Seeking Justice for Aid Workers Assassinated in Sri Lanka: We Will Never Give Up
On August 4, 2006, a group of gunmen entered a humanitarian compound in Muttur, Sri Lanka and murdered 17 Action Against Hunger aid workers, all of whom were unarmed and wearing t-shirts that clearly identified them as humanitarian staff. These women and men were dedicated humanitarians: they sacrificed their lives in service to humanity, working to provide assistance to survivors of the horrific 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Eleven years after the massacre of Action Against Hunger's staff, government authorities still have not taken any action to bring those responsible for the crime to justice.
The killings happened during a time of civil conflict, as Sri Lankan security forces took control of the town of Muttur amidst fighting with the Tamil Tiger rebel group. All 17 of the Action Against Hunger aid workers were lined up inside the offices in their compound and shot in the head—executed in cold blood. Evidence indicates that they were likely killed by security forces, by the same party obligated under international humanitarian law to protect civilians and humanitarian workers during times of conflict. International humanitarian law considers attacks against aid workers—and civilians—a war crime. Such attacks are not inevitable consequences of armed conflict, but emerge when parties disregard the laws of war.
The deliberate, targeted killings of 17 Action Against Hunger aid workers in Muttur have been described as ‘’one of the most serious recent crimes against humanitarian workers worldwide.’’
The Sri Lankan government has failed in its duty to uphold international humanitarian law and to protect civilians and aid workers, and it has failed in its duty to deliver justice for the perpetrators of the massacre of these 17 humanitarians. In 2009, a Presidential Commission of Inquiry was set up specifically to investigate human rights violations during the civil war, including this crime. The Commission placed blame on the Tamil Tiger rebels, but has taken no action to prosecute any alleged perpetrators.
In an effort to uncover the truth, Action Against Hunger also undertook its own investigation and released its own report.
At the international level, the United Nations Human Rights Council gave its opinion on the massacre of the 17 humanitarian workers as part of a broad investigation and report on crimes committed during the Sri Lankan civil war. In 2014, the Council explicitly called for the creation of a Special Court with an international dimension to investigate the Muttur massacre so that justice could be served after years of impunity. Unfortunately, this request, which was approved by the United Nations and the Government of Sri Lanka, has still not been implemented.
In March 2017, the Sri Lankan government was given an additional one-year delay to set up the tribunal: the case continues to be postponed. The Sri Lanka authorities refuse the incorporation of international judges into this tribunal. The Muttur massacre is recognized by the UN Human Rights Council as an flagrant case of violations of human rights . Yet bringing those responsible to justice is still not a priority. This disregard of international humanitarian law and international human rights law—and the ongoing impunity provided to the perpetrators of this heinous crime—send a dangerous and shameful signal to countries where civilians and humanitarians are vulnerable to similar crimes.
Even today, the countries that are currently experiencing the world’s most severe humanitarian emergencies and are in the most urgent need of humanitarian aid are those in which humanitarian workers face the most frequent threats and acts of violence. The prevailing impunity in the case of the Muttur massacre is not isolated and is a grim testament to the fact that no humanitarian—nor any civilian—is completely protected.
WE WILL NEVER FORGET. WE WILL NEVER GIVE UP.
As we honor the memory of our fallen humanitarians in Sri Lanka—and pay tribute to all aid workers around the world who have been harmed or who have lost their lives in service to humanity—Action Against Hunger calls for the creation of a Special Rapporteur of the United Nations for the protection of humanitarian aid workers, especially national staff, with the aim of combating the impunity of attacks on humanitarian workers, raising awareness, and investigating and recording such attacks.
This week, as we mark the eleventh anniversary of the assassination of our staff in Muttur, we renew and reinforce our commitment to this call to action. We ask the public to join us in demanding that world leaders do more to uphold their commitments to protect civilians and aid workers.
Eleven years after their deaths, we commemorate the lives of our 17 colleagues in Muttur. We will never forget them. We will never give up on our search for justice in their names: M. Narmathan, I. Muralitharan, R. Arulrajah, T. Pratheeban, A. Jaseelan, G. Kavitha, K. Kovarthani, V. Kokilavathani, S. Romila, M. Ketheswaran, M. Rishikesan, S.P. Anantharajah, G. Sritharan, S. Koneswaran, S. Ganesh, Y. Kodeeswaran, A.L.M. Jawffar.
Elizabeth Wright, Head of Communications