Enforced disappearances are a scourge around the world. In Sri Lanka, it is estimated that thousands of people of all ethnicities are still waiting to find out what happened to their loved ones, sometimes decades after they disappeared. The issue of enforced disappearances has long been a politicised one, and the quest for justice remains a daily battle.
Yesterday, the UN commemorated the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The day was established by the UN General Assembly resolution 65/209 of 21 December 2010. Its purpose is to raise awareness of the wide range of enforced or involuntary disappearances that occur to people all over the world, including ‘arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorisation, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law’.
After many years of attempting to avoid the issue, Sri Lanka has taken crucial steps to change laws and create a framework that protects the vulnerable from disappearances. This effort to address enforced disappearances and make laws that protect all citizens from such injustice is crucial and deserves praise.
Effective investigation and prosecution of the crimes are indeed paramount to ensuring justice for the victims but also to discourage further such atrocities. However, effective investigation and prosecutions is extremely rare and difficult in countries where the State is involved or complicit in the practice of enforced disappearances.
This is precisely the stumbling block for Sri Lanka as well. Many people feel that the issue of enforced disappearances should be allowed to vanish into the past, but this idea leaves out the intense and unending suffering of families that are still waiting for answers. These people are still part of the Sri Lankan population. Their suffering is the suffering of our people, and they have the same right to justice as other citizens. If our father, mother, sister, brother, husband, wife, son or daughter disappeared, we would never rest till we found out what happened. So, how it is possible for them to forget?
Political elements attempt to root out this humanity by painting the issue in absolute terms. For them, war atrocities should just be swept under the carpet because life is easier that way or because ‘war heroes’ must be protected at any cost. But, these families do need assistance, financially, psychologically, and socially, and even be politically empowered to deal with their loss and find closure. As a country, Sri Lanka cannot leave behind its past unless it is first willing to honestly confront it and make genuine effort to address these concerns as best as they are able to.
Obviously, there are no easy answers here. Other countries have spent decades trying to tackle enforced disappearances with limited success, but the point is that Sri Lanka must try. The Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has the weighty task of reaching out to the families and building trust as well as the exhausting administrative efforts to build an effective investigative team and convince the Government to take decisive steps to at least address some of the outlying issues such as repatriations. Perhaps the first step is to help Sri Lankans find their humanity.