ICRC: Report on the Needs of Families of the Missing Released

by International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, July 26, 2016

https://www.icrc.org/en/document/sri-lanka-families-missing-persons

Sri Lanka: Report on the needs of families of the Missing released

Years that have passed since the armed conflict in Sri Lanka ended in 2009, did not bring solace to the families of over 16,000 persons who, according to the ICRC’s records, remain missing.

Between October 2014 and November 2015, conducting an island-wide assessment, the ICRC met 395 families of missing persons, including those of missing security forces and police personnel, along with the authorities and organisations providing assistance to these victims.

According to the findings of the Families’ Needs Assessment, to know the fate and whereabouts of their missing relative is the most important of the many needs these families have, and, in anticipation of the answers, the families face emotional, economic, legal and administrative difficulties in their daily lives.

While the aim of the assessment was to understand the needs of families of persons who went missing as a consequence of the past armed conflict and to identify means to help address these needs, the ICRC hopes that the findings and recommendations contained in the assessment report will contribute to the development of a comprehensive response to the needs of all missing persons’ families, who continue to suffer in silence.

ICRC Full Report – Living with Uncertainty

On Rights and Justice

Some perspective from Colombo

As it is, despite the best efforts of the CTF and subsidiary bodies, politically, the popular consultations appear to be an eyewash, designed to placate foreign governments and UN officials, and tick the box.

by Taylor Dibbert, ‘The World Post,’ Los Angeles, headshot.jpgJuly 28, 2016

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In this interview, Mr. Fernando shares his thoughts on a range of salient issues.

Sri Lanka’s former president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, took the country in an ever more authoritarian direction. How much has changed since Maithripala Sirisena became president in January 2015?

Authoritarianism has lessened and there is more space across the country for free expression, free assembly and free association. This was visible when Tamil people in the country’s North and East came out for the first time on May 18, 2015 — to grieve collectively and publicly for their loved ones who had died during the civil war. There was more space and less restrictions and less intimidation for this in 2016 compared to 2015. However, there have been regular incidents of surveillance, intimidation, harassment and threats on journalists and activists — particularly in the North and East, even though the intensity and regularity of these incidents appears to be less than it was during the Rajapaksa era.

I feel more safe and free, and now travel to the interior of the Vanni (in the country’s Northern Province). I also go home late at night on my own, using public transport — something I never did when the Rajapaksas were in power. But even after 18 months of “good governance,” I’m still under investigation by the Terrorist Investigation Department and my freedom of expression is restricted through a court order.

Hate Speech Bill: Ruki Fernando Complaints to HRCSLAs a human rights activist, what issues are taking up most of your time? What projects are you currently working on?

There are too many things than I could mention! I have been trying to assist a few families of disappeared persons in their continuing struggles. I have been trying to engage critically with the proposed Office of Missing Persons (OMP). I have been monitoring and documenting recent abductions and arrests under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). I’m continuing to work with a few communities whose lands have been expropriated by the military. I am trying to critique militarized and large, business-oriented tourism, and to promote a more community-centered, reconciliation-oriented form of tourism. I’m also spending time discussing transitional justice issues with rural Sinhalese communities, and participating in radio and TV discussions in Sinhalese. In addition, I have been trying to support exiled Sri Lankan journalists and activists to return to Sri Lanka, and to support Pakistanis and Bangladeshis fleeing their countries and seeking refuge in Sri Lanka. Lastly, I have been giving talks and interviews, and have been writing about these issues.

In terms of the government’s wide-ranging transitional justice agenda, how much has been accomplished thus far?

Some political prisoners have been released, mostly conditionally. Some lands occupied for decades by the military have been released. Last year, there were significant judgements convicting soldiers for the rape of a Tamil woman in 2010 and a massacre of Tamil civilians in 2000.

There have been arrests of military and senior police personnel in some important and high-profile cases of killings and disappearances. The new leadership of the Human Rights Commission has asserted their independence and challenged the government, though an overhaul of the institution to be fully independent and effective will take much longer.

On the other hand, the military’s involvement in civilian activities in the North — such as hotels, shops, preschools, farms and airlines, among other activities, continues. Buddhist domination with the help of the military, in the predominantly non-Buddhist (mostly Tamil) North also continues. There has been an alarming rise of abductions and arrests under the PTA in the North and East during the last few months. Impunity reigns and accountability seems far away for tens of thousands of incidents, despite the availability of compelling evidence in some cases.

The positive progress is politically symbolic and matters a lot to ordinary people in their daily lives. But overall, progress has been too little and painfully slow. And there have been too many backward steps for the few forward steps.

How have public consultations (for the country’s transitional justice mechanisms) been going? What, if anything could be done to improve the consultative process?

Six months after the appointment of the Consultation Task Force (CTF), the consultations on transitional justice have commenced. But it seems the government has not thrown its political weight behind it, championing and promoting the process amongst Sri Lankans, using its vast infrastructure and extensive outreach through the mainstream and new media. The government doesn’t appear to be supporting the process financially, and it seems dependent on foreign funding from the United Nations (UN), which has resulted in delays.

In addition, the government had initiated a parallel process of drafting in secret, legislature in relation to transitional justice institutions, even before the consultation process started. There needs to be a convergence of expert drafting processes and popular consultations with ordinary people.

As it is, despite the best efforts of the CTF and subsidiary bodies, politically, the popular consultations appear to be an eyewash, designed to placate foreign governments and UN officials, and tick the box.

Do you believe that it’s important for Sri Lanka’s transitional justice process to include international participation? If so, why?

The reality in Sri Lanka is that most Tamils, who are a numerical minority, who have suffered the most, and who have historical grievances that led to the civil war, don’t trust a purely domestic process. Sinhalese who are the majority community, don’t trust international involvement. So if the transitional justice process is about all communities, we need to negotiate a middle way, acceptable to most communities and people. But there’s also a danger that the aspirations of the majority may prevail. Then there is also the issue of whether competency and experience to the extent needed is fully available in Sri Lanka.

Regarding the accountability mechanism to address alleged wartime abuses, what role (if any) would you like to see international actors play?

Personally, I believe it’s important to have the participation of international judges, prosecutors, investigators and defense lawyers. Their participation should go beyond monitoring, advising and training. But being international alone will not guarantee independence and credibility. It’s crucial to ensure that accountability mechanisms have the acceptance of all communities and thus, the government must play the major role in reaching out to all Sri Lankans — in particular to the Sinhalese-Buddhist community, to stress the importance of doing what’s right and principled, instead of bowing down to populist slogans. Tamil political and civil society leaders too must not get carried away with populist slogans and work towards solutions for affected people, considering the existing domestic and international political realities.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Sri Lanka Must Stay the Course

‘The Hindu’ editorial, Chennai, July 2, 2016

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The frequent human rights updates in Geneva provide an occasion for the world to discuss Sri Lanka’s post-war situation, especially the progress made in investigating the excesses during the last phase of the civil war that ended in 2009. Until last year, the country considered the process hostile and inimical to its interests. Now, with a new government in Colombo, there has been constructive engagement with the international community and Sri Lanka says it is looking for ways to implement a unanimous resolution adopted by the UN Human Rights Council in October 2015. The UNHRC has tried to nudge Sri Lanka towards rebuilding civilian lives through resettlement, reducing the military presence in the north and east, and delivering accountability for past crimes through a credible judicial process with international participation. However, the update presented by High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein in Geneva does not present an encouraging picture. He expressed concern about the “heavy military presence” in Tamil areas, noting that the process of the military returning land to its civilian owners has been tardy. There is a lack of urgency in coming up with tangible measures to build confidence among minorities and victims of human rights violations. In turn, Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera has informed the ongoing session in Geneva that the government has instructed the military to release by 2018 all civilian land it holds. He has promised that the proposed judicial mechanism will inspire confidence among the stakeholders, but has drawn attention to the “divergent views” in the country on it, perhaps a hint of further delay.

Sri Lanka went through a democratic transition in 2015 when it elected Maithripala Sirisena as President, ending the 10-year reign of Mahinda Rajapaksa, which was marked by post-war triumphalism and a disregard for the plight of ethnic minorities. Later, the parliamentary election led to a national unity government that promised good governance, economic revival, and transitional justice for the war-affected. But even today the High Commissioner has reason to be anxious that those promises are at risk. The road was not expected to be smooth for Sri Lanka when it embarked on an ambitious effort towards national reconciliation and accountability. But the government is frittering away energy and time on political controversies, the row over the appointment of a new Central bank governor being an example. Having set in motion the process for a new Constitution and measures for reconciliation and reform, any loss of momentum now on the part of the government will result in a loss of credibility.