The Sri Lankan government has made no real progress in holding accountable those responsible for the execution style slaying of 17 aid workers seven years ago despite renewed international calls for action.
On August 4, 2006, gunmen executed 17 Sri Lankan aid workers – 16 ethnic Tamils, four of them women, and a Muslim – with the Paris-based international humanitarian agency Action Contre La Faim (Action Against Hunger, ACF) in their office compound in the town of Mutur in eastern Trincomalee district. The killings occurred after a several-day battle between government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for control of the town. The ACF team had been providing assistance to survivors of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
“The Rajapaksa government is good at throwing bones to the international community, but not at taking serious measures to find and punish those responsible for serious abuses,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “If the families of 17 aid workers can’t get justice for their loss, it’s hard to be hopeful for anyone else.”
In July 2013, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in apparent response to increasing international pressure, took long overdue steps by directing state lawyers and investigators to review the case and prepare a comprehensive list of witnesses. This was one of several recent moves by the government to adopt previously disregarded recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) in 2011, created following the defeat of the LTTE in May 2009.
The University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) has published detailed findings on the Mutur killings based on accounts from witnesses and weapons analysis that implicate government security forces in the area at the time. The group reported that two police constables and naval special forces commandos were alleged to be directly responsible, and that senior police and justice officials were linked to an alleged cover-up.
In July 2007, the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, established after the Mutur killings to investigate 16 major human rights cases, exonerated the army and navy in the massacre and instead blamed LTTE forces or Muslim militia. Families of ACF workers who wished to testify to the commission reported security forces personnel. The commission’s full report to President Rajapaksa has never been made public.
In March 2013, the United Nations Human Rights Council adopted a resolution on Sri Lanka, reiterating the concerns of a 2012 council resolution, which focused on the lack of accountability for human rights violations. The council called upon the Sri Lankan government to “conduct an independent and credible investigation” into alleged rights abuses and “take all necessary additional steps” to meet its legal obligations to ensure justice and accountability for all Sri Lankans.
The Sri Lankan government has long had a poor record of investigating serious human rights abuses, and impunity has been a persistent problem. Despite a backlog of cases of unlawful killings and enforced disappearance going back two decades that run into the tens of thousands, there have been only a small number of prosecutions. Past efforts to address violations through the creation of ad hoc mechanisms in Sri Lanka have produced very few prosecutions. On July 26, the government announced yet another commission to look into cases of enforced disappearances.
On May 23, 2009, shortly after the LTTE’s defeat, Rajapaksa and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a joint statement in Sri Lanka in which the government said it “will take measures to address” the need for an accountability process for violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law.
In April 2011, a panel of experts authorized by the UN secretary-general issued a comprehensive report on violations of international law by both sides during the final months of the armed conflict. It called on the Sri Lankan government to carry out genuine investigations and recommended that the UN create an independent international mechanism to monitor the government’s implementation of the panel recommendations, conduct an independent investigation, and collect and safeguard evidence.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Navi Pillay, is scheduled to visit Sri Lanka in late August. Human Rights Watch repeated its call for the UN secretary-general or other UN body to create an independent international investigation into violations by government forces and the LTTE. This investigation should make recommendations for the prosecution of those responsible for serious abuses during the armed conflict, including the ACF case.
Participating countries at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka in November should publicly express concern about the government’s minimal response to these and other serious abuses, Human Rights Watch said.
“Governments seeking justice for the victims of atrocities during Sri Lanka’s long armed conflict should publicly demand an international inquiry,” Ross said. “Sri Lanka’s history of inaction on even prominent cases with strong evidence demonstrates the need for concerted international action.”
*Human Rights Watch