OMP - SPOTLIGHTS the dark days of uncertainty | Sunday Observer

OMP - SPOTLIGHTS the dark days of uncertainty

Anura Kumara Dissanayake-R.Sampanthan
Anura Kumara Dissanayake-R.Sampanthan

The Office of Missing Persons Act (OMP) was made operative, by the President two weeks ago. The Bill that was passed in Parliament and later certified by the Speaker, needed the President’s signature, as Minister in Charge of the subject to make the law operative.

The day he did so, President Sirisena twittered, ‘I signed the Office of Missing Persons Gazette today. This marks another step forward in Sri Lanka’s path to sustained peace.”

Now it is incumbent upon the Constitutional Council to nominate seven eminent persons to occupy the Secretariat that will ‘ensure necessary measures to provide appropriate mechanisms to search and trace missing persons, as well as to clarify the circumstances in which such persons went missing, and their fate,’ it being the primary mandate of the OMP.

Apart from that, the Secretariat will be required to provide assistance to the kith and kin of missing persons and set up a database of those who went missing in the past.

According to the Act, missing persons will not be limited to those who disappeared during the LTTE conflict. The Act provides for investigating the cases of missing persons during political unrest and civil disturbances such as, the JVP insurrections. It has power to receive complaints and investigate cases of missing tri forces personnel in action. The Paranagama Commission (Presidential Commision of Inquiry into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances) received complaints of 5,000 missing service personnel and 16,000 missing civilians.

The office, comprising officers with experience in fact-finding, investigation, human rights law, international humanitarian law and humanitarian response among other things, will be required to make recommendations to state agencies to reduce incidents of disappearances in the future.

They need to identify and formulate procedures and proper avenues to protect the rights and interests of the missing persons and their relatives, as well as proper avenues of redress.

After the Constitutional Council put forth its recommendations nominating members for the OMP, the President is required to make the appointments within a fortnight, according to the Act. The term of office for each member will be three years (restricted to only two terms of office) and the Bill provides for the appointment of seven members representing all ethnicities.

The Justice Minister, who is a member and the Opposition Leader, an ex-officio member of the Constitutional Council said, they have so far not come up with any names for the OMP Secretariat. The Constitutional Council is expected to meet shortly to discuss this matter.

The Opposition Leader R.Sampanthan told the Sunday Observer that the Constitutional Council should meet in Parliament without much delay to discuss the members for the OMP.

“The Speaker must summon a meeting of the Constitutional Council,” he said.

While the Joint Opposition attempted to give the Bill a stillbirth when it was debated in Parliament in August 2016, the Bill had the blessings of the JVP right throughout.

The JVP Leader, Anura Kumara Dissanayake in an earlier interview with the Sunday Observer on the OMP said,“My brother is a missing person. I can relate to the plight of these people and their state of mind. The parents and relatives of missing persons need a permanent place to seek straight answers and find a closure. If not, mothers will continue to appear with photographs of their loved ones during elections or whenever there is a foreign dignitary visiting the country.”

He said,“Such pain will not fade away with passing days or due to fearful threats. Shouldn’t we end this tragedy? Certainly, it will not be a pleasant process. If there have been killings and disappearances, it will be a huge controversy. But, unless we brace ourselves to overcome that challenge, there is no way we could move on.”

However, the JVP leader cautioned, ‘we acknowledge that the setting up of the OMP is a commendable move in the direction of strengthening human rights and democracy in Sri Lanka, but we need to be mindful of moves by the West to meddle with the internal affairs of other countries. Their weapon is human rights.’

The Paranagama Commission Chairman, Justice Maxwell Paranagama told the Sunday Observer that the government must be mindful of giving too much powers to a commission of such calibre.

“The government must do the right thing, it can be confusing sometimes and things can go off track due to pro-LTTE diaspora pressure,” he said. Several important amendments were passed at the time the Bill was debated in Parliament to seal any loopholes that might allow foreign meddling in the internal affairs of the country.

Perhaps, the most important of all was the third of the three amendments proposed by the JVP. It removed Paragraph (a) of Section 11, stripping the Bill of the power to ‘enter into agreements, as are necessary, to achieve the mandate of the OMP, with any person or organization.’

The JVP also fought to prevent the ability to receive direct foreign funding to the OMP insisting that the funds must be directed through the Consolidated Fund, if not the funding sources might try to influence the work of the OMP.

If not for the actions of the Joint Opposition, there would have been a full day and a half debate on the Bill. The JO’s boisterous behaviour gave the opportunity for the Government to rush through this important piece of legislature and pass it in a hurry within an hour. This almost omitted the JVP’s amendment to Section 11 which was later incorporated by the Speaker. The SLFP and the UNP also proposed amendments to the OMP Bill. They too were incorporated.

The JO argued that this Act would jeopardise national security and prepare the groundwork to prosecute war heroes. Once the members to the Office are nominated, the President will name one of the members as Chairman of the OMP on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council.

The main office of the OMP will be headquartered in Colombo and the Bill provides for the setting up of regional offices, if necessary, to achieve its mandate.

The setting up of the OMP is one of the commitments undertaken by the Government under the UN Human Rights Council Resolutions adopted in September 2015. The government also promised to set up a special judicial mechanism to hear cases with regard to alleged human rights abuses and war crimes.

While the Office of Missing Persons and the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission will look into the ‘truth-seeking’ aspect of reconciliation, the judicial mechanism will be tasked with meting out justice to victims. The government is expected to present a Bill of Reparation in Parliament within the coming 2-4 months.