Govt. responds to rights watchdog on failure to ‘consult’ victims on Missing Persons Office

Thursday, 9 June 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 By Dharisha Bastians

The Government came out swinging against criticism by human rights groups on the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) draft legislation that was gazetted this week, saying a critical press statement had failed to balance the need for action with deliberation on long-overdue reconciliation and accountability mechanisms and the need to urgently address issues pertaining to the families of the Missing.

Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms Secretary General Mano Tittawella wrote to Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams on Tuesday (7) to say that the HRW statement issued on 27 May regarding the Government’s proposed OMP had failed to acknowledge efforts made by the Government to consult stakeholders in designing the mechanism.

“Although the Government is firm in its conviction that consultation is both a valuable end in itself and an important means of ensuring robust institutional design, it also has a responsibility to ensure that the very real and long-unresolved grievances of victims are addressed as soon as possible,” Tittawela’s letter to the human rights watchdog noted.

Tittawella added that one consistent message the Government had received during its meetings with victims and victim groups was the risk of “consultation fatigue’ and the importance of addressing grievances in a timely manner.

“Ultimately, after serious and careful deliberation, it was decided that the value of further consultation prior to the introduction of legislation did not outweigh the urgency of setting up the Office of Missing Persons,” the Secretary General for coordinating reconciliation mechanisms in Sri Lanka noted in his letter.

He said that in drafting legislation to set up the OMP, written submissions received from affected groups and civil society had been taken into consideration, and experts within and outside the country had been consulted, including international organisations working on the issues. “The proposal drafted was discussed with civil society groups and the affected on 9 May. Thereafter a trilingual document was sent out on 13 May. Victims, victim groups and civil society from both the north and the south were given an opportunity on 21 May to provide a detailed responses to the Government’s proposals.”

Tittawella explained that many suggestions made at the meetings held on 9 and 21 May where possible had been taken on board. “Where this was not possible, the reasons were explained,” the letter to HRW said. He added that the design of the mechanism was also informed by testimony of victims made accessible through the work of the LLRC and civil society groups.

Thanking Human Rights Watch for the group’s continued engagement on human rights issues in Sri Lanka, Tittawella explained that once established the Office of Missing Persons itself was explicitly empowered to consult victims and victim groups. Tittawella said that face-to-face consultations will begin in June 2016 for the remaining three mechanisms in the four-pillar Transitional Justice structure proposed by the Government would be led by the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, comprised of 11 leading civil society members.

The Secretary General said he was working together with the team at the Secretariat and other government agencies to ensure that the now over-due report by the Consultations Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms will be both a ‘rigorous reflection of public opinion’ and produced in a time bound manner. In a media release issued last week, Human Rights Watch said Sri Lankan Government had created an Office of Missing Persons without promised consultations with families of the “disappeared,” and said it should honour its pledge to hold meaningful consultations with the affected families and nongovernmental representatives about the missing persons’ office and the other transitional justice mechanisms. However, in spite of criticism by international and local civil society groups working on disappearance issues about the drafting and design process, the OMP Bill itself has not been criticised on substance after the draft legislation was gazetted. Despite concerns about process, especially with regard to shortage of consultations with victim groups, even local civil society activists who have pushed for wider discussions grudgingly admit that the legislation to set up a permanent Office of Missing Persons largely meets expectations as a framework to deal with some 65,000 cases of missing people in Sri Lanka.