Field Marshal Fonseka, who led the state forces to bring the most destructive civil war to a finish; was the first Army officer to understand and acknowledge the need for reconciliation for Sri Lanka to come out of the irrational, extremist, polarised and intolerant on political, racial and religious lines. Earlier, the members of the previous regime as Joint Opposition (JO) filling opposition benches in parliament, fearing they themselves may get incriminated with civil liability and prosecution possibility, had demanded that the security forces be protected from prosecution for crimes committed in the name of protecting motherland. But, as a minister Fonseka has explained the ludicrousness of JO’s claim that the government created Office on Missing Persons (OMP) would lead to the persecution of war heroes. The Unity Government has made it clear repeatedly that only those offences committed by security personnel outside the battle field and during the negative peace years after the guns were silenced in 2009, would be liable for prosecution and dealt with according to the law of the land. While statements of many human rights violations occurring after the guns were silenced made by Fonseka needs to be investigated as they may contain many truths.
On conclusion of the war in 2009, which was brought to finish with many nations helping the state, Sri Lankans believed it offered both on opposite sides of the divide an opportunity to get their relations back on track. Regrettably that did not materialise during the negative peace years that followed to 2015, for the ruling majority community got carried away celebrating defeat of the armed breakaway minorities; while the people from the minorities mainly those living in the northeast region were hurt losing their last line of defence against the racial and religious authoritarian rule, since independence in 1948.
Bitter Truth is that Human Rights violations did occur with such impunity in the final period of the civil war, when the guns were silenced in 2009 and beyond into the negative peace years, to when the previous regime was booted out in 2015, by the people using their voting power. After the war had ended, this bitter truth was referred to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) and in all the discussions the previous regime camouflaged these few alleged violators of human rights, with the rest of the forces as war heroes. Not to be fooled the people voted out this regime in 2015 and elected a Unity Government to power and the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) was one of the pledges made to the UNHRC by the new government, that relate to the accountability issue for past human rights abuses. OMP provided many prickly debates during the early life of the government. After intensive negotiations within cabinet and parliament the government came up with the final outcome for the establishment of the OMP, a unique institution to help several thousands of families of missing persons across Sri Lanka to discover the fate of their loved ones and the circumstances under which they went missing. Establishing the OMP, marks another step forward in the path to sustained peace in the country; act charged with preparing a record of the violation of human rights “through the killing, abduction, torture or severe ill-treatment of any person” committed during “the period of conflict” dating back to the sixties.
The OMP is one of the main pillars of Sri Lanka’s transitional justice agenda. Yet, it does not appear that victims have been properly consulted about the OMP; for consultations with the public are a key part of any meaningful transitional justice package and the lack of information and documentation about the OMP has seriously hampered to build any confidence in the mind of the affected families. It is true that several activists and families of disappeared persons had made written and oral submissions, highlighting serious concerns about the OMP and with practical and specific suggestions; but not known is how much of it had been taken on board before cabinet approval. Technically, there’s still space for families and others to give input, but it’s extremely unlikely input at this stage can make any influence. Perhaps this mindset may change on implementation for once operational the OMP is expected to record the history of human rights abuses in the country and make important recommendations for reparations to victims.
But any in the implementation and all to be done without any foreign participation is of great concern to the affected families for fear that the recommendations of the OMP will never get fully implemented; that reparations will not be paid to victims of past human rights violations. Further that prosecutions be not mounted against individuals even when there was credible evidence of involvement in gross abuses. Yet to ensure accountability for human rights violations, promote reconciliation, and prevent future abuses, there must be the prosecution of individuals when the OMP find strong evidence of their responsibility for gross human rights violations, and the granting of monetary and other reparations to the victims.
Earlier, instead of pulling the country together, the previous rulers as beneficiaries of ‘patriotism-euphoria’ opted with emotional urge and political objectives to ignite the flame of fear into the minds of the hurt northeast people by keeping the total battalions of armed forces, long after the war was won to fill the vacuum left behind by the people fighters killed in the battle in the northeast region. This was not to provide security, but to keep a check on the activities of the locals, because to them every able bodied person in the region was an enemy, could not be trusted and therefore unleashed state terror on them. At the final stages of the war and after the guns were silenced at the battlefield many of those who fought against the security forces led by few senior members, come over with a white flag to surrender as prearranged; but to this day as to what happened to them is a mystery. Many more incidents took place involving freed rehabilitated freedom fighters, who were released to join their community were taken back under the pretext of more investigations or as suspects of crimes, were never to be seen again. Those who were at the receiving end of this treatment included many civilians, particularly the young adults living in the northeast and those who had moved out of these regions to elsewhere for safety, in particular to live in the greater Colombo area.
Many negative peace years passed by with many cases of disappearances through abduction, leading to deaths by torture or severe ill-treatment or killing. With law of the jungle prevailing the situation was exploited by evil forces of all communities throughout the country for their own benefit; resulted in more crimes committed in all parts of the country, in particular in northeast region, where the police force was not fully in operation. The wealth of the nation was ransacked by politicians, joined by all who had connection to people in power and this included administrators, professionals and businessmen crossing all ethnic and religious barriers in the country. The UN and many nations, who had earlier helped to bring the civil war to an end, were not amused by the authoritative dictatorship type rule and all resulting violation of human rights in the country. Prompted by these nations and with support of many local civil societies the people made a change that resulted in a common presidential candidate put forward by the opposition defeating the ruling President at the 2015 Presidential Elections. The same forces worked as one unit and opposed the government at the general elections that followed in the same year to form the Unity Government made up of the two major with other few minor political parties and the rest is history.
Today, in a severely divided society in which many beneficiaries of the civil war have ignored widespread and systematic human rights violations; while those survivors and relatives of victims are aggrieved at the thought of granting amnesty for perpetrators; as there would new legislation provided for a further amnesty for these individuals; but authorities have claimed it as a balancing act by the state between the perceived “national interest” and the claims of victims. With several developments granting of pardon to those who fed information or helped otherwise the state that had helped to silence the liberation fighters are a case for concern to the people; also disturbed by the clarification made by the Prime Minister that OMP will not be take up past cases. But victims are still concerned and felt that the previous government and members of security forces were responsible for most of the human rights violations during the closing stages of the war in 2009 and the period of negative peace years to 2015. In particular, they refer to the failure of several trials to date meant that some sectors of the former security forces have virtually escaped accountability for serious human rights abuses. Further, the duplicity culture is visible in that no one is shedding any tears for the victims or protesting about human right abuses caused by southern and northern freedom fighters.
The Unity Government should implement the OMP to end the impunity enjoyed by too many of those who have committed gross human rights abuses and meet all the UNHRC 2015 recommendations. Further should investigate views expressed by Fonseka on these matters, as it may give vital clues on the white Flag incident supposed to have taken place at the battlefield after the guns were silenced 2009 and other extracurricular activities of security personnel on instructions of a handful of superiors during the six negative peace years from 2009 to 2015, without disparaging the state armed forces. If any individuals had committed crimes, they must be prosecuted without fear or favor with no pardons nor amnesties and must swiftly redress the injustice to all victims and their families with reparations. Failure to do so allows those who were responsible for past human rights abuses to escape punishment and also harm the prospects of preventing a repetition of the kinds of human rights.