Hope For Families Of The Missing?

by Easwaran Rutnam

The visit by a UN group on missing persons has raised the expectations of the families of those missing during the war with many having hopes of a breakthrough.

Sandya Eknaligoda, the wife of missing cartoonist Prageeth Eknaligoda, is among those who feel something positive will come out of the visit by the UN group.

Amnesty International (AI) said the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) visit to Sri Lanka offers an important opportunity for the UN and the Government to work collaboratively to end enforced disappearances, account for the past and take effective measures to ensure that the crime can never again be committed with impunity in Sri Lanka.

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances began meetings in Colombo last week as part of its official visit to Sri Lanka which will conclude on Wednesday.

Sri-Lanka-800x365The UN however told the families of those missing in Sri Lanka not to speak to the media regarding their meetings with the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

When The Sunday Leader asked Sandhya Eknaligoda about the meeting she had with the team last week she said that the UN had told her not to speak to the media and that the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances would brief the media next week.

“I told them about by concerns. The meeting went well. They will announce their response next week,” she said.

When asked who took part in the meeting, Eknaligoda refused to comment nor did she wish to state who in the UN told her not to speak to the media.

“They have come here to carry out a duty and that will be done at the highest levels so we need to listen to what they say,” she said. The New York office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said it was unaware of instructions issued to the families of missing in Sri Lanka not to speak to the media on their meeting with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances.

Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary-General said, in response to a question posed at a press conference at the UN in New York, that he was not aware if any instructions had been issued by the UN office in Sri Lanka.

Amnesty says WGEID should seek out and listen carefully to the views of family members of the disappeared. It should acknowledge the significant challenges to accountability that persist in Sri Lanka and clearly articulate its own limitations as well. The Government of Sri Lanka should facilitate these exchanges and direct all officials to cooperate fully with the delegates. Tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka have been forcibly disappeared.

Sinhalese youth suspected of links to the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) were particular targets in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Tamils were victimized throughout the course of the long armed conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that finally ended in May 2009. Muslims (both activists and prominent community members) have also been suspected victims of enforced disappearances.

Despite the tens of thousands of reported enforced disappearances in the late 1980s alone, there were fewer than 30 convictions for abduction or wrongful confinement (charges often associated with enforced disappearances) between 1987 and 2007.  Only two of 18 well-known cases of extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances documented by Amnesty International dating back to the 1980s resulted in convictions, and both were of low ranking officers on lesser charges than murder. These cases involved more than 750 individual victims, from a lawyer tortured to death in police custody to the mass ‘disappearance’ of 159 people from a camp for displaced persons in eastern Sri Lanka.

Since the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January, Sri Lanka has shown a new willingness to acknowledge past abuses and commit to reforms. At the 30th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in September, Sri Lanka promised to ratify the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and enact a domestic law making enforced disappearance a crime. It made a number of other important commitments to enact legal and security sector reforms that Amnesty International had long recommended.

These included promises to repeal the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act and replace it with legislation that meets international standards; to review the cases of detainees held for long periods without charge or trial and ensure the release of those without evidence against them; ensure effective witness protection; consult with victims and families in the design of truth and justice mechanisms; release reports of past inquiries into alleged human rights violations; and extend invitations to UN Special Procedures.

Amnesty International believes these to be vital steps to protect human rights and account for the past. The failure of successive governments to end the practice of enforced disappearances, clarify the whereabouts or fates of victims and prosecute persons suspected of committing this crime under international law has done incalculable harm to Sri Lankan society and eroded public faith in the rule of law. Continued failure to account for violations against Sri Lanka’s Tamil minority in particular fuels grievance and alienation in that community that could impede efforts at communal reconciliation.

WGEID’s first visit in October 1991 investigated and ultimately confirmed reports that state forces had engaged in enforced disappearances. On the basis of that visit and successive ones in 1992 and 1999, the Working Group made important recommendations to the Sri Lankan Government aimed at addressing existing cases of enforced disappearances, preventing new ones and bringing perpetrators to justice.

Unfortunately, most of these recommendations were never implemented. Violations continued to be reported, albeit at lower levels than at their peak in 1989-1990 when an estimated 30,000 or more people, many of them minors, are thought to have been forcibly disappeared in government counter-insurgency campaigns. The vast majority of enforced disappearances were never effectively investigated or prosecuted.

During its current mission, the UN experts were going to study the measures adopted by the State to prevent and eradicate enforced disappearances, including issues related to truth, justice and reparation for the victims of enforced disappearances.

They were to also gather information on cases of enforced disappearances, including those pending before the Working Group.

The Working Group was visiting Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Mullaitivu, Batticaloa, Matale, Trincomalee, Ampara and Galle apart from Colombo.

They will also gather information on cases of enforced disappearances, including those pending before the Working Group.

The Working Group is being represented by Vice-Chair Bernard Duhaime, Tae-Ung Baik and Ariel Dulitzky. The independent experts are being accompanied by staff of the Secretariat of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

The Working Group will hold a press conference at the end of the visit, on Wednesday in Colombo. A final report on the visit will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September, 2016.