The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances today raised concerns over secret underground detention cells at the Trincomalee navy camp believed to have been used to detain people now reported missing.
The UN group visited the camp and inspected the cells and at least one cell is said to have had writings on the walls with numbers believed to be an indication that a detainee was in the cell in July 2010.
“Sri Lanka has the opportunity to once and for all meet the rights and legitimate expectations of thousands of families of disappeared” the delegation of the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said today as it concluded its visit to Sri Lanka. “Families have waited too long – the time for action has come.”
“The widespread use of enforced disappearances for many decades has left profound wounds in the society and a deep sense of mistrust among the relatives,” stressed the Group’s Vice-Chair Bernard Duhaime, Tae-Ung Baik, and Ariel Dulitzky at the end of an official visit* to the country.
The experts noted an almost complete lack of accountability and decisive and sustained efforts to search for the truth – in particular the determination of the fate or whereabouts of those who disappeared – as well as the absence of a comprehensive and effective reparation program and social, psychological and economic support for the relatives. “We welcome, however, the commitments made by the new Government of Sri Lanka to embark on comprehensive measures to ensure truth, justice and reparation for victims, as well as prevent any recurrence of disappearances in the future”, indicated the experts.
“Finally there is a positive environment to seriously address these issues,” the experts said. “We note encouraging steps such as the official invitation for the Working Group to visit the country, the excellent cooperation received during the visit and the Government’s increasing openness”, they added. The Working Group also highlighted the commitments expressed by various authorities they met, including to establish a dedicated Office for Missing Persons and to carry out broad consultations on future measures to be taken.
“These promises and commitments must now be followed by concrete efforts and tangible results,” they emphasized. “This is the only way to regain the trust of victims for past failures to address their rights. The Government will need to adopt bold steps to reach out to and create confidence in the victims.”
“Sri Lanka must seize this historic opportunity and adopt urgent and profound measures to satisfy the rights of the victims as a fundamental step which will help lay the ground for a sincere reconciliation process,” they said. “Reconciliation, however – while extremely necessary in Sri Lanka – cannot be achieved at the expense of the rights of the victims.”
The experts expressed support for the recommendation made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in his recent Human Rights Council report to integrate international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators into the envisaged judicial mechanism aimed at prosecuting massive human rights and humanitarian law violations – including enforced disappearances.
“The Working Group also supports the establishment of the Office for Missing Persons dedicated to the humanitarian task of searching for the thousands of disappeared in the country,” stated the experts. The Working Group noted that this body should act in a non-discriminatory, impartial, independent and professional manner, adopting a victim-centred approach. “This Office should look at all enforced disappearances, regardless of the time and place of their occurrence, and regardless of the perpetrator,” the experts said. “The same principles should guide the activities of the proposed Truth Commission”.
“The design and implementation of all these measures – which should be parallel and go hand in hand – call for truly inclusive, good faith, consultative, gender-sensitive and participatory methods,” the experts noted. “It is of outmost importance to genuinely include families of disappeared and the organizations representing them in the consultation process”.
As one first measure, the experts urge the authorities to give clear instructions at all level of the military, security and law-enforcement forces that all type of threats, harassment and intimidation towards families searching for their loved ones must immediately cease, will not be tolerated and will be severely sanctioned.
“Some of the persons with whom we met have been questioned in relation to our visit. This is absolutely unacceptable in a democratic society” they said “Building trust and confidence among the victims will not be possible without seriously addressing this crucial issue”.
The experts also called for the creation of an adequate legal and institutional framework to prevent enforced disappearances to occur again in the future, and ensure its adequate implementation.
“Some of these measures can be taken swiftly, among which: the ratification of the International Convention on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance; the introduction of an autonomous crime of enforced disappearance in the penal code; the repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act – which contains provisions that can facilitate the occurrence of enforced disappearances; and a thorough and independent investigation into all allegations of instances of secret detention”, noted the experts.
During the ten-day visit, the Working Group’s delegation visited – in addition to Colombo – Batticaloa, Galle, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Matale, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee. They met with the President, the Prime Minister and the Minister of Foreign Affairs as well as other high-level State authorities as well as civil society organizations.
“We also met with hundreds of relatives of disappeared and missing throughout the country, hearing many tragic and deeply saddening stories. The Working Group reaffirms its solidarity with all the victims and their relatives who come from all communities. Their continued suffering is living proof that enforced disappearance is a continuous offence and a permanent violation of their human rights until the fate or whereabouts of the victim is clarified”, the experts concluded.
A final report on the visit will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016. (Colombo Gazette)