Reparations to Victims of Disappearances
A wake-up call on
Reparations to Victims of Disappearances __
by M.C.M. Iqbal*
Disappearances of persons both in the Northern and Southern parts of Sri Lanka during the dark days the country has gone through for over twenty years, has left behind an indelible blot in the history of the country. Though the circumstances under which these happened and the scale of such incidents are not the same in all parts of the country the effects of these incidents on the victims or rather the families of the disappeared are almost the same. However, the victims other than those in the North and the East, who were longing to find out what had happened to those who had been involuntarily removed in the mid 1990s were enticed by some politicians who took advantage of their plight to win their votes. These politicians made them believe that they were in fact concerned about what had happened to the disappeared persons and promised that they would hound the perpetrators who committed such acts with impunity and put an end to such occurrences in the future. They also promised appropriate reparations to the families of the victims. Many of the victims believed these promises and voted for a change of government at the elections in 1994. Subsequently, the party that came to power, appointed three Presidential Commissions of Inquiry to look into the disappearances that occurred since January, 1988. But none of these three Commissions had access to the North which was not under the control of the then government.
Complaints of Disappearances
In 1998 another Commission of Inquiry was appointed with island- wide jurisdiction to inquire into 10,136 complaints left uninquired by the Zonal Commissions. The mandate of this Commission precluded it from inquiring into new complaints. Consequently about 600 disappearances that occurred in the Jaffna region during and after 1996 could not be inquired into by the Presidential Commission appointed in 1998 even though the complaints were made available to it. To stem the mounting criticism against the then government for not inquiring into disappearances that had occurred during its own regime, a Board of Investigation consisting of Defence Ministry Officials was appointed in 1999 to inquire into these incidents. Understandably, the inquiries conducted by this Board were alleged to be biased. It is not surprising that the report of this Board was never published.
Subsequently some of the victims of these disappearances in the Jaffna region complained to the Human Rights Commission and sought the assistance of this Commission to find out what happened to those who had disappeared during 1996. The Commission received 341 of disappearances by December 2002. This included complaints in respect of 35 Muslims from Jaffna who had gone missing during the period of their exodus from Jaffna in 1990.
Committee on Disappearances
Availing of the provisions of section 11(b) of the Human Rights Commission Act No:21 of 1996, in December 2002 the Human Rights Commission appointed a Committee consisting of persons of eminence under the chairmanship of Dr. Devanesan Nesiah, to inquire into and report on the disappearances of the 341 persons referred to. This Committee was, inter alia, requested to recommend relief measures to needy victims. The report of this Committee was released in October, 2003 stating that there was clear evidence of 281 of the 341 having been taken by the army and that there is no evidence on what happened to them thereafter or that they are alive. Several relief measures were also recommended by this Committee to the families of these victims. Similarly the Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances too had reported that there is credible material indicative of several members of the police and security forces being responsible for many of the disappearances that occurred in other parts of the country and has made extensive recommendations on the kind of reparations that need to be provided to the victims’ families.
Concern for the victims
Though several years had passed since the Presidential Commission made these recommendations and one year has passed since the Committee on Disappearances in Jaffna did so, implementation of the recommendations, especially those on reparations to the victims did not receive the kind of enthusiasm they deserve. The reason for such sluggishness cannot be understood in view of the fact that many of the victims in the late eighties and the early nineties were either SLFP supporters who were branded as JVPers or sympathizers of the JVP or its members themselves. Since the SLFP and the JVP are in power now there is every possibility of reparations receiving priority concern. But for some strange reason, that has not taken place.
Implementation of reparations recommended
Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, presided over a discussion recently regarding the implementation of the recommendations for relief to these victims of disappearances. Representatives of several Ministries and other officials concerned with the implementation of these recommendations, attended.
Mr. M.D.W Ariyawansa, Additional Secretary to the President also attended this meeting along with Mrs. Manouri Muttetuwegama and Mr. H.G. Dharmadasa who were members of the last Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Disappearances, Dr. Devanesan Nesiah and Mrs. Jezima Ismail who were members of the Committee on Disappearances of the Human Rights Commission, along with the author, who was the then Secretary to these Commissions of Inquiry and the Committee referred to.
The need for a speedy implementation of the relief recommended to the victims was pointed out as many of them are in dire circumstances and are without anyone to effectively sponsor their cause. Providing meaningful reparations could help in the healing of the wounds left behind by the regrettable incidents of the past. This is especially so as the victims from the North had a hearing only last year. Besides, such a move could also clear the table for the peace process.
The most important recommendation for reparations that needs immediate attention is the need to re-enact the Registration of Deaths (Temporary Provisions) Act which had lapsed in 2001 with the necessary amendments. This act enabled many victims of disappeared persons who held certificates of confirmation of disappearance from a Presidential Commission of Inquiry to easily obtain death certificates in respect of such person on a presumption of death. The absence of such a facility at present has led to many of the families of disappeared persons whose disappearances had been confirmed subsequently, being unable to get the benefits of any of the relief measures already available, even though they hold certificates of confirmation issued by Presidential Commissions or the Human Rights Commission. An amendment to the Act should enable holders of confirmations of disappearance issued by the Human Rights Commission too, to enjoy the same privilege as those who complained to Presidential Commissions.
Many of the families of the victims other than those in the North and many parts of the East, have received the monetary payments stipulated in a Public Administration Circular issued in 1987. The amounts payable under this circular in respect of an ordinary person who disappeared varies from Rs.15,000 to Rs.50,000. But many in the North and the East are yet to get even this pittance. However in the case of the disappearances of a politician the amount payable is Rs.500,000 !
Other measures for reparations
Besides, the following matters discussed at this meeting also need to be attended to by the authorities concerned.
The difficulties encountered by members of families of disappeared public officers, teachers, employees in semi government institutions such as cooperatives to get the salaries of disappeared and other benefits;
The problems faced by internally displaced persons when making their applications for relief in respect of the disappeared IDPs as they have to do so through the office of the Divisional Secretary of the area where they usually resided;
The non-payment of compensation by REPPIA due to non- allocation of funds by the Treasury;
The grant of scholarships to children of disappeared persons;
The need for providing vocational training to members of the families of disappeared persons;
The inability of the heirs of disappeared persons to claim life insurance benefits from Insurance Companies as the policy is treated to have lapsed for non-payment the premium after the disappearances of the person so insured;
The problems of families of disappeared persons not being able to continue to cultivate on LDO permit lands of the disappeared persons;
And the plight of elderly parents of disappeared persons who were dependents of such persons who are now in dire circumstances.
The need to provide a means of livelihood to widows of disappeared persons.
The respective Ministries especially the Ministry of Rehabilitation, the Ministry of Social Services, the Ministry of Vocational Training, Ministry of Education, Ministry of Finance and other officials such as the Registrar-General, must take whatever steps possible to provide assistance to the victims of disappeared persons on the basis of the recommendations made. They should have regular meetings to monitor the implementation of the recommendations if they are genuinely concerned are about the welfare of the victims.
Funds to provide reparations
One cannot be heard to say that the lack of funds is the reason for the non-implementation of the recommendations made. The Presidential Commission had taken this fact into consideration and had recommended the establishment of a special fund for this purpose, soliciting donations from State and non- State institutions both local and foreign, and philanthropic institutions both within the country and abroad. But so for no such attempt has been made to establish such a fund. It is time that serious consideration is given to this recommendation.
The country is now passing through a phase of reconciliation on the road to a lasting peace. It is necessary that the people be given an assurance that the kind of human rights violations that took place in the past would never be allowed to be repeated. Monetary payments alone are not going to help to settle the pain of mind the victims endure. Effective relief on the lines of the other recommendations made such as counseling and providing a means of livelihood to those who lost their breadwinner, assistance to rebuild a damaged house, etc. could help to ease their burden and help the victims to forget the past and move on with their lives looking forward to a violence free future.
Though most of the incidents concerned had happened more than ten years ago and the number of first generation victims has dwindled, their children and even their grandchildren bear the consequences of what happened and display deep hurt and bitterness. In some cases trauma had been handed down. The subsequent generation tends to absorb and retain the pain and grief consciously or unconsciously. They could carry traces of their traumatic experiences for the rest of their lives. The implementation of the reparations recommended to the victims of disappearances to the extent possible is important to ease at least to a limited extent, the psychological and physical sufferings of the victims. It is hoped that those who have the authority to do the needful part effectively. It is only then that the victims will feel that those responsible have done whatever they could to alleviate their sufferings to the extent possible. If not they are going to continue to live with a grudge against the governments concerned in particular, and the society as a whole, in general for having allowed room for such despicable incidents of human rights violations such as disappearances to have happened in the past and doing nothing for the victims even though institutions such as Presidential Commissions of Inquiry set up for this purpose had made specific recommendations nor only pertaining to reparations but also on the other terms set out in their respective mandates.
* The writer is a Consultant at the Human Rights Commission and was Secretary to several Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons.