Lanka moves forward to criminalize enforced disappearances

Lanka moves forward to criminalize enforced disappearances

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In the backdrop of the Sri Lankan government appointing Commissioners for the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) to spearhead the task of looking into the issue of ‘missing persons’ in the three-decade long war that ended in 2009, the Sri Lankan parliament will, on March 7, debate a bill to criminalize enforced disappearances.

The appointments made to the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) after much delay last Wednesday, coincided with the 37th. Session of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

An estimated 65,000 Sri Lankans have been reported missing after two Marxist insurgencies in South Sri Lanka in 1971 and 1987, and the protracted war betweenthe Tamil Tiger rebels in the North and East and the government military. Complaints of their kith and kin being missing during war had also been filed by relatives of those in the government military.

The Bill for Protection against Enforced Disappearanceswill be debated in parliament this Wednesday, political sources confirmed while stating that the bill is ‘not retrospective.’The Sri Lankan government first presented the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances Bill in Parliament on March 7, 2017. Although the Bill was scheduled to be taken up for debate on July 5 and September 19 last yearthe government postponed it due to objections mainly from the Joint Opposition group in parliament led by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The Billwill give effect to the UN International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance that the Government of Sri Lanka ratified in May 2016 and duly Sri Lanka will have an obligation to enact local laws to criminalize enforced disappearances and offer protection to victims of the crime.Under the provisions of the Bill, enforced disappearance is punishable by a prison term not exceeding 20 years and a fine of LKR 1 million (US$ 6450) and individuals convicted of the crime will be liable to pay the victim compensation of no less than Rs. 500,000 (US$ 3548).

The Bill has to be supported by a simple majority of the House to be enacted into law.The setting up of the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) is part of the SLFP-UNP led national unity regime’s initiative of tackling the problem of enforced disappearances. Chaired by leading lawyer Saliya Peiris, the OMP has the mandate tosearch for and trace missing persons and identify appropriate mechanisms for the same, and to clarify the circumstances in which such persons went missing as well as to make recommendations to the relevant authorities towards addressing the incidence of missing persons. It is also mandated with protecting the rights and interests of missing persons and their relatives, to identify avenues of redress to which missing persons and relatives of missing persons are entitled to and to collate data related to missing persons obtained by processes presently being carried out.

The mandate of the OMP is to extend to missing persons notwithstanding the time period in which such person became a missing person.According to the Commission appointed by former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and chaired by retiredHigh CourtJudge MaxwellParanagama, to investigate into the issue of missing person, nearly 19,000 persons have been confirmed to have gone missing during the three-decade war.  Meanwhile, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 12,000 cases of enforced disappearances that includes those connected to the youth who were declared missing during the Janatha Vimukthi Perumuna (JVP) uprisings in the 1970s and 1980s.

The main call for looking into the cases of the disappeared is from the relatives of Sri Lankan Tamils and a large number of the cases are from the last phase of the war in 2009. Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera said on Sunday that the OMP does not aim to benefit only one community while threatening the other and clarified that it is merely a ‘truth seeking’ mechanism. “It is a truth-seeking mechanism aiming to investigate and find out the truth about those identified as missing or who have disappeared during the conflict,” he said.

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