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Sri Lanka: Crackdown Over Civil War Anniversary: UN Report Calls for International Prosecutions for Enforced Disappearances

Sri Lanka: Crackdown Over Civil War Anniversary

UN Report Calls for International Prosecutions for Enforced Disappearances

(Geneva, May 23, 2024) – Sri Lankan authorities have threatened and detained Tamils commemorating those who died or went missing in the country’s civil war, Human Rights Watch said today. On May 17, 2024, the United Nations human rights office issued a report calling for international prosecutions and other accountability measures to address the thousands of unresolved cases of enforced disappearances in the war, which ended on May 18, 2009.

“The Sri Lankan government is in denial about atrocities its forces committed during the civil war, so it tries to silence victims and their communities instead of providing truth, justice, and reparations,” said Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It’s clear that more international action is needed to bring relief to victims and prevent a recurrence of abuses.”

Prior to the May 18 anniversary, police in Sri Lanka’s north and east attempted to disrupt commemoration events. In Trincomalee, they detained four people for seven days for serving “kanji,” a rice porridge symbolic of the starvation conditions many civilians suffered at the end of the war. The authorities also obtained court orders to prevent some relatives of forcibly disappeared people and others from attending events. At some locations, police intervened to prevent events from proceeding, or to block people from reaching them.

In the war’s final months in 2009, the Sri Lankan military bombarded “no fire zones” it had designated, killing tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, while the retreating separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) used civilians as human shields. After the LTTE’s final defeat, the Sri Lankan army forcibly disappeared an unknown number of people; many are believed to have been extrajudicially executed.

Enforced disappearances are defined under international law as the arrest or detention of a person by the authorities followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty, or to reveal the person’s fate or whereabouts.

On May 17 the UN Sri Lanka Accountability Project, established in 2021 to collect evidence of international crimes for use in future prosecutions, published a report on enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. It found that in 15 years there has been no “tangible progress in realizing victims’ rights,” and therefore “there remains a real risk of recurrence.”

The Accountability Project said that foreign governments should “use all available forms of leverage” to press the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure truth, justice, and reparations for victims. It also calls for “investigations and prosecution [in foreign courts] using universal jurisdiction,” and “the appropriate imposition of targeted sanctions.”

Under the legal principle of universal jurisdiction, countries can prosecute individuals for serious international crimes committed elsewhere. While no country has yet issued an arrest warrant in relation to enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, prosecutors from several countries have contacted the Accountability Project seeking evidence that may support future cases.

Since the 1970s, tens of thousands of people have been “disappeared” in Sri Lanka, about 90 percent of them believed to have been abducted by state security forces. The Sri Lankan government has previously acknowledged that between 1988 and 1990 alone around 27,000 people were forcibly disappeared. Victims include people deemed to be members or supporters of opposition armed groups, as well as journalists, and human rights defenders.

Many relatives of the disappeared, often their mothers and wives, have campaigned for years to press the government to provide information about what happened to them and to see those responsible brought to justice. The relatives often face harassment and surveillance from security and intelligence agencies.

A woman campaigning for justice for her husband, who disappeared in 2000, told Human Rights Watch in 2023 that, “Since my husband was abducted, I lost my freedom to do routine activities.… Even if I go to the market or temple, [security officers] ask, ‘Where are you going?’”

In September 2023, a judge fled the country, having received death threats after ordering the investigation of a mass grave that had recently been accidentally uncovered. Among those appointed in recent years as commissioners of the Office of Missing Persons, the government agency that is supposed to establish what happened to the disappeared, was a former senior police officer who had responsibility for units accused of carrying out enforced disappearances.

Although reported disappearances have declined in recent years, in the absence of reform or accountability, the practice remains entrenched within security forces. On March 14, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka asked the attorney general to investigate evidence that police had held a man in secret detention in April, assaulted him, and threatened to kill him.

The Sri Lankan government should immediately carry out the UN report’s recommendations, Human Rights Watch said, including acknowledging the scale of enforced disappearances, pursuing prompt and credible investigations, seeking international technical assistance to investigate mass graves, establishing an independent prosecutorial authority, and repealing legislation that enables abuses, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Foreign governments and UN agencies should also implement the report’s recommendations, including “using all forms of leverage” to press the Sri Lankan government to act, providing technical assistance for exhumations, pursuing prosecutions abroad under universal jurisdiction, and stricter vetting of Sri Lankan personal involved in UN peacekeeping operations, Human Rights Watch said. “Sri Lanka has a horrific record on enforced disappearances that causes profound suffering to victims’ families and puts the country at risk of future violations,” Pearson said. “It is vitally important for the UN Human Rights Council to renew the Sri Lanka Accountability Project’s mandate in September, and for prosecutors around the world to make use of the evidence gathered to bring those responsible to justice.”

Human Rights Watch

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