Tamil women in a protest holding photos of their missing loved ones at a demonstration in Colombo in this file photo. (ucanews.com photo)
Journalists in Sri Lanka are demanding the government swiftly passes a new law to class forced disappearances as a criminal offense.
The U.N. Working Group on Enforced and Involuntary Disappearances ranks Sri Lanka as the second highest country for such incidences.
Addressing a May 16 forum organized by Sri Lanka Working Journalists Association for journalists, law makers and civil rights activists in Colombo, Deepika Udugama, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission, said many journalists and political activists have disappeared and that "their relatives want to know where their loved ones are."
The Sri Lankan government ratified the U.N. Convention against enforced disappearances in 2016 and has proposed draft legislation but Udagama declared the bill must be enshrined in law.
"The country has failed to act and there is an urgent need for a legal framework to fight against enforced disappearances," Udugama said.
Father Reid Shelton Fernando, a human rights activist, said disappearance is a crime against humanity and called for the act to be passed so investigations could begin.
"It is the responsibility of the government to provide true information on missing persons to their relatives since they are citizens," he said. "Some victims were surrendered to the army during the last stage of war but there has been no information about them since."
The 1983-2009 armed conflict between the government forces and the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam resulted in many of people being forcibly disappeared by police, military and paramilitary groups.
The government appointed a presidential commission to investigate complaints of missing persons and they received 18,000 complaints, but very few have received an answer.
Sri Lankan lawmaker Vijitha Herath said the government put forward the draft legislation last February but the bill has stalled.
"It is a crime and violation of human rights. Relatives of victims have the right to know the truth and culprits should be punished with minimum prison sentences of 20 years," he said.
The draft legislation proposes a prison term not exceeding 20 years and a fine of 1 million rupees (about US$6,500).
Prageeth Ekneligoda, a political cartoonist and columnist employed by lankaenews.com, disappeared Jan. 24, 2010, two days before the national presidential election.
The journalist was never seen again and his family and international organizations have accused the government of being directly responsible for his disappearance.
Ekneligoda reported on alleged corruptions by family members of Mahinda Rajapaksa who was president from November 2005 to January 2015.
According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, forced (or enforced) disappearance occurs when a person is secretly abducted or imprisoned by a state or political organization (or third party acting on their behalf), followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person's fate and whereabouts.
Over 65,000 people in Sri Lanka remain missing after two insurgencies and a civil war.