SRI LANKA: A disappearance every five hours is a result of deliberate removal of all legal safeguards against illegal detention, murder and illegal disposal of bodies

The former Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Mangala Samaraweera was quoted in several news agencies stating that a disappearance takes place in Sri Lanka every five hours.

“It has been reported by local and international human rights organisations that a person is abducted every five hours. Kidnappings, abductions and killings have become common incidents. No matter who does it, as a government we are responsible for it,” (Sunday Leader, January 28, 2007).

It is also reported that the minister refused to retract the charges despite of the pressure brought upon him to do so.

These comments, which he wrote in a letter to the president, Mahinda Rajapakse do not come as much of a surprise to close observers of the human rights situation in Sri Lanka in recent months. The reappearance of white vans without number plates is the symbolic manner in which people popularly talk about disappearances. The prediction that a period similar to 1987 to 1991 where mainly in the south about 30,000 people are officially recognised to have been disappeared has been heard for many months and now a similar psychosis to those times, which are generally known as the “period of terror” has emerged in the north and east as well as many parts of the south including the capital, Colombo.

Anyone might be a target of a disappearance including businessmen, journalists and anyone that may be suspected as having “terrorist links”. Even a vice chancellor of a university was a victim of a disappearance recently. People in Colombo, particularly the Tamils, who had made Colombo their home for generations, as well as businessmen, are those who are most scared when darkness falls. Everyone is aware that once a disappearance takes place there is hardly anything that can be done.

Close examination of the experience of disappearances in Sri Lanka during the last few decades will lead to a clearer understanding of the factors that contribute to the easy use of disappearances as an instrument of repression. The roots of the possibility of disappearances lie in liberalizing the rules relating to killings by the removal of the basic safeguards that were available in the law for the protection of human life. By the slow yet comprehensive removal of those safeguards against illegal arrest, kidnapping has become much easier. Once kidnapped it is not difficult to keep persons outside legally authorised places of detention. In this manner it is also possible to avoid the necessity of keeping any records that the law makes obligatory in the event of arrest and detention. Once kidnapped persons can be kept in secret locations without any state officer taking responsibility for the custody of such persons anything can be done in secrecy. There is hardly any means by which whatever happens under those circumstances can be traced.

A disappearance, as it happens in Sri Lanka can be done in circumstances which are completely secretive. The perpetrators of such kidnappings and those who give commands for such an exercise can all take cover behind anonymity.

A disappearance in Sri Lanka is a legal construct. Its basic concept is to remove all possibilities available within the law to attribute responsibility for arrest, detention, torture, killing and illegal disposal. The whole concept is well developed and perfected through a practice of literally thousands of disappearances. There is good reason for any new perpetrator to feel completely safe while being engaged in this crime which the international community has categorized as being among the most heinous of crimes.

The present day disappearances can pose far greater dangers to Sri Lanka than those during the period of 1971 when around ten thousand persons are said to have disappeared or been killed in an alleged attempt to suppress a rebellion by the Janatha Vimukthi Pereramuna (JVP) which was a minor rebellion that the state could have brought under control without resorting to such acts. Still during the aftermath of this period legal institutions in the country remained stronger than today and the resentment against such killings were expressed through popular dissent more strongly. The 1987 to 1991 disappearances took place in a background where the legal institutions had become weaker and also the capacity of the popular resistance to such illegalities was weaker. Now by 2007 it has been acknowledged by everyone that Sri Lanka has reached its lowest ebb in the rule of law. The Asian Human Rights Commission has repeatedly characterized the situation of Sri Lanka as one of an “exceptional collapse of the rule of law.”

Under these circumstances the present wave of disappearances can lead to far graver adverse consequences on the lives, liberty and the property of Sri Lankans than ever before.

A senior minister’s criticism on this issue has not lead to any constructive response on the part of the government. The remarks have been dismissed as having been made for political reasons of dissent with the line of the government. However, whatever is the motive of the minister concerned criticism of this grave nature should have been taken seriously by the government if it wishes to counteract the present trend of the escalation of lawlessness. However, the government seems to be unwilling or incapable of dealing with this present situation. Perhaps it is both a question of unwillingness and incapacity to reinforce the law and to ensure elementary stability within the country.

Such unwillingness and incapacity may be disguised under the rhetoric of anti terrorism and the pursuit of a war. However, the present pursuit is in fact a war against the law. How the government or anyone else would be able to save a society which is engaged in an extensive removal of the law is hard to imagine. That however, is the situation of Sri Lanka today. The local population and the international community will only be a powerless spectator of a great tragedy that is rapidly unfolding within the country until there is a willingness on the part of the local people, as well as the international community to bring pressure on the government not to abandon the basic edifice of law, even at this late stage.

Document Type : Statement
Document ID : AS-025-2007
Countries : Sri Lanka,