By Paul Newman –
Sri Lanka has the dubious record of having the second largest number of cases of Enforced Disappearances. The International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism conducted a side event in the UN premises that brought victims amongst whom there was a Sinhalese and a Muslim belonging to the families of victims and a Tamil who tries to get justice for these victims.
The panelist’s spoke of their personal tragedies and that of those of the thousands who have disappeared, there were several commissions that were established to give recommendations on the thousands of pending cases. The final reports of these commissions were never made public. All the panelists wanted accountability. They had felt that the International community should ask for an International Investigation which was the only solution to the families of the aggrieved.
The panelists also spoke of how the Sri Lankan police did not want these people to take the issue to the UN and internationalize it, but is there any local recourse available was the question raised by the panelists.
It is a known fact that Fr.Francis and 58 others were taken into a bus as they surrendered to the army on the 18th of May 2009 and there are persons who have seen them, which was the last time these people were ever seen.
Under international law, a state commits an enforced disappearance when it takes a person into custody and denies holding them or disclosing their whereabouts. “Disappeared” persons are commonly subjected to torture or extrajudicial execution, and cause family members continued suffering.
An enforced disappearance is a continuing rights violation – it is ongoing until the fate or whereabouts of the person becomes known. In 2006 and 2007, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances recorded more new “disappearance” cases from Sri Lanka than from any other country in the world.
In 2009 many militants who were taken into custody after surrender and those who were taken from the Menik farm camps on suspicion of militant links are yet to return home. Many mothers, wives and sisters had handed over their loved ones to the army but there is no information available on their whereabouts.
In May 2009, the International Committee on Enforced Disappearances received more than 5,000 complaints. In many cases the families are not informed of the place of detention as they are unauthorized places.
In one of the cases a person who disappeared in 2006 resurfaced on the 29th of January 2013. The person does not know the different places of detention he was kept. In another case a person from Kelaniya who disappeared in 2006 was released on 6/11/2012. He was severely tortured during detention and upon release; he was sent to the rehabilitation centre and finally released.
Mr. Suresh Premachandran, a Tamil National Alliance(TNA) Member of Parliament (MP) from Jaffna who was one of the panelists felt that though Jaffna was not located in the theatre of war, in 2009, 540 people were abducted and nobody knows where they are. He accused the Government of not releasing any data or independent verification of their claims of releasing 12,000 ‘reformed militants’.
During the LLRC inquiry 3,000 women gave petitions on missing persons. The government appointed a military tribunal which inquired against allegation made on its own men on disappearance cases and presented their report to the defence secretary who later announced that there were no missing persons in Sri Lanka!
The MP alleged that Enforced Disappearances are common in North and East and many cases are unreported as the police refuse to record the complaints. One of the main reasons for Enforced Disappearances was the militarization of the Tamil homeland where 15 out of the 20 divisions were housed. A large number of soldiers were moving around in civilian attire. After the war, 15 new brigade head quarters were built on A9. The situation was so bad that even Pre-School sports events were monitored by the army.
The world needs to demand accountability for these disappearances, one of the few good recommendations by the LLRC was to start a Presidential inquiry in disappearances; unfortunately it has not happened so far. The security forces continue to enjoy impunity.
Mr.Premachandran feels that before it is too late the Government would do well to do away with the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which would go a long way in helping stop this humane problem. He also wants the demilitarization of the north and east and there should be independent international investigations into the alleged cases of disappearances.
Enforced Disappearance is the worst torture not just on the individual but on the family and the society of the individual. It causes immense damage to the disappeared person’s family’s psychology. The victim’s family undergoes the pain and agony of waiting in vain with a hope whether the person would come back or not, whether the person is alive or not.
It is a known fact that in Sri Lanka, the first to disappear were the Sinhala youth, then the Tamils, who’s turn comes next? The government has lots of questions to answer.
*Dr.Paul Newman from the 22nd UNHRC, Geneva, Switzerland.