WOMEN AND MISSING PERSONS
National Peace Council of Sri Lanka Team[i]
In the East of Sri Lanka there is Parameswary, a grandmother living alone with her 11 year old granddaughter in a half built house. They go to the bush for they have no toilet. Nearby there are equally poor people but they live in better housing with assistance from the state. But Parameswary refuses to take any assistance from the state. She holds the state responsible for the disappearance of her three sons. In the early days, she went to over 20 military camps to look for them and in later days she went to two government-appointed commissions of inquiry but she failed to find them.[ii]
In the North there is Kannamma. She has been looking for her husband for over a decade. She wants to know what happened to him and where he is. But she says she does not want to hear that he is dead as she refuses to accept that he is dead. Apart from the emotional attachments, there is also the socio-political reality. If he is dead, she becomes a widow with all its debilities in the Hindu context.
Now the government is coming up with its most ambitious effort so far, the Office of Missing Persons. [iii] This is less in response to the needs of these bereaved women than it is in response to the UN Human Rights Council resolution of October 2015 that the Sri Lankan government, to mostly everyone’s surprise, co-sponsored in Geneva.[iv] In agreeing to implement the resolution, the new government which came to power in January 2015 moved away from the policy of confrontation with the Western countries and India that the former government was engaged in.
The June session of the UN Human Rights Council is expected to be an important test for the government. The resolution that it co-sponsored in October 2015 stated that the UN High Commissioner would submit an oral update to the Human Rights Council at its thirty-second session (June 2016) and a comprehensive report followed by discussion on the implementation of the present resolution at its thirty-fourth session (March 2017). In recent weeks there have been several announcements by the government to highlight the progress that it has made in implementing the UNHRC resolution.
The most important of these governmental actions is the unveiling of the draft legislation on the Office of Missing Persons that reflects a considerable amount of thought and research and can be considered as superior to any previous Sri Lankan legislation on the issue. This was one of the four transitional justice mechanisms that the government promised to establish in the run up to the co-sponsored resolution of October 2015. The other mechanisms are a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a Special Court on war crimes and an Office of Reparations. [v]
However, international human rights watchdog groups like Human Rights Watch have been critical of the draft legislation on the grounds of process. They have pointed out that there has been insufficient public discussion about the legislation and that the victims who are to be the beneficiaries should have been consulted. While the government itself says that around 65,000 persons have gone missing in terms of complaints made to government commissions, the latest government appointed commission gives a more modest figure of 20,000. This shows that the numbers are still uncertain and continue to be debated.[vi]
But the ground reality is that for those who have lost even one loved one, the agony continues without end. For some, the agony will continue even after closure and the truth is known, as they will have to deal with the social and psychological consequences. There is no template in the transitional justice process where people are concerned. Each individual has different needs and expectations. Some may want a telling of their story, while others will want accountability and the killers of their loved ones punished.
In the run up to the June session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, leading members of civil society have demanded that credible investigations be conducted and perpetrators held accountable with respect to credible allegations of human rights violations. In a statement they have pointed out that previous Commissions of Inquiries and the Criminal Justice system have only resulted in the acute re-traumatisation of victims with little satisfaction in terms of justice and reparations. [vii]
Moreover, the recommendations of these Commissions with respect to the investigation of human rights violations, and the prosecution of alleged perpetrators, have not been implemented, exacerbating Sri Lanka’s culture of impunity that these institutions are meant to combat. For these reasons, yet another commission established without a meaningful guarantee of accountability and reparations will signal a lack of commitment to the Government’s own commitments and to genuinely breaking with the past.
Healing and justice need to walk hand in hand. The great majority of those who will go before the four mechanisms of transitional justice that the Sri Lankan government has promised to set up will be women.[viii] They need to be capacitated to do so, and they need to be counseled and supported financially, socially and psychologically after they have done so. This is a challenge that cannot be left to the government but which civil society organizations need to take up.
The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka has been working in the area of peace and transitional justice, and recently on gender equality in these contexts.
[i] The NPC Team that worked on this comprises Sumadhu Weerawarne-Perera, Venuri de Silva, Lakmini Jayathilake, Mactalin Soosainathar and Jehan Perera.
[ii] THE WRONGED RIGHT TO SECURITY AND JUSTICE, Narratives of loss, pain, survival and the failure of the law is a 27-minute documentary that highlights gross violations and abuses in human rights laws and the implementation of the law in Sri Lanka. The documentary explores the State’s inability to afford protection and justice to its citizens through the narratives of seven people (victims of war and police torture) who speak of the physical and psychological abuse they have undergone and the trauma they continue to experience in their difficult path to recovery – https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0Bzr-LZKivIqpaHJNTmUzNW51b1E&usp=sharing_eid&ts=576b77ba
[iii] Cabinet approval to establish Office of Missing Persons, Daily News, May 26, 2016 http://www.dailynews.lk/?q=2016/05/26/political/82851
[iv] HRC 30th Session, 13/10/2015 A/HRC/RES/30/1 Promoting reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka
[v] Sri Lanka’s Response To UNHRC: The Full Text Of Foreign Affairs Minister’s Speech Today, September 14, 2015, https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/sri-lankas-response-to-unhrc-the-full-text-of-foreign-affairs-ministers-speech-today/
[vi] Sri Lanka to enable certificates of absence for 65,000 people missing during war, http://www.firstpost.com/fwire/world-fwire/sri-lanka-to-enable-certificates-of-absence-for-65000-people-missing-during-war-2821756.html
Maxwell Paranagama Commission Report: Full Text October 22, 2015 https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/maxwell-paranagama-commission-report-full-text/
[vii] 22nd June, 2016, Civil society Statement on Accountability and the timing of Transitional Justice Mechanisms in Sri Lanka
[viii] There is no official gender disaggregation of those who gave evidence before the Paranagama Commission on Missing Persons which concluded in March 2016. Inquiries from the Commission (June 23, 2016) revealed that numbers are currently being tabulated and will be available shortly. However, anecdotal evidence of those who sat in on Commission meetings holds that most of the participants were women.