Tracing the missing

Gathering forensic evidence from sites of mass graves for tracing purposes has not taken place over a considerable amount of time, and after years of various initiatives, Sri Lanka finally managed to set up an Office on Missing Persons (OMP) just a year ago, which now functions as an independent commission.

However, its foremost objective of tracing missing persons is yet to commence; although staff to several units were recruited just three months ago, unit experts and heads are yet to be recruited to commence operations.

The Budget 2018 allocated Rs. 1.4 billion to set up the OMP, whereas the Budget 2019 allocated a further Rs. 500 million to assist families of the missing, including families of soldiers and police personnel who went missing in action.

Moreover, in March this year, the Government assured that the OMP would be adequately resourced to support families of all missing persons islandwide, including the missing in action of the armed forces and the Police, who have obtained certificates of absence. The families were also to be provided Rs. 6,000 per month, until the Office for Reparations was established and their cases were resolved.

Furthermore, the families were to be given preferential access to relevant “Enterprise Sri Lanka” loan schemes and were required to join the livelihood programmes co-ordinated by the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR).

Currently, the complex process of gathering necessary information from the families of the missing is undertaken by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Sri Lanka, which also provides technical expertise to the OMP in setting up the functional units of the institute. The Sunday Morning spoke to both institutions to understand the challenges and the next steps of this long-overdue process.

Overcoming challenges

OMP Chairman Saliya Peiris PC, speaking about the challenges the Commission is facing in setting up these units, stated that the process of setting up an office in Sri Lanka is quite complex.

At first, the commissioners are appointed and they have to commence operations of the office, which involves planning the office, obtaining approval from the Government, obtaining approval from management services for the recruitment of staff, and preparing the schemes of recruitment.

“We received the management services approval to recruit permanent staff only in March this year. Up until then, we operated with temporary staff. Between April and July, we called for applications and shortlisted suitable persons to work in their respective divisions.”

Peiris stated that investigators to form the tracing unit and heads of various departments were yet to be recruited as the applicants did not match the criteria set out by the OMP during the recruitment process.

“Even when we were to select persons for the role of senior investigators, we faced challenges finding people who would agree to work for the government-approved salary.”

The OMP requested the Government to amend the salary scales for these positions in order to ease the recruitment process. In the meantime, the OMP has setup three out of 12 regional offices which are located in Matara, Mannar, and Jaffna.

When inquired about the objectives of setting up regional offices, Peiris clarified that these regional offices would assist in victim and family support and the officers that are appointed to these units will look into registering the families of the missing persons who have certificates of absence to obtain financial aid allocated by the Government.

Primary information

“There are some families that are now visiting these regional offices to get information on how to obtain a certificate of absence for their missing family member. So, this too is one of the preliminary processes of the tracing unit where the basic details are gathered from families to create a list of missing persons and the requirements of each family.”

Once the investigators are recruited, the OMP will also deploy investigators to the regional offices to obtain additional information from the families to commence the tracing process.

“Most often, people in bureaucracy don’t quite understand the requirement. Independent institutions must have greater autonomy and greater freedom to recruit.”

Compensation

The Public Relations Office of the Secretary to the Ministry of Defence, when contacted, stated that at present, the families of the soldiers that are missing in action are compensated under the same scheme that they compensate the families of soldiers that died in action.

“We provide the families with a certificate of absence, stating the date when the soldier/officer went missing and which mission he was assigned to. The tri-forces and the Police have the relevant documentation and lists of soldiers/officers that are missing in action. Furthermore, we have also encouraged families to open case files with the OMP, so they could get answers regarding the fate of their loved ones.”

Tracing the missing

In order to understand the process of tracing a missing person and how the families get involved in the process, we spoke to ICRC Forensic Co-ordinator to Sri Lanka Dina Jimenez, who explained the process and what the workflow looks like once the units are established.

“We at the ICRC support the State with the technical expertise of forensics so that the experts could effectively conduct their investigations. With tracing the missing too, the ICRC provides technical support to the OMP by facilitating peer exchange, so that specialists could visit other countries such as Cyprus, which have undergone similar situations, and know how they dealt with tracing their missing.”

The ICRC conducted a survey which led them to launch the accompaniment programme to address the needs of the families. The programme is ongoing.

While the foremost concern for the families is the need to know what happened to their relatives, they also have other needs like the need to for emotional support.

Family – an important tool

To identify the missing person, it is extremely important to have the families on board because they have information required in the technical process to identify the person, who could be alive or dead. The families and friends of the missing person have to provide information to the investigator, the forensics team, or the expert.

The team has to then collect all the information about the missing person, including their biological profile, social profile, cultural profile, and the history of the person, for documentation purposes.

“Then, the authorities have the obligation to search; if the person is dead, there is a process to search and then they recover the body. At this point, it is difficult to determine whether the recovered body is of an unidentified person.”

So, the tracers will have to collect all the information from the body – the same information collected from the missing person’s families such as age, weight, health condition, diseases, dental condition, clothing, distinctive features, etc., and once the information is collected, it will be compared with the information obtained from the families to establish whether the body is of a missing person or not.

The process needs to be accompanied by scientists and the families should be updated about its progress.

The later stage of the process is the handing over of the human remains to the families, but sometimes, it is not possible as the families could not be living in the same country or all surviving persons could have died by that time. So, the State should provide closure to the missing persons in a dignified manner.

Communication and co-ordination

In an ideal world, all processes should be under one institution and it will facilitate the communication between the institutions and the families of the missing persons. At times, it is extremely difficult to include the families in the process as there is no communication policy in place.

ICRC Sri Lanka stressed that the State should have appropriate capacities to do the work and provide answers to the families that come and inquire.

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