Hope and tears: 500 families mark Victims of Enforced Disappearances Day

Wednesday, 31 August 2016 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By Dharisha Bastians

Just two weeks after the passage of the Office of Missing Persons Act, human rights activists and politicians urged hundreds of families searching for missing loved ones to give the new mechanism a chance and take ownership of the process in order to ensure its success.

An event to mark the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances was held at the Sri Lanka Foundation Institute yesterday, bringing some 500 families of missing persons from various districts of the island to the capital Colombo. The event was organised by the Families of the Disappeared in collaboration with the Platform for Freedom and Veedhiye Virodhaya, and featured speeches from veteran human rights defenders, disappearance activists, victim families and politicians.

Victims who spoke at the event at SLFI expressed cautious optimism about the OMP, after their experiences with previous commissions of inquiry on missing persons. “We want to know what happened”, was the one common cry from each of the victims who shared experiences on stage yesterday.

Parameswari, from Chenkaladi Batticaloa, told Daily FT that her family had been searching for her missing brother since 2007. The CID took him from their family home on suspicion of being involved with the LTTE, she said. “He never returned. If he is alive somewhere, we hope this new Office will be able to find him,” Parameswari cried. Hundreds of families with similar stories of loved ones disappeared and never heard of again packed the large hall, while some sat outside the auditorium recovering from long journeys to Colombo. 

Veteran disappearances campaigner Dr. Nimalka Fernando said those who were opposing the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons were belittling the shattered families and lives from whose pain the need for such a mechanism had emerged.

“This is a chance to end the suffering and tears of thousands of mothers around the country. We cannot allow this Office to be destabilised by petty political agendas,” Dr. Fernando charged.

Dr. Paikasothy Saravanamuttu, who currently serves on the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, explained that there were shortcomings in the OMP legislation that civil society had hoped would be addressed during the debate in Parliament. 

Unfortunately, Dr. Saravanamuttu said, while one and a half days had been set aside for the debate, it had ultimately lasted less than an hour.

“But are we going to make the best the enemy of the good? Or will we engage with the good to make it better?” he asked. The question was whether the OMP could make a difference in the human rights history of Sri Lanka, Dr. Saravanamuttu explained. “I think we should try,” he urged.

In a clarion call to the international community, who he said had supported civil society and human rights defenders in the years gone by, Dr. Saravanamuttu emphasised that the OMP could not “function on the cheap.” The Office had to be empowered with resources and technical expertise, he said, in order to have an impact.

The secretary of the Consultations Task Force also warned the Government that progress on reconciliation must be measured on demonstrable action on the ground and not be limited to ticking boxes and meeting deadlines at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“I urge families of the disappeared to give the OMP a chance. Watch carefully to see if it works,” Dr. Saravanamuttu said.

Tamil National Alliance Parliamentarian M.A. Sumanthiran echoed the sentiments, calling on the victim families to move forward despite their disappointments and sorrow, even more determined to see what can be achieved through the Office of Missing Persons.

“Don’t reject the OMP outright. For the OMP to succeed it needs the confidence of victims,” he urged.

Also speaking at the event, JHU representative Nishantha Sri Warnasinghe said the party welcomed the passage of legislation to set up the OMP, saying that the Government had a responsibility to deliver justice to victims, from every community. Warnasinghe said that while it was the JHU position that the past should be forgotten, he understood that Tamil, Sinhala and Muslim mothers of the missing may feel differently.-Pix by Shehan Gunasekara