Sri Lanka offers closure for 65,000 missing cases

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s government on Tuesday announced legislation to effectively acknowledge that an estimated 65,000 people still missing after two civil wars are dead and cleared the way for closure for grieving families.

The move is expected to help families resolve issues of inheritance and other rights that were deprived to them under the existing law, which did not fully recognise the rights of the next of kin of people missing in nearly four decades of conflict.

The cabinet of ministers approved draft legislation to issue "certificates of absence" to those missing during the JVP’s Marxist uprising between 1987 and 1990, and the 37-year Tamil separatist war that ended in May 2009.

"This measure will help tens of thousands of Sri Lankans whose family members and loved ones are missing, and who are unable to address practical issues relating to their disappearance," the government said in a statement.

The current law does not recognise the rights of missing persons. Families have not been able to claim property of those listed as missing for long periods of time.

Official sources said the certificate of absence could be used in place of a death certificate to claim inheritance and other rights. The statement did not say when the draft legislation would be approved, but official sources said it could happen within months.

"Sri Lanka has one of the largest case loads of missing persons in the world," the statement said. "In fact, since 1994 alone, government commissions have received over 65,000 complaints of missing persons."

Last month, the government announced setting up an office to trace those still missing seven years after the end of the Tamil separatist war.

Tens of thousands are still missing outside the north-east too. Those cases relate to the 1987 to 1990 period when the government battled the JVP.

The Office of Missing Persons is being asked to recommend compensation and clear the way for next of kin to take legal action against anyone responsible for the disappearance of their loved ones.





Thousands of people were killed by security forces and pro-government vigilante groups during the crackdown on Marxists rebels who were also accused of killing thousands of ruling party supporters and politicians.

Sri Lanka was notorious for burning dozens of unidentified corpses on piles of used tyres placed by roadsides. The so-called "tyre-pyre" burnings were designed to drive fear into the rebels, as well as the rest of the community.

In the north of the country, thousands of Tamils went missing after they were arrested by security services or pro-government Tamil para-military groups. Thousands also perished in indiscriminate bombardments.

People being abducted in ubiquitous white vans during former defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa’s period added to the number of missing persons. It also  added "white-vanned" to the local lexicon.

Several mass graves containing hundreds of skeletal remains have been found in the past two decades, but only a handful of the victims have been identified and even fewer people have been prosecuted.

Here is the full statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs on behalf of the government:

Cabinet of Ministers approves draft legislation enabling the issuance of Certificates of Absence
Today, June 7th, the Cabinet of Ministers approved draft legislation enabling the issuance of Certificates of Absence. The draft legislation which involves an amendment to the Registration of Deaths (Temporary Provisions) Act, No. 19 of 2010 will now be gazetted and the process of presentation to Parliament will commence.
This measure will help tens-of-thousands of Sri Lankans whose family-members and loved ones are missing and who are unable to address practical issues relating to their disappearance.
Sri Lanka has one of the largest case-loads of missing persons in the world. In fact, since 1994 alone, the Government Commissions have received over 65,000 complaints of missing persons. 
The suffering and distress of the families of those missing is exacerbated as, at this point in time, the government does not recognize the status of missing persons. This means that the families of missing persons face a range of practical issues including inability or difficulty in facilitation of property transfer and ownership, applying for compensation, qualifying for social welfare payments and pensions and accessing frozen assets. Although a number of ad hoc measures have been attempted in the recent past, they have failed to successfully address issues faced by the families of the missing.
Certificates of Absence have been used in a number of countries with high incidence of missing persons and has been considered as an effective interim measure that balances the psychological and practical needs of family members and loved ones without dismissing the need for active investigation into cases of missing persons.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs
7 June 2016

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