Amnesty International (AI) says the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) visit to Sri Lanka offers an important opportunity for the UN and the Government of Sri Lanka to work collaboratively to end enforced disappearances, account for the past and take effective measures to ensure that the crime can never again committed with impunity in Sri Lanka.
WGEID is preparing for its first visit to Sri Lanka in 15 years. Amnesty International says this important visit will raise the hopes of thousands of families of the disappeared that with the UN’s help they may finally discover the fates and whereabouts of their missing relatives and have the opportunity to pursue justice and reparation.
All communities have experienced enforced disappearances but victims may not share a common understanding of the problem or seek the same solutions. With huge numbers of Sri Lankans in search of truth, there are corresponding variations in their opinions about accountability.
Amnesty says WGEID should seek out and listen carefully to the views of family members of the disappeared. It should acknowledge the significant challenges to accountability that persist in Sri Lanka and clearly articulate its own limitations as well. The Government of Sri Lanka should facilitate these exchanges and direct all officials to cooperate fully with the delegates.
Tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka have been forcibly disappeared. Sinhalese youth suspected of links to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were particular targets in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Tamils were victimized throughout the course of the long armed conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that finally ended in May 2009. Muslims (both activists and prominent community members) have also been suspected victims of enforced disappearances.
WGEID’s first visit in October 1991 investigated and ultimately confirmed reports that state forces had engaged in enforced disappearances. On the basis of that visit and successive ones in 1992 and 1999, the Working Group made important recommendations to the Sri Lankan Government aimed at addressing existing cases of enforced disappearances, preventing new ones and bringing perpetrators to justice. Unfortunately, most of these recommendations were never implemented. Violations continued to be reported, albeit at lower levels than at their peak in 1989-1990 when an estimated 30,000 or more people, many of them minors, are thought to have been forcibly disappeared in government counter-insurgency campaigns.1 The vast majority of enforced disappearances were never effectively investigated or prosecuted.
At best, in rare cases where an enforced disappearance case has made it to a court it has been handled as an abduction, a wrongful confinement or a conspiracy case since there is no crime of enforced disappearance under Sri Lankan law. The failure of Sri Lankan law to recognize the principle of command responsibility has also hindered prosecution of superior officers complicit in human rights violations. Lack of effective witness protection has been another obstacle to effective prosecution.
Despite the tens of thousands of reported enforced disappearances in the late 1980s alone, there were fewer than 30 convictions for abduction or wrongful confinement (charges often associated with enforced disappearances) between 1987 and 2007. Only two of 18 well-known cases of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances documented by Amnesty International dating back to the 1980s resulted in convictions, and both were of low ranking officers on lesser charges than murder. These cases, involved more than 750 individual victims, from a lawyer tortured to death in police custody, to the mass “disappearance” of 159 people from a camp for displaced persons in eastern Sri Lanka.
Since the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January, Sri Lanka has shown a new willingness to acknowledge past abuses and commit to reforms. At the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September Sri Lanka promised to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and enact a domestic law making enforced disappearance a crime. It made a number of other important commitments to enact legal and security sector reforms that Amnesty International had long recommended. These included promises to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and replace it with legislation that meets international standards; to review the cases of detainees held for long periods without charge or trial and ensure the release of those without evidence against them; ensure effective witness protection; consult with victims and families in the design of truth and justice mechanisms; release reports of past inquiries into alleged human rights violations; and extend invitations to UN Special Procedures.
Amnesty International believes these to be vital steps to protect human rights and account for the past. The failure of successive governments to end the practice of enforced disappearances, clarify the whereabouts or fates of victims and prosecute persons suspected of committing this crime under international law has done incalculable harm to Sri Lankan society and eroded public faith in the rule of law. Continued failure to account for violations against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in particular fuels grievance and alienation in that community that could impede efforts at communal reconciliation. (Colombo Gazette)