(Editor’s Note: This is the latest in a series on the spotlight placed on allegations of war crimes and other abuses in Sri Lanka during the Feb. 22 to March 23, 2021, session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. The series includes voices from former U.N. officials, international NGOs, human rights litigators, and researchers. Find links to the full series, as installments are published, at the end of the first article, Spotlight on Sri Lanka as UN Human Rights Council Prepares Next Session.) 

Tamil families of the disappeared marched through the streets of Kilinochchi in Sri Lanka’s Northern Province on Feb. 20 to mark four years since they began roadside protests that quickly spread as they demanded answers about the fate of their loved ones. Sri Lanka’s decades-long armed conflict resulted in the forcible disappearance of an estimated 100,000 people. Such disappearances affected all communities on the island, but the vast majority of victims, particularly during the last phase of the armed conflict, were Tamil. Most often, they disappeared at the hands of the State’s security forces.

The tragic stories of how children, wives, and husbands were disappeared have been retold by their families and others countless times in processes promising justice. But accountability has yet to materialize. The protests that began in 2017 — and which I have had the privilege to witness and support – spread to all eight districts of the Northern and Eastern Provinces. The actions have brought together thousands of mainly Tamil women, but also men, who have experienced the pain of having a loved one forcibly disappeared.

To date, although at least 78 of the protestors have passed away over the past four years, the survivors have not relented, nor sadly has the government taken any steps to address their plight. Their struggle exemplifies the failures of Sri Lanka’s “domestic” transitional justice initiatives. It also defies internationally and domestically imposed notions of “victimhood.”

In November 2017, I sat in a multi-day workshop in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo held by a European embassy bringing together leaders of the associations of Tamil families of the disappeared who were protesting in the North-East, as well as Sinhalese families of the missing and disappeared in the South, and activists working with both groups. The workshop focused on transitional justice, with some experts making the pitch that families of the disappeared should engage with the government’s new Office of Missing Persons (OMP). When women leading the Tamil families argued that they had no trust in the OMP, certain experts derided their views, suggesting they were being influenced by politicians.

The experts clearly failed to grasp the depth of knowledge and understanding among the families about the myriad obstacles that block their quest for truth and justice in Sri Lanka. The exchange reflected a familiar scenario in transitional justice discussions: when victims speak not only about their own personal victimization but also about systemic issues, they are viewed as “politicized” and their concerns are diminished.

The Government’s Failure Was Predictable

But Tamil families of the disappeared saw in 2017 what would take two more years for transitional justice experts to understand: that the “‘National Unity Government” had no intention of following through on its international commitments to accountability and truth. The reason the families knew this early on is because they had already searched for years for their loved ones – the armed conflict had ended in 2009 — and had sincerely tried to engage with the government that had been newly elected in 2015. They had first-hand experience of its unwillingness and inability to tackle a key factor in getting to the truth: the military, the main perpetrator of disappearances, particularly during the last phase of the armed conflict. The families knew that, without international pressure and action, truth and justice would remain elusive.

In 2016, the year before they began their protests, many of the heads of the associations of Tamil families of the disappeared (they now are formally organized under the umbrella Association for Relatives of Enforced Disappearances, North and East) took on leadership positions within Zonal Task Forces of the new government-created Consultation Task Force (CTF). The government had promoted the task force as an independent civil society-led body that would consult with communities across Sri Lanka on transitional justice initiatives set out in United Nations Human Rights Council Resolution 30/1.

The leaders of the associations are themselves victims who by that point had spent years organizing search parties to go from one military camp or police station to another, seeking information about their disappeared family members. They informally organized to protect themselves and sustain their struggle, as women entering these military camps were themselves at risk. One woman told me she wouldn’t be alive today if not for other women who had come with her on her visit to a military camp where she suspected her husband had been taken. The group protected her by stopping soldiers from forcefully separating her from them.

Despite years of failed commissions, broken government promises, and a well-founded mistrust in State-led initiatives, many of these women chose to risk their reputations in their communities to participate in the CTF’s consultations. They did so because they truly believed this new government would support their search for answers and the possible return of their loved ones, who they still believed were alive.

Just months later, however, in August 2016, parliament passed the Office of Missing Persons bill without a vote, before the CTF had completed its consultations. The government failed to even consider an interim report on the OMP that the CTF had rushed to complete.

And then in December 2016, when the CTF completed its final report, President Maithripala Sirisena refused to meet with the task force to accept it. Instead, in January 2017, the CTF handed its report over to former President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who at the time was the head of the Office of National Unity and Reconciliation. Recommendations included endorsing a hybrid court and ensuring there were clear links between the different transitional justice mechanisms so that they would work in coordination. This was particularly important to families of the disappeared, who were worried the OMP could turn into another truth commission that amounted to nothing if it wasn’t clearly linked to a justice mechanism.

Senior government officials proceeded to criticize the CTF for stepping beyond its bounds to talk about accountability. For Tamil families of the disappeared across the country’s North-East, this was a painful turning point. They had invested in the consultation process and felt the reports reflected their needs and the real way forward to truth and justice. But for them, the government response only reaffirmed its continued unwillingness to heed their voices.

Turn to Protest

Accordingly, in February 2017, inspired by “Las Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo” in Argentina, Tamil families of the disappeared began protesting in Kilinochchi. The protests quickly spread to all eight districts of the North-East. On May 30, 2017, to mark 100 days of protest, thousands of families gathered in Kilinochchi and blocked the main highway linking the country’s South to the North. They only relented after securing a meeting with Sirisena.

In the first week of June 2017, I sat with other civil society activists in the offices of the Adayaalam Centre for Policy Research, helping the eight women leaders of the Tamil associations of families of the disappeared prepare for that meeting with Sirisena. In a letter they gave him, they asked him to release lists of 1) all those who surrendered to or were detained by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces during and after the war, particularly during the last stages; 2) all secret detention centers run by the Sri Lankan Armed Forces and Police throughout and after the war; and 3) all detainees held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) from 1983 onwards.

Coming back from that meeting on June 12, the women were hopeful. Sirisena had agreed to ask the military for the list of anyone who had surrendered and a list of secret detention centers, and the family leaders were confident he would follow through.

While Sirisena reportedly did make that request, the military did not cooperate. After all, there was no real mechanism to hold them accountable for complying with the request or incentivize their cooperation. Months passed, and Tamil families continued their roadside protests, tolerating the incredibly hot and dusty conditions of their protest locations, which were built from tarp and corrugated metal sheets, and open to the elements. Meanwhile, transitional justice academics and experts from the West descended on Sri Lanka, eager to take the stories of these women, while doing little to avoid re-traumatization. Soon, the families grew suspicious of these extractive visitors, recognizing the need to protect their own mental health and stopped giving interviews so readily.

Shifting Appeals to Calls for International Action

So it was understandable that, in the workshop in Colombo in the first week of November 2017, when transitional justice experts pressed the protesting Tamil families of the disappeared to engage with the OMP, the families pushed back – not as spoilers but as the real experts. They were skeptical that the military would give answers to a flawed government entity, when even the president of the country had not been able to obtain those answers. The families’ point was made manifestly clear two weeks later, on Nov. 16, 2017, when Sirisena finally formally met with them again, only to callously reject their demands and storm out of the meeting.

Tamil families of the disappeared were devastated and incensed. They shifted their appeals to the international community, realizing once more that they would not get the truth and justice they deserved through the Sri Lankan government. But the appeal for international action made the families targets of criticism from the government in Colombo and even from certain segments of civil society as being “politicized” and “disruptive.” Many civil society organizations made efforts to work with other families of the disappeared who appeared more open to engaging the OMP and who were not so “loud.” The protesting Tamil families of the disappeared were no longer “good victims” who could fit within convenient transitional justice paradigms.

But the associations of Tamil families of the disappeared continued their struggle regardless of these criticisms. In March 2018, another civil society activist and I accompanied four of the associations’ leaders to Geneva, where they spoke in the plenary session of the Human Rights Council and made their case to international diplomats. They became an indomitable force in Tamil politics, rightfully speaking on the politics of justice and accountability based on their direct experience. The mothers and wives of the disappeared leading these associations grew adept at utilizing their “victimhood” as a source of agency and power, steeling themselves against attempts to speak for them or monopolize their struggle. Even in the face of an increase in surveillance and harassment by Sri Lankan security forces in 2018, they refused to back down and collectively organized creative solutions to protect themselves.

Continuing the Struggle Amid an Escalating Crackdown

Since Gotabaya Rajapaksa returned to power in 2019 as president, the security forces have cracked down even further on protesting Tamil families of the disappeared. Under the guise of Covid-19 prevention, police have sought orders against many of these women to block their protests. One mother of the disappeared I spoke with earlier this month said the police had obtained orders restricting her from protesting in four different districts. Many of these women are now receiving multiple calls a day from intelligence officers, and even dealing with visits to their homes. Several have been called in for interrogation by the infamous Terrorism Investigation Department, notorious for torture. The Sri Lankan government has gone from dismissing their cries for justice, to actively seeking to silence them.

Yet even today, four years on, they sit in roadside makeshift tents, suffering the elements and the hovering security forces, dedicated to their struggle to find the truth about their disappeared loved ones, some still hoping to be reunited one day. On the weekend of Feb. 20, they marched through the streets of Kilinochchi carrying clay pots with hot coals on their heads, a traditional Tamil practice to make a vow — in their case the vow to seek justice.

The long-term psychological toll of enforced disappearances on the families of victims cannot be overstated. And it is time their views are given the credence they deserve by international institutions and leaders. The Association for Relatives of Enforced Disappearances, North and East, signed a letter put forward by Tamil political parties and civil society last month. The letter calls for the situation in Sri Lanka to be referred to the International Criminal Court; for increased monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, including through a field presence; and for the establishment of an international evidence-gathering mechanism.

As the experiences of Tamil families of the disappeared have shown, there is no hope for truth and justice domestically in Sri Lanka. Even at the peak of the National Unity Government, the highest office in the country could not or would not provide answers, because the military remained an impenetrable force. The only way to provide these families their long-overdue answers and justice to all victims in Sri Lanka is to break the seal around the military through international accountability.

(Author’s note: This article is based on work I have done with protesting Tamil families of the disappeared since 2017. Families of the disappeared are not monolithic, as enforced disappearances have affected communities and families differently. This article focuses on the associations of families of the disappeared in the North-East, who represent a vast swathe of the affected Tamil families, most of whom lost relatives who were disappeared by the State.)

IMAGE: Leaders of the Associations of Families of the Disappeared of the North-East in Sri Lanka leave a meeting with President Maithripala Sirisena in Jaffna, June 12, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Dharsha Jegatheeswaran)