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UN: Sri Lanka must clarify fate of thousands who vanished during war

A portrait of Parasuraman Thulasiyamma's missing son is displayed with pictures of Hindu deities inside their home in Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka, May 7, 2024. Sri Lanka's civil war ended 15 years ago, but many people are still searching for missing family members.
A portrait of Parasuraman Thulasiyamma's missing son is displayed with pictures of Hindu deities inside their home in Mullaitivu, Sri Lanka, May 7, 2024. Sri Lanka's civil war ended 15 years ago, but many people are still searching for missing family members.

A report by the U.N. human rights office criticizes the Sri Lankan government’s failure to acknowledge and hold accountable the perpetrators of tens of thousands of enforced disappearances during the country’s decades-long civil war.

The report notes that nearly 15 years have passed since the end of the armed conflict and yet “Sri Lankan authorities are still failing to ensure accountability” for the violations that occurred then as well as during “the earliest waves of enforced disappearances.”

In a statement issued Friday to coincide with the publication of the report, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk said, “Accountability must be addressed. We need to see institutional reform for reconciliation to have a chance to succeed.”

While the civil war between the Sinhalese-dominated government and the Tamil Tigers was fought between 1983 and 2009, the report notes that from the 1970s through to the end of the war in 2009, “widespread enforced disappearances were carried out primarily by Sri Lankan security forces and affiliated paramilitary groups,” which used them “as a tool to intimidate and oppress perceived opponents.”

Authors of the report also accuse the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam of “engaging in abductions,” which were described as “tantamount to enforced disappearances” by the U.N. Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Human rights officials conducted dozens of individual and group interviews with victims, mainly women. They found that the forcible disappearance of a relative continues to have profound psychological effects, including feelings of shock, fear, anger, helplessness and guilt.

“Decades later, victims reported the inability to find closure. Most cling to the hope that their relative will return,” they said.

The report describes the enduring social and economic impact on the families of those forcibly disappeared, especially on women.

It observed that “as most disappeared individuals have been male, women have often become the sole income earner for a family, in a labor environment that poses many obstacles to women’s participation, including risks of sexual harassment and exploitation.”

It adds that many women who have actively sought to find out what happened to their loved ones “have themselves been subjected to violations, including harassment, intimidation, surveillance, arbitrary detention, beatings and torture at the hands of army and police.”

On the government’s response to the report, the high commissioner’s spokesperson, Ravina Shamdasani, told journalists in Geneva Friday that “generally, there appears to be a lack of political will to provide accountability to these cases.”

“There are a lot of recurring obstacles to accountability,” she said. “There is frequent unwillingness on the part of the police to receive complaints, delays in the justice system, conflicts of interest in the attorney general’s office and reparation programs have not been developed with sufficient consultation with the victims.”

The report acknowledges that in recent years, successive Sri Lankan governments have taken some positive steps to address the issue of the missing. Those include the ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the establishment of the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations and criminalizing enforced disappearances.

However, the report finds that “tangible progress on the ground towards comprehensively resolving individual cases has remained limited.”

For example, the report notes that criminal proceedings in Sri Lanka generally are “beset by prolonged delays,” but that in cases involving enforced disappearances or other serious violations involving state officials, “the delays are even more pronounced … and are a strategy to avoid accountability.”

The report cites the case of “one of the few enforced disappearance-related cases” in which an individual was convicted and “in 2020, the then Sri Lankan president pardoned that individual.”

According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, under international law, the state has a clear obligation to resolve cases of enforced disappearances “until the fate and whereabouts of those disappeared are clarified.”

“The government owes it to all those who have been forcibly disappeared … for these crimes to be investigated fully,” said Türk. “These crimes haunt not only their loved ones, but entire communities and Sri Lankan society as a whole.

“This report is yet another reminder that all Sri Lankans who have been subjected to enforced disappearance must never be forgotten,” he said, adding that “their families and those who care about them have been waiting for so long. They are entitled to know the truth.”