Interview with one of the commissioners of OMP Mirak Raheem who touches on challenges this institute faces and the way forward with regard to serving families whose members have gone missing
The Office on the Missing Persons (OMP) was established by the Government of
Q The Office of missing Persons was established five months ago. Since then what is the progress you have made so far and what sort of work have you done?
Yes the commission was set up in February and we have been engaged in a number of areas. On one hand we were working in terms of putting the office into operation. Because at the end of the day this is a permanent office, so we have to set it up in a manner that it will be durable and responsive. We have been careful and cautious not to be ad hoc. We also ensure that we follow the state processes, which at times is lengthy and demands time to obtain approval in terms of securing approvals for staff.
We are also employed during consultations, particularly with the families of the victims, who have disappeared. We have met with 2147 people, including family members, representatives of civil society and also government actors. What we sought in the process is basically to share the plans of the Office of missing persons and obtain feedback from the representatives and also make our presence felt. With regard to some cases people have no idea of the presence of an Office of Missing Persons. Simultaneously we also try to begin initial inquiries into specific cases. August 30 was the day set aside to commemorate the International Day of Victims of Enforced Disappearances. After that we hope to release an interim report.
The OMP has a wide mandate and there is no time bar in terms of when the disappearance took place. Its mandate covers a broad sect of context including the war civil and political disturbances which captures insurrections in South in 1971 and late 1980s
Q What are the challenges the Office of Missing persons is faced with and how did you face them?
The number one challenge for us has been the lack of trust in us and the suspicion about the Office of Missing Persons. This has been an inherited problem, largely because of the previous experiences of families in dealing with the state. Also very few individuals received answers from the state institutions they dealt with, including the Courts . They see OMP as yet another state institution. In that sense they visit us with years of cynicism and distrust. So that itself is a huge challenge we face. We have recognised and appreciate their experiences. We try to acknowledge that.
In some cases we have encountered protests where groups of families have voiced their disapproval outside our office. With regard to them what we have stressed is that we are not asking them to stop their protests. What we wish to say is that we are one institution and a key one that is tasked with the responsibility of tracing. Even if they don’t want OMP to engage in their individual cases we are open to conversation, open for advice on what we are doing right or wrong and we continue to remain engaged with them.
This is why during consultations we try to clear our mandate and misperceptions and also deal the complaints we have not taken up immediately. We also understand the need to ensure public transparency
The other issue is that we are starting from scratch. To set up a State institution from scratch is quite challenging. But we are confident that over the next few months we would be able to accelerate in terms of setting up offices outside of Colombo. We do not have the luxury of setting up a fully functional office due to the urgency in which families need answers. We will be rolling out the OMP office while commencing inquiries in specific cases. We also have to learn from the mistakes that we might make. We also try to ensure that we are open to technical advice from both national and international actors. We wish to deal with state and non-state institutions (abroad) which have similar roles to play.
Q You got some of the families of the victims to attend regional meetings. What sort of meetings were they and what category do they belong to;i.e war victims or any other category? Was their participation positive?
The OMP has a wide mandate and there is no time bar in terms of when the disappearance took place. Its mandate covers a broad sect of context including the war civil and political disturbances which captures insurrections in South in 1971 and late 1980s. There is also a category of enforced disappearances, which includes incidents like white van abductions. It doesn’t matter if the perpetrator is the state or a non state institute so long as it meets this issue of the context. In some cases people have suggested the kind of cases we should take forward. There was much suspicion and pain expressed at these meetings as people recounted their individual experiences. In some cases complainants focused on just one act of violence and with regard to some others they included multiple acts of violence, such as the abduction and the violations suffered by family members when they attempted to report the disappearance. People also raised questions about how we are going to proceed when other institutions were unable to do so and how we are going to be different from previous efforts by the state?
Q What was the outcome of the regional meetings and what is the impact?
We hope it has increased the awareness of the OMP. It’s not just about the fact that people attended the meeting, but also the coverage in the media. Whether you approve OMP or not whether you work with it or not it is there. Secondly we try to make people aware of what we are meant to do and should not to do. For us, even though we may have spent years working on this issue this whole experience is a learning curve; for example the experience of the families of the victims and kinds of expectations they have. Some of the toughest questions were asked not by the media, but by these families.
Since there is a history of harassment, people are still nervous about approaching state institutions. Some people may choose to remain silent during public meetings as they weigh the pros and cons, including the risks of speaking aloud
Q Are there instances where people who approached the OMP were threatened during the process of consultations?
From the information we have received so far no one has complained that he or she was intimidated for attending the meetings. We have received complaints that certain families were harassed by protestors hence they found it difficult to enter the consultations. Since there is a history of harassment, people are still nervous about approaching state institutions. Some people may choose to remain silent during public meetings as they weigh the pros and cons, including the risks of speaking aloud. One of the things we try to ensure is building our internal process to ensure that we maintain confidentiality. Families are looking into the future and possible political scenarios hence they are wary of the risks they may personally face.
Q How transparent is the OMP?
From time to time we will be updating the public about our activities. For example we will be releasing an interim report, to announce the progress we have made and challenges we have faced during the first six months since the establishment of the OMP. We are also required to submit an annual report to Parliament regarding our activities.
However, we also have to balance considerations relating to privacy, and security of individuals. We, who represent the OMP, Act duty bound to maintain confidentiality of certain types of information; for instance on issues relating to the details of witnesses, status of complaints and investigations. We hope to strike a balance to ensure that we maintain trust, security and confidence of the families and the public.
Q Any specific measures you have taken to maintain transparency?
This is why during consultations we try to clear our mandate and misperceptions and also deal the complaints we have not taken up immediately. We also understand the need to ensure public transparency. We are in the process of trying to improve our public interface and responsiveness to families to ensure greater information and intend having our own website. Putting out an interim report is one such effort to ensure greater transparency.
Q Do you think the OMP has sufficient power to carry out the tasks which it is assigned?
The Act the OMP is created with significant power; for example the right to carry out searches and demand documents and ensure victim and witness protection. It also provides for significant responsibilities like providing pyscho-social assistance and make recommendations on reparations. Of course we could wish for more but it is a fairly robust mandate. As appointed officers it is our duty to ensure we fully use these powers.