(New York) – The Sri Lankan government’s failure to bring to justice those responsible for the execution-style slaying of 17 aid workers five years ago highlights a broader lack of will to prosecute soldiers and police for rights abuses, Human Rights Watch said today. Despite strong evidence of involvement by the security forces in the killings, government inquiries have languished and no one has been arrested for the crime.
On August 4, 2006, gunmen murdered the 17 Sri Lankan aid workers – 16 ethnic Tamils and one 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, Trincomalee district. The killings followed a battle between Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) for control of the town.
“On the fifth anniversary of the murder of 17 aid workers, the Sri Lankan government is no closer to prosecuting those responsible,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “The Rajapaksa government is not just unwilling to uncover the truth, it appears afraid of the truth.”
The bodies of 15 of the aid workers, both men and women, were discovered on August 6 lying face-down with bullet wounds to the head and neck fired at point-blank range. Two more bodies of ACF workers who apparently had tried to escape were found in a vehicle nearby. ACF had been providing assistance for survivors of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The nongovernmental University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) in April 2008 published detailed findings on the ACF killings, including accounts from eyewitnesses, weapons analysis, and compelling information about the government security forces believed responsible. Those allegedly directly involved include two police constables and Naval Special Forces commandos. Senior police and justice officials have been linked to an alleged cover-up.
However, in July 2009 the Presidential Commission of Inquiry, created in November 2006 to investigate 16 major cases of human rights abuse, exonerated the army and navy in the ACF killings, instead blaming the LTTE or Muslim militia. The commission made it difficult for witnesses to testify and made no effort to remedy a botched police investigation. Its full report to President Mahinda Rajapaksa remains unpublished.
Human Rights Watch is unaware of any further action by the Sri Lankan government to pursue the ACF case. A Defense Ministry report issued on August 1, 2011, on the conduct of the final years of the armed conflict, “Humanitarian Operation – Factual Analysis,” includes a description of the military operations around Mutur in August 2006, but says nothing about the killings of the aid workers.
The Sri Lankan government has a poor record of investigating serious human rights abuses, and impunity has been a persistent problem. Despite a backlog of cases of enforced disappearance and unlawful killings going back two decades that run to the tens of thousands, there have been only a small number of prosecutions. Past efforts to address violations by creating ad hoc mechanisms in Sri Lanka have produced few results, either in providing information or leading to prosecutions.
On May 23, 2009, shortly after the LTTE’s defeat, Rajapaksa and United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a joint statement from Sri Lanka in which the government said it “will take measures to address” the need for an accountability process for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law.
The eight-member Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission, established by the Rajapaksa government to analyze the failure of the 2002 ceasefire agreement, also held public hearings on human rights abuses during the last years of fighting. But the commission does not have an investigatory mandate and has not demonstrated independence or impartiality in its proceedings.
While the commission is not expected to provide its findings and recommendations to the president until November at the earliest, its interim recommendations in September 2010 did not contain a single recommendation related to justice or accountability for abuses, including the AFC massacre.
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 conflict with the Tamil Tigers. 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.
Human Rights Watch repeated its call for the secretary-general or other UN body to create an independent international investigation into violations of international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the armed conflict in Sri Lanka. This investigation should make recommendations for the prosecution of those responsible for serious abuses during the armed conflict, including the ACF case.
Governments concerned about impunity for serious human rights abuses in Sri Lanka should publicly support an independent international mechanism, Human Rights Watch said. Sri Lanka’s history of inaction on even prominent cases where the evidence is strong should be a strong warning against further delay.
“A much-hyped government investigation into the ACF massacre and 15 other notable cases led nowhere,” Ross said. “It’s hard to understand why governments would believe the Rajapaksa administration has any intention of prosecuting the war crimes from the last months of the Tamil Tiger conflict.”