Colombo, Human Rights, Human Security, Peace and Conflict

Disappearances of Persons in Sri Lanka

The modus operandi of the widespread abductions and disappearances we witness in Sri Lanka today is similar to what we saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s. President Rajapakse, who was a Member of Parliament then, was in the forefront of the struggle against these incidents. Now his regime has become one of the world’s worst perpetrators of enforced disappearances. Members of the security forces, police and pro-government groups are alleged to be involved in these incidents.

The government has demonstrated an utter lack of resolve to inquire and investigate into these incidents. It downplays the problem, denying the scale of the incidents and blaming unknown persons for them. It is being said that since the government is in the midst of a war, it did not want to demoralize the soldiers by investigating into incidents of this nature. Consequently these incidents continue with impunity often at, near or between security check points, or during curfew hours in the North, leaving no doubt as to who the perpetrators are. Some persons so abducted had been later found in detention centres or in police custody. Others remain disappeared.

Lawyers and other human rights defenders who assist victims are branded as traitors or otherwise penalised. Even UN officials and Parliamentarians who espouse their cause have been named as supporters of the LTTE.

Sri Lanka is unique in that virtually all the major parties represented in parliament, have at some stage or the other, been collaborators or perpetrators of disappearances. None of these parties seriously want to deal with the perpetrators or put an end to this sordid practice. Successive governments appear to have found causing the disappearances of individuals who oppose them or who could pose a threat to the government in power, a convenient tool in their hands. It is therefore no wonder that none of these political parties are serious in putting an end to disappearances or punishing perpetrators. Consequently, the families of the victims of disappearances have no one to look up to.

In the circumstances there is an urgent need to take immediate measures to ensure that speedy and effective remedial action is taken against those who commit these acts with impunity. Despite recommendations from all the previous Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances, the causing of a disappearance of a person is still not an offence in the Penal Code. Besides, no steps have been taken to ratify the Convention on Disappearances of Persons though Sri Lanka was one of the countries that proposed such a Convention, initially.

The primary responsibility of any state is to maintain law and order in the country. But the government in Sri Lanka is a dumb witness to widespread abductions, torture, extra-judicial killings and disappearances of persons taking place systematically. The judiciary is unable to play its role in checking the occurrence of these incidents. The Emergency Regulations provide legitimacy to some of the incidents through allowing the disposal of bodies without inquiry and so on. The National Human Rights Commission is not in a position to check these incidents due to inherent flaws in the Law that created it and the political nature of the appointment of its members. The government has not taken any meaningful steps to deal with the perpetrators of disappearances in the past identified by previous Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances. These led to Sri Lanka being ousted from membership of the UN Human Rights Council last year. Yet these incidents continue. The wide call for an international monitoring mission to curb such incidents has been staunchly resisted by the Government, confirming its lack of commitment to stop this scourge. In fact the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons invited by the Government in 2007 to observe the proceedings of a Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Serious Human Rights Violations, aborted their activities in 2008 stating, inter alia, because the government lacks the will and the desire to follow human rights norms during the inquiries.

All that is left now is for the international community to do is to take cognizance of all these factors and treat Sri Lanka as a failing state as many allege it to be; unable or unwilling to stop disappearances. That may perhaps make the government take steps to improve the human rights situation and end disappearances of persons in the country.

(This is a copy of a submission by M.C.M.Iqbal, a Sri Lankan Human Rights Activist living in The Netherlands at the UNHRC on 9th March, 2009)