19 May, 2022


Let’s Lockdown The Pandemic Of Enforced Disappearances: Continuous Struggle For Justice

By Mareen Nilashani and Asanka Aberathne

On the 6th of February 2007, the United Nations adopted the “International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances”. The convention foregrounds the need to ensure justice for victims, and the responsibility of States for guarantees of non-recurrence for disappearances which is a crime against humanity. The UN has declared 30th August as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, to avert the recurrence of enforced disappearances, and remind States of their duty to disclose the truth and ensure justice. Across the world, various initiatives are held to commemorate the disappeared. In Sri Lanka the Office on Missing Persons has declared 27th October as the national day to commemorate the disappeared, as per its report issued in 2018. However, since 1991 to date, every year various commemorations have been held by civil society organizations together with family members of missing persons. Annual commemorations have been held at the monument of the disappeared in Raddoluwa, Seeduwa. This year due to the lockdown of areas amidst the prevalence of COVID-19 pandemic, family members of the disappeared engaged in commemorations at their homes. Thus, this year’s memorial was most challenging. The COVID-19 epidemic has moved beyond a community health emergency, and it has now transformed into a socio-economic crisis. In addition to this, the current government is undermining the real issues of the people. There have been several attempts including the covering up of the truth to undermine the process of justice for the victims’ families. In the face of this challenge, family members of the disappeared held their 30th anniversary celebrations. Details and highlights of the event can be found on the Families of the Disappeared (FOD) Facebook page. FOD also organized an online discussion with civil society representatives, human rights activists, on the current challenges to pursuing truth and justice for disappearances. This year’s 30th commemoration, during most difficult times, is a historical milestone in the continuous struggle for truth, justice and guarantees of non-recurrence, and insistence to those in power. This article is a review of this historic commemoration.

History of Enforced Disappearances in Sri Lanka

“I went to each and every camp. Yet, to date there is no information about my son. My husband drank poison and committed suicide because of his grief over my son.” laments Dayawathi Amma, from Galle. This is yet another heart-breaking story. “If someone is keeping my father, please release him. I can’t go to school. It is only if my father returns, that I will go back to school.”, expressed a daughter we met in Vavuniya. How many more mothers, fathers and children are there spread across this country, sans North, South divisions, who are searching for their loved ones? There are no Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim or other differences to the plight that has befallen these families, be it Dayawathis from Galle, Rajendranis from Vavuniya, Riyas from Matale, or Parameshwari from Batticaloa. They are all on the same battlefield shedding tears till they find the truth and obtain justice for their loved ones. For how much longer will the government turn a deaf ear to their pleas? 

Sri Lanka has a long and cruel history of enforced disappearances. According to the United Nations, Sri Lanka is only second to Iraq in the number of those disappeared. Allegations of disappearances first came to light during the 1971 insurrection. Specific details of enforced disappearances that occurred during the government of Sirimavo Bandaranaike are not available to date. The second instance of recorded enforced occurred in 1983 during the period now known as Black July. In 1989 we saw the third instance of disappearances and killings occurring with state patronage during the struggle of the patriotic peoples’ movement. Further, allegations have been made against both the State and the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Ealam ( LTTE) of war crimes and enforced disappearances throughout the 30-year civil war. The rebels and their relatives who surrendered to the security forces throughout the conflict and the final stages of the war have disappeared. Most of the enforced disappearances that occurred during the past with state patronage is a continuous crime. With the end of the war, although most had hopes and aspirations for peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka, it wasn’t a reality. Establishing the fact that the mere end of war is not peace, journalists, civil society activists who called  for freedoms and rights were subjected to cruel, enforced disappearances during the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime. It is this same Mahinda Rajapaksa, who was then Member of Parliament, who represented civil society and filed complaints to the Geneva Human Rights Council during the 1989 southern insurrection. Rajapaksa who made representations at the international level to pressurize the Sri Lankan government for guarantees of non-recurrence of enforced disappearances, after 30 years is blamed for disappearances, adduction’s and killings of political opponents and any dissenting voices.

The 30-year struggle

One of the demands by family members of the disappeared of 1989 and human rights organizations has been for an independent mechanism to inquire into enforced disappearances. The Tamil community who were victims of the ethnic conflict have also been demanding for an international mechanism since 2012. It emphasized the Sri Lankan government’s national responsibility and obligations to the international community to investigate disappearances within Sri Lanka. As a result of the advocacy to investigate enforced disappearances, President Chandrika Kumaratunga appointed a Presidential Commission in 1995. The commission issued death certificates together with compensation for families of victims, of whom there was no trace. However, some families refused to accept that there was no trace of their loved ones, didn’t amount to them not being alive. Tamil victim families did not have trust in a state instituted mechanisms and demanded an international inquiry from the United Nations. As a result, the UN Human Rights Council adopted resolution 30/1, co-sponsored by the Sri Lankan government. It included an Office on Missing Persons, special courts, an Office on Reparations, and important measures for guarantees of non-recurrence. By co-sponsoring the 30/1 resolution, Sri Lanka assured the international community to establish local mechanisms to implement these proposals. However, it came to a halt due to the opposition by Sinhala Buddhist nationalist political forces. The current regime has withdrawn from the co-sponsorship of the 30/1 resolution. 

Challenges of the Struggle and Expansion of Militarization

The granting of presidential pardons to perpetrators of enforced disappearances or the free roaming of criminals despite the availability of sufficient evidence, is a serious injustice to victims. Awarding of high-level government posts to military officers who are linked to war crimes is one of the militarization strategies of the Rajapaksas. On 18th August 2019, the United Nations issued a statement noting that the appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, as Commander of the Army, is a slap in the face of victims of war. There are a number of allegations of war crimes, including disappearances and killing of rebels and their loved ones who surrendered during the last stages of the war, against Shavendra Silva, who was commander during the time. The Rajapaksa regime which came into power on a Sinhala Buddhist Nationalist base, has indicated their intent to reject proposals to establish a commission for truth, reconciliation and non-recurrence. The proposal to establish a special court that was agreed during the good governance government, which was not implemented, is also being eluded by the Rajapaksa regime on the pretext of disgracing war heroes. 

Even though the Office on Missing Persons was established in 2017, the expected results were not achieved. Its organizational objectives were not met due to barriers for independent functioning, and given the lack of real political will. The current military regime that came into power on a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist base, has a contrary stand for the investigation of enforced disappearances, and hence continue to shirk the obligation of truth and justice. During this year’s annual commemoration, the family members of the disappeared vowed that they will continue their struggle to seek truth and justice, despite a multitude of challenges. 

*Mareen Nilashani – Families of the Disappeared

*Asanka Aberathne – Centre for the Study of Human Rights, University of Peradeniya

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Latest comments

  • 9

    “On 18th August 2019, the United Nations issued a statement noting that the appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva, as Commander of the Army, is a slap in the face of victims of war.”

    The problem is UN believes what Yasmin Sooka who is working for Tamil Diaspora says.
    There are allegations against Shavendra Silva cooked up by Tamil Diaspora and Yasmin Sooka but they have failed to provide concrete evidences to support their charges.
    Some Tamils who have been listed as missing may be living in foreign countries under new identities. There is no way to check such cases.
    LTTE also killed a large number of Tamils. Who can provide information on those people?

    • 4

      A statement released by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that Silva and his immediate family are now “are ineligible for entry into the United States”.

      “The allegations of gross human rights violations against Shavendra Silva, documented by the United Nations and other organizations, are serious and credible,” said Pompeo.

      “His designation underscores the importance we place on human rights in Sri Lanka and globally, our concern over impunity for human rights violations and abuses, as well as our support for promoting accountability for those who engage in such acts. We urge the Sri Lankan government to promote human rights, hold accountable individuals responsible for war crimes and human rights violations, advance security sector reform, and uphold its other commitments to pursue justice and reconciliation.”

  • 14

    Hello Mareen & Asanka
    Its heartening to see, you two individuals bringing to light the above taboo subjects among the higher echelon of power in SL
    In a plural society such as ours to foster harmony and goodwill, there must be apparatus to refer the concerns of ordinary citizens. Ordinary, you may ask why ,or what ORDINARY?
    Yes you have every reason to query. Ordinary , I refer to the 99.999% of the populous. As opposed to the privileged few;
    Meaning rest 00.001 %
    How are we as a nation resolve these burning issues, is the question not only for lawmakers, enforcers or even the judiciary
    Its also the responsibility of civil
    Unless we solve these niggling, errksome and somewhat thorney issues, there won’t be meaningful peace in our land of Dharma

    Ratnam Nadarajah

  • 8

    Thanks, Mareen & Asanka,
    You have written well and identified yourselves clearly.
    The same is true of Yasmin Sooka; there is a Wikipedia entry for her, and photographs. We know all about her.
    The people who “cook things up” are those like Eagle Eye who refuse to reveal their identities, despite my repeated requests. His strategy is to ask me to counter the “facts and arguments” that he has put forward.
    Let other readers judge for themselves the “concrete evidences (sic)” put forward by Eagle Eye.
    “Ratnam Nadarajah”, on the other hand, is a real identity. Ask how I know, and I will tell you!
    Panini Edirisinhe of Bandarawela (NIC 48 3111 444V) aka Sinhala_Man

    • 6

      Mr. Panini Edirisinhe,
      Why the hell you wants to know who “Eagle Eye” is.
      What authority do you have to “repeat requests” “to reveal their identities” – Who do you think you are….?
      Do you really think anyone care about your “NIC number” or “Where you live” except few idiots like eLM who are trying keep you in “Murunga Aththe” and laugh at your back…..?
      Do you personally know who Tony is…..?
      Do you personally know who Sugandh is…..?
      Do you personally know who
      leelagemalli (eLM) is…..?
      Do you personally know who Simon is…..?
      Do you personally know who Mallaiyuran is…..?
      Do you personally know who sitrep24 is…..?
      Do you personally know who Captain Morgan is…..?
      Do you personally know who Native Vedda is…..?
      Do you personally know who Rajash is…..?
      Do you personally know who Ajay is…..?
      Do you want’s me to mention all the idiot’s names posting anti Sinhalese and anti MR/GR comments under pseudonym.
      Do you personally know all of them…..?
      “Eagle Eye” have all the rights to comment under any name he chose….. Like everyone else….
      The people who “cook things up” are those like “Whole Bull” who create untrue issues to cater their NGOs and minority manipulators.

      • 5

        It is not necessary to have the bio-data of ‘Eagle Eye’ but it will be prudent to know his whereabouts- Whether he is flying in the SKY or hiding in a Ponthu. This may help to assess his personality and decide whether it will be worthwhile replying to his comments as he continues to harp on race and religion and pounce on religions other than Buddhism. Forgive him lord Buddha.

      • 0

        S. C. Pasqual & Eagle Eye,
        I think that Kanapathy Varunan has put it better than I could have. We don’t exactly need your bio-data but we do care whether the country is fed nonsense by people like you, or whether they read statements that make sense.
        “The country?” – I know that readers mustn’t delude themselves about their importance.
        You are quite right; I don’t know the identity of any of those whom you have named. On the other hand, I find that what they say, makes sense to me. Knowing who they are would help us to establish the truth in many matters, but those people may have reasons of their own for remaining incognito.
        The problem for me is that the two of you say outrageous things. To me, they seem designed to sow discord. Nobody need grant me authority to make “requests”. You don’t have to respond, but why do they rile you so much? To me, the reason appears to be that many others draw certain conclusions from the derangement/ depravity that you display.
        You needn’t be interested in my identity, but I think it helps many to establish my reliability.
        You needn’t agree with me. Unfortunately for you, most seem to agree with me.

  • 7

    Only Sinhala disappearances are genuine. There are many Tamils in the West with new identities.

    • 3

      Can you point out a few with New Identities please. Kamala Harris?

  • 9

    Eternally grateful for the work that Mareen Nilashani and Asanka Aberathne, and their likes endeavour across the globe to give their voice for the missing!

    In solidarity with all those communities that have faced the brutality of state-run terror here at home and abroad.

  • 3

    Blaming all disappearances on the military is wrong. An anti-state or anti-military approach will not go anywhere. You must be objective. It is only natural to have a significant number of disappeared persons during a long war. A large number of disappeared persons may be living in other countries or have died trying. The government is not responsible unless the government deliberately arranged it to eliminate them.

    • 0

      The problem, dear GATAM, is that Gota & his cohorts deny that no military guy ever went berserk. Some conflicts appear to be inevitable. Don’t you agree that we must minimise them?
      Tell me, isn’t the War over? Wasn’t it on the basis of two “Great Victories” that the SLPP won elections in 2019 and 2020? Isn’t it objective for us to want investigations as impartial as possible?
      I’m sorry, it seems to me that the government deliberately eliminated Wijeweera, Prabhkaran, and Makandure Madush. Three very different people, but each being in some ways unsavoury. It is meaningless for me to list all the innocents, about whose disappearances there is credible evidence.
      Many Sri Lankans want an end to this endless cycle of violence. Tell me, do you think that might is always right? Over many millennia haven’t countless humans constructed a system of morality, invented many religions. I don’t see the religions as objective, but we can have consistency within the moral sphere. Discussing it needn’t be either harrowing or tortuous.

  • 2

    Wrong comparison and nonsense! Allied forces including Australia are not supposed to be in Afghanistan in the first place. They went looking for BinLanden in Afghanistan, but was found and killed in Pakistan years ago. And they have changed their original objective and are STILL there by dragging on “war on terror”. No end in sight.
    Have they found WMD in Iraq YET??????
    Other western troops have also been accused of all kinds of crimes. But their governments are protecting them.
    The situation in Sri Lanka is completely different. Sri Lankan war heroes fought in their own mother land to thwart the attempted invasion of parts of Sri Lanka by India created-trained-armed Indian LTTE Tamil terrorists.
    The bogus accusations have been made by bitter looser LTTE terrorists and their backers against war heroes. Even with their own choice of judges, LTTE and their backers are unable to go to court due to their recruitment of child soldiers, suicide b*mbers, utter barbaric attacks on innocent Sinhalese, drug smuggling, human smuggling, money laundering, etc, etc, etc.
    If you don’t want war crimes, then don’t start wars. Simple as that.

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