International Day Of The 'Disappeared': A Focus On Sri Lanka
AWID Friday File: International Day of the 'Disappeared': a focus on Sri Lanka
By firstname.lastname@example.org, resumed in mid-2006
By Rochelle Jones
August 30th was International Day of the 'Disappeared'. Each year, thousands of individuals around the world are abducted by state agents and never seen again. According to Amnesty International, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary 'Disappearances' (UNWGEID) has over 40,000
outstanding cases of disappearances on file. Iraq accounts for most cases (16,387) followed by Sri Lanka (5,708) and Argentina (3,375) .
The accepted definition of an enforced 'disappearance' under international law is:
"the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty committed by agents of the State or by persons or groups of persons acting with the authorization, support or acquiescence of the State, followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person, which place such a person outside the protection of the law." 
Acts committed without the involvement of the state, such as by armed groups acting alone, are considered abductions.
Disappearances in Sri Lanka...
For decades Sri Lanka has been embroiled in a violent conflict involving armed representatives of the Tamil minority community - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelan (LTTE), who want a separate state. Major hostilities, however, resumed in mid-2006. Since the collapse of the cease-fire agreement in 2003 and the accompanying split in the LTTE, the people of Sri Lanka have again been subject to gross human rights abuses from the Government, the LTTE and other para-military groups.
According to Sunila Abeysekera, the Executive Director of INFORM, a Sri Lankan Human Rights Documentation Centre, in 2003 when talks between the
government and the LTTE broke down, human rights abuses escalated. These abuses have included "the use of civilians as human shields by both the
government and the LTTE, attacks on churches and mosques where people were seeking refuge from the fighting...and large scale cordon and search
operations in which many Tamil civilians in particular are taken into custody due to 'suspicion' under the emergency Regulations" . Abeysekera also explained how she has seen a rapid erosion of democratic principles and freedoms, with particular severe restrictions on the freedom of speech and expression, and on the freedom of association - an ideal climate for enforced disappearances.
Since its establishment in 1980, the UNWGEID has received over 13,000 cases of enforced disappearances from Sri Lanka. According to a new report by
Human Rights Watch on the situation, in the past two years, cases of disappearances have "returned with disturbing regularity" . The majority of victims are Tamils, although cases of Sinhalese and Muslim victims have also been reported, particularly businessmen from the Muslim community who are abducted for ransom.
Government security forces are largely implicated in the disappearances, and it is unknown whether individuals have been killed or are being held in
detention under the newly imposed Emergency Regulations. Implicated also are the Karuna group - a Tamil armed group that split from the LTTE and now cooperates with the Sri Lankan security forces. A recent report issued 23 August 2007 lists 547 persons killed and 396 persons disappeared during the period from January to June 2007. 98 percent of all missing persons were men. 
How are Sri Lankan women affected?
80 percent of Sri Lankan refugees are women and children, and there are an estimated 40,000 war widows . When fathers, brothers and husbands are
'disappeared', however, women face enormous challenges and difficulty, both emotional and physical. Disappearances of loved ones can also have a long term social impact whereby "conditions and prolonged suffering force women to take steps and responsibilities that traditionally did not form a part
of her 'role'... such as the public role of women." 
Women whose husbands have "disappeared" or are missing experience many of the same problems as widows, often changing the social and economic roles of women in the household and community, and the structure of the family. Widowhood "can affect the physical safety, identity and mobility of women and can also affect their access to basic goods and services necessary for survival and their rights to inheritance, land and property, in addition to the wider impact it has on the community." 
A burden that women face when their husbands have been 'disappeared', however, is that they are not granted any official recognition of their status, creating specific problems in addition to the issues mentioned above. "They have to suffer the psychological effects and insecurity that stem from not knowing their husband's fate and not being able to bury their loved ones and mourn properly, and the long-term consequences of raising children without a father and not being able to remarry." 
Mobilisation for action...
The government has repeatedly claimed that abuses such as disappearances will be investigated, but has never had the political will to take concrete
steps to do so. As a result they have been accused of being unwilling or complicit. A Presidential Commission of Inquiry created in 2006 to deal with specific cases has proven inadequate and has been criticised as a government attempt to ward off condemnation. .
Speaking in right of reply at a recent Human Rights Council meeting in March 2007, the Sri Lankan Government stated that it was 'constructively engaged' with the international community in helping to improve the situation there, but emphasised that it would not be prodded, pushed or intimidated in any way into accepting any measures or institutions that it did not see fit to accept . At the same meeting, the Chairperson of the UNWGEID said they were in discussions with the Sri Lankan Government to organise a visit in 2008. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has endorsed calls for a UN monitoring mission, but the United States, the United Kingdom and India are hesitant.
The International Crisis Group, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have all released recent reports and recommendations on the worsening
situation in Sri Lanka. At a local level, and typical of conflict situations around the world, women have "organised themselves into groups and networks to support each other and to fight for recognition of their loss and status, as well as to determine the fate of their missing relatives" .
Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim women's organisations continue to come together across the ethnic divides to mobilise against human rights violations. However, organisations are enduring increasingly difficult circumstances where any criticism of government policies leaves activists open to arrest and attack . Human Rights Watch has documented many cases of NGO and INGO activists who have been attacked and/or intimidated.
There is a need for determined and collaborative action from the international community and local civil society to halt the Government's inaction and provoke a response to end the human rights violations and pursue justice. A new International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance may provide a window of hope in the near future if the UN General Assembly adopts it later this year as recommended by the Human Rights Council.
 Amnesty International http://web.amnesty.org/wire/September2006/disappeared
 Cited by Human Rights Watch, 2007. 'Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege' p.46. Available to download from: http://hrw.org/report/2007/srilanka0807/
 Women's Human Rights Net, October 2006. Impunity for Women's Human Rights Violations in Sri Lanka: Interview with Sunila Abeysekera, Executive
Director, INFORM, Sri Lanka. By Johanna Howes. http://www.whrnet.org/docs/interview-abeysekera-0610.html
 Human Rights Watch, 2007. 'Return to War: Human Rights Under Siege'. Available from: http://hrw.org/reports/2007/srilanka0807/
 Asian Human Rights Commission, 2007. Sri Lanka: Report reveals high levels of killing and forced disappearances. http://www.ahrchk.net/statements/mainfile.php/2007statements/1173
 UNIFEM. Gender Profile of the Conflict in Sri Lanka.
 South Asia Forum for Human Rights, 2000. War and its Impact on Women in Sri Lanka. http://www.safhr.org/pdf/srilanka.pdf
 Women Facing War. ICRC Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Women. By Charlotte Lindsey. www.reliefweb.int/library/documents/2001/icrc women-17oct.pdf
 Human Rights Watch, 2007. Sri Lanka: Government Abuses Intensify. http://www.hrw.org/english/docs/2007/08/03/slanka16573_txt.html
 Human Rights Council, 21 March 2007. Human Rights Council Discusses Report Presented by Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary
 See Note 8.
 See Note 4. p.81.
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