In the baking sun. Through the cold of night. Amid the dust and pollution of the roadside. And against the trials of old age, trauma, and sorrow. For approximately half a year, family members of those who disappeared during and after Sri Lanka’s civil war have been protesting continuously at various locations across the North and East of the country. Today we are launching this campaign in support of their struggle.
The protestors are seeking answers as to the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones, many of whom were ‘disappeared’ during the war, including after being taken into custody of the Sri Lankan authorities in its final stages and immediate aftermath (2008-2009).
In order to obtain those answers, they are calling for the release of information that could provide vital clues. In particular, they want the government of Sri Lanka to release a list, known to have been kept by the authorities, of all those who surrendered or were detained by the security forces during and after the war.
This demand, along with four others, was issued by the protestors at a meeting with President Sirisena in June of this year. It was met by a pledge from the President that he would take immediate action to secure the release of the records. But as of today, they have not been disclosed.
Meanwhile, the protestors – mostly Tamil mothers – continue their fight in makeshift shelters dotted across Sri Lanka’s North and East. The interactive graphics on this page indicate the locations of the protests and the number of days occupied at each. The longest running of them will shortly surpass the half-year mark. These figures speak to the extraordinary resilience of the families. But they also tell a story of utter desperation in the face of government indifference.
The simple fact is that these protests are continuing because families of the disappeared feel that they have no other options left. They have told their stories countless times to various government Commissions, UN officials and journalists, all to no avail. They often done so at great risk to their own safety, in the face of disbelief, harassment and intimidation, and at an immense emotional and psychological toll. Many have passed away in the process.
The time has come to say: enough is enough. Promises and pledges from the government of Sri Lanka must now give way to concrete action. The release of the list of war end detainees, un-doctored and in full, would be a crucial first step in the right direction, demonstrating a genuine commitment by the government to the families’ right to the truth and justice. So too would be the swift establishment of a credible and effective Office of Missing Persons to investigate cases and the enactment of legislation criminalizing enforced disappearances.
Please help us ensure that this action is taken – and let the protestors know that they are not alone – by adding your voice to our petition asking President Sirisena to #ReleaseTheList. Even better, send this appeal to a friend today and ask them to do the same. You can also spread the word on social media by sharing a photo of yourself with this printable campaign banner and using the hashtag above.
Want to know more about this issue? Have a question? Check out our Campaign Explainer below.
Have a question? Ask our Campaign Explainer:
What is an enforced disappearance?
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.
How do we know that such a list exists?
Eyewitness accounts, UN reports, and testimony provided by senior members of the Sri Lankan security forces to the government’s Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2010-2011) all attest to extensive personal data collection by the government during the final stages of the war and its immediate aftermath. This appears to have occurred at multiple ‘exit points’ near the front-line of battle – driven largely by the government’s stated desire to ‘screen out’ all those with links to the surrendering LTTE (‘Tamil Tiger’) forces.
The final report of the LLRC states that the following information was collected by the Sri Lankan authorities from those arriving at Omanthai, the principal checkpoint through which thousands of those moving from LTTE to government held territory passed: “Name, identity card number, address, family details, places resided during the recent past, district, Grama Niladari Division, age, sex, and marital status.” It describes this data as being “taken down by hand and then, on a daily basis, transferred to computers maintained by the Army at Vavuniya. This information was then transmitted through Computer Discs to Army Headquarters in Colombo where a data base had been maintained.”
The UN Panel of Experts report (2011) also documents the use of data collection at a number of points even closer to the front-lines, including at “initial screening sites” in Kilinochchi, Pulmoddai and Padaviya. The UN OISL report (2015) further notes the existence of screening points at Vadduvakal Bridge and Mullaitivu, with individuals also being screened after registering as internally displaced persons (IDPs) at the notorious Manik Farm internment camp.
How should the list be released?
Included in their demand for the release of the list, protestors said in their June memo to President Sirisena that “the Government should collate this information intelligently and make [it] available to us to find out whether any of our loved ones are on such lists.” In their fourth demand, the relatives further stated that “the Government must release these lists to a representative group of families of the disappeared, their lawyers and any representatives they authorize”.
It is vitally important that this request is respected, and that the manner and timing of the release of the list conforms with the wishes of the families of the disappeared. Where explicitly authorized by the families, lawyers and other interlocutors may play a key role in terms of advising on what the evidence or absence of evidence contained within the list represents (based on the particulars of each case), and helping to ensure that proper aftercare arrangements are put in place so that the potential psychological impacts on family members can be effectively managed.
Meanwhile, this article provides some useful advice to public figures and media personnel on how to approach and conduct public discussion on sensitive issues such as this without causing unnecessary distress to affected individuals.
What else are the protestors demanding?
The release of the list of all those who surrendered or were detained during and after the war is but one step in broader plan of action that must be implemented by the government of Sri Lanka in order to address the needs of relatives of the disappeared.
In their June memo to President Sirisena, relatives of the disappeared also made the following demands:
- Release a list of all secret detention centres run by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces/Police throughout the war the war and after the war; their current status and an annual list of detainees held in such detention centres throughout the war and after the end of the war.
- Release a list of all detainees being held under the PTA/Emergency Regulation or unlawfully in any legal detention centre in Sri Lanka. Release a list of detainees held in these legal detention centres/remand prsions/prisons annually from 1983 onwards
- Release in the public domain all reports of committees/commissions on the subject of disappearances appointed by various Governments over the past 30 years, and this Government’s to those reports.
A key step for the government will also be the establishment of a credible and independent Office of Missing Persons (OMP) with the capacity to effectively investigate cases and deliver justice to families. This demand was conveyed in both the interim and final reports of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation mechanisms, which made recommendations to the government based on an island-wide survey of war-affected individuals. Legislation to establish the OMP was passed in August 2016, but it is yet to be operationalised. The signing of a gazette by the President in July 2017 raised hopes among families that this would happen imminently, but this move appears to have been bungled, leaving the status of the Office in limbo.
While, for many, the OMP continues to represent the best chance of attaining truth and justice, government delays and ongoing question marks over the design of the Office have contributed to the erosion of trust in it – and the further demoralization of those looking for answers about the fate of their loved ones.
Additionally, groups of relatives of the disappeared have stressed the importance of criminalizing enforced disappearances in Sri Lankan law. A bill to this effect was tabled for debate in the Sri Lankan parliament in July 2017, but it was postponed following objections by prominent Buddhist monks.
What about families of the disappeared in the South?
While this campaign is in support of the work of Tamil relatives of the disappeared protesting across the North and East of Sri Lanka, it is important not to forget the ongoing plight of the many thousands of Sinhala and Muslim relatives of the disappeared across the country. Recent months have seen many powerful acts of solidarity between members of these communities in the search for their missing. The establishment of a credible and effective Office of Missing Persons (OMP) will be a vital step for delivering truth and justice to all of those in Sri Lanka affected by enforced disappearances.
The protestors, in their own words: