Dealing with Disappearances
The issue of disappearances, which looms so large in public discourse
at present, is hardly mentioned in the National Human Rights Action
Plan. This is understandable because the Plan is intended for the
future, to ensure that Human Rights are not violated, and therefore it
suggests mechanisms to prevent disappearances occurring in the future.
An LLRC sitting in Jaffna. File photo
The question of disappearances that have occurred, or are alleged to
have occurred, is however a significant one, and requires concerted
action. The LLRC recommendations also point this out, as does the Draft
National Reconciliation Policy, which refers to losses which must be
recorded and compensated.
One problem is the confusion that besets us about the various types
of disappearances. The first, which is used to build up horrendous
sounding statistics, are those that occurred two decades back, largely
in connection with the JVP insurrection. Though commissions were
appointed in the 90s to go into these, and concurrent disappearances in
the North and East, their findings were not collated systematically.
We also failed to respond systematically to queries from Geneva, to
which these disappearances had been reported.
The Foreign Ministry had, in Kadirgamar's time, set up a good system
for dealing with these, with the assistance of the Attorney General's
We got this going again, and were in constant contact with the
Working Group on Disappearances in Geneva, which was quite positive
about our responses. We did not get very far however in clearing the
backlog, or at least bringing closure to cases which probably cannot now
be clarified, before the ministry concerned was wound up.
Uncertainty does exist with regard to many who went missing in the
last few months of the conflict, and this must certainly be addressed.
The best mechanism for this would be a Tracing Unit advised by the ICRC
which is skilled in such work.
Such a Unit for children now exists in Vavuniya, set up by its
excellent Government Agent with UNICEF support.
That Unit has in fact got several queries about adults too, but it
has been unable to deal with these. With more resources however, and
specially trained Sri Lankan staff, a task I am sure ICRC would be happy
to undertake, the service could be extended to adults too.
That is certainly essential, and the sooner we develop an appropriate
mechanism, with provision also for counseling for those who report
missing loved ones, the sooner can we move towards closure of the
anguish that is currently a barrier to proper reconciliation.
We must remember that most of those who have suffered loss are simply
bewildered, and need support. Their grief should not be treated as overt
hostility, but rather as a simple emotion that must be assuaged.
This perception is clouded by the fact that there exists a third
category of missing, namely those taken in for questioning by the forces
in the period preceding the conclusion of the conflict, as well as
Unfortunately there was no clear system of records for this, and
little effort to fulfil the obligations as to information that are now
entrenched in the National Human Rights Action Plan. Though as I have
noted the ICRC has been visiting such since 2007, and promoting family
contacts and visits, lists were not publicly available, so that those
whose loved ones were missing could check as to whether they were in
It is with regard to these last that confusion has arisen, leading to
fresh anguish. Some time back I suggested that those worried about the
missing should be able to record names with a dedicated agency.
At the same time the Police could issue lists of all those in their
custody. Where there were people alleged to be missing whose names did
not appear in the lists, a Tracing Service could be put into operation.
All indications now are that the numbers of such are few, but the
confusion between the three categories leads to much criticism. Greater
transparency and a solid information system would help us overcome this.