Geneva-sanctioned Office for Missing Persons to succeed Paranagama Commission

Family members of people who disappeared during the war between government forces and Tamil Tiger guerrillas, protest against what they say are continued abductions, in front of the U.N. office in Colombo May 10, 2016. REUTERS/Dinuka Liyanawatte

article_imageBy Shamindra Ferdinando

The government has directed the Presidential Commission to Investigate Complaints Regarding Missing Persons to hand over all its files to proposed Office for Missing Persons, thereby terminating the Commission.

Chairman of the Commission retired High Court Judge Maxwell Paranagama yesterday told The Island that he had been to told to hand them over before July 15, 2016. Paranagama said that he had requested time till August 30 to finalise the process.

The Office of Missing Persons is one of four transitional justice mechanisms Sri Lanka has agreed to establish during the September 2015 Human Rights Council session in Geneva.

Former President Mahinda Rajapaksa set up the Paranagama Commission during 2013.

Responding to a query, the retired High Court judge said that his commission had received approximately 19,000 complaints and was still in the process of inquiring into them. Paranagama said that now it would be the responsibility of the Office for Missing Persons established in accordance with an understanding reached in Geneva. Paranagama said that an investigating team headed by a retired High Court judge had been investigating into wartime disappearances and obtained oral evidence in respect of about 350 cases.

The Paranagama Commission, in its Second Mandate Report released after Maithripala Sirisena’s victory at January, 2015 presidential poll made a series of significant recommendations, including international expertise as well as foreign observers in case the government of Sri Lanka decided against obtaining the services of foreign judges. The Report had been prepared in consultation with an International Legal Advisory Council comprising Sir Desmond de Silva, QC (UK), Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC (UK) and Prof. David M. Crane (US). The Council had the support of a panel of international experts, including retd Maj. Gen. John Holmes, one-time commanding officer of UK’s elite Special Air Services (SAS) Regiment.

The Second Mandate Report, too, referred to cases of missing persons.

However, US based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has found fault with Sri Lanka for setting up an Office for Missing Persons without consulting the families of the disappeared as promised at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) last year.

The HRW was responding to a Foreign Ministry statement issued on May 25 in respect of a decision taken by the cabinet on the previous day. The FM statement: “The Cabinet of Ministers approved the establishment of an Office for Missing Persons. The Office will help several thousand families of missing persons across Sri Lanka to discover the fate of their loved ones, and the circumstances under which they went missing.

The need to set up such an office is particularly acute as Sri Lanka has one of the largest caseloads of missing persons in the entire world – the result of uprisings in the South and the war lasting nearly three decades. This Office is the first of the four mechanisms dealing with conflict-related grievances that the new Government pledged to establish and legislation will soon be presented to parliament to make that commitment a reality.”