on evidence found by the commission.

Since its establishment on 15th August 2013, the commission had received in excess of 20,106 complaints inclusive of approximately 5,200 complaints from relatives of missing security forces personnel. The commission has heard the verbal evidence of nearly 1,440 complainants during public sittings held in the Northern and Eastern provinces.

The recorded evidence of these complainants were analysed for further investigations through an independent investigative team. On reported cases of disappearances and abductions by security forces, the commission has also reported them to the attorney general for appropriate action.

Obviously, matters do not end there. The Commission on War Disappearances recently noted accountability and responsibility by parties vary from district to district, and in the Northern Province, 60% of the allegations were levelled against the LTTE, 30% against the security forces, 5% against armed groups and 5% against unknown groups.

The alleged involvement of the security forces is what makes the domestic probe such a heavy political gamble. Moreover, the long-term challenges of legal persecution and hearing of cases make it a prolonged risk. Legislation such as the witness protection legislation that was recently passed needs to be vigorously exercised. This is especially essential given the sensitive nature of the investigations and the fact that it could implicate very powerful people, who could in turn intimidate or threaten witnesses or otherwise sabotage the investigative and trial process. Without such safeguards in place, it is unlikely that the legal process will be considered fair and competent. Compensation, counselling and psychosocial assistance for families in the north and east has also been recommended by the commission, an essential part of the healing process that has not received much attention yet. International assistance is also essential to ensure that the process earns credibility. While the Government can be credited for promoting relations with the US to gain its support at UNHRC sessions in the form of a resolution supporting Government efforts, detractors will find this hard to swallow as it could be construed as a move to reduce international oversight of the investigations. It would be beneficial to the Government but much onus would still be placed on the structure of the domestic panel and what role the commission on disappearances would play. One step that would benefit transparency is to release the report to be presented to the president on Friday. Sri Lanka has had too long a history of hiding behind reports and if the reconciliation process is to truly move forward then an effort to be honest must also be made.