Enforced Disappearances – the ’White Flag Surrenders’
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On International Women’s Day, March 8 this year, hundreds of Tamil women marched through Mullaitivu, a town in the North of Sri Lanka protesting against the government’s failure to investigate the enforced disappearance of their loved ones who surrendered to the Sri Lankan Army’s custody when the civil war officially ended on May 18, 2009.
Sri Lanka experienced one of the longest civil wars in Asia, which itself came in the wake of two periods of mass atrocities (1971 and 1988-89). The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought for a separate Tamil homeland in the North of the Island, but were later proscribed around the world as a terrorist group. The LTTE, one of the few liberation movements with an air force and naval capacity, though considered unbeatable, were finally defeated by the Sri Lankan Army in May 2009.
The army’s victory came at a terrible cost, with tens of thousands of civilians dead and injured in flagrant violation of international humanitarian law. More than 100 000 Tamils are estimated to have been disappeared in the final phase of the civil war between September 2008 and May 2009, including LTTE members and civilians who surrendered into army custody on or around 18 May 2009.
Sri Lanka has the second largest number of enforced disappearances cases in the world after Iraq, based on reports from the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances report.
White Flag Surrenders
The political wing of the LTTE leadership, including Balasingham Nadesan and Seevaratnam Puleedevan, negotiated a surrender with Mahinda Rajapaksa, then President (the brother of the incumbent president Gotabaya Rajapaksa) between May 16 and 17, 2009, using a number of interlocutors including the journalist Marie Colvin, a senior UN diplomat, and representatives from Norway and the United States. Mahinda Rajapaksa agreed to accept their surrender, instructing that the LTTE should carry a white flag.
In the early hours of May 18, 2009, the LTTE’s political leadership crossed into the area controlled by the Sri Lankan military. Eyewitness’ testimony in possession of the International Truth and Justice Project (ITJP) confirms that the LTTE leadership surrendered unarmed, carrying a white flag. Later on, their dead bodies were seen lying in a ditch quite close to where they had surrendered, apparently summarily executed.
Photographs of their dead bodies, analysed by an official UN investigation, indicate that they had probably been shot in the back. The Government of Sri Lanka has until now refused to investigate or confirm officially that the LTTE leadership was lured into a trap to surrender and then shot in the back, violating the rights of victims to the truth about the fate and whereabouts of their loved ones.
Later that day, Father Frances, a Catholic Tamil priest, led the surrender of at least 500 people, including LTTE members, their families and children into the army-controlled area. An eyewitness recounted his own chilling story of how he prepared a list of those who surrendered and boarded the military buses, at the request of Father Frances and the Sri Lankan military.
He too boarded the bus but decided to get off, telling the military official in charge that he was going to fetch his family members to board the bus with him. He relates how he disappeared into the crowd of civilians also waiting to surrender and his anguish at learning that neither Father Frances nor any of those who boarded the military buses were never seen again.
Tens of thousands of civilians surrendered into the custody of the Sri Lankan Army at the end of the conflict. Around 12 000 suspected LTTE members were put in ‘rehabilitation camps’, undergoing the government’s ‘re-socialisation programme’ for former combatants, and who later reporting being tortured, including sexually.
Banners held up by the mothers of the disappeared in Mullaitivu, read: “Freedom in the South, repression in the North”; “We need justice in the 46th session of the Human Rights Council”. Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights’s report to the 46th Session of the Human Rights Council, which began in February this year, warns of the Sri Lankan Government’s failure to address past violations.
The report stresses that nearly 12 years after the end of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka, impunity for gross human rights violations has become entrenched within state structures and that the current Government is pro-actively obstructing investigations and trials.
The UN Human Rights Council, reformed to amplify the voices of victims, is now the terrain of powerful member states who oppose the cries of victims for justice and accountability, making a mockery of human rights. The hopes of the mothers of the disappeared in Sri Lanka are rapidly fading as they wait in vain for justice at the UN Human Rights Council.
* Yasmin Sooka is a human rights lawyer and Executive Director of the International Truth and Justice Project Sri Lanka.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.