Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Missing persons: A cause for serious concern

UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances due ahead of Geneva confab




By Shamindra Ferdinando

In the wake of repeated calls, to investigate war-time disappearances, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances announced its decision to visit Sri Lanka this year.

A 10-day visit is now scheduled to commence on August 3, a month before the presentation of an external probe, that dealt with accountability issues in Sri Lanka, to the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). The UN made its announcement on May 9, 2015. The announcement followed the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration inviting the UN Working Group to visit Sri Lanka. The five-member Working Group will primarily assists families in determining the fate, or whereabouts, of missing family members.

The previous government denied an opportunity for the Working Group to visit the country.

UN Special Rapporteur on Truth, Justice, Reparations and Guarantees of Non-recurrence Pablo de Greiff in April, 2015 called for immediate action to clarify the fate of the disappeared. Greiff asserted that post-war national reconciliation would never be a reality unless the government tackled contentious issues such as disappearances. The declaration was made following a four-day visit here, commencing March 30, 2015.

US Secretary of State, John Kerry, too, emphasized the pivotal importance of establishing the fate of those who disappeared during the conflict.

Sri Lanka needs the assistance of the international community to investigate disappearances because a sizable number of those, who had been categorized as missing here, are now living overseas, in some instances under new identities, courtesy of foreign governments.

The new government shouldn’t hesitate to seek international assistance to establish the truth. The proposed mechanism, to investigate accountability issues, should be mandated to work closely with the international community to explore ways and means of tracking down those who had been categorized as missing. How many of those who had been reported missing are living abroad? Have they obtained foreign citizenship? How many are seeking permanent residency? Can Sri Lanka continue to ignore the need at least to establish the probable number of Sri Lankan Tamils given citizenship abroad since the onset of Eelam War IV, in August, 2006? How many remain in Australian custody after being arrested for seeking illegal entry?

Recently, an overseas Tamil grouping declared that it represented over one million Tamil Diaspora forced out of Sri Lanka during the conflict. The claim was made in a joint letter, the grouping sent to Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). The declaration was made last February by (1) Australian Tamil Congress (2) British Tamil Conservatives (3) British Tamil Forum (4) Center for War Victims and Human Rights (5) Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America (6) Global Tamil Forum (7) Ilankai Tamil Sangam (8) New Zealand Tamil Society (9) People for Equality and Relief in Lanka (10) South African Tamil Federation (11) Swedish Tamil Forum (12) Tamils Against Genocide (13) Tamils For Labour (14) United States Tamil Political Action Council and(15) World Thamil Organization.

"Our organizations, representing the one-million strong Tamil Diaspora, forced out of Sri Lanka, due to the conflict, and having lost tens of thousands of relatives, fully endorse the call by the Northern Provincial Council, and urge you to release the OISL report, in March 2015, as originally mandated. President Sirisena’s election and short tenure do not negate the need for a timely release. The UN stands as the standard bearer of human rights. Therefore, any recommendations, within the OISL report, should serve as the baseline, and driving force, to guide a credible accountability process."

On the strengthen of that claim, the grouping demanded that the external investigation report on Sri Lanka should be presented to the UNHRC last March. In spite of its demand, the UNHRC put off the presentation, for September this year. There’ll be no further postponement.

A thorough investigation is required to establish whether the one million Diaspora, included some of those categorized as missing. Sri Lanka needs the cooperation of the international community to carry out the investigation. Sri Lanka should take up this matter with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) whose expertise is essential to bring the project to a successful conclusion. The Diaspora exploited the previous government’s refusal to work with Western powers. The new administration has an opportunity to counter false propaganda by involving the international community in the proposed investigation.

In fact, the Diaspora should cooperate with the new government to establish the truth. Foreign Minister, Mangala Samaraweera, has cleared the way for close operation between the government and Diaspora groups by taking measures to do away with the ban imposed on them by the previous government. Perhaps, the ICRC can facilitate the process of smooth progress.

The ICRC office, in Colombo, in late March, this year, made a very important revelation with regard to disappearances. The ICRC spokesperson, Ms Sarasi Wijeratne, in a statement issued, following a five-day visit undertaken by ICRC Director of Operations, Dominik Stillhart to Colombo, placed the number of complaints received, regarding missing persons, since June, 1990 at 16,000. The ICRC issued the statement subsequent to Stillhart meeting Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and FM Samaraweera.

The ICRC statement dealt with disappearances taken place, since the onset of Eelam War II. The ICRC list included 5,200 complaints received from families of those security forces and police personnel killed in action. Families had lodged complaints due to failure on the part of the army to hand over bodies of their loved ones. The army hadn’t been able to recover bodies on many occasions, though the ICRC facilitated transfer of bodies across front lines.

The ICRC mission in Colombo said that the organization had launched a countrywide assessment in October, 2014, using a representative sample from its own caseload to ascertain the needs of the missing persons families. The ICRC assured that at the end of the assessment, a report, with its findings, would be prepared and shared confidentially with the government of Sri Lanka to help it to draw up a response to what these families need. The ICRC also promised its assistance to government efforts. The ICRC initiative is in line with its overall proposals to establish an independent domestic mechanism to facilitate the process.

The ICRC quoted Stillhart as having said: "The ICRC’s experience, from its work with families of missing persons, in other countries, is that their needs are multifaceted. Their priority is the need to know the fate and whereabouts of a missing relative, without which they have no closure and a mechanism which is distinct from an accountability process is required to address this need. But they also have other needs such as psychosocial and economic support and administrative, or legal concerns, arising from having to resolve pension or property rights."

The ICRC has been present, in Sri Lanka, since 1989, responding, initially, to the humanitarian needs of persons affected by the uprising of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) in the South and, thereafter, by the conflict between the government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in the North and the East.

Western powers refused to cooperate with the previous government’s efforts to establish the whereabouts of those who had been categorized as missing since the conclusion of the war, in May 2009. Now that the Maithripala Sirisena-Wickremesinghe administration is in power, Western powers can help Sri Lanka to establish the whereabouts of those who disappeared during Eelam war IV and after. In spite of the end of the conventional war, over six years ago, Sri Lankan Tamils continued to clandestinely leave the country, claiming harassment, under the Rajapaksa administration. Except Australia, all other countries encouraged those who had been seeking political asylum on false grounds. Many Sri Lankan Tamils, who had been living in India, Malaysia, and some other Asian countries after fleeing the country years ago, sought asylum in Western world since the conclusion of the conflict.

The then Canadian Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister, Jason Kenney, in January, 2013, asserted that genuine Sri Lankan asylum seekers should seek refuge in India, particularly in Tamil Nadu, without risking their lives to reach Canada and Australia. Kenney said that he, too, believed asylum seekers could move across the Palk Straits, to Tamil Nadu, as they had been doing during the war. Minister Kenney suggested that those who had genuine concerns could take refuge within the region. The Canadian Minister was obviously rattled by this correspondent asking for a rational explanation as to why those allegedly being persecuted by the Rajapaksa government sought protection in nearby India without risking their lives to reach far away Canada and Australia. Minister Kenney categorized the issue of missing persons as a serious matter.

Some of those who had been categorized as disappeared can be living in Canada. In fact, some of those could have secured Canadian citizenship though Canada adopted a series of tough measures, in June, 2012, in accordance with a parliamentary act, titled Protecting Canada’s Immigration System. Minister Kenney also revealed that 25,000 Sri Lankans had been accepted as permanent residence during the period 2007-2012. Since then Kenney has taken over Multiculturalism and National Defence portfolios, whereas Chris Alexander is in charge of Citizenship and Immigration.

Sri Lanaka never received access to those who had entered Canada through illegal means. A case in point was an LTTE owned ship, MV Sun Sea, carrying 490 persons reaching Canadian waters, in August, 2010. Although Canada knew that LTTE cadres had been among the would be asylum seekers, the government never shared relevant information with Sri Lanka. Canadian policy has facilitated Canadians, of Sri Lankan Tamil origin, gradually expanding the voting population to enable direct parliamentary representation. Jaffna - born Rathika Sitsabaiesan, secured a seat in the Canadian Federal parliament at the 2011 general election. Sitsabaiesan contested on the New Democratic Party ticket. The Canadian, of Tamil origin, angered some of her parliamentary colleagues by comparing an annual commemoration of LTTE cadres killed in the hands of the Sri Lankan and Indian armed forces with the Canadian Remembrance Day. The MP put her foot in her mouth in Canadian parliament. But the growing Tamil electorate in Canada has compelled major political parties to address their concerns. Canada invariably takes decisions at the expense of Sri Lanka.

Whistle - blowing website, Wiki Leaks, has exposed one-time British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, playing politics with Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE. The diplomatic campaign by Miliband, to champion aid and human rights, during the final phase of the large scale military operations, on the Vanni east front, had been largely driven by domestic political calculations.

A leaked May, 2009, cable, from the US Embassy in London, quoted the Foreign Office team leader on Sri Lanka, Tim Waite, as having explained Miliband’s intense focus on Sri Lanka, in terms of the UK electoral geography.

"Waite said that much of [Her Majesty’s government] and ministerial attention to Sri Lanka is due to the ‘very vocal’ Tamil diaspora in the UK, numbering over 300,000, who have been protesting in front of parliament since April 6," Richard Mills, a political officer at the US Embassy, reported to Washington. David Miliband’s brother, Ed Miliband, who led the Labour at the recently concluded UK general election, too, played the Tamil card.

As those 15-member Diaspora grouping pointed out, in its letter to UN human rights chief, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the West can not ignore the voting power of one million Sri Lankan Tamils living overseas.

TULF veteran V. Anandasangaree’s son, Gary, a lawyer, based in Scarborough, is contesting the forthcoming Canadian general election, on the Liberal ticket. Claiming that his parents, too, had migrated to Canada, Gary is promising to help those seeking to make Canada their home. Anandasangaree has declared that he sought Liberal party nomination to launch a political career to enable him to facilitate the process. The four-party Tamil National Alliance (TNA) has assured support to Gary Anandasangaree much to the discomfort of the isolated TULF leader. Gary Anandasangaree has earned the admiration of the Canadian electorate, of Sri Lankan origin, by strongly backing external war crimes investigation the Sri Lankan government should seek Canadian assistance to verify war crimes accusations, contained in the UN Secretary General panel of experts’ report, issued in March, 2011. Some of those who had made submissions, to the panel of experts, are widely believed to be living in Canada. According to the panel of experts’ it had received over 4,000 submissions, from 2,300 persons, alleging war crimes with the accusation of 40,000 civilians killed during the final phase being the most serious. The UN should prove that those who had accused the Sri Lankan military of atrocities were in fact in Sri Lanka during the final phase of the assault (January-May 2009). For want of a cohesive thinking, the previous government never bothered to properly examine accountability issues and relevant matters. Instead of countering those propagating lies, the previous government engaged in futile exercises such as hiring expensive US public relations firms to win over US administration.

Sri Lanka cannot ignore the urgent need to re-examine the missing persons’ issue thoroughly. The new government, without further delay, should call for an international effort to verify war crimes allegations. The government should fully cooperate with the international community to help establish the truth. Verifying some 4,000 submissions made by 2,300 persons will be of pivotal importance. In fact, Sri Lanka’s defence, in Geneva, depends on the new government’s ability to convince the international community to verify still UNSUBSTANTIATED allegations.