At the beginning of March, the CoI began concurrent public sessions of inquiry into Case No. 2 concerning the killing of seventeen local aid workers of the international non-governmental organization Action Contra La Faim (ACF) on or about 4th August 2006. Along with several other international aid organizations, ACF worked to provide medical and health related assistance within the Eastern Province through locally hired staff at a main office in Trincomaee and a smaller office in nearby Muttur. Both of these areas were under control of Sri Lanka Army (SLA) and other security forces, but remained perilously close to the active military front. On August 1st, 2006 the LTTE launched a large scale attack on the city, breaking through SLA lines, and managed to temporarily seize control of Muttur. The SLA staged a counter-attack and a few days later succeeded in regaining control of the town.
As occurs with any military campaign, numerous civilian deaths and massive displacement of residents living in the town and outlying areas accompanied this fierce struggle for dominance. When the fighting subsided at the end of the week, one particularly gruesome loss of life discovered was the bodies of all seventeen Muttur staff members lined up within the ACF office courtyard in two rows. From these circumstances and in light of additional details, it became undeniable that these local humanitarians had been deliberately executed. Each side to the battle denied any responsibility and wholly blamed the other, but witness testimony before the CoI has provided mounting evidence that these wanton deaths occurred after the Government forces regained control of Muttur, thereby indicating their culpability.
An ancillary issue raised by the Government at the time of the killing, and again during the CoI, has been the question of whether ACF failed to reasonably protect the security of its staff members. From the onset and over the course of the fighting, the staff members trapped in Muttur were in continual contact by mobile phones and shortwave radios with the main ACF office across the bay. According to witness testimony the ACF management in Trincomalee instructed the Muttur staff to stay put in the office compound and await evacuation, in accordance with ACF’s standard security procedure. Following the killings, many Sri Lankans questioned the prudence of these instructions and also whether every effort was made to evacuate the Muttur staff. ACF for its part paid the slain staff’s families compensation but steadfastly disclaimed any negligence.
Certainly primary responsibility lies with the perpetrators who executed seventeen civilians in cold blood, but it may also be another warning of a still all-too-commonplace naivety that an international NGO name will protect both local and international staff members from any harm, no matter the danger.
Posted By Adam Nord (Sri Lanka)
Posted Apr 6th, 2008