24 June 2019

The Office on Missing Persons: Performance, Prospects and Recommendations Featured

The Office on Missing Persons: Performance, Prospects and Recommendations


By Shruthi De Visser


The Office on Missing persons (OMP) commenced operations in February of 2018 with the appointment of its commissioners. Since its commencement the office has had to face many administrative challenges, while also navigating a tenuous political atmosphere. Since the signing of the UN Resolution 30/1 in 2015, the OMP is the first and only promised mechanism that has been operationalized. A lapse of almost four years since the resolution compels the OMP to swiftly take advantage of whatever support and room is available in order to advance the TJ agenda and its own mandate. In August of 2018 the OMP released its first interim report in which it highlighted many of the challenges to its work.

One of the main impediments to the OMPs work has been the inability to secure a permanent staff cadre. When speaking to a Commissioner of the OMP he revealed that, this continued challenge would be addressed within the next six months. He also added that in the meantime the OMP is working with a temporary staff cadre who have received various trainings especially in areas such as data entry and management, legal and policy research and psychosocial responsiveness.

The commissioner also commented on the OMP’s outreach activities, noting that the office had conducted public consultations in Mannar, Matara, Mulaitivu, Trincomalee, Jaffna, Kilinochchi and Colombo in 2018.  It continues to conduct consultations including bilateral meetings and attend workshops as resource persons in order to meet with the families of the missing and disappeared, interest groups and other stakeholders. The 2019 OHCHR report on Sri Lanka commended the office on its consistent efforts to consult stakeholders. At many of these consultations, the Commissioner noted, that they had received a number of new complaints and information concerning disappearances. In the meantime the office has been making interventions in key disappearance cases and intervening in cases of public and symbolic importance, while balancing confidentiality and transparency to maintain the trust of families and others involved. The OMP established its first regional office in Matara on the 1st of March and has intentions of opening another in Mannar very soon.

In its Interim Report the OMP had made interim relief recommendations relating to financial aid, debt relief, housing development, educational support, vocational training and livelihood development and employment. The Commissioner noted that the OMP is liaising with the relevant ministries to ensure that these measures are implemented. However, many months later, there has been little to no progress on this regard. The OMP has initiated dialogue with key stakeholders, including the President, the Prime Minister, the Attorney General, Minister of Justice, the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, Inspector General of Police, the Commanders of the Army, Navy and Air force.

The office’s engagement with the Mannar mass grave investigation has been one of its chief undertakings. Their involvement took the form of providing necessary financial support for carbon dating and providing guidelines on collecting samples among others. The OMP also closely supervised the entire process. The results of the carbon dating using 6 bone samples, carried out by the U.S based Beta Analytical Lab, were handed to the Mannar magistrate in late February. The results dated these bone samples as originating from 1499 – 1719 AD. While the bone samples had no connection to the time period under the mandate of the OMP, it highlights the value of a credible commission with strong investigative powers in establishing the truth of the past.

Despite ongoing challenges, it is important that that the OMP continues its efforts to engage with victim communities and the general public. The success of the OMP will depend largely on how informed affected persons are with respect to the process, and how aware the public is on the long-standing need to find out the truth about missing loved ones. While the work of the OMP will often involve sensitive and confidential information, the office must find ways to share its progress and its goals with the public in an effort to build and grow trust. It is also imperative that the OMP is constantly cognizant of reflecting its mandate and including all affected parties in its current and envisioned work. The OMP must consider how wide reaching its awareness initiatives are, ensure that the information shared by the office is equally accessible to all communities.

The OHCHR report on Sri Lanka 2019, recommends, “The Office on Missing Persons must find a balance between the need to establish itself as a lasting institution with solid foundations and the expectation of immediate results, which would give victims the incentive to cooperate with the body. For this reason, the Office should strategically plan both its short-term and long-term goals”. The administrative and political hurdles surrounding the OMP will most likely continue in this same manner and may even be exacerbated by impending political uncertainties. However the search for the missing, finding conclusive evidence of their fate and providing answers to waiting families will prove invaluable to the entire Transitional Justice process. Hence the office must strategize its efforts with a long-term plan to ensure continued freedom and independence for its work, even while maximizing this time by pursuing investigations and answers from the state, before election activities are pushed to the forefront of the political agenda. 

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