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UN Report Urges Sri Lanka to Address Decades of Enforced Disappearances

May 18, Colombo (LNW): The Sri Lankan Government must take decisive action to determine and disclose the fates and whereabouts of tens of thousands of individuals subjected to enforced disappearances over the decades and hold those responsible accountable, according to a UN Human Rights Office report released on May 17.

The report calls for the Government to acknowledge the involvement of state security forces and affiliated paramilitary groups and issue a public apology. “This report is yet another reminder that all Sri Lankans who have been subjected to enforced disappearance must never be forgotten,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk. “Their families and those who care about them have been waiting for so long. They are entitled to know the truth.”

The report emphasizes that the Government owes it to those who have been forcibly disappeared to fully investigate these crimes, which continue to haunt not only their loved ones but also entire communities and Sri Lankan society.

Despite some positive formal steps by successive governments, such as ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, and establishing the Office on Missing Persons and the Office for Reparations, tangible progress towards resolving individual cases has remained limited.

The report highlights that from the 1970s to 2009, enforced disappearances were primarily carried out by Sri Lankan security forces and affiliated paramilitary groups. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam also engaged in abductions described by the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances as “tantamount to enforced disappearances.”

Based on individual and group interviews, the report details the enduring psychological, social, and economic impacts of enforced disappearances on families, particularly women, who often become the sole income earners in challenging labor environments prone to sexual harassment and exploitation.

Many women at the forefront of efforts to find the disappeared have faced harassment, intimidation, surveillance, arbitrary detention, beatings, and torture by army and police forces. One woman reported threats to harm her family if she continued her search.

Under international law, the State is obligated to resolve cases of enforced disappearances, which remain continuing violations until the fate and whereabouts of the disappeared are clarified, said the High Commissioner. However, most victim families still lack such clarification. One man described waiting 32 years for news about his disappeared son.

The report notes that successive commissions of inquiry have been created by the Government, but few reports have been made public, and most recommendations, especially regarding criminal accountability, have not been implemented. Alleged perpetrators, including current and former senior officials and diplomats, continue to evade justice.

Nearly 15 years after the end of the armed conflict and many decades since the earliest waves of enforced disappearances, Sri Lankan authorities are still failing to ensure accountability for these violations, the report concludes.

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