The National Action Plan for the Protection and Promotion of Human Rights 2011 – 2016 as well as the full series of  Sri Lanka Rights Watch are available at the Peace & Reconciliation Website.

The first part of the LLRC Action Plan deals with what are termed International Humanitarian Law Issues, which may create the wrong impression given the excessive attention focused on what are termed war crimes by some national and international critics of the government. This is a pity because what I would term general Human Rights issues figure here, and these should be dealt with swiftly and constructively.

The need to stop abductions and enforced disappearances is widely recognized, and steps must be taken to prevent such happenings, and to both investigate and prosecute when wrongdoing is apparent. If such wrongdoing is on the part of the state, or forces associated with the state, it is even more important to act decisively, and restore confidence in law enforcement agencies.

To confuse this with dealing with war crimes is a mistake, and might prevent swift action. The LLRC made clear that it did not think there was good reason to assume war crimes had been committed, though it does note that there should be further investigation of complaints based on specific incidents. The specific incidents it does describe are those connected with disappearances after surrender or arrest. These should not be confused with the conduct of the war, but relate to the wider phenomenon as to which we still hear allegations, though few of these now, it seems relate to Tamils.

In this regard, perhaps the most important action recommended is data collection regarding missing persons. Such data should be systematically recorded and made publicly available. I believe this will make clear that there are fewer instances of such disappearances now than is widely believed, and than the manner in which statistics are maintained suggests – with records dating from a couple of decades back being used to claim that the problem in Sri Lanka is on a massive scale. I myself a couple of weeks back had several queries concerning the recent ICRC report, whereas a careful reading even of the table of statistics would have made clear that recent complaints were comparatively few, and that the figure of over ten thousand related to information received in the nineties.

But, at the same time, such a data base should also be a spur to action, since whether the problem is large or small is not the point, it is the duty of the state to stop such a problem altogether, and certainly to make it clear that involvement of state agencies is unacceptable. Thus we need, as the Foreign Ministry tried in the nineties and the Ministry of Human Rights in the period before the end of the war, to clear the backlog and ensure that death certificates are issued where needed.

This is necessary to achieve closure for those still in uncertainty, even though we know that, as even the American ambassador has granted recently, ‘the issue of missing persons is not as clear-cut as it seems, because there are many Tamil people seeking refugee status in other countries who haven’t been accounted against those reported as missing here’. We need to add to this that it is not only a question of Tamil people, since some of those listed in JVP days as missing also went away, albeit in those days the security forces were far more ruthless than over the last decade, and therefore the proportion of those missing who are in fact abroad will be less for the earlier period. Still, given that the period for reaching conclusions is longer, there will be no harm done in issuing certificates if the next of kin are in agreement, since clearly we need to stop outdated statistics being used to build up political pressures.

In some cases, it is true, we do not know anything about the alleged cases, and the information supplied by the Working Group on Enforced Disappearances is insufficient for us to work on. I suggested some years back that we therefore ask the Working Group to contact whoever gave them information, and let us know whether the case is still unsolved, in which case we can work with the next of kin to ensure appropriate closure.

Parallel to this datebase is the household survey recommended to ascertain ‘the scale and circumstances of death and injury to civilians, as well as damage to property during the period of the conflict’. This should have indeed been started long ago, and it also needs to look systematically into allegations of disappearances during the conflict period. Something of the sort has been done through the recent census, but a more systematic analysis, with dialogue and discussion with those who have queries, should also be instituted with regard to the missing. I should note here, with some satisfaction given the attacks I received from all sides when I first estimated the number of possible civilian casualties three years ago, that the figures the census revealed are very much in the region of my estimate. These are very different from both the growing five figure estimates produced by prejudiced critics, and from the limit of one or two thousand claimed by those who, in denying that there was deliberate targeting of civilians, got carried away and tried to claim that civilians had not really suffered.

In all cases, the principle of maximum transparency needs to be affirmed and implemented. Thus it is also pleasing that the LLRC Action Plan recommends also a comprehensive database of all detainees, and also the creation of ‘a special mechanism to examine cases of persons being held in detention (for long periods without charges)’. But that is another important question, relating also to general Human Rights issues, so I will explore it in another article.

Daily News 13 August 2012