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.

August 30th is the day chosen by the United Nations to commemorate missing persons, a subject that is of great concern to Sri Lankans. Its official title is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, and we are claimed to have the second highest number of such disappearances in the world. Though that statistic is based largely on past history, namely the large numbers of those alleged to have vanished during the JVP insurrection of the eighties, it is nevertheless a sad reflection on us that we have not provided clarifications to the UN Working Committee on Disappearances which maintains those statistics.

There are several reasons for working on this expeditiously, not least the fact that the figure is thrown about freely by extreme elements in the diaspora and the international community who imply that it relates to the recent conflict. An example of this came up recently when there were questions raised about a figure that appeared in a recent ICRC report, even though a careful reading of that report would have made clear that the figure relating to recently reported cases was comparatively small, and the figure of over 10,000 related to complaints of over a decade back.

We should in all cases however take steps to have the figure reduced. This is connected with what seems to me the main reason for working on the problem, namely that we need to do whatever is possible to assuage the grief and the problems of those who have no idea as to what has happened to their family members. For this purpose we ourselves should maintain records and ensure not only material support for those who lost their breadwinners but also spiritual support to help them cope with indeterminate loss.

For this purpose we must pay more attention to the development and deployment of counseling services. This has been grossly neglected over the years, and I fear our efforts to fast forward training, when the Peace Secretariat noted in 2008 that there would be great need of more trained Counsellors in the near future, were not successful. Though I had discussions with both WHO in Geneva, and those spearheading the programme in Colombo, we could not get concerted action. Indeed, because of what seemed to be internal rivalries, the excellent programme begun by John Mahoney, shortly after the tsunami, was brought to a close, and the poor man had to leave, to be redeployed later in Vietnam which clearly had a greater sense of purpose about this than we did.

Dealing with the difficulties then of those who have been, not just bereaved, but deprived of loved ones with no certainty as to what has happened, should be a priority. At the same time we know that sometimes the State has no idea as to who is referred to in the statistics that are cited so often, with only the bare bones of a name being referred to us. This is why we should have our own index, which is best maintained at Grama Niladhari level.

As I have often advocated, the Grama Niladharis, with the help of the police who now allocate at least one officer to every Division, should maintain a vulnerability index. I had initially thought this would focus on women and children in need, and though this still remains the most important area in which preventive measures should be taken for protection, recently it has been suggested that elders and the disabled should also be registered. In the process the schedule could also note cases of alleged disappearances, obviously those that have rendered family members vulnerable, but also others. With due consultation of the Women and Children’s Unit which the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s Empowerment has proposed for every Divisional Secretariat, a programme could be put in place to provide at least basic psycho-social support for those who have suffered in this regard, with mechanisms to provide appropriate social services as required.

This component of the Vulnerability Index I have suggested could then be the basis of a more comprehensive response to both the ICRC and the UN. The former I believe check with their sources, and if over two years they do not get confirmation that there is still an outstanding case, they remove the name from their lists. This does not happen with regard to the UN, but a few years back I suggested that we should adopt a proactive approach and urge the UN Working Group to check once again, in the cases of the over 10,000 relating to the distant past, whether there is still a problem. We found after all, in trawling through the reports of the Commissions of the 90s to go into those earlier cases, that several cases had been dealt with through compensation and the issue of certificates. This was complicated by both the alternative spellings that are adopted when Sinhala and Tamil names are transliterated into English, and the fact that in many cases surnames and first names can be transposed. Still, after some clear findings were made about records regarding those thought to have been missing, those names were removed from the list.

We should now go further and make it clear that the State has done its best to match names with those about whom the State has records; but to do more we require more information, which has to be sought from the original informants. In seeking this, the UN can also check whether there is in fact still an outstanding uncertainty, or whether the matter has been brought to satisfactory closure. The bottom line is that we must concern ourselves with those who have suffered, and we must promote mechanisms to ensure that their lives will not be blighted by lingering uncertainty, and concomitant guilt about the need to keep searching.

Daily News 31 August 2012 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2012/08/31/fea04.asp

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