The new Sri Lankan president has finally admitted the 20,000 missing Tamils who vanished during the nation’s civil war are dead.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa – who was then defence secretary – led government troops to victory over Tamil soldiers, but his forces were accused of carrying out mass disappearances and executions.
It is the first time the government has admitted its complicity despite the conflict ending in 2009. The move crucially comes as he is about to introduce legislation granting immunity to those who carried out abuses, according to local media reports.
Mr Rajapaksa made the announcement during a meeting with a United Nations envoy in Colombo, the country’s capital, and has said official death certificates will be issued.
He said the admission would bring closure to families and he hoped Tamil politicians would not use it as an opportunity to cause unrest.
Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war began in 1983 and raged for 26 years, claiming an estimated 100,000 lives.
It was fought along ethnic and religious lines and ended with victory for the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority government at the expense of the Hindu Tamil-minority which was fighting for independence.
While atrocities were committed on both sides the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has reported how government troops carried out unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and gender-based violence en masse against Tamils.
Atrocities carried out by government forces in the final year of the conflict are considered some of the worst human rights abuses in history.
Mobile phone footage documented government soldiers systematically executing bound and blindfolded civilians.
Heavy artillery was also repeatedly launched into a ‘no fire zone’ resulting in the deaths of up to 70,000 largely Tamil civilians, according to the UN.
Human Rights Watch has documented the continued disappearance and torture of Tamil activists and journalists after the end of the conflict.
Local media reported today that Mr Rajapaksa is also set to introduce new laws which will grant immunity to members of the government accused of human rights abuses during the war.
Tamil activists say they must be held accountable but Mr Rajapaksa says this will impede the post-Civil War peace process.
Mr Rajapaksa is considered a hero among the Buddhist Sinhalese-majority as his heavy-handed approach finally brought the war to an end.
He was elected as the new Sri Lankan President on the back of this popularity surge in November.