UN Body Slams Govt' On Missing Persons Issue

Place: Sri Lanka | Courtesy: One World
| Date: 20000411

COLOMBO, Apr 11 (IPS) - A UN Human Rights group has slammed the Sri Lankan government for slow and ineffective action against perpetrators of past disappearances and urged the creation of an independent body to probe persons missing in recent years.

The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), in a report following a visit to Sri Lanka last October, also said families of disappeared persons should receive the same compensation regardless of status.

Currently, families of missing public servants receive three times the amount of compensation paid to ordinary civilians.

The report has been submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights, which is currently meeting in Geneva - since mid-March - for its annual monthly sessions.

WGEID member Manfred Nowak and secretary Miguel de la Lama were in Sri Lanka last October following up on recommendations made during previous visits in 1991 and 1992, a few years after a violent youth revolt, and also to review recent developments.

During that visit, Nowak told reporters the process of criminal justice for the families of the disappeared was too slow.

''Reports by special presidential commissions, probing disappearances, clearly gave a list of people responsible but apart from a few cases, none of these perpetrators has been convicted or taken to court,'' he said.

Thousands of young people disappeared between 1988 to 1990 during a brutal crackdown by the military against left wing rebels.

Estimates of missing persons have ranged from 1,000 to 60,000 over the three-year period in which the People's Liberation Front (JVP), whose members are from the majority Sinhalese community, tried to oust the state.

The WGEID report agreed with claims by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that the ruling People's Alliance (PA) government, in power since 1994, had done little to investigate disappearances during their rule and to prevent them in future.

''While disappearances under the former (United National Party) government were investigated by four independent Presidential Commissions of Inquiry whose findings were in principle made available to the public, the more recent cases were only investigated by a non-independent and confidential Board within the Ministry of Defence,'' it said.

That board investigated a total of 2,621 complaints, traced more than 200 disappeared persons and identified an unspecified number of suspected perpetrators but none of these persons has been indicted, the report said.

The WGEID team noted that the state-appointed Human Rights Commission (HRC), which could play a vital role in investigating and preventing disappearances, lacked the necessary authority, and political and financial support to function effectively.

The report was praised by local human rights groups. ''These are very good recommendations,'' noted Sri Lanka's Nimalka Fernando, a human rights lawyer and President of the Tokyo-based International Movement Against Discrimination and Racism (IMADR)

''But one must see whether the government would implement these recommendations,'' she added.

Shanta Pathirana, secretary of the Organisation of Parents and Family Members of the Disappeared (OPFMD), was also of the view that while the recommendations were good ''trying to get it implemented would be the crucial issue.''

Pathirana's organisation has been campaigning for the UN Human Rights Commission to put pressure on Sri Lanka to implement recommendations made during WGEID's visits in 1991 and 1992.

WGEID's visit in October 1999 was partly due to OPFMD's constant appeals to UN authorities to come to Sri Lanka and review the situation.

During the recent WGEID visit, the main complaints of families of the disappeared were that compensation was delayed, insufficient and discriminatory and that little action had been taken against military officers named as perpetrators by the probe commissions.

WGEID, while acknowledging state measures to investigate disappearances and provide compensation to victims, noted that Sri Lanka still remained the country with the second largest number, after Yugoslavia, of disappearances on the UN list.

''Many of the missing persons allegedly traced by the HRC or

other authorities seem not to correspond to the disappeared persons submitted by the Working Group,'' the report said adding that though a large number of criminal investigations were initiated on disappearances, only a few suspected perpetrators were convicted.

Some of these perpetrators were even promoted, it said.

''Many families, therefore, rightly feel that justice has not yet been done to them.''

While the WGEID team reviewed the progress of recommendations made by visits from earlier visits, it also received representation from local human rights groups to expand its mandate to cover over 800 cases of disappearances since 1995 when government troops and Tamil rebels resumed fighting after peace talks broke down.

Its recommendation for an independent panel to probe disappearances since April 1995 when a ceasefire betweeen government troops and Tamil rebels ended, as a result of these representations.

It also wanted the Attorney General or other independent authority to investigate and indict suspected perpetrators irrespective of the outcome of police investigations and that enforced disappearance be made an independent offence under local criminal laws.

The report also urged that the unlimited powers of arrest and detention given to the military be scrapped or brought in line with ''internationally accepted standards of personal liberty, due process of law and humane treatment of prisoners.'' (END/IPS/fs/rdr/00)