August 30, the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances, was marked by the Tamil diaspora and in Sri Lanka by the women-led families of the disappeared. Since 2017 this movement for justice for the disappeared has been protesting and demanding answers. Below is my speech on this issue to an event organised by the Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam.
Thank you to Transnational Government of Tamil Eelam for organising this event to mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances – a day of enormous significance to so many oppressed communities, particularly Tamils as Sri Lanka has one of the world’s highest number of disappearances.
I am speaking to you from Sydney, Australia. I wish to honour our local custom to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land – the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation – one of the many tribes that make up the First Nations or Aboriginal peoples of this land. I pay tribute to their history, their culture and their ongoing struggles for justice in the face of centuries of colonisation.
The fact that there is an international day for enforced disappearances underlines how this crime is a global problem used by ruthless regimes to spread terror, fear and insecurity. Dictators and perpetrators of genocide commit numerous crimes but I do think enforced disappearances must be one of the worst of crimes.
The pain, suffering, endless grief of enforced disappearances came home to me when I visited Sri Lanka in 2013 as a member of a parliamentary fact finding mission. We heard harrowing stories. People feared the worst, not knowing what had happened to their loved ones when they never came home. The many people we met emphasised the urgent need for these crimes to be investigated by an independent international inquiry.
What struck me so deeply was how the impact of this crime is so enduring – the uncertainty of not knowing is shockingly cruel. The crime of enforced disappearances is not just perpetrated against the immediate victim – the suffering of their relatives and their wider community endures for years. These people have a right to closure.
This issue is massive for Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Tamil diaspora. The figures are so shocking. Between 1956 and 2007 27,000 disappearances have been documented. This work has been undertaken by the Tamil Centre for Human Rights in Paris. The disappearances did not stop in 2007. For the last months of the war in 2009 about 147,000 Tamils are unaccounted for.
When I returned from my trip to Sri Lanka and spoke about what I witnessed some people said to me – but you need to speak about the crimes of the Tamils. Yes war and conflict are shocking but we need to remember that Tamils like the Palestinians, like the Aborigines in Australia, like Jewish people who resisted in the Warsaw Ghetto, like the people who fought in the French revolution have the legal right to resist occupation.
This right is set out in the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples and the Fourth Geneva Convention and its subsequent protocols. The United Nations resolution 37/43, dated 3 December 1982, sets out this right. I wish to emphasis that I am in no way encouraging armed struggle. We just need to be honest about the nature of peoples’ struggles for self-determination if genuine and lasting reconciliation in Sri Lanka is to be achieved.
This United Nations recognised day provides an opportunity to put forward demands for the victims and their loved ones. This mean more pressure on the government of Sri Lanka to release information about enforced disappearances and I think the place to start is with supporting the women-led families of the disappeared, who since 2017, have been protesting and demanding answers.
Their demands to the Sri Lankan government include – release the yearly lists of detainees under the Prevention of Terrorism Act; and continuously consult families to keep them at the centre of any investigation and solution.
Their full set of demands should form a key party of any political solution designed to advance the quest for genuine reconciliation.
TThank you for the invitation to speak on this vital issue. We must continue to raise our voices for just outcomes for the enforced disappeared and their loved ones.