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Sri Lanka's new Missing Persons Office and the Catholic Church

Church leaders have an opportunity to influence the draft legislation to establish this office and make a difference
Sri Lanka's new Missing Persons Office and the Catholic Church

Sri Lankan ethnic Tamil women in this file photo cry at the graves of their relatives who died in fighting in Mullaitivu where thousands died in the final days of the decades-long war that ended in 2009. (ucanews.com photo)

Published: June 28, 2016 07:28 AM GMT
Updated: June 28, 2016 10:40 AM GMT

Catholic priests are among the over 65,000 people who have been reported as disappeared in Sri Lanka. Included among that number are also many journalists, human rights activists, and the Vice Chancellor of Eastern University of Sri Lanka.

Father Jim Brown, a Tamil Catholic priest, disappeared on Aug. 20, 2006. He was last seen going into the navy controlled Allaipiddy area in the northern city of Jaffna. Wenceslaus Vimalathas, a lay associate who was with him, also disappeared.

Father Brown had tried to protect civilians during heavy fighting between the Sri Lankan army and Tamil rebels by offering them shelter in a church. It didn't work. Many civilians were killed and injured when the church was eventually attacked. Father Brown had pleaded with the navy to take the injured out of the fighting zone but was reportedly rebuffed.

Father Francis Joseph, another Tamil Catholic priest, also disappeared. He was last seen being taken away by the Sri Lankan Army in Mullaitivu on May 18, 2009, the last day of war.

He had brokered the surrender of some rebel Tamil leaders in return for assurances of their safety. But those leaders too disappeared and their Habeas Corpus cases have dragged on for several years in the courts. 

Till the late 1980s, most of those disappeared were Sinhalese. Since then, the majority have been Tamils. Muslims also have disappeared, including Pattani Razeek, a good friend of mine. Razeek was one of the few whose body was found.

Groups led by Catholic priests and nuns in the predominantly Tamil-Hindu areas in the North and East have been documenting disappearances, supporting families, and raising their voices against the crimes and the culture of impunity. But these are exceptions. Most church leaders have stayed silent. Why?

Those that have campaigned against the disappearances have faced intimidation, threats and arrest. A Catholic priest and myself were arrested in 2014 for investigating the disappearances. A few months later, a private discussion between affected families, activists and diplomats at a church-run center was disrupted by a mob led by Buddhist monks. The police refused to assist us.

Successive governments have set up numerous bodies to address the disappearances. Affected families and activists have engaged with them more out of desperation than good faith. But truth, justice, and reparations have been elusive. 

The latest government effort has been to establish an Office of Missing Persons (OMP). It was one of the significant commitments the government made when they co-sponsored the U.N. Human Rights Council resolution on Sri Lanka last October. But the development of the O.M.P has been shrouded in secrecy with very little consultation, despite promises made to the contrary.

Father Brown's distraught mother passed away without knowing what happened to her son, and his lonely father has told me that his only hope is to hear news of his son before he dies. Families whose breadwinners have disappeared need financial and material support, while others continue to demand justice. 

To fulfill such expectations, the OMP will have to be more victim centered, transparent, independent and a well-resourced office, which will also facilitate the rights of families to reparations and justice, along with the right to truth. There are still opportunities to do this by influencing the draft legislation to establish the OMP, which awaits parliamentary approval.

But this may only happen if families, activists and U.N. officials make strong demands. Church leaders should also join such efforts, demanding truth and justice for those like Fathers Brown and Joseph.

Ruki Fernando is a human rights activist and consultant to the Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission of the Conference of Major Religious Superiors in Sri Lanka. He is also a member of the Asia-Pacific chaplaincy team of the International Movement of Catholic Students.

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