Four and a half years after the Government of Sri Lanka declared an end to decades of civil conflict with separatist rebels, thousands of people are still missing, according to the United Nations and Sri Lankan activists. Family members of these missing persons are still asking for a credible investigation that would enable them to leave the past behind and face the future. Many of these family members of those who have disappeared charge that at the end of the war, many who surrendered to the army had disappeared. Many mothers have lost their children during the war.

Among those missing are journalists, human rights defenders, humanitarian workers and civilians, but, according to activists, the real tragedy has been the reluctance of law enforcement authorities and state institutions to confront these allegations and provide answers to the families of these missing persons, so they could bring closure to their torment. Most mothers in the North say that they cannot simply forget the past, not knowing to date what had happened to their children.

Cameron probes

During his recent visit to the war-torn Northern peninsula of Sri Lanka (on the sidelines of the Commonwealth summit), UK Prime Minister David Cameron said that some very serious questions needed to be answered. These questions probed into human rights violations in present day Sri Lanka – the fact that there are so many people who have disappeared – and the freedom of the press. Cameron was swamped by groups of protesting family members of the missing persons, pleading for justice for their loved ones and seeking for a credible investigation that would shed some light on what had happened to their family members.

Many human rights activists have repeatedly appealed for a credible investigation into these disappearances, to lay all doubts to rest. If such investigations are not conducted, these doubts as to the fate of the missing persons will persist. Their families will never be able to let go of the past.

Government’s dubious intentions

The government has faced mounting pressure to act on the recommendations of a commission appointed by the president in December 2011, one of which is the criminalization of enforced or voluntary disappearances. While the Commission of Inquiry on the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) has noted that the disappearances and legal remedies are prerequisites for any successful, durable and all-inclusive reconciliation process, legal activists charge that the disappearances have not stopped, and these disappearances and intimidation still occur with sufficient regularity, casting doubt on the government’s claims of genuine intentions.

The issue of disappearances in Sri Lanka has been surfacing repeatedly and the issue was also raised in the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay’s statement in Sri Lanka, during her visit a few months ago. She had then pressured the government to make the Commission set up by President Mahinda Rajapaksa to investigate cases of disappearances more effective than commissions set up earlier in Sri Lanka.

UK push for UN-led investigation

British Prime Minister David Cameron, however, said that if Sri Lanka does not address international concerns over its human rights record, the UK will push for a UN-led investigation into alleged war crimes and human rights abuses during and after the 27-year civil war. “If that investigation is not completed by March, then I will use our position on the UN Human Rights Council to work with the UN Human Rights Commissioner and call for a full credible independent international enquiry,” he added.

However, the Prime Minister’s comments were dismissed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa who said Sri Lanka had nothing to hide.
According to sources at the Presidential Commission Investigating Disappearances, the three-member panel, which was set up by President Rajapaksa in August, has received about over 2000 complaints so far.

The families of the disappeared had handed over 2301 complaints on November 6. 4200 more complaints are yet to be delivered by the families of the disappeared in the next two weeks. Another 130 cases are being held by several human rights organisations, and they will decide if these cases are to be filed or not. However, these figures are incomplete as the commission is yet to receive more complaints from other parts of the country.

Meanwhile The Sunday Leader spoke to a cross section of society regarding their opinion on the disappearances and the government’s approach in handling the investigations.

Bishop of Mannar, Rayappu Joseph

We are still not free at all to express our ideas and non approval of the actions of the government. In fact, just last week one of the people working with us had been contacted around one in the morning and threatened. Fortunately, he was in Colombo at the time.

The caller had said that our worker was a nuisance to the government as he was involved in the coordination of protests of the missing persons. However, all he did was join the protest of the parent’s of the missing persons. In fact, the conversation was recorded as evidence, and we lodged a complaint with the SSP as well as the Joint Operation Commander.

In the case of the British Prime Minister’s statement, I feel that what he meant by credible investigation is that the suspects should not be the ones conducting the investigations. So they must not be appointed to these commissions as we have had enough of commissions with no reliable outcome. These committees are just eyewash; they dance to the tune of the government. We have no faith in these commissions as they are not credible.

Therefore, what we need is an impartial commission that could conduct a proper impartial and credible investigation. Perhaps the government should consider appointing at least half of the members from either Tamil Nadu or any other country, or even from the Tamil community or Tamil representative like the TNA so that there could be some semblance of credibility in these investigations, as most of these missing persons are Tamils. What we are asking is for the truth to be told so that we can move forward. In fact, when the LLRC recommendations were published, I for one was very pleased with the recommendations. However, like many other investigations, at first a lot of noise is made but that is as far as it goes.

There are people who sit in Colombo and make statements for their own benefit, but have no regard or concern for those who have had to face the tragedy of losing their loved ones and the heartache and anguish they still suffer not knowing what had happened to their loved ones. All we are asking is for the government to appoint an independent, credible and balanced commission, so that our issues can be investigated properly.

Lawyer and President of the Tamil National People’s Front Gajan Ponnambalam

With regards to accountability regarding the missing persons or those who surrendered or extrajudicial killings that have been alleged to have taken place, the point is, if you are going to have an accountability process, how it is going to be done. Whether it is going to be an internal process or an international process, the crucial factor is that it has to be an independent process. The question, however, is whether you can have an independent judicial process of accountability in Sri Lanka to get to the bottom of all these allegations.

Our position is that you cannot have an independent mechanism of accountability in Sri Lanka, as we know the state of the judiciary with the incident that took place with the former Chief Justice.

We also know that there is no separation of power and the police very much works with the Ministry of Defence. Hence, the question is on what basis is one to have a credible independent investigation with the actual position in the country being what it is. However, an international investigation will only take place based on the fact that all other avenues with internal investigations have been exhausted prior to an international investigation.

As far as the UK Prime Minister’s demand that a local investigation be set up, our view is that such an investigation will not be independent or credible; the only option is an international investigation, if the truth is to be unearthed.

Military Spokesman Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya

Some of those categorized as dead or missing since the conclusion of the conflict in May 2009 could in fact be living overseas under new identities. The efforts to ascertain the number of persons reported missing, including LTTE cadres, killed during the Eelam war IV (July 2006 – May 2009), and deaths caused due to natural causes as well as accidents, had been hampered by the reluctance on the part of countries accommodating those making accusations to share information with the Sri Lanka government.

From the military, there are close to 30,000 either killed or missing in action and later declared as killed. Civilian casualties reported due to LTTE action are around 10,000, out of which about 3000 Sinhalese, 4000 Tamils, 1500 Muslims and approximately 2700 bodies whose ethnicities were not known were recovered. Another 10,000 civilians were wounded due to LTTE activities.

Among the wounded were around 3600 Sinhalese civilians, 3000 Tamils, 900 Muslims and 2000 civilians of unknown origin received injuries during the conflict. In spite of the global campaign being carried out by Channel Four against the Government of Sri Lanka and the military, they were given the opportunity to come to Sri Lanka and see for themselves the ground reality while reporting on CHOGM.

However, while here on the expressed purpose of reporting CHOGM related activities, Channel Four tried to tarnish the image of the country that has just emerged from years of bloody conflict. Yet they were able to report freely, and allegations that there was interference by the military is totally baseless. We never interfered in any activities that Channel Four engaged in.

However, certain local groups who disapproved the activities of Channel Four had organised protests against them at the airport and opposite their hotel. Regarding the allegations that people in the North are still being intimidated, we vehemently reject these allegations.

If people were not free, then how were the people of the North able to organise so many protests? Even when the British Prime Minister went to the North, people were allowed to meet him freely. People were protesting for days in Valikamam.

So, these were all possible only because the people are free to engage in these activities. Meanwhile, several investigations in line with the LLRC recommendations are being carried out and a presidential commission has also been appointed to investigate alleged disappearances and this commission is now receiving complaints. Anyone who wishes to lodge a complaint with this commission is free to do so.

Tamil National Alliance Northern Provincial Council member Ananthi Saseetharan

I have been campaigning on behalf of the families of those missing, while my husband, former LTTE Trincomalee District political head S Elilan, is among those reported missing after the war. There are some 4000 people reported missing in the North alone.

Having led a demonstration in Jaffna when British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the area, the demonstrators were unable to meet Cameron or get close to him owing to the heavy security presence. However, the large presence of British media at the time helped gain much needed international attention to the issue.

Now, those who demonstrated in Jaffna during the British Premier’s visit are being threatened, and even I am under threat as I continue my campaign seeking justice for those missing. We don’t know who to turn to or what to do. I am a provincial council member and yet even I don’t have security.

Source: The Sunday Leader – 24.11.2013 – http://www.thesundayleader.lk/2013/11/24/leaving-the-past-behind/