Picture this, you are idly sitting at home one day with your parents, watching the television, when suddenly a group of seemingly random people wearing non-identifiable clothing forcibly enter your house with the sole intention of arresting you. Your family contacts all official authorities to find out where you have gone and why they have taken you, but neither your name nor the nature of your arrest pops up anywhere in their respective databases. In a blink of an eye, you have disappeared.
Enforced disappearances are a type of guerilla tactic that has been adopted during wartime and periods of repression in several countries around the globe from Chile to Sri Lanka to Bosnia and Herzegovina. Over the years, hundreds of thousands have arbitrarily disappeared, arrested, or detained with no visible trace nor any form of legal accountability. They are entirely political to silence opponents, tighten control, and creating overall unrest. The predominant allure of adopting the practice of enforced disappearances is that due to its informal disposition, no one party can be held responsible as there is no tangible proof of the crime. Furthermore, since the practice operates outside of the legal realm, any act of violence or torture can be committed with no accountability. On the other hand, the disappeared have lost several of their rights in the process including the right to be subjected to a fair trial, the right to freedom of expression, the right to not be subjected to torture or other forms of degrading treatment, and the right to a decent life. At the same time, the family of the disappeared live a life of distress, despair, and unresolved questions.
One of the countries that have a high rate of enforced disappearances in Sri Lanka. From 1983 until 2009, Sri Lanka was engaged in a civil war between the Sinhalese, the dominant majority in Sri Lanka, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a group formed by the minority Tamils. The rationale behind the war emerged from the Tamils’ need to break free from the discrimination they faced from the Sinhalese and form a sovereign state in the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka, where they were the majority. During the war, both parties committed an abundance of war crimes, including mass disappearances. Since the late 1980s, between 60,000 and 100,000 people have disappeared in Sri Lanka, holding one of the highest records of enforced disappearances in the world. Enforced disappearances continued even after the war ended as anyone regarded as opponents to the incumbent were taken away.
Nearly 12 years later after the end of the war, families of the disappeared are still trying to find out the fate of their beloved. The most affected segment of the population has been women. Mothers of the disappeared have been protesting for years, demanding answers from the authorities on the whereabouts of their children and/or husbands. Organizations such as the Jaffna Mother’s Front and the Southern Mother’s front have emerged to help present a stronger front against the authorities.
On the national level, some progress has been made over the years. In 1991, the first Presidential Commission was formed to investigate the cases of enforced disappearances, and later in 2013, the Paranagama Commission. In 2015, Sri Lanka ratified the Convention against Enforced Disappearances. In 2016, families were provided with ‘certificates of absence’ to their disappeared family members, which later on became death certificates. Furthermore, the Office on Missing Persons was established in 2017 to help liaise the affairs of missing persons.
Despite the measures taken and the bodies formed, the families of the disappeared have still not found out the answers they were looking for. Until today, the responsible parties have not yet been investigated, tried, or even held accountable for these war crimes.