Sri Lanka's cabinet of ministers recently gave its approval that an Office of Missing Persons (OMP) be established. The OMP is one of the main pillars of Sri Lanka's transitional justice agenda. The OMP still needs to be approved by parliament, though the cabinet's decision is a development that merits attention.
What's really going on here?
Unfortunately, it does not appear that victims have been properly consulted about the OMP. At this point, it's not even clear precisely what the cabinet has agreed to.
It's helpful to keep in mind that consultations with the public are a key part of any meaningful transitional justice package, yet Colombo appears to have little interest in doing this. In fact, members of the country's Tamil community recently expressed concerns about the creation of the OMP. Given the cabinet's recent decision, the letter that the group had sent to Mangala Samaraweera, the island nation's foreign minister, looks eerily prescient.
"For several months, there has been a secret process on drafting the bill for OMP, even as government had committed to a parallel public consultation process," says Ruki Fernando, a Colombo-based human rights activist. He believes that Colombo is hoping to finalize the OMP before the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights delivers an oral update on Sri Lanka this June, during the 32nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC).
"This [finalizing the OMP] seems to be a bigger priority than transparency and actually facilitating the involvement of families of victims, civil society and others. But they [government officials] also want to show consultations are happening," notes Fernando.
Here's more from Fernando:
Despite serious reservations about government's intentions, I and several activists and families of disappeared persons had made written and oral submissions, highlighting serious concerns about the OMP and with practical and specific suggestions. We have no idea how much of it had been taken on board during the last few weeks before cabinet approval. Now that cabinet approval has been given, it's likely that a draft bill will finalized by the legal draftsman, gazetted, tabled in parliament and passed. Technically, there's still space for families and others to give input during these phases, but it's extremely unlikely input at this stage can influence the OMP.
On the one hand, Colombo is frantically trying to show some tangible progress vis-à-vis previous commitments it had made at the HRC. Yet the government seems to be going about this in entirely the wrong way. "The lack of information and documentation about the OMP...seriously hampers meaningful submissions, consultations and ultimately ownership and confidence in the OMP," says Fernando.