US Ambassador to UN’s Remarks on Sri Lanka’s Disappeared

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Remarks at the UN Security Council Arria-Formula Meeting on the Global Challenge of Accounting for Missing Persons
Ambassador Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations
U.S. Mission to the United Nations
New York City
January 27, 2016


Thank you, so much. Ambassador Rycroft, thank you for focusing the Council on this important issue, the, I think, emotional weight of which is hard to capture here in five minute interventions. But the work that each of the people on the panel do every day is incredibly taxing, not least because one is so rarely able to bring good news to the family members that are searching for the people most dear to them. But we are in awe, really, of the work that all of you do – it’s critical.

In recent months, I’ve had the opportunity to visit two countries afflicted by huge numbers of missing and disappeared: Sri Lanka and Mexico. While of course the history and the causes of the problem in each context, and any other context, is completely distinct – and these two countries by no means represent the full spectrum of the problem around the world – I was struck on these two visits by how many of the same themes emerged in my meetings with victims’ families as well as those with NGOs and government officials. So I’d just like to highlight three of those themes very briefly.

The first is the obvious: it’s just the enduring and all-encompassing, searing pain and hardship experienced by families who have had a loved one disappear. Relatives of victims in both Mexico and Sri Lanka spoke of how disappearances upended virtually every aspect of their lives. And we can all imagine if this happened to us the way in which we would not be able to function in the way we once had. Many of those I spoke with withdrew from their communities out of depression or fear; breadwinners often stopped going to work, dedicating themselves instead to searching for their loved ones; children could not sleep at night or focus in school. One mother in Monterrey, Mexico – where I had the privilege of meeting with some of the families working with Sister Consuelo’s remarkable organization, CAHDAC – described the anguish as, “something that overwhelms your entire body.” Another mother in Monterrey told me that every time there was a knock on the door or her phone rang, she hoped it would be her son who had been abducted years earlier. The lack of answers about the fate of loved ones prevents them from obtaining any sense of the closure needed to begin healing.

Second, in many instances, families’ sense of impotence was exacerbated by the routine failure of authorities to take basic steps to search for the missing or to bring to justice those responsible. The lack of proper investigations doesn’t just hurt families – it also sends a message to perpetrators that they can continue to disappear people with impunity. In both Mexico and Sri Lanka, I heard from families who reported cases to authorities, only to see them sit on key investigative leads or misplace crucial evidence. Others were discouraged or even threatened by the very officials whose job it was to help them. In Jaffna, Sri Lanka, just a couple months ago a mother told me how, in March of 2009 she had seen men in military uniforms abduct her 16-year-old daughter, and had been beaten when she tried to intervene. Yet despite promptly reporting that crime to officials, the mother told me, she had never heard anything back. She has spent nearly every day of the six years since searching for her daughter, whose whereabouts remain unknown.

Yet I also saw efforts, as have been described here today, in Mexico and in Sri Lanka that show the possibility for progress. This leads me to my third and final point, which is that we have to do a better job of replicating best practices across the places hardest hit by disappearances – like Syria today, where thousands of people have been disappeared during the brutal conflict – including human rights defenders like Razan Zeitunah; and Iraq, where, as survivor Nadia Murad told the Council last month, at least 3,000 Yazidi women and girls have been abducted by ISIL.

Let me share just a few bright spots. In Monterrey – as we heard from Sister Consuelo – an effort bringing together victims’ families, human rights defenders, and local prosecutors to search for the disappeared has helped rebuild trust, strengthen investigations, and put a dent in a culture of impunity. In Sri Lanka, the Sirisena government passed landmark legislation in September 2015 to issue “missing” certificates to the families of victims – a reform aimed at ending the harmful practice of forcing families to sign death certificates for missing persons in order to access basic services, a dilemma that the panelists have alluded to. In the Balkans, as we just heard, the International Commission on Missing Persons helped set up a credible, comprehensive set of databases on unidentified human remains and the DNA of victims’ relatives, which helped determine the fates of tens of thousands of victims – including 90 percent of the 8,000 people who were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995.

Such efforts are indispensable in countries like Mexico and Sri Lanka, which lack credible, comprehensive databases, and where building them could help thousands of families obtain answers that they have long yearned for.

Let me conclude. At the end of my meeting with families of the disappeared in Monterrey, they sang a song that they sing at the end of their weekly meetings. Composed decades ago by an Argentine musician, it is about the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo – a group of women who, since the Dirty War, have held demonstrations in front of the country’s presidential mansion to demand answers about the disappearances of their sons and daughters. While the song was written about the mothers in Argentina – many of whom are still looking for their children some four decades later – it rings true for so many families of the disappeared worldwide. So let me close by reading to you a verse from that song:

“We still sing, we still ask,

We still dream, we still wait,

For a different day,

Without burden or fasting,

Without fear and without crying,

Because to the nest,

Our loved ones will return.”

I thank you.


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