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