‘Sri Lanka must fulfill the rights of families of disappeared’

Vijitha Pavanendran holds a photo of her husband who was killed by unknown attackers during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN

Vijitha Pavanendran holds a photo of her husband who was killed by unknown attackers during Sri Lanka’s civil war. Photo: Amantha Perera/IRIN

Sri Lanka has the opportunity to once and for all meet the rights and legitimate expectations of thousands of families of disappeared, the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances said today, declaring “families have waited too long – the time for action has come.”

“The widespread use of enforced disappearances for many decades has left profound wounds in the society and a deep sense of mistrust among the relatives,” the group said in preliminary observations at the end of a 10-day official visit to Sri Lanka.

The Geneva-based independent human rights experts noted “an almost complete lack of accountability and decisive and sustained efforts to search for the truth – in particular the determination of the fate or whereabouts of those who disappeared.”

They flagged the absence of a comprehensive and effective reparation program and social, psychological and economic support for the relatives.

The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances is comprised of Houria Es-Slami (Morocco), Bernard Duhaime (Canada),Tae-Ung Baik (Republic of Korea), Ariel Dulitzky (Argentina) and Henrikas Mickevicius (Lithuania). The group was established by the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1980 to assist families in determining the fate and whereabouts of disappeared relatives.

In their statement, the experts welcomed the commitments made by the new Government of Sri Lanka to embark on comprehensive measures to ensure truth, justice and reparation for victims, as well as prevent any recurrence of disappearances in the future.

They also noted “encouraging steps such as the official invitation to visit the country, the “excellent cooperation” received during the visit, the government’s increasing openness, and the commitments expressed by various authorities they met, including to establish a dedicated Office for Missing Persons.

“These promises and commitments must now be followed by concrete efforts and tangible results,” according to the group.

“Sri Lanka must seize this historic opportunity and adopt urgent and profound measures to satisfy the rights of the victims as a fundamental step which will help lay the ground for a sincere reconciliation process,” it said.

As one first measure, the experts urged the authorities to give clear instructions at all level of the military, security and law-enforcement forces that all type of threats, harassment and intimidation towards families searching for their loved ones must immediately cease, will not be tolerated and will be severely sanctioned.

The Working Group visited – in addition to Colombo – Batticaloa, Galle, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mannar, Matale, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee. They met with the President, the Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, and other high-level State authorities, as well as representatives of civil society organizations, and with hundreds of relatives of disappeared and missing throughout the country.

A final report on the visit will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016.