Sri Lanka

Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on its mission to Sri Lanka (A/HRC/33/51/Add.2)

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Human Rights Council
Thirty-third session
Agenda item 3
Protection and promotion of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development

Note by the Secretariat

The Secretariat has the honour to transmit to the Human Rights Council the report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on its visit to Sri Lanka from 9 to 18 November 2015. The Working Group thanks the Government of Sri Lanka for its invitation and its cooperation before and during the visit. It considers the invitation and the Government’s increasing openness to international engagement as very positive and encouraging steps. Today, the Government of Sri Lanka has the challenge to transform its promises into a concrete, comprehensive, legitimate and participatory framework to secure the rights to truth, justice, reparation and memory and guarantees of non-repetition in respect of the victims of enforced disappearances, families and Sri Lankan society as a whole, in the context of a reconciliation process.

Report of the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances on its mission to Sri Lanka

I. Introduction

1. The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances, represented by Tae-Ung Baik, Bernard Duhaime and Ariel Dulitzky, visited Sri Lanka from 9 to 18 November 2015, at the invitation of the Government.

2. The Working Group thanks the Government of Sri Lanka for its invitation and for the efforts made before and during the visit, in particular by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to facilitate the smooth conduct of the visit. It appreciated that virtually all of the meetings that it requested were accommodated. It also appreciated the openness and cooperative disposition of the officials.

3. The Working Group also thanks the Office of the Resident Coordinator and the United Nations country team in Sri Lanka, as well as the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, for their support.

4. During its 10-day mission, the Working Group visited all parts of the island, including Colombo, Batticaloa, Galle, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Matale, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee. The Working Group met with the President, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and the Minister of Prison Reforms, Rehabilitation, Resettlement and Hindu Religious Affairs. It also met with the Commander of the Navy; the Commander of the Army; the Chief Justice; the Attorney-General; the Inspector General of Police; the Director of the Terrorism Investigation Division; the Director of the State Intelligence Service; the Deputy Director of the Criminal Investigation Department; the Governor of the Northern Province; the Governor of the Eastern Province; the Chairman of the Rehabilitation of Persons, Properties and Industries Authority; officials from the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation; the Government Analyst’s Department; the Presidential Commission on Missing Persons; a group of parliamentarians, including the Speaker of Parliament; and members of the Human Rights Commission. The Working Group visited mass graves in Matale and Mannar, and the memorial for the disappeared in Seeduwa. It also visited the Boosa Detention Centre, the navy base in Trincomalee — including a former secret detention facility on the base — and the temporary detention facilities on the 4th and 6th floors of the building housing the Criminal Investigation Department and the Terrorism Investigation Division.

5. The Working Group met with a large number of family members and relatives of disappeared persons in all parts of the country as well as with families of missing and abducted soldiers. It held meetings with representatives of communities and civil society, including non-governmental organizations (NGOs), human rights defenders and lawyers.The Working Group especially thanks all the relatives of disappeared persons who courageously shared their testimonies, many of them for the first time.

6. Enforced disappearances have been used in a massive and systematic way in Sri Lanka for many decades to suppress political dissent, counter-terrorist activities or in the internal armed conflict. Given the context in which they occurred, many enforced disappearances could be considered as war crimes or crimes against humanity if addressed in a court of law. During and after the conflict, enforced disappearances were still carried out for purely economic purposes such as extortion by some State officials and affiliated paramilitaries. The extensive use of enforced disappearance and the almost complete lack of judicial accountability and of decisive and sustained efforts to secure the truth about the disappeared, in addition to the absence of a comprehensive reparation programme and social, psychological and economic support for the victims1 have left profound wounds on society and a deep sense of mistrust among relatives. This mistrust has been exacerbated by the continued and extensive presence of the military in the north and east of the country.

7. Over the years, the Working Group has transmitted communications concerning over 12,000 cases of enforced disappearance to the Government of Sri Lanka, of which 5,750 are still outstanding. A large number of cases before the Working Group concern disappearances that occurred in the late 1980s and early 1990s in relation to the violent targeting of Sinhalese youth suspected of having links to the Janatha Vimukti Peramuna or People’s Liberation Front.

8. A considerable number of cases also relates to the disappearance of Tamils throughout the lengthy armed conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), which ended in May 2009. In addition to these waves of widespread and systematic enforced disappearances, there were also other types of enforced disappearances, such as the so-called “white van” disappearances, disappearances in the context of antiterrorism operations, disappearances conducted for ransom or economic extortion or a combination of all three. At the world level, the second largest number of enforced disappearance cases before the Working Group involves Sri Lanka. That represents the tip of the iceberg of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, as demonstrated by the abundant documentation collected by different public inquiries and commissions established over the years.

9. A large number of abductions have also been carried out by LTTE. These are serious acts that are tantamount to enforced disappearances and should be properly investigated and sanctioned in accordance with international standards. The rights of the victims and relatives of persons disappeared at the hands of LTTE should be protected and restored equally.

10. This was the Working Group’s fourth visit to Sri Lanka. It had visited the country in 1991, 1992 and 1999. During the latest visit, it observed the great potential for the full and effective implementation of the provisions of the 1992 Declaration on the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance2 to prevent and eradicate enforced disappearances in the country.

11. The Working Group welcomes the fact that, in the last few years, the Government of Sri Lanka has taken its engagement with the Working Group seriously. A specific interministerial task force has been created to examine and follow up on the cases before the Working Group, which has been receiving a large number of State replies concerning the outstanding cases. The Working Group noted that, recently, the responses have been more precise and substantive in comparison to previous ones, which tended to be standard, fairly repetitive and, in the great majority of cases, manifestly insufficient to clarify the cases. The Working Group hopes that this trend will continue and lead to the clarification of a large number of cases in the future.