Monday, July 24, 2017

Did Feltman make it ‘felt’?

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan-2017-07-23

A sudden announcement by the government that it has gazzetted the long awaited Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) came in without much ado and at a time when the UN under Secretary General for Political Affairs Jeffery Feltman was in town.

It's obvious the high-powered official seemed to have held his 'last round' of serious talks to remind the government of its failure and lethargic attitude towards paying attention to the thousands of grieving parties who lost their loved ones on the battle field and beyond.

Hearing the OMP being established, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres also congratulated the Sri Lankan Government for setting it up. It's an important step for all Sri Lankans who are still looking for the truth about their loved ones."

He also said that the UN stands ready to support this process and he looks forward to the OMP becoming operational as soon as possible, starting with the appointment of independent commissioners."

In the last two weeks, Sri Lanka saw several top visitors arriving in the country to check out what's going on here as time is ticking for Sri Lanka – a co sponsor of the UN Resolution but stagnated due to political bureaucracy.

MP Namal Rajapaksa also tweeted about his wonderment at the OMP. He tweeted yesterday, "Will the Office on Missing Persons also investigate the many Tamil child soldiers the LTTE terrorists forcefully recruited (now missing)?"

Before Feltman came, an independent human rights expert from the UK Ben Emmerson was here and came out with outright criticisms noting that Sri Lanka has made 'routine and endemic' use of torture against people detained on national security grounds. He quoted some of the prisoners' living conditions in the camp. "Based on my experience in the last six years in human rights monitoring in countries where counter terrorism is a problem, nowhere has such treatment been so endemic and systematically built into the entire criminal justice system as it has been in the PTA in this country."

He also said the international community was running out of patience.

His revelations agitated the Justice Minister and the President. Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe said Rapporteur Emmerson and many others who have visited Sri Lanka lacked calibre and diplomacy and that he would inform the President and the Premier about them.

The OMP and its contents thereof were interpreted in many ways even saying that the incumbent government was playing to the whims and fancies of the international community and all attempts were basically to 'please' the minority communities, especially the Tamils, by means of 'penalizing' the security forces for their alleged war crimes.

However, the government over and over again explained it was not a process to try the security forces and the OMP will also heal many of the saddened families who lost their loved ones during the JVP insurgency and beyond that.

At Thursdays' press conference, Foreign Minister Ravi Karunanayake promptly added that the OMP is an independent commission open to all.

There was some amendment to the OMP Bill that was concluded three weeks ago over which the President placed his signature to pass the Act.

The Foreign Minister stated that with the OMP every single armed forces person who has done no wrong will be protected. But certain persons who have put on their hat themselves and who misused their powers, are the ones who feel vulnerable in this process, he pointed out. "All those in the armed forces that have done their job properly have nothing to worry. That is the reason the PM stopped short of signing the 'Rome Convention.'

Also at the end of last week, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) made public its annual Human Rights Report for 2016, placing Sri Lanka as one of 30 'Human Rights Priority Countries' (HRPCs).

The report also welcomed the improvements in the human rights situation in Sri Lanka, while also emphasizing the need for further progress.

The report just before the OMP was gazzetted called on the OMP to be operationalized. The report also calls on the government to repeal the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) and draft new counter-terrorism legislation in line with international human rights standards.

It recognizes the need for further development of the Police force, in order to reduce the risk of human rights violations, including torture, and improving public confidence in the rule of law.
The international community has taken the lead in support of human rights and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Many of the diplomats stationed in Sri Lanka took to tweets to congratulate the government for fixing the OMP to address the people's grievances.

The UK Government has pledged £6.6m in the period 2016 – 2019 to continue support for reconciliation and human rights. Work with the Government of Sri Lanka will be to continue to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, and to share UK experience and expertise.

British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka James Dauris, said:

"The purpose of our Annual Report is to draw attention to human rights issues of concern in countries around the world, to encourage progress and recognize achievements made. In the past year we have engaged closely with the Sri Lankan Government and many others to support delivery on human rights commitments."

The OMP should have clear cut policies in running the Office including paying attention on criminalizing disappearances that could lead to minimizing the number of missing persons in future accounts.