The Sri Lankan government’s failure to hold accountable those responsible for the execution-style slaying of 17 aid workers six years ago is indicative of its deeper unwillingness to prosecute soldiers and police for atrocities, Human Rights Watch said today. HRW said that despite compelling evidence of participation by state security forces in the killings, government inquiries have not progressed and no one has been charged with the crime.
On August 4, 2006, gunmen executed 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 in northeast Sri Lanka. The killings followed a battle between Sri Lankan government forces and the separatist LTTE for control of the town.
“The sixth anniversary of the summary executions of 17 aid workers has brought the Sri Lankan government no closer to obtaining justice for the victims,” said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch. “President Rajapaksa’s callous indifference to the suffering of the aid workers’ families will be a sad hallmark of his administration.”
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 bodies of ACF workers who apparently had tried to escape were found in a vehicle nearby. The group had been providing assistance for survivors of the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
The nongovernmental organization University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) in April 2008 published detailed findings on the ACF killings, including accounts from witnesses, 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 were linked to an alleged cover-up.
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 has never been published.
In response to a United Nations Human Rights Council resolution in March 2012 calling on Sri Lanka to provide a comprehensive action plan to implement the recommendations of its Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), established by the Rajapaksa government to analyze the failure of the 2002 ceasefire agreement, the government on July 26 published a National Plan of Action to Implement the Recommendations of the LLRC.
The plan of action vaguely calls for the government to “[a]scertain more fully the circumstances under which specific instances of death or injury to civilians could have occurred, and if such investigations disclose wrongful conduct, prosecute and punish the wrongdoers.” It sets out a 12-month timeframe to conclude disciplinary inquiries and 24 months for prosecutions.
The government proposal merely leaves responsibility for investigations with the military and police, the entities responsible for the abuses, using processes lacking in transparency, Human Rights Watch said.
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 UN 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 held public hearings on human rights abuses during the last years of fighting. But the commission did not have an investigatory mandate, nor did it demonstrate independence or impartiality in its proceedings.
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 with strong evidence demonstrates the need to avoid further delay.
“Governments that demanded action at the UN Human Rights Council shouldn’t be mollified by the Sri Lankan government’s tepid proposal to pursue criminal inquiries,” Ross said. “Regarding investigations into wartime abuses, the government’s ‘action plan’ reads more like an ‘inaction plan.’”