Activists urge Trudeau government to act on disappearances in Sri Lanka

OTTAWA — A group of Tamil Canadians is calling on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for legal changes to remove sovereign immunity as a defence for international crimes.

Such a move would enable Sri Lankan families to seek justice for their disappeared loved ones, said Kumanan Kunaratnam, a Tamil activist in Ottawa, in a Parliament Hill news conference Monday.

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A civil war gripped the country between 1983 and 2009, with insurgents who sought a separate Tamil state battling a central government dominated by Sri Lanka's majority Sinhalese.

Amnesty International estimates at least 60,000 people have disappeared in Sri Lanka since the late 1980s, with the activists saying most of the victims are Tamil. Last year the United Nations noted that thousands of people in Sri Lanka don't know what happened to missing loved ones.

"This is an issue that must deeply concern all human beings," Kunaratnam said.

The legal doctrine of sovereign immunity largely protects governments from court actions in other countries. There are exceptions, however, such as when a state engages in commercial activities.

Kunaratnam said sovereign immunity should be removed. "If sovereign immunity can be removed as a defence for a commercial transaction, why cannot it be removed for international crimes?"

He said that such legislation will not only benefit Tamils but also victims of enforced disappearances across the globe.

Hundreds of thousands of people have vanished during conflicts or periods of repression in at least 85 countries around the world, according the United Nations.

A group of four Tamil Canadians finished a 16-day "walk for justice" from Brampton, Ont., to Parliament Hill in Ottawa to raise awareness about the human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Another group of three activists walked from Montreal to Ottawa.

The group also wants Canada to refer Sri Lanka to the committee established under the United Nations convention against enforced disappearance.

Although Sri Lanka ratified the UN's convention against enforced disappearances in 2016, it invoked a provision of the international treaty that prevents victims from petitioning the committee over a country's violations of the convention. Only another country can make such a complaint against Sri Lanka.

Canada, however, has not signed on to the convention at all, limiting its standing to make such a complaint.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.

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This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. A previous version said both Sri Lanka and Canada have signed the convention on enforced disappearances. In addition, it gave an incorrect spelling of Kumanan Kunaratnam's first name.

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