A big step to clear minds, end the agony of wondering:
Office of Missing Persons sails through
The controversial Office of Missing Persons (OMP) Bill was passed in Parliament on Thursday amid a pandemonium created by the Joint Opposition members.
Their attempts to disrupt the proceedings calling for the withdrawal of the Bill, which they termed an attempt to penalise war heroes and the former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, had a counter effect.
The Bill was to be debated for two days but due to the JO hullabaloo the Bill was hurriedly passed without a vote, on the first day that it was taken up for debate. The JVP criticised the action of the JO saying it worked in tandem with the government to get the Bill passed without a vote or a meaningful debate.
When the Bill is signed by the Speaker, it will become law and President Maithripala Sirisena will take action to appoint members to the Office of Missing Persons.
Legal experts affirmed, once a law is passed in Parliament there is no way to challenge its validity or get it reviewed by the Supreme Court. It has to be done before the Bill is taken up for debate in the House.
The setting up of the OMP, an office for reparations as well as the issue of Certificates of Absence to the families of missing persons is among the commitments undertaken by the Government under the UN Human Rights Council resolutions adopted in September last year.
The JVP and the government presented six amendments to the Bill, the chief of which is to block any direct foreign funding for the Office of Missing Persons. This was one of the concerns of the opposition parties, that this clause could give licence to international players to manipulate the office according to their whims and fancies. Any funding to the OMP, therefore, is to be channeled though the External Resources Department of the Finance Ministry, which is subject to government auditing.
The Bill provides for the appointment of seven members, representing all ethnicities to the Office of the Missing Persons headquartered in Colombo. There will be regional offices if necessary to achieve its mandate.
The President is empowered to appoint the seven members including a Chairman to the OMP on the recommendation of the Constitutional Council. Their term of office will be three years. The appointed members should have experience in fact finding, investigations, human rights law, international humanitarian law and humanitarian response, among other things. Its mandate is to search and trace missing persons, protect the rights and interests of missing persons and their relatives, to ensure non recurrence of such incidents and identify proper avenues of redress.
When the Bill was taken up for debate Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe on behalf of the Government moved three amendments to the Bill.
Amendment to Clause 11
“Provided that such technical support and training shall be provided within Sri Lanka and such programs shall be provided in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”
Amendment to Clause 12 (f)
“Subject to authorization from the Magistrate having territorial jurisdiction being obtained and in consultation with the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Law and Order or the Ministry of Rehabilitation and Prisons Reforms, whichever is applicable.”
Amendment to clause 21
“Provided that any such grants, gifts or endowments from the international community shall only be solicited or accepted with the concurrence of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”
The JVP MP Bimal Ratnayake also moved three amendments to the Bill on behalf of his party. But the Parliament Secretary General Niel Iddawela said only two of those have been incorporated into the Bill.
The JVP proposed to remove the Clause 11 (a) where it provides for entering into agreements with local and foreign bodies for training, to get information, technical assistance, etc.
They also proposed amendments to Clause 12 (f) which gives power to the OMP to enter into places without a warrant – to add that the IGP should be notified of such visits within 24 hours, and clause 21 which gives powers to the OMP to raise funds – to remove the provisions that empowers the OMP to obtain any grants, gifts or endowments from national or international community.
Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakse told the Sunday Observer that the Government is doing the groundwork to set up the OMP within the coming weeks. The President is required to appoint the members to the OMP within a fortnight after the Constitutional Council makes its recommendations.
This Bill was to be taken up in Parliament in the latter part of the month. It is believed the government, in consultation with the parties would have advanced the debate so as to show progress at the UN Human Rights Council sessions in September.
Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera making a speech after the Bill was presented in Parliament said, this law is the first step in healing our own nation and its people so that we could face the challenges of the future as a united nation.
He said “every day, there are people in this country who go to sleep at night, praying that their loved ones will return. There are mothers who are paralyzed with grief; they are lost in time; unable to continue with their day-to-day lives, worrying whether their sons, wherever they may be, have enough food to eat, or whether they are being treated alright; wondering how much they may have grown, or how much they may have changed since they last saw them.
These people are torn between hope and despair, and are unable to live meaningful lives.”
“When one sees a dead body, no matter how unbearable the pain of loss may be, there is closure, because there is knowledge that one’s loved one is no more.”
Minister Samaraweera said this will be the first attempt of this nature not bound by time, ethnicity or geographic restrictions and the OMP will be answerable only to Parliament and the people of Sri Lanka. The functioning of the OMP is similar to any other commission such as the Bribery Commission which has no punitive powers.
Former Rehabilitation Minister and Communist Party Leader D.E.W. Gunasekera said, the Office of the Missing Persons is a prerequisite for the reconciliation process.
“I don’t believe it is an attempt to chase after the military personnel. They are also in suspense, they too need to free their minds.”
The former minister said, the purpose of this Office should be to find the truth and what is being whipped up is unfounded fear. “I was the Minister of Rehabilitation just after the war ended. I have met the relatives of the missing persons, also the relatives of the members of the LTTE. Their feelings are quite known to me.”
He said, this is where the State should step in and introduce a mechanism so that this chapter for the missing persons’ relatives can be closed once and for all. “Even to know they are dead would be a relief for them.”
JVP MP Vijitha Herath said, the OMP Bill fulfilled a long standing requirement and they moved three amendments to put in order some of the controversial provisions.
Criticizing the JO protest in Parliament and their demands Herath said, MPs Vasudeva Nanayakakara and Ranjith Soysa served in the Sectoral Oversight Committee on Legal Affairs where they agreed to the Bill beforehand.
“They had no moral right to protest during the debate and try to mislead the public. The JO was trying to play the communal card. We totally reject and condemn their behaviour,”he said.
“Their sole intention was to sabotage the process and control the work of Parliament. Their act only served the Government. If not for their rowdy behaviour we could have asked for a vote and there could have been a decent debate where important things could have been discussed,”he said.
UPFA Colombo district MP and joint opposition member Bandula Gunawardena said this was the first step towards setting up a war crimes tribunal to send the war heroes to the guillotine.
“The Bill was passed without listening to the Opposition voice, we will fight this and abrogate this piece of law when we come into power,” he said.