repression

UN report on Sri Lanka and Freedom of Expression

First published at https://samsn.ifj.org/un-report-on-sri-lanka-and-freedom-of-expression/ on 30th September 2015

Earlier in September, Ruki Fernando was in Geneva as the reports of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released the longest page-report (251 pages) narrating the horrific stories of unlawful killings and enforced disappearances out of Sri Lanka. Having been investigated himself under the grounds of terrorism Act, one which the OHCHR report has called for reviews. Ruki accounts a personal involvement and knowledge as he writes about the new UN report, its pros and cons, and how it could affect the cases of missing Sri Lankan journalists like Subramanium Ramachandran and Prageeth Ekneligoda as well as freedom of expression at large. 

In early September, I visited the parents of Subramanium Ramachandran, a Tamil journalist from Jaffna who has been reported as missing since February 200, having been last seen at an Army checkpoint[1]. There has been nothing heard since and his parents, now in their 80s, still desire for truth and justice, but appeared to have given up hope that their son will return. From Jaffna, I went on to Geneva. There the anguish of Ramachandran’s parents and many other families and survivors, was brought alive through the reports of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR)[2]. The longer 251 page report (OISL) narrates horrific stories of unlawful killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture, sexual and gender based violence, attacks on civilians in places such as hospitals and churches. It highlighted reprisals against those seeking to challenge and question authorities in order to expose the truth and seek justice, which journalist Ramachandran had tried to do. It revealed denials, failures to carry out investigations and prosecutions such as in Ramachandran’s disappearance. It highlights inadequacy of domestic mechanisms and recommended a special hybrid court with international judges, lawyers, prosecutors and investigators, as well as actions by member states of the UN. The OHCHR report also called for review of the Prevention of Terrorism Act – under which I was arrested last year and I am still under investigation. A gag order restricting my freedom of expression is still there, after having given interviews to BBC, CNN another media outlets. Many other journalists, opposition politicians, clergy and activists have been arrested and detained under this draconian law, which has been and is still being used to curtail dissent and free expression. As the UN report was being released, I was sitting next to families of disappeared (journalists), including Sandya Ekneligoda, wife of disappeared Sinhalese journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, outside the meeting room in the UN, as we were not allowed to go inside. I tried my best to translate the High Commissioners remarks through the webcast to Sandya. Prageeth’s case was mentioned in both reports. Sandya had waged an unrelenting battle for truth and justice, including giving testimony to the OHCHR. She welcomed the report, emphasizing the importance of looking at the past to move forward. The OISL report detailed the killing of the Sunday Leader[3] editor Lasantha Wickramatunge, the series of attacks on the “Uthayan”[4] and the alleged detention, murder and desecration of the dead body by the Army, of the well-known LTTE female TV presenter Isaipriya. Ramachandran’s was amongst the many such cases that were not mentioned by name. The reports highlighted the widespread, systemic and repeated targeting of media known to be critical of the government over an extended period of time, insufficient protection offered to media workers who faced recurrent attacks and how this led to self-censorship and exile in fear of their lives, as well as fact that the number of journalists and media workers killed was amongst the highest in the world. The report however appears not to have dealt with the connection between free expression and broader patterns of serious violations. For example, it has not emphasized the lack of access and restrictions for independent media during the last phase of war or even after the war and how this and the general repression of freedom of expression prevented serious violations being highlighted. The UN reports also doesn’t recognize the widespread use of state and private media to discredit independent-minded journalists, press freedom activists and others critical of the government, which hampered their ability to report freely and also led to exile and self-censorship and the fact that a large proportion of journalists killed during the period were Tamils. The reports noted that “surveillance, interference and harassment of human rights defenders continued to be reported from the district level” in 2015, despite a “significant opening of space for freedom of expression at least in Colombo”. Indeed, few days before the launch of the reports, Police in North and East obstructed peaceful signature campaigns for a petition to the UN. The OISL report emphasized the importance of an environment where victims and witnesses can participate without fear in transitional justice mechanisms and that such a climate does not yet exist. Truth seeking, memorialization, prosecutions will depend on the extent to which people, particularly survivors and victims’ families feel free to express themselves without fear of reprisals. Media will have a major role to play in covering these processes independently. It will have to report the contents of the OHCHR reports, reactions or lack thereof in a responsible manner. This will depend on the extent to which media can function independently, without threats, restrictions or political interference. _________

[1] http://en.rsf.org/sri-lanka-army-said-to-be-holding-tamil-23-03-2007,21420.html

[2] News release with summary at http://ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=16432&LangID=E (The report is divided into two parts which are interlinked: The overarching Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on Promoting Reconciliation, Accountability and Human Rights (A/HRC/30/61), available at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_61_ENG.docx and the accompanying report of the OHCHR Investigation on Sri Lanka (A/HRC/30/CRP.2) which can be found at  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session30/Documents/A_HRC_30_CRP_2.docx

[3] English weekly newspaper, well known for its fearless exposes of corruption

[4] A Jaffna based Tamil newspaper with the highest circulation, which had consistently criticized alleged abuses by the government and the military against Tamils

 

UN deferral must be used to make Sri Lanka war crimes report stronger

Article first published at http://www.ucanews.com/news/un-deferral-must-be-used-to-make-sri-lanka-war-crimes-report-stronger/73047 on 23rd February 2015

This month, the UN Human Rights Council announced it would defer publication of a major report that investigates allegations of serious human rights violations and related crimes during the last years of Sri Lanka’s civil war. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, whose office had been entrusted with the task, had asked the council to delay the report’s release, originally scheduled for March, until September, based on a request by Sri Lanka’s new government. According to High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, one of the reasons justifying a deferral was “clear commitments” from the government to cooperate with his office “on a range of important human rights issues”. These commitments were detailed in a letter Sri Lanka’s new foreign minister, Mangala Samaraweera, sent to the high commissioner. But the foreign minister’s letter avoids saying anything directly related to the UN investigation, and thus, it appears that the new Sri Lankan government could follow the previous regime in relation to the UN investigation. First of all, the letter doesn’t state that Sri Lankans are free to cooperate with the UN investigation and gave no assurances that there will be no reprisals for any individuals or groups who do so. Secondly, the letter says nothing about inviting the UN investigation team to Sri Lanka and creating an enabling environment for such a visit. Thirdly, there is nothing contained in the letter about the Sri Lankan government sharing information and cooperating with the investigation. In this context, it will be challenging to realize “the possibility that important new information may emerge which will strengthen the report”, which was the second reason the high commissioner gave for justifying his request to defer the report’s release. The new government likely believes that cooperating with the UN investigation would be suicidal for the parliamentary elections expected to be held in June or July. Another reason for reluctance may be the fact that very senior figures in the present government could also be implicated in serious abuses in the final UN report. The newly elected president, Maithripala Sirisena, has claimed to be the acting defense minister during the final weeks of the war, and the army commander during the last years of the war is now a key political ally of the new government. The new president has declared that he will not cooperate with UN processes for wartime accountability and some of his key ministers have reiterated this. Hence, it doesn’t surprise me that many Sri Lankans whose families have been killed, disappeared and tortured feel accountability will be shelved forever if the UN process is constantly delayed, and a purely domestic process is set up. Another reason for the lack of confidence in a domestic process is “the history of failed or obstructed domestic human rights inquiries in Sri Lanka”, as the UN High Commissioner himself has noted. Granted, the current environment in Sri Lanka feels less repressive than it was under Mahinda Rajapaksa’s regime. There have been several positive actions such as the passing of the Victim and Witness Protection and Assistance Act, consultations on the Right to Information Act and the appointment of civilian governors in the North and East. But at the same time, a gazette notification has been issued calling on armed forces to maintain law and order throughout the country, as well as extending a controversial law allowing police to arrest and detain people for up to 48 hours without a warrant in cases where serious crimes are suspected. Last week, when I was in Batticaloa with a religious group, a colleague who organized a visit for us was questioned by intelligence agencies and another activist from Batticaloa, who went to visit some ex-detainees, got a call from the army asking about the visit. In Mannar, a Tamil ex-detainee was intimidated through phone calls. Two activists from Jaffna, still in hiding after receiving death threats during the Rajapaksa regime, continue to be hounded. These are just some examples indicating that one should not be so naive as to think that the situation has improved everywhere. In this context, building confidence in domestic processes will take time and effort. Although international involvement in a domestic process has been hinted at, there are no indications how this will be different from previous international involvement, such as the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons and present International Advisors to the Presidential Commission looking into Missing Persons. Both are failures, underscoring why it’s crucial to seek international involvement beyond monitoring and advising. In voting for change in Sri Lanka’s January elections, large numbers of Sinhalese voters rejected the anti-UN and anti-West propaganda of the extremist Sinhalese nationalist and Buddhist fundamentalist groups. Large numbers of Tamils also voted for the new president, despite Sirisena’s categorical rejection of international accountability processes. Rather than being emboldened by this and engaging the Sinhalese and Tamil population in an objective manner, the government appears to be using the rhetoric of defeated extremist Sinhalese-Buddhist groups, and sadly, the Sinhala-Buddhist population as a whole, as an excuse not to cooperate with the UN investigation and engage with it constructively. The UN investigation covers allegations of violations and abuses by both parties — meaning the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) — as has been the case with the previous UN report by the Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts, related to accountability in Sri Lanka. Also, UN processes in relation to accountability in Sri Lanka have so far been fact-finding and investigative. It’s unlikely that there will be an international tribunal for Sri Lanka or that Sri Lanka will be taken up at the International Criminal Court. The present investigation team’s mandate is not to prosecute, but simply “to establish the facts and circumstances of alleged violations, and of the crimes perpetrated, with a view to avoiding impunity and ensuring accountability”. So a key challenge for all those genuinely interested in accountability in Sri Lanka should address is how the findings of this investigative report can inform any future accountability process — domestic or international — and any truth and reconciliation initiatives. These UN reports could contribute substantially to achieving what Pope Francis said was key to reconciliation in Sri Lanka — ensuring that the tragedies of the war are not forgotten. International involvement alone will never bring reconciliation and democracy to Sri Lanka in the long term. But ruling out any international involvement, particularly in today’s transitional stage, is not wise. Accountability is the responsibility of both Sri Lankans and the international community. We should not let either wash their hands of this. The UN investigation has become an immensely controversial political issue in Sri Lanka and beyond. This has sadly overshadowed the fact that for many Sri Lankans, especially Tamils, this is a deeply personal and emotional issue — searching for truth and acknowledgment about what happened to their mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, and even extended families and the entire community. In a recent discussion in Colombo with hundreds of people representing ethnic and religious groups from different parts of the country, a mother stood up and held up the photo of her young son. “I can’t wait 100 days to know where my son is or what happened to him,” she said. “I have already waited for many years.” Many Sri Lankans like her, from within Sri Lanka and overseas, have taken great effort and risk to give testimony to the UN investigation team as well as previous UN efforts like the Panel of Experts. It would be a mistake to ignore their aspirations and contributions, and look at the report purely as one based on the interests of other states, NGOs, the Tamil diaspora, the media or other groups. The investigative report may polarize Sri Lankan society and inflame Tamil and Sinhala nationalists. But the long-term answer to this is not to run away from this reality or postpone it, but to engage objectively with local populations, particularly rural Sinhala-Buddhist communities. Not doing so could push some Tamils toward more extreme measures and demands. As a Sinhalese, I have been involved in discussing the Panel of Experts report and successive Geneva resolutions, with Sinhala-Buddhist communities in rural areas. These have been challenging, yet enlightening, despite the threats it posed at the time. Last year, in the midst of the UN Human Rights Council sessions, I was detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) and much of the intense interrogation I was subjected to during those days was in relation to my visits to Geneva and my involvement with the UN processes. But it also gave me an opportunity to explain the nature of UN processes and why some victims and their families, including Sinhalese and Muslims, take their grievances to the UN, and one TID officer even said “there is a point in what you say”. These conversations came during the height of the repressive Rajapaksa regime. Surely there is more space to have such conversations now? The high commissioner appeared to have given serious consideration to the aspirations of victims and their families before his decision to seek a deferral. “I am acutely aware that many victims of human rights violations in Sri Lanka, including those who have bravely come forward to provide information to the inquiry team, might see this is as the first step towards shelving, or diluting, a report they have long feared they would never see,” he said in his statement announcing the report’s deferral. The high commissioner emphasized that the deferral is “for one time only” and gave his “personal, absolute and unshakable commitment that the report will be published by September”. Now that the report has been deferred, victims and their families will have to wait. But during this time, they can try to find ways to further strengthen the report. The high commissioner and member states of the UN’s Human Rights Council, who agreed to the deferral, have an obligation to strengthen the report. This can be partially achieved by ensuring that the human and financial resources needed for the investigation team to continue its work are provided. They should also seek assurances from the Sri Lankan government that it will cooperate with the investigation, that it will facilitate a visit by the investigation team in an enabling environment and offer public guarantees of zero reprisals for Sri Lankans who want to cooperate with the investigation. The UN should make it clear whether they are still open to receiving submissions for the investigation. The Sri Lankan government must also tell us its position on the UN investigation. Politicians, journalists and civil society activists should take advantage of the less repressive environment to engage with the report objectively, including local populations who may oppose it. The debate about whether follow-up steps to the UN investigation should be purely domestic, purely international or both, must be discussed internationally. But this is a debate that should happen primarily in Sri Lanka.

Disappearances and the struggle for truth and justice

This article was first published by Groundviews on 30th August 2014 http://groundviews.org/2014/08/30/disappearances-and-the-struggle-for-truth-and-justice/

30th August is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Tens of thousands have disappeared in Sri Lanka in last few decades[1]. On this day, families of disappearances in Sri Lanka will gather in Vavuniya in the North, to once again publicly appeal to find their loved ones, at least know the truth of what happened to them, and hold those accountable to justice.

From the day their loved ones had disappeared, family members have been physically going to various military camps, complaining to the Police, National Human Rights Commission, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and various Commissions of Inquiry appointed by the government. Some have filed habeas corpus cases. Some have sent complaints to the UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances. They share their stories with NGOs, lawyers, researchers, journalists, clergy, diplomats, politicians etc. They join protests, seminars and other such events. But to date, vast majority have no answers.

I have got to know some families closely, accompanied some physically in their search and been trying to help their struggles in various ways, especially in helping them to tell their stories to others who we thought may care. I have seen first-hand, their pain, frustration and fear, even as I admired their perseverance and courage to pursue truth and justice. It has also been a frustrating and painful journey even for me, often ending up feeling helpless and powerless and not knowing what to say when confronted with their questions, pain and tears.

Sadly, I have seen very little empathy and support for families of disappeared from the Sri Lankan government and vast majority of Sri Lankan people. Instead, what these families have got is threats, intimidations, obstructions and insults. The few lawyers, clergy, diplomats, human rights defenders, journalists that have been supporting them have also been subjected to threats, intimidation and insults, and I have also not been spared.

Disrupting a “listening and sharing” meeting of families of disappeared (August 2014)

On 4th August, I was at the Centre for Society & Religion (CSR), along with some other human rights defenders, lawyers, clergy and diplomats. CSR is located in the premises of a Catholic church in the heart of Colombo. We had gathered for a “listening and sharing” meeting with some families of Tamil disappeared persons. It was a small, invitation only, private gathering. Just when some families had started to share their pains and struggles, a mob including some Buddhist Monks broke into CSR and tried to enter the meeting room where we were having the meeting[2]. Some of us from Colombo tried to stop the mob from getting inside the meeting room and pleaded with them to leave. I saw the families of disappeared – children – men – women, had left the chairs and were sitting on the ground, cowering in fear, with some crying and some clinging on to diplomats and Catholic sisters who were present. The Police rejected our appeals to provide protection to the meeting and families of disappeared persons and disperse the invaders. Instead, the Police asked the meeting to be stopped and families of disappeared to be sent back home. We insisted that the Police should disperse the mob which had invaded a private property and a private meeting, but the Police was only willing to do that after more than an hour later.

This unfortunately is not an isolated incident, rather, it’s pattern for the last several years, which appear to have intensified since the last International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.

Intimidation before the meeting (August 2014)

Before the meeting at CSR, some of the participants from the North had received intimidating calls from persons claiming to be from the Criminal Investigation Division (CID) of the Police. One of the North based organisers of the event was asked by an anonymous caller whether he is taking families of disappeared to Colombo. A fax was sent around by a person falsely claiming to be the main organiser with misleading information about the event[3]. The fax falsely claimed the meeting was to discuss how to send information to the UN investigation into allegations of war crimes and asked media to give coverage to the event when it was actually an invitation only, closed door meeting. Police officers had also visited another Christian institution in which the families were to be accommodated on 4th August night and had asked to be informed once the families arrive. Later in the day, after the families of disappeared had left the venue of the meeting, the venue was visited by the Police to check whether any families had remained.

False accusations, discrediting families of disappeared persons and anti-disappearance activists (August 2014)

The day after the CSR incident, one of the leaders of the mob made a series of false accusations against families of disappeared persons and anti-disappearance campaigners in Sri Lanka. My photo was shown and I was falsely accused of having provided shelter to those reviving the LTTE. Rev. Fr. Sathivel, a long time supporter of families of disappeared persons, was accused of having being chased away from the Church and having no place to stay, an accusation his Bishop denied publicly. The Catholic Bishop of Mannar, Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph, who has made a detailed submission on disappearances to the Lessons Learnt & Reconcilliation Commission (LLRC), long time anti disapperances advocates Nimalka Fernando and Brito Fernando were all branded as LTTE supporters and traitors. Families of disappeared persons who had attended the meeting were falsely accused of all being from families of LTTE[4] members who had been killed.

Arrest of mother of disappeared Tamil boy (March 2014)

On 13th March 2014, Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari, was arrested at her house in the Kilinochchi district, Northern Sri Lanka by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) of the Police and is presently being held at the Boosa Detention Centre[5]. She and her daughter has been participating in campaigns to find out truth about disappeared persons, including Jeyakumari’s son, and both the mother and daughter had received much publicity in second half of 2013, due to their participation in an event with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on 30th August 2013 and later in November, when they participated in a public protest with other families of disappeared persons, in Jaffna, when the British Prime Minister visited Jaffna. Jeyakumari claims that her son disappeared after she had surrendered him to the Army in 2009 and that the son’s photo was included in a photo published in media, of a government detention facility. She has filed a fundamental rights petition against the arrest. The government had claimed that she was harbouring and supporting a person alleged to have been reviving the LTTE. Jeyakumari has denied the charges and the government more than five months after the arrest, the government has not charged her. When I and a friend went to see what has happened to her and her daughter, we were arrested and detained by the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID) for two days. I can’t say much about this beyond what’s reported, as investigations against me are still continuing and the TID has obtained a Court Order prohibiting me from saying anything about this after my release.

Disruption of a human rights festival focusing on disappearances during the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Colombo (November 2013)

On 14th November 2013, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), a Buddhist extremist group, disrupted a human rights festival organised in parallel to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) by the main opposition party of Sri Lanka, United National Party (UNP) and civil society organisations.[6]

Police gets court order against vigil with families of disappeared persons in Colombo during CHOGM (November 2013)

On 14th November, the police obtained a court order against any type of a protest in the Colombo city on 14th and 15th November 2013, preventing a vigil that was planned with the participation of families of disappeared persons.[7]

Obstructions against families of disappeared traveling to Colombo to participate in a human rights festival during the CHOGM (November 2013)

Before the human rights festival began,[8] on 13th November 2013, family members of the disappeared from the North were prevented from traveling to Colombo to participate in the human rights festival mentioned above.[9]

Obstruction of a protest by family members of the disappeared in Jaffna (November 2013)

Police beat, pushed and insulted families of disappeared persons, Christian clergy, politicians and activists during a peaceful protest held to draw attention to disappearances, during the visit of the British Prime Minister to the Northern city of Jaffna.[10]

Obstruction of a protest on disappearances in the North (June 2014)

A protest was reported to have been held on 5th June 2014 by the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) and the Tamil National People’s Front (TNPF) with the participation of families of the disappeared to pressure the government to expedite legal processes[11]. Organisers claimed that people who took part in their protest were threatened by the military and told not to join the protest.[12]

Delays in court cases related to disappearances

There have been numerous delays in habeas corpus cases filed by family members of disappeared persons especially due to: the State not filing objections in time; Police officers and Ministers summoned not appearing before courts; State Counsel not turning up; Magistrate not being present; and more recently, due to a decision by the Judicial Services Commission to appoint a special Magistrate to hear some cases[13].

Misinformation on disappearances and damaging allegations against anti-disappearance campaigners on State Media (February 2014)

When a community based activist in a low income area in Colombo area was abducted and released due to protests by his community, the state owned and controlledIndependent Television Network (ITN) portrayed it as a case where the abductee had routinely returned home, alleging that claims of abduction were attempts to mislead the people by those who are part of an international conspiracy to spread propaganda against Sri Lanka.[14]

Preventing families of disappeared person from attending religious services (May 2014)

Mrs. Ananthi Sasitharan, Northern Provincial Councilor from the Tamil National Alliance and the wife of an L.T.T.E leader who has been missing since his surrender to the Sri Lankan Army on 18th May 2009, has not been allowed by the military to enter the Hindu temple in Keerimalai to conduct rituals and remember relatives killed in the war and her disappeared husband.[15]

Obstructions and harassment of those testifying before the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into disappearances

Families of disappeared persons have alleged that the government had obstructed, misled and harassed them during hearings held in Northern towns such as Killinochchi[16] and Mannar[17] by the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into disappearances. It has been reported that the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) inquiries into disappearances after many years of waiting, had been scheduled at the same date, time and place that the Presidential of Commission of Inquiry into disappearances was being held. Military personnel alleging to represent the Commission had gathered data from family members of disappeared, registered them, and requested them to sign English forms, which they had done, despite not understanding the content of the document. Officials who identified themselves as representatives of the Ministry of Defence had prevented officers of the Legal Aid Commission from observing the process from 19th January 2014 onwards.  Interpretation had been incomplete, inaccurate and not comprehensive. Observers have reported having seen interpreters pre-empt answers to questions and that they even argued with complainants and were often hostile with testifying family members. Transcription of Tamil testimonies to English prevents the families checking the information recorded from them. When the hearings of the Commission was being held in Killinochchi in January 2014, family members of disappeared persons from Kilinochchi district were visited in their homes by officials alleging to represent the Commission. They had requested and recorded the personal information of their disappearances’ cases and later summoned the families to the military run “Harmony Centre”, to meet representatives of the various Ministries and government officials, who informed that they would be offered compensation for disappeared relatives and requested to fill in another form. Human rights defenders who had observed the Commission sittings had reported that only nine families accepted compensation along with a death certificate and that on the same day, they were taken to attend a ceremony officiated by the son of the President, Member of Parliament for the Hambanthota District Namal Rajapakse. More recently, Commission sittings held in a government office very close to a military camp in Puthukkudiyiruppu saw the lowest attendance of families of the disappeared.[18]

2013 August 30th to 2014 August 30th

Last year (2013), on 30th August, hundreds of families were joined by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ms. Navi Pillay. She listened to the pain and struggles of families of disappeared persons, and embraced the women. She assured the families of her support, and went on to highlight what she had seen, heard during her visit to Sri Lanka. She echoed the cries of families of disappeared by insisting on the need for truth and accountability on every occasion. In her remarks at the press conference held the next day in Colombo, she quoted one of the women she shared the stage with on 30th August, who had said that “Even when we eat, we keep a portion for him.” Ms. Pillay said that she was extremely moved by the profound trauma and resilience of the relatives of the missing and the dead, and the war survivors. She had also met families of missing military personnel and highlighted their plight. She had recommended the new Commission of Inquiry on Disappearances appointed just before her visit to be more effective than previous ones and for it to cover disappearances all over the country. But this has not happened one year down the line. Neither has the government actually criminalized enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, despite promises to the High Commissioner. Government had also ignored her recommendations to ratify the International Convention on Disappearances and to invite the Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances to visit Sri Lanka, a request that has been pending for 8 years. The High Commissioner also reported about harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders – including a good friend of mine, a Priest, who has been supporting families of disappeared persons for a number of years. The High Commissioner herself was not spared of abuse during and after the visit, by various government officials, Ministers and pro-government mobs.

What does the future hold for those disappeared and their families?

It has been physically and emotionally draining for me to have become involved with families of disappeared persons, but I hope to continue to be part of their struggles. I’ve heard other anti-disappearances campaigners say the same. Irrespective of us, I know the families will continue the struggle to find their loved ones, and for truth and justice. But with threats, intimidation, restrictions, obstructions and insults increasing in regularity and intensity, it’s becoming more and more difficult to continue this struggle.

As the UN’s international investigation into allegations of war crimes has commenced, many families of disappeared are keen to give testimony. Like the other families of disappeared who had gone before the UN, the intention of these families is not to go against the country, but to seek truth and justice about their loved ones, as their previous efforts domestically has not yielded positive results. But as the Sri Lankan government and it’s supporters threatens action against those who give testimony to the UN, this might be much more dangerous and difficult. A major accusation (totally false) hurled when a Buddhist Monk led mob disrupted the meeting of families of disappeared at the CSR early this month was that the meeting was to send information to the UN investigation. It will be upto the Sri Lankan government, and the member states of the UN to support and protect those who go before the UN investigation.

Some other interim and short term measures may be of help for the families to continue their long term struggle. Such as the “temporary absence certificate” that that ICRC had proposed, which will not compel them to formally declare their loved ones dead, but will enable them to overcome administrative hurdles in issues such as land, pensions etc. Interim financial help to families of disappeared to continue their struggles and help them, particularly children survive, could also be important. Given that vast majority of those disappeared in recent past are from the North, the Northern Provincial Council could consider setting up a special voluntary fund for this, and follow up on the ICRC proposal of “temporary absence certificates”.

Acknowledgement is something the families of disappeared are desperately seeking, and symbolic events and monuments to remember the disappeared and serve as point of reference for continued struggle would be very valuable. This is more important in the present context where the government and many people in Sri Lanka deny disappearances. But it’s also more dangerous and difficult as the government doesn’t seem to allow any such monument and events for Tamils.

Sri Lanka will never have reconciliation or lasting peace, until and unless we know what’s happened to our disappeared brothers and sisters and those responsible are held accountable. This is not a task that should be left to families of disappeared and few of their supporters. Rather, it’s a task all Sri Lankans and all people who care about Sri Lanka should become involved and support.

Notes

[1] The present Presidential Commission of Inquiry looking into disappearances in Sri Lanka has reported receiving 19,284 complaints from all parts of the country till July 2014. (http://www.ft.lk/2014/07/19/disappearances-commission-receives-19284-complaints/ [accessed August 19, 2014]). The Presidential Commissions of Inquiries which looked at disappearances between 1988 to 1994 looked at 37,662 (http://www.hrw.org/node/62398/section/4#_ftnref13 , footnote 13 [accessed 21st August 21, 2014]). According to Police Head Quarters (quoted in a report in the Thinakkural newspaper of 1stSeptember 2008,) 1000 civilians had been abducted during the first 8 months of 2008, 1229 during 2007 and 1,160 in 2006. The Lessons Learnt & Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) had received complaints of 3,596 disappearances out of which, 1018 were initially arrested by the military and the Chairman of another Presidential Commission to probe abductions, disappearances and killings was reported to have stated that 711 disappearances reported between January 2006 and February 2007, remain unresolved. (http://groundviews.org/2013/08/30/sri-lankas-disappeared-visit-navi-pillay-and-another-commission-of-inquiry/). The ICRC is reported to have addressed 16,000 complaints since 1990, including about 3,000 between 1st January 2008 and May 2009 (http://www.sundaytimes.lk/140302/news/new-law-to-help-families-of-missing-people-87614.html [accessed August 19, 2014]). The UN Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary disappearances had received 12,536 cases from Sri Lanka with 5,731 remaining outstanding, both of which are the second highest number it has received in its 34 year old history from across the world (Latest report of the Un Working Group, Ref. A/HRC/27/49 dated 4th August 2014, available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/RegularSessions/Session27/Pages/ListReports.aspx)

[2] http://groundviews.org/2014/08/07/mob-disrupts-meeting-of-families-of-disappeared-police-government-hound-participants/[accessed August 18, 2014]

[3] http://groundviews.org/2014/08/07/mob-disrupts-meeting-of-families-of-disappeared-police-government-hound-participants/[accessed August 18, 2014].

[4] LTTE – Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group that’s banned as a terrorist organization in Sri Lanka, India, Europe, USA, Canada, Australia etc. The UN, Sri Lankan and international human rights groups have accused the LTTE of serious violations of international humanitarian law. The LTTE used to honour fallen members, calling them “great heroes”

[5] http://srilankabrief.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/repression-of-dissent-in-sri-lanka-jan-march2014-english28apr2014.pdf [accessed August 18, 2014]

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dPIkC-8QjUM [accessed August 18, 2014]

[7] http://groundviews.org/2013/11/14/commonwealth-human-rights-principles-in-sri-lanka-in-the-weeks-before-chogm/ [accessed August 20, 2014

[8] Mentioned above

[9] http://www.rightsnow.net/?p=4028 [accessed August 19, 2014] and http://groundviews.org/2013/11/14/commonwealth-human-rights-principles-in-sri-lanka-in-the-weeks-before-chogm/ [accessed August 20, 2014]

[10] http://groundviews.org/2013/11/16/british-prime-minister-and-tna-leaders-shun-families-of-disappeared-in-jaffna/ [accessed August 19, 2014] & https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6A-Yh3QdEj8 [accessed August 19, 2014]

[11] http://newsfirst.lk/english/2014/06/relatives-missing-persons-stage-demonstration-mullaitivu/38670 [accessed August 19, 2014]

[12] http://sundaytimes.lk/news/pro-anti-protests-mullaitivu.html [accessed August 19, 2014].

[13] In the case of the disappearance of Mr. Prageeth Eknaligoda, Anura Shantha Jayasundara, a Police officer failed to appear before the courts 11 times and the former minister of Media, Mr. Lakshman Yapa Abeywardena twice. State Counsel and a Magistrate had not turned up for some case hearings of habeas corpus cases filed by family members of persons who had disappeared after surrendering to the Army at the end of the war in May 2009. These cases were also delayed due to the state not filing objections in time.

[14] http://www.col4neg.net/newspage/itn-news/itn-7-news-15-02-2014.html (from 9.02 to 11.54). Mr. Samaradheera Sunil, also known as “Wanathe Sunil”, had been abducted after he had a confrontation with the Secretary of Ministry of Defense and a brother of the President), regarding the dispute on government’s proposed new housing scheme for residents of Wanathamulla, Colombo (Details available athttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LEndUABOcVc [accessed August 18, 2014]& https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0JC0zFQIbgk [accessed August 18, 2014])

[15] http://srilankabrief.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Repression-of-Dissent-in-Sri-Lanka-May-2014-English.pdf , p. 15 [accessed 21 August 2014]

[16] http://groundviews.org/2014/02/13/hearings-of-the-commission-to-inquire-into-the-complaints-regarding-missing-persons/ [accessed August 19, 2014]

[17] http://tamilnet.com/art.html?catid=13&artid=37339 [accessed August 19, 2014]

[18] Based on testimony of an observer who has attended to all the hearings of the commission in the North and the East