Year-long protests in Sri Lanka highlight regional issue of enforced disappearances

Families of the disappeared in north and east Sri Lanka – predominantly mothers and wives – marked a year of continuous protest in February. Roadside protests in Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Maruthankery, Mannar, Trincomalee and others have spent the last year on the roadside demanding answers from the Sri Lankan government, over the whereabouts of their family members, many of whom disappeared towards the end of the civil war in 2009.

South Asians for Human Rights, a regional network of human rights defenders, notes that the issues of enforced disappearances are widespread, if not systematic, in the South Asia region. In Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, north-east Indian and Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, successive regimes have frequently resorted to enforced disappearances to quell dissent.

In Sri Lanka, enforced disappearances were first used by the state during Marxist insurrections in the 70s and later during the civil war from the 80s to 2009. The government has launched a number of Commissions of Inquiry into enforced disappearances, yet few reports have been made public, and none have lead to significant arrests or prosecutions. Last year, the government admitted to at least 65,000 missing. More recently, the government has formally appointed commissioners for its Office of Missing Persons.

In Pakistan, enforced disappearances are an ongoing issue, with cases most common in the conflict-affected province of Baluchistan. However, cases have also been reported in major cities like Lahore, where human rights defender Raza Khan was recently abducted. Pakistan’s Commission of Inquiry on Enforced Disappearances has over 1500 cases pending resolution.

During Nepal’s civil war, from 1996 to 2006, both the state and Maoist forces resorted to enforced disappearances, leaving nearly 1400 unaccounted for. The Nepalese government has appointed a Commission of Investigation on Enforced Disappearance to investigate disappearance cases.

In northeast India and Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir, enforced disappearances have been frequent over the last few decades, since the establishment of Armed Forces Special Powers Acts. In Kashmir, the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons estimates between 80,000 and 100,000 missing. India has no official mechanism to resolve allegations of disappearance.

In Bangladesh, enforced disappearances date back to the 70s. In more recent times, the Asian Human Rights Commission reports 300 people missing from 2009 to 2016, while Ain o Salish Kendra reports 519 abductions from 2010 to 2017. Abductions have predominantly targeted opposition politicians and activists. The country’s highest officials now openly deny that disappearances occur despite having pledged zero tolerance for torture when it came to power. Bangladesh has no official mechanism to resolve allegations of disappearance.

Enforced disappearances is not widespread in Maldives however the disappearance of human rights defender Ahmed Rilwan in 2014 is a high profile case that has gone unresolved despite sustained local and international pressure.

In South Asia, only India and Sri Lanka have signed the International Convention for The Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances, with only the latter having ratified it. Further, Sri Lanka had the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance Bill passed in the Parliament on 7 March 2018. SAHR recommends that all SAARC members sign and ratify this international convention and draw on its legal framework to guarantee non-recurrence and the meting out of truth, justice and accountability for victim families.

SAHR notes that countries like Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Nepal have acknowledged the systematic problem of enforced disappearance by appointing official investigative bodies. However, these bodies must be backed with resources, independence and political will so as to expedite the process of securing justice and accountability.

SAHR wishes to highlight the unmeasurable psychological and socioeconomic impact that enforced disappearances have on victim families, particularly women. Impunity for and denial of enforced disappearances leaves victim families vulnerable to surveillance, intimidation and exploitation from government officials and security forces.

SAHR unequivocally condemns the use of enforced disappearance as a tactic of state-sanctioned terror to quell political dissent. Such terror only serves to tear the fabric of communities, while systematically eroding a nation’s democratic foundations of freedom of speech and association.

On behalf of the members of South Asians for Human Rights

Sultana Kamal

Mohamed Latheef

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