Issue Brief No. 2:
Families of the Disappeared and the OMP: Is there a path forward?
May 9, 2017
Over eight months ago, the Sri Lankan parliament passed the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Act, designed to create an investigatory mechanism to provide answers to the over 100,000 families of disappeared who still do not know the fate of their loved ones. The OMP Act was passed through parliament chaotically with no opportunity for debate and families of the disappeared criticized the fact that they were not sufficiently consulted. However, the Act was welcomed by segments of civil society, elected Tamil representatives and the international community, as a step in the right direction. The Sri Lankan government repeatedly pointed to the OMP Act, both in September 2016, and March 2017, during the UN Human Rights Council sessions as an example of progress towards accountability.
Yet over eight months later, the OMP Act remains just a piece of paper having not even been assigned to a ministry, and with an amendment that potentially restricts its ability to enter into agreements with international bodies such as the International Committees of the Red Cross (ICRC), who could provide invaluable technical assistance. Families of the disappeared have grown tired of waiting and are now even more skeptical of the OMP, saying that it will just be used to further delay an answer to the whereabouts/fate of their disappeared loved ones. Having lost all faith in government processes, families of the disappeared have now been sweltering on the roadside in protest for over two months across the North-East, demanding answers to the fate of their loved ones. On April 27, 2017, a hartal was declared across the North-East, and mothers of the disappeared from Kilinochchi led their protest to block the A9 road. The levels of anger, frustration and sheer exhaustion felt by families of the disappeared are enormous, and their turn to roadside protests indicate that they are at the end of the rope. According to many mothers of the disappeared, “we don’t need another office, we need to know where our loved ones are and have our children returned to us!”
The question now is how to find a path forward that provides families of the disappeared with relief. In this brief, the first in a series where ACPR will consider the issue of disappearances, ACPR will consider this question in two parts. In Part I, ACPR outlines steps the government should immediately undertake to demonstrate its political will towards addressing the issue of disappearances and to rebuild confidence in families of the disappeared. This part outlines the unedited demands of the families of the disappeared based on interviews ACPR has conducted with protesting families of the disappeared across the North and with civil society organizations who work with them. In Part II, ACPR explores three of the families’ key demands with regards to any process set up to investigate disappearances and how those demands should be incorporated into the establishment of the OMP under the OMP Act as it currently stands to help ensure its credibility: (1) appointments; (2) regional offices; and (3) linkage to criminal prosecutions. It is critical to understand that given the deep distrust held by families of the disappeared currently of the government, there will be very little success in trying to establish even a credible investigatory mechanism without first addressing the demands outlined in Part I.
Ultimately, in order to advance the issue of disappearances and provide relief to the thousands of families of disappeared in Sri Lanka, it is imperative that the government meaningfully listens to and incorporates the families’ demands into any proposed solution. After decades of systemic and widespread enforced disappearances, the Sri Lankan government must find the political will to finally put an end to the culture of impunity and provide long overdue relief to families who have lived in anguish for far too long.
Read full brief here.