Push to make enforced disappearances a crime

Last week saw the fight for justice for those missing continuing with the families of those missing gathering in Colombo and making a push to make enforced disappearances a crime.

The family members of those missing gathered at the Foundation Institute for a series of workshops and discussions organized by Amnesty International last week and they also signed a petition urging the government to hear their voices.

Among those who attended the event was Ananthi Sasitharan, wife of former Eastern Province LTTE political head S. Elilan.

Sasitharan is still looking for her husband who reportedly surrendered to the Army during the last stages of the war but has not been heard from since.

Valeria Barbuto, Director at Memoria Abierta in Argentina, who attended the event in Colombo told The Sunday Leader that the government must acknowledge that enforced disappearances is a crime.

She said that the families of those missing she spoke to are all calling for justice and want the issue to be kept in the spotlight.

Barbuto said that Sri Lanka must address the issue in its own unique way but also get the assistance of other countries in the process.

Valeria Barbuto
Valeria Barbuto

“The procedure must be decided by Sri Lanka. It should not be a foreign model. The international community must actively participate in the process that Sri Lanka has decided on,” she said.

Looking at similar situations in other countries, Valeria Barbuto says investigations into enforced disappearances may take time but it is important that progress can be seen.

The draft Bill to establish an Office on Missing Persons (OMP) was passed with amendments in Parliament without a vote last August.

The Bill was adopted despite objections raised by the joint opposition which alleged that the Bill will betray the military.

The government had earlier said there have been strong requests for providing true information on disappeared or missing persons to their relatives to know their actual fate.

The Office on Missing Persons will help search for and trace missing persons and identify appropriate mechanisms for the same, submit recommendations to authorities to take measures on missing persons, protect the rights of missing persons and their relatives, identify channels that missing persons and their relatives can obtain relief and inform them the same, and collate data related to missing persons obtained by government institutions and other institutions and centralize all available data within its database.

Barbuto welcomed the establishment of the OMP saying it is a good thing as long as it will deal with the issue and ensure justice.

At the event held in Colombo, Amnesty International also launched ‘Silenced Shadows’, the published collection of winning entries from the human rights organization’s October 2015 poetry competition on the theme of enforced disappearances.

“Every community in Sri Lanka has been affected by enforced disappearances. We want this day to not only serve as memory of what happened, but to call on the Sri Lankan government to criminalize enforced disappearances and consign them to history once and for all,” said Yolanda Foster, Amnesty International’s Sri Lanka expert.

In October 2015, Amnesty International invited Sri Lankans in the country and across the world to submit poems around the theme of enforced disappearances. Sri Lanka is the country with the second highest number of enforced disappearances, according to the United Nations.

Some estimates have put the total number of people who have been subject to enforced disappearances at up to 100,000.

“Disappearances have been a tragic fact of life for far too many Sri Lankans for far too long. Many families are still searching for lost loved ones, and many others have sadly given up hope of seeing them ever again,” said Yolanda Foster.

The Amnesty International poetry competition offered a creative space and an opportunity to share reflections to this national tragedy in English, Tamil and Sinhala.

The competition drew an impressive breadth of entries, from people of different backgrounds. The poems were then judged by distinguished international literary figures. According to Amnesty International, between 1989 and 1990, an estimated 30,000-60,000 Sinhalese young people, suspected of affiliation with the leftist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP), were killed or forcibly disappeared by government-operated death squads.

Throughout the protracted armed conflict between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the LTTE, which started in 1983 and ended in May 2009, Tamils suspected of links to the LTTE were forcibly disappeared by police, military and paramilitary operatives. Again, estimated numbers are in the tens of thousands.

The LTTE took prisoners and abducted Tamil adults and children to serve as fighters; many of them also disappeared. In the wake of the armed conflict ended, Amnesty International continued to receive information on enforced disappearances and abductions, in particular of people with real or suspected links to the LTTE, as well as political opponents and critics of the government, its supporters or allied paramilitary groups.

Amnesty notes that for thirty years, the Sri Lankan authorities have failed to stop acts of enforced disappearances, failed to undertake criminal investigations into complaints and to identify the whereabouts or fate of the victim, failed to protect witnesses and families seeking truth and justice, and failed to prosecute those against whom there was evidence of wrongdoing.

Yolanda Foster
Yolanda Foster

In October 2015, the government headed by President Maithripala Sirisena pledged to end impunity and take measures to ensure that such violations and abuses are never repeated. Sri Lanka committed to establish mechanisms to ensure justice, truth and reparation for crimes under international law.

Amnesty says, given the prominence of enforced disappearances in the local experience, it is not surprising that the first initiative was to pass an Act establishing an Office on Missing Persons.

The government also approved a plan to provide Certificates of Absence to families of the missing so that they no longer had to request a death certificate to deal with legal questions around such things as property ownership, remarriage, access to social welfare payments or pensions. In May 2016, Parliament ratified the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

But, Amnesty International notes the government has yet to criminalise Enforced Disappearances under the Sri Lankan Penal Code. In the very few instances where individuals have been prosecuted for offences related to enforced disappearance, charges have been for abduction, wrongful confinement, conspiracy or murder.

Amnesty International notes that it is the victims: the family members seeking answers, who can best identify what they need and expect from mechanisms being established to deliver justice, truth, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, and what they require immediately. Testimony of families of the disappeared show that witness protection and legal safeguards against arbitrary arrest and detention and other practices that increase the risk of enforced disappearances are high priorities along with effective reparation and the more immediate provision of interim relief – including social, psychological and economic support for families of the disappeared are essential, even as they continue to seek truth and justice.