Commissions of Inquiry: Sri Lanka
Commissions of Inquiry: Commissions of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons
Duration: 1995 – 2000
Charter: Presidential Proclamations
Commissioners: 3 for each commission (in total 11 commissioners)
Report: Public reports
Commissions of Inquiry: Commissions of Inquiry into the Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons (Three “Zonal Commissions”: three commissions for different geographic parts of Sri Lanka and one “All Island” Commission to follow-up investigations)
Dates of Operation: Three Zonal Commissions: January 1995 - September 1997 (1 year, 8 months); “All Island” Commission: 1998 - 2000 (2 years)
Background: Sri Lanka has been wracked by violent ethnic conflict for 25 years, suffering more than 100,000 conflict-related deaths. Successive attempts to end fighting between Sri Lankan Tamils, traditionally inhabiting the northern and eastern regions, and Sinhalese, concentrated in the central and southern regions, have been tried since the 1950s, but with little success. In 1987, the Sri Lankan government became embroiled in war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Anti-Indian nationalist sentiment in the south fueled an uprising, which was met with harsh government repression. In 1990, President Ranasinghe Premadasa, hoping to pave the way for a negotiated settlement, ordered Indian peacekeeping forces to leave and opened negotiations with the Tamil Tigers who soon broke from the talks and stepped up violence. Throughout this time, the LTTE fought a guerrilla war, bombed central government targets, and captured territory in the north and east. The government response included widespread killings and “disappearances” of suspected insurgents.
On December 9, 1994, President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga issued three Presidential Proclamations, appointing three different Commissions of Inquiry to look into the “Involuntary Removal or Disappearance of Persons” over the course of the conflict.
The three Zonal Commissions were each responsible for the following provinces: i) the Central, North West, North Central and Uva Provinces; ii) the Northern and the Eastern Provinces; iii) the Western, Southern, and Sabaragamuwa Provinces. In 1998, the work of these three commissions was complemented by an “All Island” Commission, which was tasked to investigate cases that the Zonal Commissions were not able to address.
Charter: Presidential Proclamations, December 9, 1994. The terms of reference of the three respective commissions were published in Gazettes No. 855/18 (PDF-1021KB), 855/19 (PDF-816KB), and 855/20 (PDF-1105KB) of January 25, 1995. By Proclamation No: AP/6/N/214/97 (PDF-730KB) of 30th April 1998, an “All Island” Commission was mandated to investigate complaints not investigated by the Zonal Commissions.
Mandate: The three Zonal Commissions were created to investigate whether individuals had "disappeared" from their homes between January 1, 1988 and December 1994, when the commissions were created. The commissions’ mandate was to determine the fate of the disappeared and identify appropriate charges against those responsible for the abductions. The three commissions had identical mandates, but they were interpreted differently. An additional commission, referred to as the “All Island” Commission, was mandated to investigate disappearances not investigated by the three previous commissions.
Commissioners and Structure: Each commission was comprised of three members. The “All Island” Commission was chaired by Ms. Manouri Kokila Muttetuwegama, a Sri Lankan human rights activist. Ms. Manouri Kokila Muttetuwegama also chaired the commission for the Western zone. The commission for the North and Eastern region was chaired by Mr. Krishnapillai Palakidnar Esquire, and Mr. Thirunavukkarasu Suntheralingam Esquire chaired the commission for the Central region. In total, eleven individuals worked as commissioners, and they were all appointed by the President.
Report: The three Zonal Commissions jointly submitted their reports to the president in September 1997 and made it public in 1998. The “All Island” Commission issued a report in May 2000 and made the report public in June 2002. All of the reports are available online.
- The three Zonal Commissions together investigated over 27,000 complaints and established more than 15,000 cases of disappearances.
- 10,136 complaints not pursued by the Zonal Commissions were transmitted to the “All Island” Commission. It established evidence of 4,473 disappearances in addition to the cases documented by the other commissions. When completing its work, the “All Island” Commission referred 16,305 additional complaints, which it was prohibited from reviewing per its mandate, to the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission.
- All four commissions’ reports mention that excessive power of the state and the claim that all dissenters are traitors contributed to the emergence of violent anti-government movements.
- Each of the four commissions made detailed recommendations with respect to compensation for and rehabilitation of victims and survivors of political violence.
- The Zonal Commissions identified several thousand suspected perpetrators in more than 1,000 cases. In addition, the “All Island” Commission identified several hundred individuals allegedly responsible for disappearances.
- They recommended the establishment of an Independent Human Rights Prosecutor to investigate and prosecute human rights violations in general and disappearances in particular and the prosecution of cases already under investigation.
- The commissions recommended allowing forms of democratic pressure and protest and the appointment of a "panel of lay visitors" to monitor each police area.
- They also recommended that the commissions’ reports should be widely disseminated and translated in Sinhala and Tamil.
- In 1994, the Sri Lankan Human Rights Commission started processing the 16,305 complaints referred to it by the “All Island” Commission and eventually identified 2,127 cases to be investigated further. However, in July 2006, the Human Rights Commission decided not to pursue the analysis of these cases “unless special directions are received from the Government”.
- A “Presidential Commission on Ethnic Violence” (PDF-501KB) was appointed in August 2001 to investigate the ethnic violence beginning from 1981 until December 1984, a period earlier than the time covered by the previous commissions’ mandate. The United Nations expressed concern at the limited mandate, which excludes investigations of summary executions and human rights violations committed between 1984 and 1988.
- Various unsolved political murders, renewed disappearances, the use of torture by police throughout the island, and stalled investigations into disappearance cases already handed over to the prosecutors in the attorney general's office leave doubts about the extend of reforms.
- Of the several thousand suspected perpetrators that the commissions identified, less than 500 were indicted and even fewer were convicted. Evidence gathered by the commissions is not admissible at proceedings but rather must come from investigations conducted by a special police unit.
- Compensation was paid to the relatives of some of the victims.
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Hayner, Priscilla B. Unspeakable Truths: Facing the Challenge of Truth Commissions. New York: Routledge, 2002.
Human Rights Watch. " Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for "Disappearances" and Abductions in Sri Lanka", March 5, 2008. Available at http://www.hrw.org/en/reports/2008/03/05/recurring-nightmare (accessed April 25, 2009).
Nesiah, Vasuki and Alan Keenan. "Human Rights and Sacred Cows: Framing Violence, Disappearing Struggles." In From the Margins of Globalization: Critical Perspectives on Human Rights, edited by Neve Gordon, 258. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2004.
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Silva, Romesh, Britto Fernando, and Vasuki Nesiah. Clarifying the Past & Commemorating Sri Lanka's Disappeared: A Descriptive Statistical Analysis of Enforced Disappearances Documented by Families of the Disappeared Families of the Disappeared; Human Rights Analysis Group Benetech; International Center for Transitional Justice, 2007. Available at http://www.hrdag.org/resources/publications/FoD-HRDAG-ICTJ-2007-10-27-report.pdf (accessed June 25, 2008).
"Sri Lanka - Reports on Disappearances." disappearances.org: Cyberspace Graveyard for Disappeared Persons. Available at http://www.disappearances.org/news/mainfile.php/reports_srilanka/ (accessed June 25, 2008).
Wickremasinghe, Suriya, and Nadesasn Centre. E-Mail Correspondence, March 9, 2009 and subsequent post-mailing of Presidential Proclamations, April 2009.