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Families of the missing in Sri Lanka: Psychosocial considerations in transitional justice mechanisms

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 November 2018


In the last thirty years, tens of thousands of Sri Lankans have experienced enforced disappearances of family members. In 2016, many members of such families came before the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, which was mandated to gather views on how people thought the transitional justice mechanisms should be designed, how they should be established and how they should function. This process allowed the families to share their experiences and to outline what they saw as important in shaping the transitional justice mechanisms. This article surveys the complex nature of their distress and psychosocial needs, as expressed by them during the consultations. It proposes that transitional justice mechanisms should be designed to protect their psychosocial well-being, address their complex psychosocial needs, and provide them with support and protection before, during and after their engagement in the mechanisms.

The missing and their families
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1 In the absence of rigorous investigation, the exact number of enforced disappearances is not known. According to the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a total of 43,381 cases were reported to former commissions of inquiry in the late 1990s. A more recent commission of inquiry established in 2013 received around “18,099 civilian complaints and over 5000 cases of missing armed personnel”: see CPA, Certificates of Absence: A Practical Step to Address Challenges Faced by the Families of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka, Discussion Paper, Colombo, 2015, p. 4.

2 The LTTE was the dominant militant group that emerged as the self-proclaimed representative of the aggrieved Tamil communities in Sri Lanka to fight a three-decade conflict with the government of Sri Lanka. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that a number of abductions and enforced disappearances were carried out by the LTTE, though the numbers are lower than those carried out by the State. The LTTE has also been implicated in the abduction of Sinhalese fishermen in the north and east coastal regions, and also of thousands of armed services personnel. See HRW, Recurring Nightmare: State Responsibility for “Disappearances” and Abductions in Sri Lanka, Human Rights Watch Series, Vol. 20, No. 2(C), 2008, p. 6.

3 The psychosocial sectoral consultation was held on 13 August 2018 at the Sri Lankan Foundation Institute, where psychosocial practitioners and representatives of psychosocial organizations and groups were invited to make submissions to the CTF. All quotes in this article are directly taken from the content of submissions made to the CTF during the public consultations held between April and September 2016. Relevant quotes were translated from Sinhala or Tamil into English by members of the research team at the time of report-writing; submissions made in English did not require translation.

4 See UN Human Rights Council, 30th Session, Agenda Item 2, UN Doc. A/HRC/30/L.29, 29 September 2015.

5 For further information on the mandate of the CTF and an outline of its work, see (all internet references were accessed in September 2018). For the Final Report of the CTF, see CTF, Final Report of the Consultation Task Force on Reconciliation Mechanisms, 2 vols, 17 November 2016 (CTF Final Report), available at:

6 See CTF, “Press Statement: Call for Submissions”, 5 April 2016, available at:

7 CTF Final Report, above note 5.

8 The content was coded for mandate, membership of the commission, composition, staffing, powers, structures, functions, principles of operation, enabling conditions required for legislative measures, gendered aspects, relationship with other measures, relationship with other state agencies, international involvement, people's opinions and desired outcomes, and psychosocial and protection concerns.

9 There was a written record of participants in all zones except for Jaffna and the North Central Province. “The highest numbers of submissions were made at the consultations in Batticaloa, Ampara and the Southern Province respectively, averaging in excess of 500 in each zone. Consultations in the North Western and Western Provinces recorded the lowest number of submissions – below 250.” Ibid., Vol. 1, p. viii.

10 Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 22–28.


11 For this reason, the present authors, one of whom is a CTF member and the other a senior researcher for the team, have decided to abide by the CTF's rationale of anonymization and have not disclosed the names of individuals and organizations in this article.

12 As of September 2018, all submissions to the CTF have been archived, although arrangements to enable public access are still under way. It is intended that two collections, one permanently closed and the other a redacted publicly accessible collection, will be located at the Department of National Archives in Sri Lanka. A redacted digitalized version will be shared with selected partners for easier public access and utilization as a reference in the reconciliation process. More information will be available in the near future at Please contact Nigel Nugawela, Archiving Officer and Research Coordinator, at to find out more about the digitalization process and accessing the archives. The archived submissions were categorized differently to the data storage systems used for the report, and therefore the two reference systems between the report and the archives do not tally with one another. Please contact the authors at to identify specific quotations from the article.

13 Salih, Maleeka and Samarasinghe, Gameela, Localizing Transitional Justice in the Context of Psychosocial Work in Sri Lanka, Social Policy and Analysis Research Centre (SPARC), University of Colombo, 2006Google Scholar; Psychosocial Working Group, Psychosocial Intervention in Complex Emergencies: A Conceptual Framework, Working Paper, October 2003, available at: See also Galappatti, Ananda, “What Is a Psychosocial Intervention? Mapping the Field in Sri Lanka”, Intervention: International Journal of Mental Health, Psychosocial Work and Counselling in Areas of Armed Conflict, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2003Google Scholar; Psychosocial Assessment of Development and Humanitarian Intervention, A Tool, a Guide and a Framework: Introduction to a Psychosocial Approach to Development, SPARC, University of Colombo, 2009Google Scholar.

14 See Hamber, Brandon, Transforming Societies after Political Violence: Truth, Reconciliation, and Mental Health, Springer Science and Business Media, New York, 2009, pp. 6570CrossRefGoogle Scholar, 89–93. See also M. Salih and G. Samarasinghe, above note 13, where the authors’ monograph describes how participating in transitional justice mechanisms could lead to more pronounced or complex psychological difficulties for survivors and victims of violence. For example, accepting reparative measures on behalf of the disappeared requires also declaring or accepting the missing person as dead, which may cause crippling guilt and despair for the family members. Furthermore, retelling the story – perhaps after many years of having gained some distance to the experience and coping with it – may cause people to remember, re-experience and become re-traumatized by the distressing details. Similarly, sharing personal details of the violence experienced as part of testimony may result in public humiliation and/or being ostracized or stigmatized by those who find out about it (for instance, in the case of sexual violence).

15 As described by the participants during the consultations, families of the disappeared live in a psychologically unsettled state, unable to gain closure as a result of not knowing the fate of their loved ones. See also Stover, Eric, Haglund, William D. and Samuels, Margaret, “Exhumations of Mass Graves in Iraq: Considerations for Forensic Investigations, Humanitarian Needs, and the Demands of Justice”, Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 290, No. 5, 2003Google ScholarPubMed; Keough, Mary Ellen, Simmons, Tal and Samuels, Margaret, “Missing Persons in Post-Conflict Settings: Best Practices for Integrating Psychosocial and Scientific Approaches”, Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, Vol. 124, No. 6, 2004CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Blaauw, Margriet, “‘Denial and Silence’ or ‘Acknowledgment and Disclosure’”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 84, No. 848, 2002Google Scholar.

16 For more detailed descriptions of the psychosocial impacts on families of the disappeared, see CTF, above note 5, Vol. 1, Chaps IV, VII.

17 For example, participants referred to the disenfranchisement and marginalization of the indigenous communities who were the original inhabitants prior to the arrival of the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka, and to the marginalization of the Hill Country Tamils, who are descendants of Indian labour migrants brought to the plantations during the British colonial period. Suffering was also associated with violations of socio-economic rights, including through land grabs, forcible relocations due to development and other projects, and the issue of the right to use forests and other natural resources.

18 These include living in poverty, struggling to educate children, coping with inadequate food, water, health care and housing, and suffering impacts from the loss of land and other assets, both private and communal.

19 For similar experiences of stigmatization and loss of status for widows and women whose spouses have been disappeared, see Robins, Simon, “Towards a Victim-Centred Transitional Justice: Understanding the Needs of Families of the Disappeared in Post-Conflict Nepal”, International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2011CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Perera, Sasanka, Stories of Survivors: Socio-political Contexts of Female-Headed Households in Post-Terror Southern Sri Lanka, Vol. 1, Women's Education and Research Centre (WERC), Colombo, 1999Google Scholar; Thiruchandran, Selvy, The Other Victims of War: Emergence of Female Headed Households in Eastern Sri Lanka, Vol. 2, WERC, Colombo, 1999Google Scholar.

20 Father X's name has been anonymized to protect his identity.

21 Sri Lanka has a history of past commissions set up to investigate and report on various violent events, including specific ones on disappearances: the Special Presidential Commissions of Inquiry into Disappearances in three different geographical areas set up in 1994; the All Island Presidential Commission on Disappearances, which functioned from 1998 to 2000; and the Presidential Commission to Investigate into Complaints regarding Missing Persons, established in 2013.

The recommendations from these commissions have been implemented in a very limited manner, if at all. For further information, see Iqbal, M. C. M, “Disappearances Commissions of Sri Lanka: A Commentary on Certain Aspects of Their Reports”, Voice, October 2002Google Scholar; International, Amnesty, Twenty Years of Make Believe: Sri Lanka's Commissions of Inquiry, London, 2009Google Scholar; Silva, Romesh, Fernando, Britto amd Nesiah, Vasuki, Clarifying the Past and Commemorating Sri Lanka's Disappeared: A Descriptive Analysis of Enforced Disappearances Documented by Families of the Disappeared, Families of the Disappeared, Human Rights Data Analysis Group, Benetech, and International Center for Transitional Justice, Colombo, 2007Google Scholar.

22 Such strong yearning for the truth regarding the fate of loved ones has also been noted in the Latin American context, where “survivors most often give precedence to the need for truth, social and psychological rehabilitation and acknowledgement before the need for compensation”. See B. Hamber, above note 14, p. 49; see also Mendeloff, David, “Trauma and Vengeance: Assessing the Psychological and Emotional Effects of Post-Conflict Justice”, Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 31, No. 3, 2009CrossRefGoogle Scholar, with regard to victims’ and survivors’ preference for truth-seeking mechanisms and their belief that the truth will relieve their psychological and emotional suffering.

23 The new legislation, entitled the Office on Missing Persons (Establishment, Administration and Discharge of Functions) Act, No 14 of 2016, called for the establishment of the OMP and was seen as a response to the stated distress of people affected by enforced disappearances. However, the legislation itself and the nature of its passage through Parliament was criticized heavily because many of the recommendations made by those affected and collected during the consultations were not included in the Act, thereby undermining confidence in the initiative. See CTF, The Office on Missing Persons Bill and Issues Concerning the Missing, the Disappeared and the Surrendered, Interim Report, August 2016, available at:; International, Amnesty, “Only Justice can Heal Our Wounds”: Listening to the Demands of the Families of the Disappeared in Sri Lanka, Amnesty International, London, 2017, p. 8Google Scholar.

24 M. E. Keough, T. Simmons and M. Samuels, above note 15, p. 275.

25 Crettol, Monique and Rosa, Anne-Marie La, “The Missing and Transitional Justice: The Right to Know and the Fight against Impunity”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 88, No. 862, 2006CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

26 Nesiah, Vasuki, “Overcoming Tensions between Family and Judicial Approaches”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 84, No. 848, 2002Google Scholar.

27 Others have argued that having an explicit psychosocial purpose makes an intervention psychosocial regardless of its content and form. For a discussion on this, see A. Galappatti, above note 13.

28 Holly Guthrey investigates the potential for healing through commissions for truth and reconciliation and notes the influence of apology and other expectations on positive outcomes for these initiatives: see Guthrey, Holly L., Victim Healing and Truth Commissions: Transforming Pain through Voice in Solomon Islands and Timor-Leste, Springer, Cham, 2015, pp. 85, 161169Google Scholar. See also Kanyangara, Patrick, Rime, Bernard, Paez, Dario and Yzerbyt, Vincent, “Trust, Individual Guilt, Collective Guilt and Dispositions toward Reconciliation among Rwandan Survivors and Prisoners Before and After Their Participation in Postgenocide Gacaca Courts in Rwanda”, Journal of Social and Political Psychology, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2014CrossRefGoogle Scholar: basing their approach on the needs-based model of reconciliation, these authors’ investigation of post-participation shows an increase in negative emotions where perpetrators’ apologies were seen as insincere.

29 These concerns have also been noted in other contexts where individuals and families have experienced adverse psychosocial impacts from participating in transitional justice mechanisms. See for example, Henri, Yazir, “Reconciling Reconciliation: A Personal and Public Journey of Testifying Before the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, in Gready, Paul (ed.), Political Transition: Politics and Cultures, Pluto Press, London, 2003Google Scholar; Bronéus, Karen, “The Trauma of Truth Telling: Effects of Witnessing in the Rwandan Gacaca Courts on Psychological Health”, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 54, No. 3, 2010Google Scholar; Byrne, Catherine C., “Benefit or Burden: Victims’ Reflections on TRC Participation”, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, Vol. 10, No. 3, 2004CrossRefGoogle Scholar. However, David Mendeloff, on review of the available literature, has concluded that evidence for the harm caused by participation in transitional justice mechanisms is mixed and inconclusive: see D. Mendeloff, above note 22. Jamie O'Connell notes the lack of research on the psychological effects of participating in trials of human rights violations and makes the case for greater examination in this area: see O'Connell, Jamie, “Gambling with the Psyche: Does Prosecuting Human Rights Violators Console their Victims”, Harvard International Law Journal, Vol. 46, No. 2, 2005, p. 340Google Scholar.

30 For example, see Sanford, Victoria, “‘What is Written in Our Hearts’: Memory, Justice and the Healing of Fragmented Communities”, in Gready, Paul (ed.), Political Transition: Politics and Cultures, Pluto Press, London, 2003Google Scholar; Lykes, M. Brinton, de Blanche, Martin Terre and Hamber, Brandon, “Narrating Survival and Change in Guatemala and South Africa: The Politics of Representation and a Liberatory Community Psychology”, American Journal of Community Psychology, Vol. 31, No. 1/2, 2003CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

31 A similar consideration about recognizing the resilience of individuals and communities was proposed in Weibelhaus-Brahm, Eric, “After Shocks: Exploring the Relationships between Transitional Justice and Resilience in Post-Conflict Societies”, in Duthie, Roger and Seils, Paul (eds), Justice Mosaics: How Context Shapes Transitional Justice in Fractured Societies, International Center for Transitional Justice, New York, 2017Google Scholar.

32 Various studies have indeed noted the importance of cultural and social resources for both enhancing and maintaining psychosocial well-being. Such resources include a reliable helping network and social connectedness as well as religious faith and rituals, shared value systems and activities, and community facilities. See, for example, Horn, Rebecca, Exploring Psychosocial Well-being and Social Connectedness in Northern Uganda, Working Paper No. 2, Logica, Washington, DC, 2013, pp. 1415Google Scholar, in which Horn notes the positive correlation between the actual support received over the previous month and levels of psychosocial well-being. See also Bragin, Martha, Onta, Karuna, Janepher, Taaka, Nzeyimana, Generose and Eibs, Tonka, “To Be Well at Heart: Women's Perceptions of Psychosocial Wellbeing in Three Conflict-Affected Communities”, Intervention Journal, Vol. 12, No. 2, 2014Google Scholar, in which the authors and participants identify key domains related to social support and friendship networks as instrumental to women's wellbeing.

33 Seils also notes that healing is a long-term process, combining psychological, social, cultural and political elements, that restores and strengthens individuals and communities. See Seils, Paul, The Place of Reconciliation in Transitional Justice: Conceptions and Misconceptions, International Centre for Transitional Justice, New York, 2017, p10Google Scholar. In Lambourne, Wendy, “Transitional Justice and Peacebuilding after Mass Violence, International Journal of Transitional Justice, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2009Google Scholar, the author proposes a view of transitional justice as a longer, slower, more chaotic process that crosses beyond the time frame of particular mechanisms towards a social and relational transformation.”

34 See Cilliers, Jacobus, Dube, Oeindrila and Siddiqi, Bilal, “Reconciling after Civil Conflict Increases Social Capital but Decreases Individual Wellbeing”, Science, Vol. 352, No. 6287, 2016CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 For further discussion on these points, examples and the specific security risks faced by victims and survivors, see CTF, above note 5, Vol. 1, pp. 405–426.

36 Ibid., Vol. 1, pp. 437–438.


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