A crisis ridden Sri Lanka began March on a positive note with the high-powered Office of Missing Persons (OMP) starting work after President Maithripala Sirisena gave the letters of appointment on Wednesday to the chairman and seven OMP commissioners.
Though the OMP law was approved by Parliament in August 2016, there were objections from some circles to certain provisions of the draft and later over the nomination of the Commissioners by the Constitutional Council. Civic rights activists here and overseas had expressed concern over the long delay in bringing in to operation the OMP while in Vavuniya hundreds of people have been protesting for about one year because they were still unaware of what had happened to their family members or other loved ones who had disappeared during the war.
The protesters even criticised the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and its leaders R. Sampanthan and M. Sumanthiran, saying they were not putting enough pressure on the government to implement the OMP law. Other critics also point out that the timing appears to be politically motivated because the appointments were made while the United Nations Human Rights Council is meeting in Geneva with the Sri Lankan issue also on the Agenda.
Whatever the criticism or the motives, the humanitarian dimension of the OMP’s work is more important because the missing persons’ family members, relatives and friends cannot and must not be allowed to go through such traumatic heartbreak for so long.
Yesterday most analysts said they were happy about the calibre, stature and good reputation of the OMP commissioners specially its chairman Saliya Peiris who is one of Sri Lanka’s widely respected fundamental rights and constitutional lawyers.
According to the Presidential Media Unit the OMP’s main mission will be to determine the status of all missing persons in Sri Lanka and is the first pillar of the transitional justice mechanism through which the government hopes to bring about reconciliation and lasting peace.
Along with Mr. Peiris the other commissioners appointed for a three-year term are Jayatheepa Punniyamoorthy, Major General (Rtd.) Mohanti Antonette Peiris, Nimalka Fernando, Mirak Raheem, Somasiri K. Liyanageand Kanapathipillai Venthan.
Ms. Punniyamoorthy, a lawyer, has been appointed to represent the missing persons because her husband went missing while they were living in Mullaitivu during the war. Retired Major General Mohanti Peiris was the head of the Army’s Legal Department, Nimalka Fernando is a widely respected civic rights activist, Mirak Raheem is a researcher working on human rights, reconciliation, land, displacement and minority issues, Somasiri K. Liyanage a lawyer who worked on the Prison Riot Report and Kanapathipillai Venthan a human rights activist from Mullaitivu.
The OMP work will be coordinated by the Secretariat for Coordinating Reconciliation Mechanisms (DCRM) headed by the welknown civil servant Mano Tittawella while former President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga is heading the overall mission for the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation. With all these important personalities involved, we hope the OMP will act urgently and effectively to expedite the reconciliation mission, breakdown walls and build bridges for unity in diversity.
The Presidential Media Unit said the Commissioners were selected in an open and competitive process conducted by the Constitutional Council. It said the OMP would be an independent body reporting to Parliament and was expected to bring a degree of closure to surviving family members of Sri Lanka’s internal conflicts. It would also set the stage for sustainable reparations for victims and their families.
Reconciliation was one of the main pledges given by President Maithripala Sirisena and his allies during the campaign for the January 8 Presidential election and analysts believe this is another step to implement important pledges he made to the local and international community. After all he should not forget it was the minority vote that eventually helped him to get a nearly 400,000 majority at the Presidential election in 2015.