Enforced Disappearances in Sri Lanka

relatives of the missing srilanka tamils

According to Article 7, paragraph 2(i) of the Rome Statute[1], an Enforced disappearance is defined as “…the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time”.

Victims of human rights violations in the context of the war and its aftermath, bravely continuing their quest for answers, as well as organizations working on enforced disappearances, now face a new dimension of rights violations. This time the state actors are interfering with their freedom of peaceful assembly, expression and association as well as their right to liberty and security of person, including the protection against arbitrary detention.

“The situation of cases of disappearance is extremely vulnerable… The government’s attitude is that there were no disappearances.” – Sandya Eknaligoda, wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda

“It’s like we’ve given our children to the alligators. What happened to our kids who were alive at the point we handed them over to government custody?” – Victim family member from Kilinochchi

In May 2022, families, mostly elderly mothers and fathers  of the disappeared in northern Sri Lanka marked five years [1915] days of continuous protests demanding truth and justice, braving the hot sun, dust rain and winds. So far more than 115 protesters have died without knowing the whereabouts of their loved ones.  Despite countless domestic mechanisms, the Sri Lankan authorities have repeatedly failed to provide them answers and justice for what constitutes a crime under international law and a serious international human rights violation.

The Sri Lankan government has been keen to show the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) member states that domestic mechanisms such as the Office on Missing Persons (OMP) are reliable, functional, willing and are dedicated to addressing international concerns and commitments along the lines of victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparations. Research conducted by Amnesty International shows that this is an inaccurate depiction of ground realities: of the State’s attitude and response to the issues of victims of enforced disappearances.

Human Rights Watch said that Sri Lanka’s emergency laws, which grant the security forces sweeping powers to arbitrarily arrest and detain people without being held to account, have facilitated enforced disappearances. “So long as soldiers and police can commit ‘disappearances’ with impunity, this horrific crime will continue,” said Pearson.

The 241-page report, Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for ‘Disappearances’ and Abductions in Sri Lanka,” documents 99 of the several hundred cases reported, and examines the Sri Lankan government’s response, which to date has been grossly inadequate. 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.

Sri Lankan security forces and intelligence agencies have intensified surveillance and threats against families of victims of enforced disappearance and activists supporting them since Gotabaya Rajapaksa became president in November 2019, The Sri Lankan government should fulfill its commitments to the United Nations Human Rights Council to strengthen efforts to locate the “disappeared” and bring those responsible to justice.

KUMARATHASAN RASINGAM  –  Secretary, Tamil Canadian Elders for Human Rights Org.

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