Rights organizations and the families of people considered "forcibly disappeared," such as those who have been missing since the end of Sri Lanka's long civil war, are pressing the United Nations for answers to unresolved war crimes. Many have been waiting three years since the U.N. adopted a resolution calling on Colombo to investigate allegations of war crimes. Now patience is running thin and they are demanding a roadmap and fixed deadlines. Relatives have been staging demonstrations since January 2017 at roadside huts in several war-hit cities in the north and east of the country. They have stepped these up in recent weeks leading up the 37th session of the U.N. Human Rights Council
(UNHRC), which ran from Feb. 26 to March 23 in Geneva. Human rights defender Gopal Krishnan Rajkumar, who is from the Tamil ethnic group, has been protesting around the clock at a roadside hut at the town of Vavuniya in Northern Province.
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He slammed the government and Tamil politicians for ignoring the families' demands, adding that people are losing faith in their leaders' abilities to see justice served for the war victims. Human rights defender Gopal Krishnan Rajkumar, a Tamil, conducts protests at a roadside hut in Vavuniya, Northern Province, pressing Colombo to launch probes into unresolved cases of suspected war crimes. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
"The government has failed to establish various transitional justice mechanisms to investigate allegations of war crimes and ensure justice," he said. "We've lost all hope in the government but we will continue our struggle in the heat and rain," said Rajkumar, whose group sent representatives to the U.N. meeting. "It's important to see some sign that the government is willing to address these past violations of human rights and return all of the land that the military has [unfairly] occupied," he said. "There should be a roadmap for full implementation of the U.N. resolution under the auspices of an international mechanism," he added. The U.N. adopted a resolution in 2015 and recommended establishing a truth-seeking mechanism, a special court to tackle the more egregious crimes committed during the final stages of the 1983-2009 civil war. It also advocated broad legal and security sector reforms to improve the human rights situation in the country, expressing frustration at the government
for dragging its heels on the matter. The army finally defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in 2009 after an intermittent 26-year-long insurgency during which the separatist fighters fought to establish an independent state in the northeast of the island. Former president Mahinda Rajapaksa oversaw the closing chapters of the bloody conflict and continually rejected international involvement
. The lack of closure has taken its toll on many of the families of those killed or missing during the war. Relatives of those missing from the war who are suspected of having been 'forcibly disappeared' have demonstrated without end since January 2017 in Vavuniya. (Photo by Quintus Colombage/ucanews.com)
In fact, the majority of protestors are elderly people — mothers and fathers of those who never returned — who are physically and psychologically scarred from the war. They demand answers and say they are growing increasingly frustrated with both Colombo and the U.N. Sinnasami Nallathambi, 68, is one of hundreds of Tamils who are waiting for any news or update about what happened their offspring. Military personnel arrested his son on Dec. 29, 2008, as part of a round-up of villagers considered potentially hostile to the regime and the man has not been heard from since. "The current government and previous regimes must be held to account," said Nallathambi. "Many Tamils surrendered their loved ones to the military, trusting the government's promises that they would be kept safe and their lives not endangered," he added. Meanwhile, the government has been criticized for ongoing rights abuses against Tamils, including allegations of rape, torture and enforced disappearances. According to the U.N., the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone. U.N. member states said during the recently ended session in Geneva that Colombo has been showing unacceptably slow progress in investigating these cases. The international body has also taken flak for not applying more pressure on Sri Lanka and plodding forward in establishing transitional justice mechanisms, although it has welcomed Colombo's engagement. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also taken issue with the country's Prevention of Terrorism Act, which it claims leaves much room for military and other officials to abuse people's rights. Calls to repeal the act have apparently gone unanswered. HRW has pressed the U.N. body to keep monitoring the government closely to ensure it meets its commitments in full. Colombo has allocated 1.3 billion rupees (US$8.33 million) from its 2018 budget to set up an Office of Missing Persons. Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena, who also serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, appointed commissioners to run the office for a period of three years at the start of the Geneva conference. However, Tamil civil groups have criticized the appointments for including military personnel and only two Tamil commissioners.