Seeking justice for the enforced disappearances in SriLanka

With a backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 alleged enforced disappearances since the late 1980s, of the countries that the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances deals with, Sri Lanka has the second highest number of enforced disappearances. Most of these disappeared people belong to the Tamil ethnic group, and they are believed to have been enforcedly disappeared by state actors at the time when Mahinda Rajapaksa was President (2005-2015) and his brother Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Defence Secretary. The authorities have also failed to protect witnesses and families seeking justice, who receive threats of retaliation, and failed to hold those suspected of criminal responsibility accountable.

In addition to this, Sri Lanka stands out as the only country in the world where babies as young as eight months old have been enforcedly disappeared by the Government. All these babies are from the Tamil ethnic group. Despite numerous appeals to the President and Prime Minister, the Sri Lankan government is refusing to provide any details on these enforcedly disappeared babies. Families of the disappeared children have been peacefully protesting for years, but the government has always imposed a great deal of intimidation and pressure on them. Last August, a large number of graves was discovered in Sri Lanka’s Mannar area. It was reported that around 300 bodies were dumped in the grave and up to 23 of them could be children below the age of 12. The discovery of the mass graves has further reinforced the demands for justice on the island.

Over the past few years, Sri Lanka has made minimal progress on the issue of enforced disappearances with its criminalization in March 2018, thereby giving partial effect to its obligations under the International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and operationalizing the Office on Missing Persons (OMP). While some cases of enforced disappearances are under investigation, the Sri Lankan government, on many occasions, has appointed individuals suspected of crimes under international law into positions of power, such as the current army chief, Gen. Shavendra Silva, and the Defense Secretary, Gen. Kamal Gunaratne. In this way, it has clearly demonstrated its indifference towards the calls of conflict victims.

The 15th of November 2019 marked 1000 days since family members of missing persons from war-ravaged North and East of Sri Lanka started protesting against these disappearances. The continuous roadside protests, held in five key locations across the island, Kilinochi, Mullaitivu, Tricomalee, Vavuniya and Maruthankarn, started in January 2017. Those protesting have been seeking information regarding their loved ones. Nevertheless, their calls for answers have fallen on deaf ears. On the occasion of the International Children’s Day, on October 1, 2020, the families of the disappeared children organized protests across the North East, where most of the Tamil population lives, urging the Sri Lankan government to deliver information on the whereabouts of their children, many of whom were last seen in Sri Lankan military custody. During the demonstrations, protestors declared that they would commemorate the International Children’s Day as a “day of sorrow” as after 11 years, the government still refuses to deliver justice to them. In Mullaitivu, the relatives of the disappeared children engaged in an attention-grabbing protest with the raising of black flags.

As preparations for the protest were being made the night before (September 30th), two military officials threatened the head of the Mullaitivu Missing Persons Association, Mariyasuresh Easwary, at her house and demanded information about the protest. A large number of investigators visited the families and took photos and videos, intimidating and threatening the protestors. On August 30, Tamil relatives of the disappeared rallied across the North East to mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Despite the heavy presence of the Sri Lankan Police, hundreds of protestors marched through Jaffna carrying placards that read sentences such as “We are searching with tears our loved ones for more than ten years those who were snatched in front of us”, or “How can death certificates being issued for people handed over alive?”.

In Mullaitivu, the protestors waved banners saying “An international impartial inquiry is needed to find the missing”, “Abolish the Prevention of Terrorism Act”, “An international investigation should be conducted through the International Criminal Court”. Similarly, protestors marched through Batticaloa despite a court order imposed by the Sri Lankan police. On March 8, protestors holding placards with messages written in Tamil, English and Sinhala marched from Selvapuram to the Mullaitivu district. One of the powerful posters read “If the answers to hour children handed over to the military are death certificates, who are the killers?” On February 14, many families of the disappeared marked the day as “Missing Lovers Day,” in remembrance of their loved ones. Hundreds of people gathered in Colombo to commemorate their missing family members, and demanded justice, truth and reparation by marching towards the offices of the Prime Minister and of the President.

Thousands of civilians went missing towards the end of the civil war. When Maithripala Sirisena defeated Mahinda Rajapaksa in the 2015 elections, a glimmer of hope arose for the families of the disappeared. For the first time, Sirisena admitted that 65,000 people were forcibly disappeared during the civil war. He also promised to issue a certificate to the families that would allow them to access government welfare programs, as well as manage the property of their missing relatives. In 2015, the government co-sponsored the landmark UN Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1, to promote accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. And in 2018, Sirisena created the Office of Missing Persons, that was supposed to investigate and determine the fate of every disappeared person in Sri Lanka.

But with the return of the Rajapaksas to power in November 2019, the expectations of those seeking justice for their loved ones have rapidly dropped again. In January 2020, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa stated that the “missing persons are actually dead,” without providing any basis for this broad-brush conclusion and which was condemned by victim groups, and families of the disappeared. In February 2020, the Sri Lankan government withdrew from its UN commitments, re-installing a climate of fear for the families of the victims of enforced disappearances, who have observed an increase in threats and intimidation for making complains or pursuing justice in recent months.

Ahead of the 45th session of the Human Rights Council last month, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances presented its report regarding the current situation in Sri Lanka. The report highlighted that “the relatives of forcibly disappeared individuals as well as others such as witnesses and defence counsels should be protected against any form of intimidation, harassment or ill-treatment.” Furthermore, as outlined in the International Convention on Disappearances, “the Government has the duty to guarantee the rights to form and participate freely in organizations and associations concerned with attempting to establish the circumstances of enforced disappearances and the fate of disappeared persons and to assist victims of enforced disappearances.”

Given Sri Lanka’s long history of enforced disappearance, it is of vital importance that the government abides to its international obligations and that it is prevented from simply dismissing past cases.

This piece is written by GHRD intern Chiara Menghetti. 

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