Facebook icon
Twitter icon
e-mail icon

UN working group calls for international judges in Sri Lanka

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances at a press conference in Colombo in November 2015. Photogrpah: Colombo Gazette.

The United Nations Working Group on Enforced Disappearances said “international judges, prosecutors, lawyers and investigators” to take part in a judicial accountability mechanism for human rights abuses, including disappearances.

In a 22-page report released in Geneva today, the UN group reiterated the importance of including international actors in any accountability mechanism.

“The road that leads to truth and justice is long but is the right one to take, even if it may be painful at times,” said the group at the launch of its report. “Sri Lanka should continue on this path, with the awareness that more and more complex steps need to be taken to accomplish the huge task it has in front of it and finally deliver truth and justice to thousands of families in despair”.

“A number of initiatives had been set up in the past with the objective of addressing the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka,” said the report, listing the various government initiatives. “All of the above-mentioned mechanisms have been characterized by problems, ineffectiveness and biases.”

Alongside international judges, it also called for the vetting of individuals taking part in the accountability process to ensure impartiality and noted that “no one suspected of committing or being complicit in enforced disappearances, irrespective of rank or official position, can be immune from criminal investigation, trial and punishment”. 

The report is a sharp contrast to a proposal by a Sri Lankan presidential commission for “accountable amnesties”. The commission itself faced criticism from the UN, stating it had “several shortcomings”.  

The group also called for Sri Lanka to ratify the Rome Statute, which will also enable prosecutions to take place through the International Criminal Court.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

“At the world level, the second largest number of enforced disappearance cases before the Working Group involves Sri Lanka,” said the report. “That represents the tip of the iceberg of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka, as demonstrated by the abundant documentation collected by different public inquiries and commissions established over the years.”

The same phrase was used during the group’s visit to the island in November last year, where the group announced that it had discovered a “secret underground detention cum torture center” located in Sri Lanka and called on the government to reveal the existence of other such centers if any existed.

"We are convinced that his is only the tip of the iceberg considering the many disappearances documented by many commissions. We thus consider that it is very alarming that in almost all of the cases there has been complete impunity. And this must stop now."

Families of the disappeared staged a demonstration during the Working Group's visit to Jaffna last year.

Sexual harassment and violence 

However, the pain of disappearances continues for many, with an increasing number of reports of enforced disappearances in recent months. The violence also impacts across the victims’ relatives, with females in particularly affected, as noted by the report. “The gendered dimension of the phenomenon of enforced disappearances should be duly taken into consideration,” it said. 

Recalling their visit to the island, where they met with hundreds of women — mothers, wives, sisters, daughters — of disappeared persons, the group said they heard “stories of suffering, economic hardship and despair resulting from the disappearance of their loved ones”.  “Many of them referred to the violence, in particular sexual violence, to which they were subjected during the conflict or in their search for truth and justice. These women suffer multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination and violence, including owing to harmful traditional practices in their communities.”

“The Working Group is extremely concerned about detailed allegations that Criminal Investigation Department personnel have engaged in sexual harassment and violence against mothers or wives of disappeared persons, including in exchange for providing information on their relatives’ cases,” it said. 

“This should cease immediately and those responsible should be severely punished.”

‘Important but not sufficient’

The current Sri Lankan government has taken some “encouraging” steps noted the working group, welcoming the recently created Office of Missing Persons.

However, it also noted that there were concerns regarding the lack of consultation with victims and civil society groups. “We have shared our concerns on these issues with the Government,” said the experts.
“These initial steps are important though not sufficient yet,” they added.

“Particularly important will be to swiftly remedy the fact that there are very few cases of judicial accountability and the vast majority of those who are responsible for the thousands of disappearances that have occurred have not yet being properly and impartially investigated, prosecuted, tried and punished,” the experts noted. 

“We reiterate the recommendation contained in our report to consider the integration of international elements into the envisaged judicial accountability mechanism.” 

See the full text of the report here and the Working Group’s comments here