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Disappearances in Sri Lanka
16,742 Cases Established, No Action Yet

Asian Human Rights Commission

In the October issue of Human Rights Solidarity, we highlighted the findings of three Commissions which collected information on the killings in Sri Lanka. The government has promised to take action, but the nature of the action is not yet clear.

There has been a continuous discussion among local people about the reasoning behind these disappearances. We have collected here some of the better-known theories on this matter. The actual strategy or strategies behind these disappearances have a direct bearing both on the nature of legal action required to deal with these disappearances and on the political action that needs to be taken to prevent a future occurrence of such cruelty. Many observers feel that no serious attempt has been made to deal with this issue.

Theories on the Causes of the Disappearances

In order to bring some clarity to the issue of disappearances in the country, we offer below seven theories about why thousands of Sri Lankans have disappeared over the years.

  1. The police and armed forces overstepped the excessive power given to them and lost all control over their actions. Under the Emergency Regulations, all restraints on law enforcement officers were removed, and the power to dispose of dead bodies was left to the sole discretion of these officers. Judicial supervision was suspended. There were no provisions even to keep records of the disposed bodies. These Emergency Regulations have been labelled by many human rights organisations as a license to kill;
  2. In order to suppress the Janata Vimukti Peramuna or JVP (People's Liberation Front), two types of policies were suggested by some law enforcement agency leaders. One was to arrest and eliminate the leaders; the other was to arrest and eliminate the rank and file so that a general fear would spread and the leaders could then be arrested and dealt with. In the end, both approaches were allowed;
  3. The actual planning for severe repression was discussed much earlier than the second upsurge of JVP unrest. It was thought that general repression similar to that of the Indonesian massacre of 1965 was necessary if new economic policies were to be introduced and also in order to keep the power gained through the massive electoral victory in 1977. The chain of events beginning from the early repression of trade unions and political opponents finally culminated with the elimination of people through disappearances;
  4. The system of law enforcement in Sri Lanka is so weak that it cannot cope with any crisis situation. It can only cope with petty crimes. The only way that it can deal with anything more than petty crime is by the use of direct violence. Thus, disappearances have been a necessary by-product of this law enforcement system. This implies that the police system which evolved during colonial times has not developed much further and is not really sophisticated;
  5. Disappearances were the result of a very deliberate policy and were implemented meticulously according to a plan. Law enforcement officers received instructions to arrest, kill and dispose of the bodies. Enacting Emergency Regulations made this legally possible. The police were constantly coached on how to carry out killings, and there were methods of supervising how many were to be killed in each area. Incentives were given through the distribution of money to killer squads. Liquor was also provided to these squads to keep them in a mood conducive to participation in such activities. Lists of those who were to be killed were distributed. Special interrogations were held in special places for interrogation. In many instances, the decision to kill was made during these interrogations, and people were murdered in the secret surroundings of these places. Law enforcement officers mingled with illegal elements in undertaking these activities. Politicians were given direct access to these groups so that the groups could execute the wishes of these politicians;
  6. It is traditional in Sri Lanka to let loose the law enforcement agencies in times of tension and crisis and to allow suppression by whatever means. This tradition has its roots in the times of rule by kings and continued during the colonial era. After independence, on every occasion of crisis, similar methods were followed,. Examples include the JVP uprising in 1971, the use of violence against the Tamils in 1983 and the general way that violence has been used in the North. This implies that the use of restraint by law enforcement officers has not yet become part of a deeply rooted legal culture. In fact, the legal culture is a very fragile one; and
  7. The ruling party wanted to create an unstable situation as a pretext to suppress the JVP in order to be able to eliminate opposition before facing a general election.

Theories behind the Government's Failure to Prosecute Cases of Disappearances

The following are some of the reasons that have been discussed as reasons for the government's failure to prosecute in cases of disappearance:

  1. Ideologically, the new government has not broken away from the earlier government's way of dealing with protests emanating from below;
  2. The government has no will to prosecute law enforcement officers except in a few show trials, which are merely held to appease public anger and international criticism. The government, however, is willing to tolerate excesses as a necessary means of effective social control. This implies that the political authorities in Sri Lanka are not willing to undertake the task of seriously reforming the law enforcement agencies;
  3. Because of the military situation in the North, the government is in no position to undertake any disciplinary action against past acts of human rights violations as it might lead to resistance from military personnel. In the South too, due to the protests that may arise as a result of the economic policies pursued by the government, the government is willing to give a free hand to the police;
  4. Any attempt to take disciplinary action will involve some high-ranking officers in the law enforcement agencies who have been involved in causing these disappearances. This may well create a crisis within these agencies. However, if only low-ranking officers are prosecuted, they may take the position that they only carried out the orders of high-ranking officers, and they may give details of these orders; and
  5. Even if the government wants to prosecute, the department of the Attorney General does not have the capacity to investigate and prosecute such vast numbers of cases. It is a very small unit with a limited number of lawyers operating within a limited budget. The lawyers working for the unit have a heavy workload in criminal, civil and administrative law cases and also in representing the government in many other tribunals and courts. The prosecution of disappearances involves an enormous increase in the number of legal and supplementary staff and other resources. There has been no attempt to expand these resources to the degree required or to make a suggestion to create an alternative method of prosecution.

Posted on 1999-01-01



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Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
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