The Office on Missing Persons (OMP) in Sri Lanka, responsible for investigating cases of missing individuals, has transitioned from its previous approach of investigating all missing persons to focusing specifically on those who were forcefully disappeared.
During a recent media briefing, Chairman of OMP, Mahesh Katulanda, highlighted this shift as their primary area of concentration. Those who could not attend physically joined via Zoom. However, journalists were not permitted to question OMP officials directly, which was perceived as unwelcoming.
“Earlier, commissions only looked into missing persons but this time it has a mandate to investigate enforced disappearances,” the OMP officials said.
He explained that a meticulous process was undertaken, encompassing complaints submitted to organisations such as the ICRC, United Nations, various embassies, and military offices. All of this data has been consolidated into a single document. The OMP has also incorporated information from Sri Lankan expatriates living overseas who lodged complaints. Ultimately, this database has yielded a total of 21,374 cases, formally submitted as complaints to the OMP, taking into account all previous submissions.
Within this count, there were instances of repeated entries and duplicates, as these complaints had been presented to various presidential commissions. To address this, the Chairman mentioned that efforts are underway to amalgamate the data and refine the list of complaints in collaboration with the Attorney General’s Department. Among the 21,327 complaints, 6,336 originated from military personnel, Police, and other government forces involved in the armed conflict. Consequently, 14,988 cases have been identified as ongoing cases under the purview of the OMP. Of these, the OMP has commenced an investigation into 3,819 cases through its newly established inquiry mechanism, thus far.
Enforced disappearance is considered to be one of the exclusive focus points of the international community and they have from time to time expressed in strong terms to countries to take stern action to address the issue and Sri Lanka is one among them.
He emphasised the importance of investigating cases involving individuals who were forcibly taken and made to disappear, even without any trace of their bodies, as these cases form a crucial aspect of the OMP’s search efforts. He also said they were given the mandate to probe the missing persons beginning from 1968, however, they have to find closure and work swiftly on this matter of enforced disappeared persons of Sri Lanka. “We cannot continue to hold on to this probe any longer,” he added.
Pertinent questions linger
Numerous pertinent questions linger regarding the operations of OMP, including inquiries about whether instances of enforced disappearances of government soldiers were included in the complaints submitted by their families, and if so, how many such cases had been documented.
Further, there was curiosity regarding Army Staff Sergeant Sunil Ratnayake, who had been sentenced to death for his involvement in the Mirusuvil massacre. Despite his conviction for the killing of eight civilians, he was granted a State pardon and will he subsequently face further legal action. There were families who pointed out that he was one of the soldiers who was behind the killings. What would be the case if the complainants point out Ratnayake and whether his name is on the list of perpetrators of enforced disappearances?
Likewise, the interrogation and potential rebooking of individuals like those suspected of being affiliated with the LTTE and detained under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) were also subjects of interest. The media sought to ascertain whether any claims existed suggesting the involvement of these suspects in the enforced disappearances of individuals during the war.
Earlier the suggestion by the State was to pardon both sides of those who were involved in the conflict and whether there would be a Truth and Reconciliation Commission is another pertinent question that needs a response.
Another inquiry pertains to the 1983 July pogrom, a topic encompassed within the OMP’s agenda. Specifically, it would be important to determine if there were any missing persons during this period and the extent of such cases based on official records available up to now.
Considering that a majority of the casualties during the July 1983 riots have already been identified, the subsequent focus for the OMP office might involve investigating the circumstances surrounding those identified deaths and if there were missing persons. This could include delving into aspects such as accountability for the violence, uncovering any overlooked missing persons cases, and ensuring comprehensive closure for the affected families. What should those who knew that their loved ones were killed during the riots do at the OMP office? Can they also complain about the death of their family members?
Also, it is alleged at least 138 people, mostly mothers of these disappeared children, have died during the struggle. They have complained to the previous commissions but died of old age and sickness. What would happen to those complaints?
The conflict spanning over three decades in the Northern and Eastern regions came to an end on 18 May 2019. It was after this date that the international community shifted its focus to Sri Lanka, alleging varying counts of missing individuals and enforced disappearances.
Despite the passage of time, the Sri Lankan Government has not definitively determined the ultimate count, and the devised mechanism has proven ineffective. Meanwhile, the United Nations Human Rights Council and global human rights advocates persistently demand answers. This demand is echoed by the families of the victims, who reside both within Sri Lanka and abroad.
Katulanda, speaking to the media on 23 August, disclosed that upon their assumption of the OMP’s responsibilities, they inherited 64 individual files containing information about their disappearance. He highlighted that they have since received and compiled additional data concerning the missing individuals. Notably, over the past year and a half, they have engaged with 3,819 families of missing persons, gathering valuable insights.
Moreover, the OMP has taken proactive measures by establishing supplementary mechanisms and panels to conduct thorough investigations. A total of 15 independent panels have been instituted for this purpose, Katulanda emphasised, reaffirming that these panels operate autonomously, free from any external influence, be it from the Government or any other entity.
Taken without a trace
During the briefing, he underscored the distressing scenario of individuals being taken against their will and vanishing without any trace, neither a body nor any sign of their existence. This issue has garnered heightened scrutiny due to the 30 years of conflict that engulfed the Northern and Eastern regions, culminating on 18 May 2009. Post the conflict; the international community directed their attention towards Sri Lanka, prompting inquiries from entities such as the UNHRC, United Nations, the Red Cross, and the UN Council. In response, the Government introduced the 2016 Act No. 14, aiming to address these concerns.
Before the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) in 2018, there were approximately eight commissions, including the LLRC Commission and the Paranagama Commission. Regrettably, their findings failed to bring comfort to the families of the victims. Consequently, the need for an independent institution became evident. The OMP was conceived as a response to this necessity, marking a significant shift in approach. Since its inception, the office has undergone multiple iterations, adapting its personnel and procedures to better serve its mission. Drawing upon the expertise of diverse professionals, the framework of the OMP was meticulously constructed.
Presently, the OMP serves as a platform for a segment of society marked by individuals—especially parents and children—whose enduring sorrow has led to an amplified call for attention and resolution. However, these efforts are now moving toward a more constructive trajectory.
The Act introduced in 2016 encompasses events spanning from the civil unrest of 1971 to violent incidents in the South during 1989 and the July 1983 events. Collectively, these measures were designed to address the issue of missing persons, dating back to 1968. The search for these individuals remains an ongoing endeavour, with no predetermined conclusion. It was after the culmination of the conflict in 2009 that increased attention was directed towards this pressing matter.
While prior initiatives, such as the LLRC and Paranagama Commission, offered valuable insights, the present OMP possesses more authoritative capabilities, positioning it to more effectively confront this complex challenge.
The Chairman emphasised that transitioning to another commission wouldn’t be practical due to the urgent nature of the issue. The primary objective is to accelerate the resolution process, even though it remains uncertain whether the OMP can achieve complete disclosure and conclude its work by issuing death or missing certificates, accompanied by compensation. However, the foremost aspiration remains to bring clarity to the families of those who were forcibly disappeared—unveiling the events, individuals involved, and motivations behind the disappearances. While the discovery of physical remains might bring closure, the profound anguish persists when no traces, indicative of life or death, are found. This sentiment holds true for mothers, whether they belong to soldiers, LTTE members, or civilians, the Chairman emphasised.
He further noted that certain families continue to anticipate the return of their loved ones, believing they are alive. Such circumstances necessitate closure and address psychological trauma, as underscored by UN bodies.
Regarding new complaints, the OMP’s Executive Director, J. Thatparan, stated that they have received a total of 21,892 complaints from various parties, including families of missing soldiers and individuals disappeared during insurgencies in the Southern regions. Among these, 3,819 complaints have undergone inquiries and been concluded, while further legal processes are ongoing.
Upon concluding the investigations into the disappearances, the families will potentially be eligible for compensation, and the OMP will also share pertinent information with them, ensuring the continued functioning of the organisation, he affirmed.
The Chairman of the OMP remarked that approximately 300 cases are scheduled for investigation within a month, with the initial two weeks focused on the North and the subsequent two weeks on the East. He underlined the OMP’s commitment to examining missing persons’ cases in the Southern regions as well.
Three temporal phases
The OMP has classified the missing persons into three temporal phases: the first spans from 2000 to 2021, comprising around 6,000 complaints. Within this category, the OMP has scrutinised 3,819 cases, leaving 2,206 for further inquiry. However, the chairman emphasised that the investigation phase does not represent the culmination of the process. It entails confirming the cases and collecting pertinent information, including details about the individual’s whereabouts, verifying their relationship with the complainant, establishing the last seen location, determining any involvement in armed conflict, exposure to crossfire, educational engagement, and identifying potential personal adversaries. This comprehensive information is then employed to facilitate a revival payment, which is not a form of compensation, but rather a fund designated to swiftly address the immediate needs of the individuals in question.
Addressing the question regarding claims from the Tamil Diaspora and other sources, suggesting an extensive number of missing persons and labelling it as genocide, Thatparan responded by highlighting the systematic categorisation of all submitted complaints. He pointed out that the OMP is empowered by the Act to consolidate previous reports into a singular comprehensive report, resulting in a tally of 21,374 cases. This consolidated list was disclosed over six months.
To ensure thoroughness, a preliminary list was published in 2018 and 2019, seeking to identify any omissions or references from prior commissions. Those with unreported cases were encouraged to approach the OMP and document their situations. An additional six-month time frame has been allocated for this purpose, allowing the public to engage and contribute to the process.
Additionally, a list of individuals who went missing has been handed over by the UN Working Group and various international agencies fall under the purview of the Department of Probation and Child Care, the National Child Protection Authority, and similar bodies. Should allegations of genocide rest upon statistical data, it’s imperative to encompass all available figures, noted Thatparan.
“This entails conducting thorough investigations to ascertain the extent of missing persons cases and the responsible parties involved. Over 17 entities have submitted lists containing the names of missing persons.”
Thatparan noted that it’s premature to determine the presence of war crimes, ethnic cleansing, or violations against humanity. While the present figures do not allow for definitive conclusions, the OMP’s ongoing investigations are anticipated to yield a comprehensive outcome, a process likely to require another three years for completion. Until then, predicting which party inflicted greater harm remains uncertain, noted Thatparan. Presently, all these figures and grievances could be regarded as a one-sided narrative, he added.
The OMP has all the power to probe and finalise the list according to international standards and be prepared to give some tangible solutions regarding missing persons among other matters at the 54th Session of the Human Rights Council which will take place from 11 September to 13 October.