COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) — Sri Lanka's Cabinet has approved setting up an office to learn the fate of several thousands of people who went missing during the civil war that ended seven years ago, the foreign ministry said Thursday.
The statement from Foreign Minister Mangala Samaraweera said the "need to set up such an office is particularly acute as Sri Lanka has one of the largest caseloads of missing persons in the entire world" due to an uprising in the country's southern region and the three decades civil war in the north and east.
The office will come into effect when the necessary laws are passed by the Parliament and the measure will help families discover the fate of their loved ones and the circumstances under which they went missing, the ministry said.
The proposed office will have a victim and witness protection unit and will also provide families access to administrative, legal and psychosocial support.
Sri Lanka's civil war ended in 2009 after the government troops defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels who fought to create a separate state for the ethnic minority Tamils.
More than 20,000 complaints on missing persons have been received and the vast majority of cases are unresolved. Among the missing are ethnic Tamil civilians who were unaccounted for after being abducted by pro-government militia or after being surrendered to the military at the end of the war, civilians who were abducted and government soldiers who were taken prisoner by the rebels.
In February, a group of Tamil leaders asked top U.N. human rights official Zeid Raad al-Hussein to help determine the fate of the missing civilians. Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who was elected last year, has said most of those said to have been abducted or arrested by government-aligned forces are probably dead. He said that the new government found no secret detention centers being run by the state, as suspected by families of the missing, and counted only 292 people in government detention.
Both the Sri Lankan government and the defeated Tamil Tigers are accused of serious human rights violations. According to U.N. estimates, up to 100,000 people were killed in the 26-year war, but many more are feared to have died, including up to 40,000 civilians in the final months of the fighting.
The U.N. Human Rights Council last year adopted a consensus resolution in which Sri Lanka agreed to an investigation with foreign participation.
Many civilians have not been heard from since they were picked up by police or military personnel at their homes or abducted by pro-government militia during the war. Relatives say there are many whom they personally handed over to the military at the end of the fighting, after the military requested the surrender of anyone who had even the smallest link to the rebels, promising their early release.