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Sri Lankans still searching for missing sons

UN considers independent inquiry into rights abuses in Sri Lanka war which left 100,000 dead and many missing.

Last updated: 26 Mar 2014 14:14
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Jaffna, Sri Lanka - For the past six years, Perinparani Thirunavukkarasu, 46, has been searching for her son who was snatched in front of her eyes in Jaffna, the former war-zone of northern Sri Lanka.

Thirunavukkarasu is among thousands of people whose relatives disappeared or were killed during the final stages of the civil war between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

"My son was abducted by eight men in military uniform on field motorbikes in 2008," Thirunavukkarasu told Al Jazeera.

She said she was told by prison officials that her son had been transferred to Boosa detention camp in the south of the country. "I visited the camp four or five times, but did not find him there," Thirunavukkarasu said, tears welling up in her eyes.

The 26-year-war ended with a large-scale military campaign against the LTTE, popularly known as the Tamil Tigers. Ethnic Tamils in the north and northeast have, for decades, complained of discrimination at the hands of the majority Sinhalese-led governments.

The United Nations estimates the conflict claimed at least 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009 in Sri Lanka. The final assault left thousands dead and led to accusations that both Sri Lankan troops and Tiger fighters were guilty of war crimes.

Now, the United Nations Human Rights Council is to decide on a resolution which, if approved, would establish an independent inquiry into allegations that Sri Lankan troops killed up to 40,000 civilians after ordering them into a no-fire zone.

The draft resolution - sponsored by the United States, United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, Mauritius, Montenegro and Macedonia - was tabled at the UNHRC in Geneva on Tuesday.

'Deteriorating situation'

The US and UK have consistently called for such an investigation, as recommended by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, whose report, issued in February, concluded that the Sri Lankan government had not carried out credible investigations.

In a statement made last Friday, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the US "continues to pursue a resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC", and is undertaking the action "due to our support for the Sri Lankan people and strong concerns about the deteriorating human rights situation in Sri Lanka".

I have been visiting prisons and detention centres in the country, but found them nowhere.

- Ponnamma Kanthasamy, relative of missing person

However, Sri Lanka said the 47-member UN rights body remains divided on the issue, and the US is applying pressure on all countries to vote for the resolution. 

"We can clearly see a division among members, this, itself, I view as a triumph for us. This was because we could convince some of them with our progress achieved since the war ended," said Mahinda Samarasinghe, Sri Lanka’s human rights envoy.

A study published last week by South African human rights lawyer and UN adviser Yasmin Sooka, alleged that Sri Lankan troops carried out sexual abuses of ethnic minority Tamils following the war’s end, and that the "highest levels" of Sri Lanka’s government were complicit in the crimes.

The Sri Lanka government has not addressed the allegations in Sooka’s report. It has consistently denied allegations that its forces killed civilians, in turn accusing the defeated rebels of using Tamils as human shields.

But the families of those missing and unaccounted for still have questions for the government.

Ponnamma Kanthasamy, from the Tamil-majority district of Kilinochchi, said her son-in-law surrendered along with his wife and two young children on May 18, 2009 - the last day of the war. She hasn’t seen any of them since.

"My son-in-law, who served as an intelligence officer of the LTTE, surrendered to government security forces along with his wife and several senior combatants," said Kanthasamy, 61. "I have been visiting prisons and detention centres in the country, but found them nowhere."

'Credible allegations'

Jayakumari Palendran has been fighting for information on her missing son [Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai/Al Jazeera]

A year after the war, President Mahinda Rajapaksa appointed the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) that began its hearings with victims and survivors.

Rajapaksa also appointed a commission to investigate human rights complaints from the northern and eastern provinces in August 2013, just before Pillay’s visit to the island nation. But the commission was mandated to look into alleged crimes between 1990 and 2009 - and relatives of those who disappeared after that say they feel helpless.

"I cannot go and make a complaint as my husband was abducted in January 2010," said Sandya Priyangani Eknalygoda, the wife of missing political cartoonist Prageeth Eknalygoda.

Steven Ratner was on the UN Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon convened in 2010. He told Al Jazeera by phone that government investigations to date have not met international standards.

"When a government is faced with credible allegations of violations of human rights and humanitarian law, it has an obligation to investigate, and the government hasn’t done that," Ratner said. "There has been a culture of impunity in Sri Lanka for at least a generation. When you have a culture of impunity, the government thinks it can do all sorts of things, and individuals think they can do all sorts of things if they’re not going to get prosecuted by the government."

About 16,000 applications have been received by Sri Lanka’s commission from families of people who disappeared during the war - in a country whose number of disappeared people ranks second only to Iraq.

When a government is faced with credible allegations of violations of human rights and humanitarian law, it has an obligation to investigate, and the government hasn’t done that.

- Steven Ratner, UN Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka 

Human rights activists have faced intimidation, threats, and surveillance. Mass protests organised by the families of the missing have been blocked by the government in the past, while pro-government rallies have been allowed in the capital, Colombo.

Last week Jayakumari Palendran, a prominent campaigner for the families of the missing, was detained in Kilinochchi under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. She remains in detention.

Palendran, 50, has been fighting for information on her teenage son, a Tiger fighter who surrendered in 2009.

"She was arrested for harbouring an armed criminal wanted in connection with an ongoing investigation," Brigadier Ruwan Wanigasooriya, the military spokesman, told Al Jazeera.

Two other activists, Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan, who had been working with families of the disappeared - were arrested on charges of terrorism, but released after international criticism - in particular from the US State Department.

Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan government has hit back at its critics and denounced the proposed resolution before the UNHRC.

"It is a resolution completely at odds with the traditions of the [UN] Human Rights Council," Rajiva Wijesinha, a member of parliament and adviser to the president, told Al Jazeera.

"It is a cunning piece of work in that it conflates serious issues such as war crimes - on a scale that never occurred, and for which there is no evidence - with aberrations that are minimal in comparison with those that occur in other countries - including those which initiated the resolution."

Thirunavukkarasu is demanding what she considers a proper investigations to find out her son’s fate. But in the fog of war and years after the fact, the search may continue to be illusive.

With additional reporting by Al Jazeera's Rahul Radhakrishnan

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Al Jazeera
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