Sri Lanka to set up office to probe people missing in Tamil conflict

COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka will set up an office to independently investigate the cases of thousands of missing people, the government said on Wednesday, in a move to address alleged human rights violations during its long conflict with Tamil Tiger rebels.

The UN Human Rights Commission last year urged the government to probe disappearances including of people who were alleged to have been secretly abducted by state-backed groups and para military during the 26-year conflict which ended seven years ago.

Sri Lanka agreed last year to establish a credible judicial process involving foreign judges and prosecutors to investigate alleged war crimes during the conflict with Tamil rebels, in line with United Nations recommendations.

The move is a first step to dealing with conflict-related grievances, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Legislation will soon be presented to parliament to make that commitment a reality,” it said.

Tamil groups did not respond to calls for comment from Reuters.

The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) will help thousands of families of missing persons across Sri Lanka to discover the fate of their loved ones, and the circumstances under which they went missing, the foreign ministry said.

The OMP will have investigative powers and will probe people who went missing in the conflict and political unrest including “enforced” disappearances.

“This is extremely positive. But the challenge in the future is to ensure the law is implemented and educate the public and bureaucracy to cooperate the process,” said Jehan Perera of the National Peace Council, an independent advocacy group.

“No commissions have given the answer to what happened to the disappeared people. This office should tell the relatives of the missing people what exactly happened to them.”

Juan E. Mendez, a U.N. human right expert said this month that estimates of missing ranged from 16,000 to 22,000 pending cases of missing persons from the time of the conflict and its immediate aftermath.

A local investigating commission said in March it had received over 24,000 submissions of missing persons and was still assembling details of them.

Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government rejected the U.N. recommendations citing it wants to address the human rights concerns without any international pressure. Rajapaksa was unseated in January last year and become an opposition legislator after he lost his prime ministerial bid in August.

Reporting by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Richard Balmforth