As the world prepares to mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, justice is further away than ever in Sri Lanka. Despite calls for answers over many years, the government has prevented families of the disappeared from learning the truth about their loved ones and protected perpetrators from accountability.
Sri Lanka has the world’s second-highest number of cases registered with the United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances. Since the 1980s, an estimated 60,000 to 100,000 people from all ethnic and religious communities have “disappeared.” Many victims are believed to have been abducted, tortured, and killed by government security forces, including units operating under the country’s current political and military leaders.
Earlier this month, a senior official, Dinesh Gunawardena, said without evidence that victims of enforced disappearance are secretly living abroad. It is a claim government representatives have made before, including in the high-profile case of journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda, in which evidence implicates the Sri Lankan army.
The administration of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has sought to block the few criminal proceedings begun under the previous government. A Rajapaksa-appointed presidential commission last year recommended exonerating army officers allegedly responsible for Ekneligoda’s enforced disappearance, as well as those implicated in other cases, and instead prosecuting the police investigating the case. Earlier this month, the attorney general dropped charges against former navy commander Wasantha Karannagoda in connection with the disappearance of 11 men and boys in 2008 and 2009.
The previous government opened an Office of Missing Persons in 2017 to establish the fate of the disappeared. It made limited progress and struggled to win the trust of victims’ families. Rajapaksa’s recent appointments to the office, however, have gravely undermined its independence. They include Jayantha Wickramaratne, a former policeman accused of destroying evidence in the murder of journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, and Upali Abeyrathne, who led last year’s commission seeking to exonerate alleged perpetrators.
Meanwhile, the Rajapaksa government has repeatedly harassed and threatened victims’ families, as well as lawyers and organizations representing them.
The Sri Lankan government needs to reverse course and allow justice to be done. On all days, but especially on August 30, people who recognize the trauma of enforced disappearance for those left behind should stand in solidarity with the victims and their families.