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3.5 The Human Rights Commission (HRC)

A Human Rights Commission (HRC) was created under the PA government by the Human Rights Commission Act No. 21 of 1996; it began functioning in 1997. With regard to the prevention of disappearances, amongst other powers, the HRC can monitor the welfare of persons taken to custody by the police or security forces, a function which it took over from the HRTF, which was disbanded in 1998 when the HRC had been created. Upon receiving a complaint, the HRC can visit the person at the place of detention. If the place of detention is not known and if there is evidence of arrest, the HRC has the power to ask the arresting authority for the place of detention, so that it can visit and look after his welfare.

The existence of a body that can visit detainees is an important safeguard against torture and disappearance. However, the HRC has been unable to perform this task adequately because it does not have adequate staff. Further, the law does not empower the HRC to give binding decisions; it can only make recommendations. In the event that such recommendations are not complied with, the HRC is empowered to make a full report of the facts to the President, who can place the report before the Parliament. However, this procedure does not appear to have been followed so far.

The HRC has been criticised by some human rights activists for being a ‘lion without teeth’; it has not fulfilled the hopes that the creation of such an institution inspired. Those who are bent on violating the rights of detainees can carry on regardless of the HRC.

The HRC was unable to provide information on the number of complaints of disappearances it had received during 2000. Given Sri Lanka’s horrific record of disappearances, it is astonishing that the HRC fails to distinguish in its records between reports of ‘missing people’ and reports of people who may have disappeared in custody.  The only figure that the HRC could provide in response to this request was that during year 2000, 1,146 persons had been reported to the Commission as missing, of whom 912 had been traced. Yet HRC could not say whether the remaining 234 could be categorised as ‘disappeared’. Repeated requests for a reply failed to get any response from HRC.  Nor was it possible to find out from their records  whether any of the 912 people who had been traced had experienced periods of unacknowledged detention.

The HRC alone cannot be blamed for its failings. Although it was expected that the HRC would act as an independent body, in practice it continues as an appendage of the Presidential Secretariat and has not been provided with adequate resources. For example, the HRC has to get approval from the Presidential Secretariat for cadre provisions and other necessities. It was reported sometime ago that a directive had been sent by the Secretary to the President to the HRC to close down some of its branch offices, in order to cut down expenditure. The HRC would have been far more effective if it had been created as a truly independent body; indeed, the Human Rights Commission Act should be amended accordingly.                   


Posted on 2003-06-15


Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
Asian Human Rights Commission

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