Des personnes tiennent des bougies durant une commémoration

Massacre of 17 Action Contre la Faim employees in Sri Lanka: demand justice or reveal the truth?


Head of Communications, Médecins Sans Frontières - Operational Centre Paris (OCP)

After studying communication (CELSA) and political sciences (La Sorbonne), Claire Magone worked for various NGOs, particularly in Africa (Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Nigeria). In 2010, she joined MSF-Crash as a Director of Studies. Since 2014, she has been working as a Head of Communications.

On 4th August 2006, 17 Sri Lankans working for Action Contre la Faim (Action against Hunger/ACF) and all wearing the NGO's tee-shirt were executed inside their own compound, the same day Sri Lankan government forces reclaimed control of the town of Muttur which had fallen into rebel hands on August 1st.

Tomorrow, just as it has done for the last six years, ACF will commemorate the murder of its 17 employees on the esplanade of human rights at the Trocadero in Paris. It will call for justice, just as it has done for the last six years, and will demand that the biggest massacre ever perpetrated against members of an NGO not go unpunished. And, just has it has done for the last six years, this demand will go unheeded.Let's start with a few facts. At the end of August 2006, the Norwegian head of the Scandinavian mission which had been monitoring the truce in Sri Lanka (SLMM) made a statement to the effect that the involvement of the Sri Lankan security forces in the massacre was beyond doubt. According to information obtained by the mission despite the authorities' attempts at obstruction, the town had been in the hands of the army on the morning of 4th August, and all the testimony gathered pointed the finger at the army. Yet this direct accusation, which the Sri Lankan foreign affairs minister denounced as "irresponsible and outrageous", was never followed up. The head of the SLMM was about to leave the country and the mission issued no further statements.

However, a Sri Lankan human rights organisation, University Teachers for Human Rights (UTHR), conducted its own investigation and, in a detailed report published in 2008 and entitled « Unfinished Business of the Five Students and ACF Cases- A Time to call the Bluff », claimed that the massacre had been committed by two policemen and a home guard, led by commandos from the Naval Special Forces.

ACF took due note of these conclusions, but did not comment on the guilt or otherwise of the people accused by UTHR. However, it continued its tireless call for justice and, from 2006 onwards, closely followed the three judicial procedures conducted by the Sri Lanka government. The workings of these procedures were never made public - nor were they communicated to ACF. In 2009, however, the national press reported the findings of a presidential commission of inquiry which cleared the government forces of any involvement in the killings and pointed the finger at ACF, accusing it of gross negligence in managing its staff's security: on the day of the massacre the organisation's managers had believed their staff would be safe inside the compound and told them to stay put, while the town's Tamil community sought refuge where it could.

ACF has kept very detailed records of the negligence, obstruction, conflict of interest and dissimulation that marked the legal procedures conducted in Sri Lanka, procedures whose handling of three essential aspects of the inquiry succeeded in rendering them unexploitable. First of all, the context of the massacre: the time of the crime, of course, but also the date on which the government forces took back the town, and so who had control over the use of violence. These points were simply never established by the Sri Lankan investigators. Then, the ballistic evidence: after stating that a bullet found in the body of one of the victims came from an M16 rifle, a weapon known to be used by the Sri Lankan Special Forces during the fighting in Muttur, the medical examiner withdrew his statement. As for the chain of custody of the ballistic exhibits, it became so tortuous as to completely discredit the evidence. Lastly, the witnesses were given no protection - quite the contrary. In its 2008 report, the UTHR states that three witnesses were killed, one went missing and others were intimidated into keeping silent or leaving the country. This information was corroborated by diplomatic sources, including the contents of a Wikileaks cable dated that same year in which the American Ambassador, Robert O. Blake, summed up the different elements of the Muttur case.
ACF had hoped that once the war was over it would be easier to get to the truth. But the propaganda did not end with the defeat of the Tamils in May 2009. The Sri Lankan government is now cultivating a triumphalist version of its battle against the rebels, which it describes as the "largest humanitarian rescue operation the world has ever seen" - a version encouraged by many foreign military commentators who have hailed the government's victory as that of a democratic government over a terrorist movement"Sri Lanka: Amid all-out war", Fabrice Weissman, in "Humanitarian negotiations revealed: the MSF experience".

Today, ACF is counting on pressure from the "international community", which has recently made a slight shift in its position: on 22nd March, the United Nation's Council of Human Rights narrowly adopted a resolution proposed by the United States calling on the Sri Lankan government to take credible measures for combating the impunity of human rights violations committed during the war. This resolution is a far cry from the one adopted in 2009 which only condemned the Tamil Tigers for human rights violations and called for respect of Sri Lanka's sovereignty.

This small step forward has encouraged ACF to continue down the legal path: it has submitted a file on the Muttur massacre to the United Nations Council of Human Rights, which is due to study the case of Sri Lanka in November as part of a Universal Periodic Review, a procedure introduced in 2006 whereby the human rights records of all UN member states are regularly reviewed (once every four years).

We can but hope that that this review will raise the veil on the massacre. But even if the Council of Human Rights goes so far as to recommend an international investigation, it will be conducted with the consent and cooperation of the Sri Lankan authorities and will find it difficult to establish proofs that the previous procedures - including those involving foreign experts who preferred to throw in the towel The Presidential Commission of Inquiry launched in 2006 was supervised by an "international independent group of eminent persons" (IIGEP) whose members included Bernard Kouchner and the former United Nations special Rapporteur, Nigel Rodley. The group resigned from the commission at the end of 2007, complaining of a lack of transparency..- have made disappear.
Through aborted investigations and declarations of intent, Sri Lanka has so far managed to save face. So, if the truth is ever to be brought to light, perhaps ACF needs to change its strategy. Perhaps it should stop calling for justice that it will never get and make public what it believes really happened on 4th August 2006.


To cite this content :
Claire Magone, “Massacre of 17 Action Contre la Faim employees in Sri Lanka: demand justice or reveal the truth?”, 6 août 2012, URL :

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