Sri Lanka’s Wavering Commitment to Accountability for Enforced Disappearances



The Unanswered Questions of Victims

Enforced disappearances continue to affect hundreds of thousands of people around the world. The 2006 International Convention for the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearance, now ratified or signed by 107 States, has spurred growing awareness of this issue, an increase in legislation criminalizing the practice, and mechanisms for the search of those disappeared. But in many countries, there are still unfulfilled promises, and the passage of time does not erase the intense suffering and anguish of those who do not know what happened to their loved ones.

“I want to know where he is, but also why did they do this to him” is a call that has been heard from all sides of Sri Lanka’s deep ethnic divides. Successive episodes of armed conflict and political repression have left deep scars in Sri Lankan society and victims, who, despite their invisibility, stubbornly demand truth, acknowledgment, and justice.

The civil war, in which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought the Sri Lankan armed forces from 1983 until their defeat in 2009, was marked by tens of thousands of enforced disappearances. The surviving family members who advocate for answers today include Tamil mothers and wives whose children and spouses were detained by security forces; the families who accompanied relatives who surrendered to military-run rehabilitation camps at the end of the war; and Muslim women whose loved ones were targeted by the LTTE, the army, or the police. The voices demanding the truth about the disappeared also include Sinhala women whose sons and husbands were taken by the police during the repression and uprising of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (People's Liberation Front, or JVP) in the early 1970’s and the late 1980’s.

The hopes of these victims reached a peak in 2015, when President Maithripala Sirisena was elected on a centrist platform and a commitment to truth, justice, and reconciliation. Later that year, the Sri Lankan government agreed to a UN Human Rights Council resolution that offered a roadmap for the search for the missing and forcibly disappeared. To the dismay of many, however, the government has done little since to implement these commitments and to take the opinions of victims seriously.

Fragmented Communities in Sri Lanka

The Office of Missing Persons (OMP), the only part of the roadmap that has been established, became operational only in February of this year. Unfortunately, affected communities are fragmented and disagree over whether the OMP can bring them the truth about the fate of their loved ones, or if families of the disappeared should even interact with the office.

The political and ethnic divisions in Sri Lanka are a maze that make the advancement of truth and accountability difficult. Victims who stand up for their rights are labelled by their ethnic or religious identities. Tamil families of the disappeared are ignored by the Sinhalese majority, who perceive them as part of a nationalist Tamil struggle that brought about the civil war. Sinhalese nationalists dismiss any demand for accountability as an attack on war heroes who defeated the LTTE and they disregard the demands of Sinhalese families of the disappeared. These families are conversely ignored by Tamils who define their victimization as part of their quest for self-determination. Within this context of competing nationalistic identities, those whose sons were forcefully recruited or disappeared by the LTTE do not have a place to seek truth and justice. And Muslim victims, targeted by both sides, feel marginalized and ignored.

Yet no matter their ethnicity, family members of the disappeared echo the same demands.

Women who accompanied their husbands or children to surrender at military bases after the LTTE’s defeat in 2009 are still waiting to know whether their husbands are alive or dead. This uncertainty, central for understanding the pervasive effects of enforced disappearances, has been described as “ambiguous loss,” or “frozen, interrupted, or complicated grief.” Unlike those whose family members were killed outright during the conflict, relatives of the disappeared are deprived of certainty and the remains of their loved ones. In many countries, women often feel particularly crippled by the inability to adequately mourn or perform grieving rituals. Lebanese women profiled in ICTJ’s report, The Disappeared and the Invisible, reported that they had to internalize their grief and “become strong like a man.”

For 500 days, Sri Lankan women protesting in the streets of Kilinochchi demanded, “Give us the list of those who surrendered.” The government has denied having such lists, or the existence of secret detention facilities where prisoners could still be kept, answers that do not appease the victims.

A Sinahla mother of a teenager who was disappeared during the JVP uprisings in the late 1980s lamented, “They cannot identify him at least to know where he is, to be able to mark the location and to build a memorial to remember him and hold funeral rites.” The victims, mostly women, are asking for both knowledge and acknowledgment.

The Office of Missing Persons

The hope that the OMP has sparked is fragile. The office has inherited a legacy of unfulfilled promises made by previous commissions. The last of these mechanisms, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Complaints of Abductions and Disappearances, was created in 2013 and received approximately 23,000 complaints. In 2015, it delivered its report without providing specific clarification on the disappeared.

In this context, the OMP has started a series of consultations around the country. The willingness of the OMP’s members to listen and engage, even with those protesting outside these gatherings, can be contrasted with the resistant attitude families of the disappeared historically encountered when making their demands to government officials.

There are clear steps the OMP could take to build trust and credibility with survivors. The OMP should establish offices in different regions of the country, staffed by competent people who speak the local language and are committed to listening to and taking them seriously. To continue the dialogue, the OMP should also provide mechanisms for victims or their representatives to engage with it and its local offices directly.

During these consultations, many have expressed their urgent livelihood needs, and the office should make efforts to assist those most in need. In order to demonstrate its willingness and capacity to offer concrete answers and distinguish itself from previous mechanisms, the OMP should select a few cases where it can obtain results quickly. By acting with transparency and holding itself accountable to those who have lost loved ones, the OMP can make a huge contribution to alleviating the climate of distrust.

“The OMP needs to be capable of listening to us, respond to our needs, and be sensitive,” said one woman during a meeting in the southern coastal city of Matara, where victim leaders prepared proposals for how the OMP should operate. “The OMP members are here because of us,” another added.

Other victims requested that the OMP hire an adequate number of female staff so that those who felt safer speaking to a woman would be able to do so. “They should have trained and sensitized staff, in contrast to other government offices,” said one woman. These demands must be heard.

By putting processes in place to ensure that victims from all ethnicities and political backgrounds will be heard equally and treated fairly, the OMP can show the Sinhalese majority that finding the disappeared is also about missing soldiers and other victims from their communities. It may also ease the sense of rejection among nationalist Tamils. And it may alleviate feelings of distrust among both Tamil and Muslim citizens.

Sharing Our Truths

In Sri Lanka, the responsibility for redressing violations of international human rights and humanitarian law does not belong to only one group. Collaborating to establish the whereabouts of those killed or disappeared by the different armed groups, the LTTE, and the armed forces could also help to illuminate truths that have been even more elusive. As in countries such as Peru or Timor-Leste, the truth could help reveal the broad picture about the different forms of disappearances practiced. This could create an understanding of the extent of the suffering that the conflict and repression have caused and could have an impact across a wide spectrum of communities whose inalienable human rights must be protected to ensure peaceful coexistence.

Victims of enforced disappearances from Sri Lanka are not alone on the Day of the Disappeared. Their struggle is shared with victims in Colombia, Lebanon, Nepal, Syria, Spain, and all over the world. Their cause is shared by the many organizations who salute them on this day, appealing to others to join them in the relentless pursuit of truth and justice.  

PHOTO: In Raddoluwa, Sri Lanka, a woman pays tribute at a memorial to the disappeared, during a commemoration ceremony held annually on October 27. (Vikalpa)