Disappearances in Sri Lanka and the Findings of the Commissions of Inquiry
A brief note on
Disappearances in Sri Lanka
and the Findings of the Commissions of Inquiry
Sri Lanka has a bizarre record of a country where a large number of persons had disappeared during a dark period of its history which extended from about the middle of the 1980s to about the latter part of the 1990s. This scourge has not ceased altogether even today.
In its effort to stem this scourge the government of Sri Lanka took several measures beginning with the appointment of the Human Rights Task Force (HRTF), thereafter by the appointment of Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances of Persons (PCIDs). The HRTF which was functioning from the early 1990s had several branches in various parts of the country. It entertained complaints of involuntary removals, unlawful arrests and detentions of persons.
Armed with the authority given to the HRTF to visit any detention centre, it was able to trace many persons who had been taken away during the period of terror by the police and the army. Yet this power of the HRTF did not succeed in bringing about any remarkable drop in the number of disappearances. The emergence of unauthorized detention centres frustrated the efforts of the HRTF. Sustained pressure on the government to take more effective steps to check disappearances resulted in the appointment of Commissions of Inquiry into Involuntary Removals and/or Disappearances of Persons. The first such Commission was the B.G.De Silva commission appointed in 1992 by President Premadasa with a mandate to inquire into such incidents that occurred after 1991. This came to a premature end following the President’s assassinations. Thereafter in 1995 President Chandrika Bandaranayake appointed three Commissions of Inquiry known as the Zonal Commissions with a mandate to inquire into incidents of disappearances in and after 1988. These Commissions received a total of about 30,000 complaints of involuntary removals and disappearances which included multiple complaints in respect of certain persons.
In 1998 another commission was appointed with island -wide jurisdiction to inquire into 10,136 complaints left un-inquired by the Zonal Commissions.
The terms of references of these commissions included the need to establish the fact of the involuntary removal/disappearance of the persons alleged to have been removed or had disappeared; the circumstances under which the incident had occurred; the credible material indicative of the persons responsible for each such disappearance; the action that should be taken against perpetrators; the measures that could be taken to prevent such incidents in the future; and finally, the relief, if any, that needs be provided to the families of the victims. The mandate of the All Island Commission however had a restrictive provision which authorized it to inquire only into complaints received by the Zonal Commissions and left un-inquired. Consequently a list of 16,305 complaints of disappearances received by the All Island Commission was included in the report without any inquiries being conducted into them.
The reports of these Commissions, except that of the first Commission have been published by the Government Publication Bureau. However most of the recommendations of the Commissions are yet to be implemented. These recommendations include among other things the action that needs to be taken against perpetrators in respect of whom credible material indicative of their responsibility for the incidents is available; the changes in the laws necessary to prevent such occurrences in the future and the reparations that should be provided to the families of these victims.
The Presidential Secretariat has now passed on these 16,305 complaints to the Human Rights Commission to be dealt with in terms of its mandate. These complaints are now being processed by the data base project of Human Rights Commission in order to arrive at the actual number that needs further attention.
It needs to be mentioned here that 341 complaints of disappearances in Jaffna had been forwarded to the Human Rights Commission out of which 281 had been inquired into by a Committee of the Human Rights Commission. This Committee’s report has been published in all three languages and each of the complainants have been provided with the copy to enable the complainants to know the finding of the Committee in respect of their complaints and the recommendations made for reparations to the families of the victims.
The Disappearances Data Base Project (DDB)
Though disappearances of persons had been widespread during the relevant period and in spite of at least five Presidential Commissions having inquired into these incidents, there is no single document that contains the statistics and data on all these incidents.
The Human Rights Commission decided to join the Human Rights Accountability Coalition functioning under the auspices of the Asia Foundation with a view to lay a foundation for setting up a scientifically rigorous National Data Base on Disappearances in Sri Lanka by collecting all the information in the Reports of the Presidential Commissions using more rigorous quantitative and qualitative tools for analyzing, monitoring and reporting of the trends and patterns of disappearances. That would strengthen the Human Rights Commission’s ability to play a dynamic role in promoting and protecting human rights in Sri Lanka.
The quality of the data
The information available with the partner organizations in the accountability coalition is different from the information contained in the evidence recorded by the Presidential Commissions of Inquiry. They are those that have come to light from evidence given to a legal body under oath and those unearthed during the investigations by the Commissions. The comprehensive information available in the proceedings are being coded into a quantifiable set of data categories designed according to statistical principles of accuracy, reliability and objectivity.
The work done so far
The DDB Project has so far coded existing official data, stored them into the data base and analysed the data in respect of the incidents of disappearances that had occurred in the districts of Kurunegala, Puttalam, Nuwara Eliya, Matale, Jaffna and many of those from the Kandy District. All these, except those from the Jaffna District had been inquired into by the Central Zone Commission. Those of the Jaffna District had been dealt with by the Human Rights Commission’s Committee on Disappearances. All these add up to a total of 2655 cases. Some of the trends and patterns visible from an analysis of these cases are depicted in the graphs that are to be shown as slides shortly.
Plan of action for year 2005
The DDB Project’s task is formidable. It would not be possible to complete the data collection in respect about 25,000 cases expeditiously with the three coders functioning in this office. Hence it is necessary to increase the coding staff in the ensuing year. Besides, the Missing Persons Unit of this Project which had been processing 16,305 complaints left un-inquired by the All Island Commission on Disappearances due to limitations in its mandate, has now arrived at a figure of approximately 2200 complaints that need to be inquired into. This has to be done during the ensuing year to enable data in respect of these cases too to be included in the analysis and in the National Data Base.
With the adoption of the UN Convention on Disappearances the government of Sri Lanka will eventually have to ratify it. Then the National Data Base on Disappearances of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka is going to be of paramount importance to human rights activists and other institutions to lobby for appropriate measures to be taken by the government to dismantle the apparatus that facilitated the disappearances of persons and enact the legislation necessary to prevent such violations taking place in the future. Equipped with all these data the Human Rights Commission can play a leading role in such efforts.