B. Aloka Wanigasuriya joins JiC for this post on the ongoing injustice of missing persons in Sri Lanka. Aloka is an Australian lawyer and a PhD scholar at the Faculty of Law, University of Copenhagen (Denmark).
During Sri Lanka’s civil war and following its aftermath, many people disappeared. To this day, many still remain missing. 15 November 2019 marked 1000 days since family members of missing persons from the formerly war-ravaged north of Sri Lanka started protesting against the disappearances. The continuous roadside protests, held in five key locations across the island nation, Kilinochchi, Mullaithivu, Trincomalee, Vavuniya and Maruthankarny (Jaffna district), started in January 2017. Those protesting, seek detailed information regarding their missing loved ones and demand closure. However, their calls for answers seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Instead of providing them with answers, last week, the Sri Lankan president stated that their relatives were dead. Against this backdrop, this post outlines the general state of reports of disappearances that emerged during and following the civil war, steps taken in Sri Lanka to address the situation and a brief, final note on prospects for obtaining justice and answers.
The civil war in Sri Lanka, fought between Sri Lankan government forces and the guerrilla force, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), came to an end in May 2009. An estimated 20,000 individuals, many of whom belong to the minority Tamil ethnic group, are still missing. Most disappeared during and following the final stages of the war. Some were forcibly conscripted by the LTTE and have not been heard from since. Others disappeared throughout the 26-year-long civil war but well before the final military offensive too place. Stories abound of how some surrendered themselves to the security forces during the last stages of the war, never to be heard from or seen again.
One such incident relates to the Tamil Catholic priest, Father G.A. Francis Joseph who is said to have negotiated the surrender of over a 100 (some claim the number to be as high as 360) individuals (including LTTE members and young children) to the Sri Lankan military in Mullaitivu. They were last seen being driven away in military busses. They are still missing. Others are claimed to have been abducted by security forces before the civil war entered its final stages. During the formal screening process for internally displaces persons (IDPs), some were arrested by the authorities at military checkpoints for suspected LTTE membership. Family members believed they would be processed by the military and then returned back to their families. Some still believe that their relatives are alive and being held by the security forces. This blog post does not attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of all missing persons cases. However, the reality remains that a decade has elapsed since the end of the civil war with relatives having received little or no information regarding the whereabouts of the missing individuals or what happened to them.
Hopes were dashed last week when the newly elected Sri Lankan president Gotabaya Rajapaksa (the former controversial Sri Lankan defence secretary during the last phases of the civil war), stated that those who disappeared during the final stages of the war were dead. Rajapaksa has informed the United Nations Resident Coordinator Hanna Singer that his government would provide the necessary support to families of the missing persons. He has further contended that most of the missing individuals were either taken or forcibly conscripted by the LTTE. According to the president, following necessary investigations, death certificates would be issued for missing persons (indicating the end of the practice of issuing ‘certificates of absence’ for missing persons, which started in 2016).
During the weekend, many took to social media, declaring the president’s statement insufficient. Some see it as a way to bypass accountability and avoid investigations. Many demand an explanation as to how the missing persons perished and where their remains are located. Human rights activists had previously expressed similar views. For instance, the executive director of the Colombo-based Centre for Policy Alternatives, Dr. Pakiasothi Saravanamuthu, places emphasis on the quest for information regarding what happened to the missing persons.
Previously, families of some of the missing persons filed habeas corpus applications in Sri Lankan courts seeing information regarding the whereabouts of their loved ones. They have also met with senior government officials including the former Sri Lankan president (during his term in office), but to no avail. Continue reading