Justice for the Disappeared | Daily News

Justice for the Disappeared

“Some men arrive. They force their way into a family’s home, rich or poor, in a city or in a village. They come at any time of the day or night, usually in plain clothes, sometimes in uniform, always carrying weapons. Giving no reasons, producing no arrest warrant, frequently without saying who they are or on whose authority they are acting, they drag off one or more members of the family towards a car, using violence if necessary. This is often the first act in the drama of an enforced or involuntary disappearance, a heinous violation of human rights.”

This is how the United Nations describes enforced disappearances which have frequently been used as a strategy to spread terror within society. According to the UN, an enforced disappearance occurs when “persons are arrested, detained or abducted against their will or otherwise deprived of their liberty by officials of different branches or levels of Government, or by organised groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the Government, followed by a refusal to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of their liberty, which places such persons outside the protection of the law.”

The feeling of insecurity generated by this practice is not limited to the close relatives of the disappeared, but also affects the society as a whole. Since most of the disappeared are in the prime of their youth, the society as a whole is affected. Today (August 30), the world will focus on this serious issue on the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. Having been removed from the protective powers of the law and “disappeared” from society, the victims are in fact deprived of all their rights and are at the mercy of their captors. Some of the human rights that enforced disappearances regularly violate are: The right to recognition as a person before the law; The right to liberty and security; The right not to be subjected to torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; The right to life, when a disappeared person is killed; The right to a fair trial; The right to an effective remedy, including reparation and compensation and the right to know the truth regarding the circumstances of a disappearance. Even if death is not the final outcome and the victim is eventually released, physical and psychological scars of this form of dehumanization remain for life.

The International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances is especially significant for Sri Lanka in the context of the recently established Office of Missing Persons (OMP) and also in the context of many enforced disappearances prior to 2015. The UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances has recorded 12,000 cases of enforced disappearances related to the Southern uprisings and the armed conflict in the North and the East from 1980 to 2009. A particularly horrendous episode was the use of “Goni Billas” (Masked Men) during the 1988-89 periods to identify suspected insurgents. The insurgents too abducted their political enemies. Most of the victims were never seen alive again. Among the most high-profile disappearances in recent memory are cases involving journalists Richard De Zoysa, whose mutilated body was later found, and Prageeth Ekneligoda, who is still missing. Several other abducted journalists including Poddala Jayantha and Keith Noyahr were lucky to escape, albeit with injuries inflicted by their captors, thanks to telephone calls placed by influential politicians apparently to the powers that be who controlled the abductors. Investigations are now underway into these cases and several arrests have been made. Today, after the advent of the National Unity Government in 2015, there are absolutely no “white van” abductions and journalists and everyone else can breathe easy as a result.

The OMP is a golden opportunity to address the issue of disappeared and missing persons in this country. We cannot think of a bright future without addressing and probing these bleak spots in our recent history. All disappearances must be investigated – it is only then can we find the truth and take steps to avoid this abhorrent crime in the future. The massive reception received by the OMP in both the North and the South is a testimony to the desire of parents and families to find out the fate of their loved ones. As for the allegations that war heroes are being targeted by the OMP and other judicial probes, nothing could be further from the truth. Legal action is being pursued against a very few members of the Armed Forces because evidence points out that they had acted beyond their mandate outside the theatre of war. The OMP mechanism is also actually an opportunity to find out about the fate of captured and missing Security Forces members. Every Sri Lankan family where someone is missing is suffering in silence, unable to seek closure. As Sri Lankans, it is our duty to find the answers and put these dark chapters behind us.

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