The Struggle for Right to Information in Sri Lanka: Is it Leaving Victims Behind?
Sri Lanka is on the brink of a historic moment. Following a long struggle spanning over a decade, a Bill on the Right to Information (RTI) was tabled in the Sri Lankan parliament on 24 March 2016. The current version of the Bill has been hailed as one of the best in the world. The Sri Lankan public and civil society are thus keen to see its passage. However, as explained in this article, the new law appears to disregard the critical absence of information concerning victims of enforced disappearances.
Once enacted, the new RTI law will enable citizens to access information held by public authorities. Any citizen could submit an RTI request to the relevant authority and receive information free of charge. Moreover, an information request cannot be refused if the public interest in the disclosure outweighs any perceived harm. The new law thus promises to advance public accountability and combat corruption—two major platforms on which the current government was elected.
Meanwhile, another protracted struggle for information continues to take place in Sri Lanka. Thousands of families have endured indescribable grief and indignity throughout the country’s history of enforced disappearances. An insurrection in Sri Lanka’s south during the late 1980s saw the disappearance of thousands of people. The recently concluded civil war in the north and east similarly witnessed the disappearance of thousands more. In the latter case, many disappeared after surrendering to security forces. A presidential commission of inquiry appointed in 2013 received over 24,000 complaints on missing persons, 5,000 of which were made by the families of military personnel missing in action. If there is one experience that tragically unites Sri Lankans across ethnicity and geography, it is the trauma of not knowing the whereabouts of a missing relative.
Despite its obvious merits, the current RTI Bill is unconscious of the deep conceptual relevance of RTI to the issue of enforced disappearance. Oblivious to this relevance, section 25(3) of the Bill provides: ‘Where the request for information concerns the life and personal liberty of the citizen making such request, the response to it shall be made within forty-eight hours’ (emphasis added). Thus a citizen can seek an expedited response to an information request only if it applies to her own life and liberty. But this right does not extend to information that concerns the life and liberty of someone else—a missing relative perhaps.
Cynics might insist that in any event a standard RTI request is unlikely to help a family obtain information on a missing relative. Instead, an Office on Missing Persons, once established, could provide such information. Yet, should we not feel some discomfort with the fact that Sri Lanka’s national discourse on RTI fails to engage the community that needs this right the most? Sri Lanka’s RTI campaign has carefully avoided an association with enforced disappearances—perhaps out of a sense of political expediency. Linking the campaign to a deeply contentious issue may have ultimately undermined it. Yet can a campaign that seeks to overcome a culture of secrecy disregard one of the most infamous ‘secrets’ in the country? The irony of failing to invite such introspection is not lost on this RTI advocate.
The families of those missing are accustomed to being pushed to the margins. The total absence of public spaces to commemorate the disappeared certainly reflects such marginalisation. Despite repeated calls for public memorials, these families have only an unofficial site on the wayside in Seeduwa—a small town located a few miles from Colombo—to remember their missing loved ones. They will not be surprised by the current RTI Bill’s insensitivity to their cause. It is just a cruel reminder of their reality.
Nevertheless, it is not too late to restore the integrity of the national discourse on RTI in Sri Lanka. The Bill is now in the hands of parliamentarians. They can still move to revise section 25(3) of the Bill to ensure that there is an expedited response to requests concerning the life and liberty of any person, and not merely of the applicant. RTI advocates must lobby this revision, which at least acknowledges the relevance of the disappeared to Sri Lanka’s demand for RTI. Such acknowledgement could finally end the deep disconnect between the clarion call for more information and the lived experience of those in most need of it.