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1. Introduction

Since independence, emergency powers have been repeatedly invoked in Sri Lanka. Although the stated objective of imposing emergency rule is the maintenance of law and order, emergency powers have often enabled the police and the security forces to act with scant regard for the law, or for the fundamental rights of individuals. Indeed, at times, emergency regulations have facilitated gross violations of human rights by the police and the security forces, including causing the disappearances of tens of thousands of persons held in the custody of the police or the security forces. The requirement under the 1978 Constitution for the declaration of a state of emergency to be debated and approved by parliament every month has not inhibited the continuance of emergency rule.

 This chapter reviews the recent history of disappearances in Sri Lanka, being the first time that a separate chapter devoted to this subject has been included in a Sri Lanka: State of Human Rights report.  It draws particularly on the findings of the zonal Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances that were established by President Kumaratunga in November 1998, and also reviews the other institutions set up by both the present and previous governments as an ostensible means of curbing disappearances. Information relating to reported disappearances in 2000 is also included. However, it needs to be emphasised at the outset that no official institution other than the infamous Board of Investigation into Disappearances in Jaffna consisting of Defence Ministry officials has been empowered to date to investigate the many hundreds of disappearances which were reported in the North and East prior to 1st January 1998, in the context of civil strife in this area. Thus, whereas the scale and pattern of disappearances which occurred in the South during and after the period of the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) uprising, and in the North and East since 1988, have now at least received some degree of official recognition, the same cannot be said for those disappearances which occurred in the North and East in earlier years.

Over the years, the rate at which people have disappeared has peaked at certain times, often in response to acts of violence against the state and in the context of a rigorous imposition of emergency rule. Landmark events in Sri Lanka’s history of disappearances include: the JVP uprising of 1971; the increased militancy of Tamil youth following the communal riots of 1983; the signing of the Indo-Lanka Accord in 1987 after which the JVP started disrupting civil administration in the South; the presidential and parliamentary elections of  1989 and 1990, followed by the breakdown of the peace talks between the government and the LTTE in June 1990; and the suicide bomb attack on Maj. Gen. Hapangama, the Army Commander in charge of the Jaffna Town in July 1996.

In 1989 and 1990, when parliamentary and presidential elections were held during the JVP insurgency, the rate of disappearances reached particularly alarming levels. The provisions of the Prevention of Terrorism Act No. 48 of 1979 (PTA) and the Emergency Regulations (ER) promulgated under section 5 of the Public Security Ordinance No. 25 of 1947 (PSO), gave the police and security forces wide powers of arrest and detention, and enabled detainees to be held incommunicado for long periods of time. In addition, the emergency regulations were in force at times which permitted the security forces and the police to dispose of bodies without post-mortem examinations or inquests. This facilitated the cover up of deliberate and unlawful killings of those in custody or otherwise, and the perpetration of torture and disappearance with impunity by the police and the armed forces. Many of the tens of thousands of people who disappeared at this time had been detained under the provisions of the PTA and the ER; others were simply abducted on mere suspicion without reference to any legal provision whatever.  Article 15(7) of the Constitution of Sri Lanka, however, provides for the restriction of rights declared and recognised in Articles 12, 13(1), 13(2) and 14

in the interest of national security, public order and the protection of public health and morality or for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others …. for the general welfare of a democratic society.

Most victims of disappearance have been young men, detained in the context of armed opposition against the state by Tamil separatist groups in the North and East, and by members of the predominantly Sinhala JVP in the South. At times when the police and security forces were able to commit gross violations of human rights with impunity, leading to many thousands of disappearances, so too were other unscrupulous people able to settle personal and political grievances by passing false information to the police and the security forces in the hope that their rivals would be disposed of. Sri Lanka became notorious internationally during this period for its violations of human rights. According to the United Nations Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances, Sri Lanka ranked second only to Iraq for the number of disappearance cases reported to the Working Group.[1]


[1] See “ Intergrity of the Peanka: State of Human Rigrson”  in  Sri Lhts 2000  (Law & Society Trust, Colombo, 1999) ,  n 16.

Posted on 2003-06-15


Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons
Asian Human Rights Commission

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