Sri Lanka: Mass Graves Require Transparent Investigation into Missing Persons

By Claire McGillem (

A mass grave containing remains of more than 30 victims was recently uncovered in Mannar District, northern Sri Lanka, Reuters reports. This discovery marks the first mass grave to be unearthed and forensically examined in Sri Lanka since Tamil forces were defeated in 2009. For nearly three decades, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) fought the Sri Lankan government to secure an independent Tamil homeland. Both government and Tamil forces committed mass atrocities, and the United Nations estimates between 80,000 and 100,000 people were killed and 400,000 displaced from the Northern provinces between 1983 and 2009 (The Sentiel Project).

Road construction crews first found the remains in the Tamil-dominant region where most of the wartime fighting occurred. The identities of the victims are unknown, though, according to a local bishop, the remains include bodies of women and children. Both the LTTE and the army formerly controlled the area where the grave was uncovered. A police spokesperson claims the area was under Tamil control for more than 20 years and that the grave could contain the bodies of former soldiers. However, local residents disagree, saying that the army controlled the area from 1990 onwards.

It is unclear who is responsible for these deaths, but thousands of wartime victims remain unaccounted for, raising speculation that more mass graves may exist throughout the country. Several UN reports have highlighted the bloody fighting that occurred in the final months of the war, in which government forces shelled civilians. According to the report, over 40,000 civilians were killed and remain formally unaccounted for. Additionally, nearly 300,000 Tamil citizens were placed in internment camps at the end of the war, where many still remain.

The grave was unearthed amongst growing international pressure on the Sri Lankan Government to conduct investigations into human rights abuses committed during the Civil War, including cases of enforced disappearances. Ananthi Sasitharan, a Northern Provincial Councilor, has written to Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, asking for a UN monitored international inquiry into forced disappearances and abductions. Writing on behalf of the Disappearance Committees of the North and East, Sasitharan expresses her “distrust of any local mechanism that investigates forced disappearances and abductions,” including four former truth seeking commissions, the first two of which neglected to investigate the majority of disappearance complaints and thus failed to provide justice to survivors. Victims feel that perpetrators of enforced disappearance have not been held accountable. Sasitharan states, “Today 10,136 of the 30,000 complaints remain un-investigated…and although legal proceedings were initiated against more than 500 police and army personnel, these proceedings largely targeted low-level officers and very few resulted in interdictions.”

The excavation of the grave represents a potential opportunity to provide families of the missing information regarding the whereabouts of their relatives. When a mass grave was discovered last year in a central province, the Sri Lankan Government created a presidential commission that sent the forensic evidence to China for investigation. To this day, the investigations are inconclusive and there has not been any information shared with the public. The most recent excavation is an opportunity for the government to conduct a transparent analysis of war crimes. If local mechanisms cannot provide truth and justice to victims and their families, then a UN monitored independent inquiry into forced disappearances and abductions will be an integral step to Sri Lanka’s post-conflict transition.

Claire McGillem is a recent graduate of Carleton College where she earned her B.A. in Political Science & International Relations with a concentration in Peace, Leadership and Security Studies. Claire spent four months in Rwanda studying post-genocide restoration and is a former intern with the Center for Victims of Torture. Her interests include conflict resolution, transitional justice, and human rights, particularly in the Great Lakes region of Africa.