Sri Lanka has appointed commissioners to a special panel tasked with investigating war-era disappearances, three years after President Maithripala Sirisena was elected promising justice for victims of the island’s bloody ethnic conflict.
The Office of Missing Persons was officially launched Wednesday by Sirisena, who has faced international censure for repeated delays in probing atrocities by troops and Tamil rebels during the decades-long civil war.
Sri Lanka narrowly avoided sanctions when Sirisena came to power in January 2015 pledging investigations into war-time abuses, which the previous regime refused to even acknowledge.
Parliament agreed two years ago to the first steps toward reconciling its war-era past — tracing about 20,000 people who went missing during 37 years of fighting.
But the process stalled amid resistance from the army and Sirisena’s own coalition, which has been plagued by infighting in recent times.
“The OMP is tasked with determining the status of all missing persons in Sri Lanka and is the first pillar of the transitional justice mechanisms,” the government said in a statement.
The panel has the power to recommend compensation and clear the way for next of kin to take legal action against those responsible for the disappearance of their loved ones.
The government appointed seven commissioners to the panel, which will be headed by senior lawyer Saliya Peiris.
It gave no explanation for the two-year delay in appointing commissioners but the announcement comes ahead of a UN Human Rights Council session in Geneva where Sri Lanka’s rights record is to be discussed.
The council has in the past described Sri Lanka’s efforts at transitional justice as at a “virtual standstill” nearly a decade after the end of a war which claimed over 100,000 lives.
Two years ago Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe told members of the ethnic Tamil minority that the thousands still missing may be dead.
Sri Lankan forces were accused of killing up to 40,000 Tamil civilians during the final months of the war while defeating separatist Tamil Tiger guerrillas who fought for independence.
International rights groups have called for the prosecution of both the military as well as the Tigers, who were known for their trademark suicide bombings and child soldiers.
Sirisena’s predecessor Mahinda Rajapakse, who brutally crushed the Tamil movement to end the war in 2009, had resisted international pressure to probe alleged war crimes.
Sirisena has said he was willing to investigate specific allegations of wrongdoing but maintains he will allow only a domestic inquiry and oppose any foreign investigation.