A person is ‘forcibly disappeared’ when they are taken – usually without explanation, consent or justification – from their community or family by people working for or with the government. Often victims are never released and their fate remains unknown. Frequently they experience torture and degrading treatment. Sometimes they are later discovered to have been killed. Enforced disappearances are crimes under international law.
Enforced disappearances are uniquely devastating in terms of their impact on a victim’s loved ones. Friends and family of the victim are forced to endure the cruel experience of simply not knowing; oscillating between hope, despair or a continued sense of fear for the safety of the victim, potentially over many years or decades. This is often compounded by the material consequence of the disappearance, particularly where the victim was the family breadwinner.
Sri Lanka has one of the largest backlogs of enforced disappearance cases in the world in terms of referrals to the UN Working Group (WGEID), second only to Iraq. Amnesty International estimates that, since the 1980s alone, there have been at least 60,000 and possibly as many as 100,000 cases of enforced disappearance. This includes those committed during the suppression of left-wing political uprisings in the South (mostly against members of the Sinhalese community), as well as those committed during and since the war (mostly in the North and East against Tamils). No community has been untouched by the scourge of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, although in recent times it is the Tamil community which has been disproportionately targeted and affected.
Recent reports indicate the ongoing use of enforced disappearances by the Sri Lankan military and police – frequently a precursor to unlawful detention, torture and rape.