Enforced disappearances; families have a right to know

Today is the United Nations International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances and the topic has deep relevance to Sri Lanka because of what happened, especially after the end of the war in 2009 and during the past few decades.   

In a statement the UN says enforced disappearance has frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects their communities and society as a whole.  

Enforced disappearance has become a global problem and is not restricted to a specific region of the world. Once, largely the product of military dictatorships, enforced disappearances can now be perpetrated in complex situations of internal conflict, especially as a means of political repression of opponents. Of particular concern are, the ongoing harassment of human rights’ defenders, relatives of victims, witnesses and legal counsel dealing with cases of enforced disappearance the use by States of counter-terrorist activities as an excuse for breaching their obligations and the still widespread impunity for enforced disappearance, the UN says.  

According to the UN, special attention needs to be paid to specific groups of specially vulnerable people, such as children and people with disabilities. On  December 21, 2010, by a resolution the UN General Assembly expressed its deep concern about the increase in enforced or involuntary disappearances in various regions of the world, including arrest, detention and abduction, when these are part of or amount to enforced disappearances and by the growing number of reports concerning harassment, ill-treatment and intimidation of witnesses of disappearances or relatives of persons who have disappeared.  

By the same resolution, the Assembly welcomed the adoption of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances and decided to declare  August 30 as the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances.  

On Monday, a UN report said that Myanmar’s top military figures must be investigated for genocide in Rakhine State and crimes against humanity in other areas, British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reported.    The report, based on hundreds of interviews, is the strongest condemnation from the UN so far of violence against Rohingya Muslims. It says the army’s tactics are “grossly disproportionate to actual security threats”. Myanmar rejected the report. At least 700,000 Rohingya fled violence in the country in the past 12 months.  The report names six senior military figures it believes should go on trial and sharply criticises Myanmar’s de facto leader, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, for failing to intervene to stop attacks. It calls for the case to be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  

The government has consistently said its operations targeted militant or insurgent threats but the report says the crimes documented are, “shocking for the level of denial, normalcy and impunity that is attached to them”.  “Military necessity will never justify killing indiscriminately, gang raping women, assaulting children and burning entire villages,” the report says. The UN mission did not have access to Myanmar for its report but says it relied on such sources as eyewitness interviews, satellite imagery, photographs and videos, the BBC says.  Meanwhile on the ninth anniversary of the end of the war in Sri Lanka, Amnesty International has urged the government to provide information and detailed lists to the families of the disappeared and information of persons who surrendered to the armed forces in the final phase of the war.  

President Maithripala Sirisena, acknowledging the grievances presented by family members in June 2017, promised that he would instruct the National Security Council to release these lists, AI said.   According to surviving family members, more than 100 LTTE cadres who surrendered to the Sri Lankan army near the Vadduvaikkal Bridge in Mullaitivu at the end of the war in May 2009, have subsequently disappeared, AI claimed.   

According to the AI, Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances, with a backlog of between 60,000 and 100,000 alleged disappearances since the late 1980s, the most publicised of them being the case of journalist Pradeep Ekneligoda.   Given the lack of accountability for these cases, Amnesty International has noted that there is no shortage of examples of thwarted justice in Sri Lanka.  Thankfully the government has now set up Special High Courts and the Office of Missing Persons. We hope that through these and other means the cases of enforced disappearances will be sorted out and justice done to the victims and families

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