Protesting relatives of forcibly disappeared persons in Sri Lanka seek international probe

Protesters associated with the North-East Association of Relatives of Enforced Disappearances (ARED) demonstrated outside the UN office in Colombo and demanded an international probe to establish the whereabouts of their missing relatives

October 19, 2022 by Peoples Dispatch
Enforced disappearances Sri Lanka
(Photo: Nisal Baduge)

On Monday, October 17, relatives of people subjected to enforced disappearance in Sri Lanka staged a protest outside the UN office in the capital Colombo. The protesters were associated with the North-East Association of Relatives of Enforced Disappearances (ARED). They demonstrated outside the UN office for three hours and demanded an international probe to establish the whereabouts of their missing relatives. They also handed over letters to various foreign missions, seeking support for their struggle for justice.

Family members of forcibly disappeared persons have been protesting for over 2,066 days since a hunger strike was started in Colombo demanding action from the authorities: “We have handed over our demands to the UN, they have assured us to reply to this shortly. If the international community too cheats us by prolonging this to save the Sri Lanka government, we wouldn’t hesitate to take our lives. We will not stop protesting till our relatives who are more valuable than our lives are secured,” Yogarasa Kanagarajani, one of the members of ARED, told reporters

“Some of our children were toddlers as young as eight months old when they were forcibly taken from us. We constantly worry about their safety. Many of them must be around 14 to 25 years old,” a distraught mother said.

Thousands of people from the minority Tamil community were subjected to enforced disappearances in the final phase of the civil war in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009. “The government to date is unable to answer us and is trying to protect itself to hoodwink not only the Tamils in the North and East but also all those affected during the UN sessions, we the affected mothers will not accept this. We will not accept either the 200,000 LKR or the death certificates. We should be told what happened to our relatives. But the Sri Lanka government can’t say that at any time. How will a government which took forward a brutal war and perpetrated genocide answer this. So, we will make them stand trial at the International Criminal Court and get justice for us,” 63-year-old Yogarasa stressed.  

According to the UN Working Groups of Enforced Disappearances, Sri Lanka has the second largest number of cases related to enforced disappearances. An estimated 100,000 individuals were subjected to enforced disappearances during the deadly civil war, according to the advocacy group People for Equality and Relief in Lanka.

Protesters on Monday appealed to UN resident coordinator Hanaa Singer to get the body to appoint an international investigative team of eminent persons to find out what happened to the missing persons and the role played by the authorities in their disappearance.

Seeking the whereabouts of their relatives for several years, family members of victims have undergone severe mental trauma in their struggle for justice. ARED has been raising the issue of enforced disappearances across the country. So far, at least 132 relatives of persons subjected to enforced disappearances have died while struggling to establish the fate of their relatives. Relatives have also complained of an increasing level of threats, harassment, and state intimidation

ARED stressed that the government has been using the security establishment to intimidate demonstrators, while showing the international community including the UN Human Rights Council that they are acting on the Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1 by establishing the Office of Mission Person (OMP). Several activists including ARED secretary Leeladevi Anandanadarajah have called the body an “inactive mechanism.” 

“Since its operationalization in September 2017, it has become apparent that there was no honest intention to serve the families of the disappeared,” ARED stated. Those accused of being involved in mass disappearances, such as former police chief Jayantha Wickramaratne, were also made its members, according to the group. “When the OMP was established, there was no transparency and none of our expectations were fulfilled,” it added.

“In many districts when officials of OMP visited us, we protested against them and stopped them from functioning. However, in some districts, they have opened offices overnight. But the mothers, who are affected by the brutal war and genocide, never got the details of their relatives. Believing in the government we testified before more than 12 commissions. Instead of letting us know what happened to our relatives, they asked us if we needed a hen or goat?” Yogarasa lamented.