On Wednesday the 30th August the world over observes the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The aim is to raise awareness that enforced disappearance is a crime and a criminal act, which cannot be used as a tool to deal with situations of conflict.
Unfortunately even today enforced disappearance is used as a strategy to spread terror within the society. Unfortunately the phenomenon continues to grow. In its 16 September 2016 in its report to the United Nations, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances noted that the numbers of enforced disappearances was more than three times higher than those reported in the previous year’s annual report”.
Enforced disappearance is used as a strategy to spread terror within a diven society. It occurs when people are arrested, detained or abducted against their will and when governments refuse to disclose the whereabouts of these people. Enforced disappearance is a global problem and is not restricted to a specific region of the world.
Because the problem continues to grow, on December 2010, the UN officially declared that it would annually observe the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances on August 30 each year, starting from 2011.
The term ‘enforced disappearance’ became a part of the Sri Lankan lexicon in the aftermath of the passage of the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1978 which became operational in 1979. The PTA was first enacted as a temporary law in 1979 under President J. R. Jayewardene and subsequently became law of the land in 1982.
Since then, no matter from which race ethnicity or religion, Sinhalese, Tamils, Muslims and Burghers have lived in fear, not knowing for whom the bell would toll next, so-to-say.
Thousands of people have disappeared in Sri Lanka since the 1980s. A 1999 study by the United Nations found that Sri Lanka had the second highest number of disappearances in the world and that 12,000 Sri Lankans had disappeared after being detained by the Sri Lankan security forces.
In 2003 the Red Cross stated that it had received 20,000 complaints of disappearances during the Sri Lankan Civil War of which 9,000 had been resolved but the remaining 11,000 were still being investigated.
One of the best examples of enforced disappearance is the case of D. Sivaram’ a former journalist of the ‘Daily Mirror’ and founder-editor of the ‘Tamilnet’ better known by his nom de plume ‘Taraki’. Sivaram was brazenly disappeared in front of a police station and in the presence of witness. His body was subsequently discovered in a High Security Zone, where at that time the public were not permitted to enter!
The Prevention of Terrorism Act or PTA as it is widely referred to, can be seen as the handmaid to the enforced disappearances which over took and held hostage the people of Sri Lanka until the present regime was elected to office.
In an effort which the government claims will bring to an end the phenomenon of enforced disappearances in our country, the present regime on May 22 last year introduced and gazetted a bill to establish the Office on Missing Persons (OMP).
The OMP is mandated to search and trace missing persons, clarify the circumstances in which persons have gone missing and their fate, make recommendations towards addressing incidents of missing persons, protect the rights and interests of missing persons among other tasks.
Despite sections among the opposition criticising the bill as an act of betrayal against troops who helped crush the separatist war to divide the country led by the Liberation Tigers of Tameelam (LTTE), the bill was unanimously passed in parliament.
While this move by the present regime to bring about an end to the deplorable practice of enforced disappearances must be applauded, it cannot be said that the measure is sufficient.
The passage of the OMP Bill is an applaudable first step to eradicate this nasty criminal practice of disappearing opponents which both the main political parties –the United National Party and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party- stand guilty of.