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‘Accountability, a step towards the healing process’

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While the World marked the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30, the kith and kin of those who had disappeared, during the near 30-year armed conflict in Sri Lanka between the security forces and the LTTE, took to the streets at Omantai in the North and Kalmunai in the East to draw the attention of the government to the fate of their missing family members. The protesters were not in search of pity but a closure to the mental agony and torment that has been haunting them for years. Many of the families had participated at roadside protests continuously for more than 900 days and are known to have had discussions with the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) – the State institution mandated to trace the fate and whereabouts of those gone missing -- government leaders, politicians and officials but the discussions appear to have been of little or no avail.   

According to media reports, at the Omantai protest frustration and lack of faith in State institutions, including the OMP, were strong, based on a history of engaging and not receiving answers resulting in the repeated demands for international involvement.   

The Omantai protesters, most of whom had barely survived the war, had carried a banner with photographs of 52 family members, who had passed away during their relentless search for truth and justice while braving the rain, sun and dust.   

In a statement to mark this International Day, UN Resident Coordinator in Sri Lanka, Hanaa Singer said the OMP had a colossal task ahead to bring justice to families of the disappeared and should gain the support of all State authorities to fulfil its mandate,.   

She recalled the challenging times Sri Lanka had faced when attempting to come to terms with this issue and said much remains to be done to provide answers to the thousands still awaiting answers.   

“Today we stand up for the rights of the victims of enforced disappearances and their relatives. In 2010 the UN General Assembly declared that August 30 will be observed as the International Day of Enforced Disappearances. Enforced Disappearances are heinous crimes and on this day the UN marks its solidarity with the victims and express deep concern about the continuation of enforced or involuntary disappearances in various regions of the world, as well as harassment, ill-treatment and intimidation of witnesses of disappearances or relatives of persons who have disappeared,” Ms. Singer said. “The UN is encouraged by Sri Lanka’s ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance in 2016 and particularly by the establishment of the Office of Missing Persons in 2017.   

UN Secretary-General António Guterres in his message to mark the International Day said:   

“Enforced disappearance can be wrongly perceived as an issue of the past, but many cases remain unresolved and new ones continue to arise. The Committee and the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances, the key United Nations mechanisms established to address this matter, receive new cases daily, many in the context of the fight against organized crime and terrorism.   

“Without due processes and safeguards, abuses in the criminal justice system are much more likely, and when coupled with a culture of impunity, they can also increase the likelihood of enforced disappearances. These disappearances have a profound impact on the lives of those searching for the victims and not knowing the whereabout and fate of a friend, family member or loved one is a cause for psychological distress,” Mr. Guterres said adding that steps towards accountability could help the healing process.   

Meanwhile, the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) says the Government has failed to heed the recommendations made by it on Military and Police officers involved in enforced disappearances. OMP Chairman Saliya Peiris, PC, said in their interim report last year they recommended that the Government and relevant organizations should refrain from promoting officers implicated in such cases while taking steps to suspend their service till the inquiries were completed.   

“However the Government has not taken these recommendations into consideration,” he said, addressing Friday’s commemoration event to mark the International Day of the Disappeared.   

It is essential to highlight the urgent need to relieve the pain and suffering of the families of the disappeared, who even at the cost of their lives are yearning to know the fate of their loved ones. Without a stronger political will, commitment and moral courage by the government, political leaders and the relevant State institutions, this humanitarian tragedy will remain as smouldering embers for years to come.   

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