News

Missing Persons’ Office chief quits, citing lack of ‘independence’

  • Shiraz Noordeen exclusively reveals OMP unable to mete out justice to victims
  • Justice Ministry denies intervention, says given funds sufficient for probes 

BY Pamodi Waravita

Office on Missing Persons (OMP) Commissioner Shiraz Noordeen has resigned from the OMP, stating that the OMP is unable to act independently to bring justice to victims. 

“I was appointed on 13 December 2021. I accepted the position later that month. I worked for about four months in the OMP. We went to Kilinochchi, Jaffna, Mullaitivu, and Batticaloa to meet people. Amnesty International records say that Sri Lanka has the second highest number of disappeared persons. I do not believe this,” he told The Morning yesterday (2).

“However, as there are many duplicates, if we do this properly, we can even save the name of the country. Sri Lanka has signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance. Thus, we have to send annual reports to them. 

“However, we have been listed as a non-compliance State as we have not sent reports since 2018. The third notice was sent to us in February 2021. I raised concerns about this to the OMP Board and stressed that we must report properly, as our efforts would not be recognised otherwise. 

“However, the Board responded differently to those concerns. The Board said that they can bring people from the Justice Ministry to the Board and I said that we cannot do that because we would lose our independence then.” 

Furthermore, he claimed that since the OMP has to rely on the Justice Ministry for approvals for all its tasks, there is little room for the OMP to function independently. 

“We also have to do everything through the Justice Ministry – where we go, and who goes. The Ministry has to then give us approval for these things, and most times, the approval is delayed or not given. My stance was that we do not need to send letters like that as the Office on Missing Persons (Establishment, Administration, and Discharge of Functions) Act, No. 14 of 2016 says that the OMP should be given adequate funds by the State and that those shall be provided as consolidated funds. That means that the funds are taken directly from the Treasury. 

“Prior to the present office, there was President’s Counsel (PC) Saliya Pieris as Chairman, who got funds directly from the Treasury. The Office for Reparations also gets funding directly from the consolidated funds. I told our Board that we need to do it independently, and since we are appointed due to some talent we have, we must use that properly,” said Noordeen. 

Moreover, he stressed on the need to build bridges with those working locally about these issues and to maintain trust with them. 

He stated: “Within these four months, I had questions about the work of the other Commissioners – whether they understood the Board papers and why they took decisions contrary to the Board papers. Thus, we cannot work there. If we try to do something, we get letters instructing us not to do it. There are Tamils, Muslims, Sinhalese, even Police and Army officers who have been victims. And if no justice is served, why take privileges and salaries from the OMP?”

Noordeen noted that the OMP, within about six months, has made roughly 350 inquiries. 

“I think that this OMP has done more than the previous one. But I made regulations for tracing that were not taken forward. I also made regulations about reporting but those were not taken forward. There were no policy decisions taken to take those forward,” claimed Noordeen.  

“I resigned from the OMP since the victims won’t be benefitted, as the Government of Sri Lanka has not provided the OMP with adequate resources to act independently. Furthermore, the OMP is unable to act independently due to the line Ministry’s interference with the OMP’s affairs, the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s failure to resolve OMP-related issues, and the incapacity of the present Board to uphold the OMP mandate,” Noordeen Tweeted on Sunday (1 May) night.

However, Justice Ministry Secretary M.M.P.K. Mayadunne, who serves under the line ministry to the OMP, speaking to The Morning yesterday, said that there has been no intervention into the OMP by the Ministry, other than the facilitation of the necessary approvals by the Cabinet of Ministers. 

“We have not intervened in any manner with regard to the OMP. We only facilitate necessary Cabinet approvals for the functioning of the OMP. It is obvious that the availability of funds for anything is at a minimum at the moment. But, there has been enough funding provided to the OMP to carry out the necessary investigations. We understand that it is difficult to hire a lot of staff at the moment, which is why we have advised to appoint committees of retired public officials and the like to carry out these investigations,” said Mayadunne.

According to Amnesty International, although Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest numbers of enforced disappearances, with a backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 disappearances since 1980, the authorities have failed to both protect and provide justice to families of the disappeared.

Last year, the Association of Relatives of the Disappeared – Northern and Eastern Provinces wrote to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet about the lack of faith they have in the current OMP, and requested her to ensure that an appropriate judicial mechanism is formulated to investigate the plight of missing persons in the country.

Furthermore, criticisms have been levelled, by many parties, at the current Government, for appointing former Police Chief Jayantha Wickramaratne as a Member of the OMP.

Earlier this year, the Cabinet approved the paper submitted by Justice Minister M.U.M. Ali Sabry PC to award a one time grant of Rs. 100,000 to the closest relative of a missing person and has recommended that the Registrar General’s Department issue a death certificate or a missing person’s certificate, accordingly.