Officials named in panel to examine civil war atrocities

Wickremesinghe (left) with
Maithripala Sirisena
PROMISE OF ACTION: Ranil Wickremesinghe (left) with Maithripala Sirisena

SRI LANKA has appointed commis­sioners to a special panel tasked with investigating war-era disappearanc­es, three years after president Maithripala Sirisena was elected promising justice for victims of the island’s eth­nic conflict.  

The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) was officially launched last Wednes­day (1) by Sirisena, who has faced in­ternational censure for repeated de­lays in probing atrocities by troops and Tamil rebels during the decades-long civil war.  

Sri Lanka narrowly avoided sanc­tions when Sirisena came to power in January 2015. He had vowed to begin investigations into war-time abuses, which the previous regime refused to even acknowledge.  

Parliament agreed two years ago to the first steps toward reconciling its war-era past – tracing about 20,000 people who went missing during 37 years of fighting.  

But the process stalled amid resist­ance from the army and Sirisena’s own coalition, which has been plagued by infighting in recent times.  

“The OMP is tasked with determin­ing the status of all missing persons in Sri Lanka and is the first pillar of the transitional justice mechanisms,” the government said.  

The panel has the power to recom­mend compensation and clear the way for next of kin to take legal action against those responsible for the dis­appearance of their loved ones.  

The government appointed seven commissioners to the OMP panel, which will be headed by senior law­yer Saliya Peiris.  

It gave no explanation for the two-year delay in appointing commission­ers, but the announcement comes ahead of a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva where Sri Lanka’s rights record is to be discussed.  

The council has, in the past, described Colombo’s efforts at transitional justice as at a “virtual standstill” near­ly a decade after the end of a war which claimed over 100,000 lives.  

Two years ago, prime minister Ra­nil Wickremesinghe told members of the ethnic Tamil minority that the thousands still missing may be dead.  

Sri Lankan forces were accused of killing up to 40,000 Tamil civilians during the final months of the war while defeating Tamil Tiger guerrillas who fought for independence.  

International rights groups have called for the prosecution of both the military as well as the Tigers, who were known for their trademark sui­cide bombings and child soldiers.  

Sirisena’s predecessor Mahinda Rajapaksa, who brutally crushed the Tamil movement to end the war in 2009, had resisted international pres­sure to probe alleged war crimes.  

The president has said he was will­ing to investigate specific allegations of wrongdoing, but maintains he will allow only a domestic inquiry and oppose any foreign investigation.