The passing of the Office of the Missing Persons (OMP) bill in parliament recently is a significant step towards resolving the thousands of cases of missing persons in Sri Lanka. It is also envisaged that the OMP will foster reconciliation efforts. The OMP is one of the main mechanisms which provide a framework for transitional justice, to promote reconciliation, accountability and Human Rights in Sri Lanka. Despite successive governments having established official investigations and commissions of inquiry, thousands of Sri Lankans still remain missing. The OMP bill has caused great hype in the media and is a much talked about matter by the general public. However, the information imparted by the media has caused some to support while turning others against the OMP.
Human Rights lawyer, Lakshan Dias addressed these issues and doubts whilst introducing the topic of Transitional Justice to 103 youth who had travelled from the regions of Ampara, Batticaloa, Vavuniya, Jaffna, Mullaitivu, Mannar, Galle, Kandy, Colombo, Ratnapura, Anuradhapura and Matale to attend a 3 day residential Youth Camp on ‘Transitional Justice and Advocacy Mechanisms’. The workshop was organised by the Religious Liberty Commission of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.
“Transitional Justice is when a country transitions from a period of violence and oppression and moves towards establishing justice and a better future for its people” said Lakshan Dias, explaining
how opinions, perceptions and attitudes are formed by what is dispersed through the media, one’s social background and daily life experiences. Therefore, openness to transitional justice and to the various mechanisms to bring about truth and justice to the victims are mainly based on such perspectives.
“While in a war situation we could not speak about Transitional Justice. But now 7 years after the war and in the midst of a regime change, this is the ideal time to make appropriate changes for the future” explained Dias to a rapt audience comprising law students, students of Conflict and Peace studies and youth representing local and rural civil society organisations. Explaining further, Dias spoke of each individual’s responsibility in contributing to the future wellbeing of their country. The ethnic issues which prevailed in our country for many decades had caused immense sorrow and hardships to many people. Many families have faced the disappearance of their near and dear ones. Over 150,000 people in our society have disappeared during the period 1983-2015. Mr. Dias challenged the youth; “look at these issues as your issues. Would you want your children to go through a similar war, face racial hatred, discrimination and disappearances in 2025?”
The sessions were interactive with the participants posing questions and clarifying various doubts and misconceptions they had on the OMP. Dias further clarified the pros and the cons of having international judges and its importance in order to ensure that truth will be exposed and the victims of abuse receive justice and reparations. Transitional Justice enables us to move to a just and free society through co-existence, bring about laws, pay compensations and form new mechanisms to support victims with justice.
“Transitional Justice is a new topic I learnt at this workshop” said 26 year old Achinthaka who works at the Centre for Human Rights and Development (CHRD). “My organisation receives many complaints on human rights and disappearances. Working in a human rights organisation, I find my work is very relevant to what I learnt today; in handling land rights and finding the whereabouts of missing persons”. Explaining further, Achinthaka said “I now have a clearer understanding of the OMP and the government’s stance in soliciting international assistance. I look forward to using this knowledge I have gained and partner with this organisation to support the victims using these mechanisms”.
Fathulla, a 3rd year law student who hopes to take up Human Rights as a subject, found this workshop extremely helpful. Not only did she learn things of academic importance but the programme itself helped her to coexist and interact with youth from different backgrounds and ethnicities, while teaching her to be responsible for her own actions. “As a law student my knowledge of transitional justice was very limited. I have not keenly followed what was happening with regard to the OMP. At this workshop I learnt so much on transitional justice and also on advocacy skills. When I spoke to the other participants I realised that they had all come with a common purpose – to make a better Sri Lanka. They were extremely intelligent and smart as well. The only problem was that I found it difficult to communicate with them and exchange our ideas with each other due to the language barrier.”
Douglas, a student from the Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Jaffna was grateful for being included in this programme. “At this workshop, my fellow participants and I had the opportunity to hear some of the real issues and problems and ways in which they can be resolved. I learnt that through the OMP, solutions could be sought for some of the grievances. It could also help create opportunities for reconciliation between both (Sinhala and Tamil) communities”. He added, “as a final year student I had the opportunity to participate in this programme. I learnt about advocacy strategies and over these two days, we have been learning new things. The University of Jaffna has students from several different ethnic backgrounds, and it’s important that we first establish a culture of understanding, so that we ensure that the past doesn’t repeat itself. I think that this – what we have learnt here, is a good foundation for that.”