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ICRC Workers Murdered: Symptoms of a Failing Justice System

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The abduction and murder of two Red Cross volunteers in Sri Lanka in early June is a horrific reminder of the impunity that rules the country today. The government must conduct an effective inquiry to remedy the systemic loopholes that allows such massive human rights violations to continue.
The abduction and murder of two Red Cross volunteers in Sri Lanka in early June is a horrific reminder of the impunity that rules the country today. The government must conduct an effective inquiry to remedy the systemic loopholes that allows such massive human rights violations to continue.

The situation of lawlessness in Sri Lanka reached an alarming crescendo this week, as two humanitarian workers were abducted from the capital of Colombo, their bodies recovered the next day in Ratnapura, 95 km southeast of the capital. Both men were long-time volunteers with the Red Cross (ICRC) that had just completed a training session related to tsunami relief work.

Sinnarasa Shanmugalignam (32) and Karthekesu Chandramohan (26) were among four others returning to the Batticaloa district. Witnesses reportedly said that the group was approached by men claiming to be police. Both victims were members of the minority Tamil community.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon swiftly condemned the murders, demanded an investigation and reminded the government of their commitments to resolve similar human rights atrocities that have taken place in the recent past1. He stressed that humanitarian workers must be protected at all times. The ICRC condemned the murders and reminded “parties to the conflict that murder is prohibited under international humanitarian law2.”

Deflecting Blame

Thus far, the government has scrambled to lay blame. The police are claiming that the Karuna group, a break-away faction of the Tamil Tigers, have links to the murders through the vehicle used in the abduction3. The Karuna group has denied these accusations, claiming that the victims were actually close relatives of high ranking Karuna officials.

A government representative has claimed that the murders are an attempt to “discredit the president and the government and tarnish the image of Sri Lanka vis-à-vis human rights violations”4. The president issued an inquiry into the murders, but at a meeting with families of the “disappeared” last week, tried to downplay the seriousness of the abduction epidemic, claiming that that many abducted people “reappear” and such false complaints slow down justice for legitimate victims.

Another Ineffective Inquiry?

As much as the president tried to deflect concern and responsibility, these recent murders fit into a context of epidemic lawlessness, resulting in no safeguards for civilians or humanitarian workers. The murders of the ICRC workers come 10 months after 17 Action Contre la Faim (ACF) workers were killed execution style in Muttur, eastern Sri Lanka.

The murders of the ICRC workers fit into a disturbing pattern, whereby horrendous crimes are committed and inquests are created only to fizzle out later on. In a report by the International Commission of Jurists, the validity of the inquiry into the ACF massacre is heavily scrutinized5. The report claims that the investigation is inherently flawed, with the police reports accusing the LTTE from the outset, shoddy evidence collection, and not interviewing any members of the security forces. This last flaw is particularly disturbing, as there is suggestion that the security forces were the perpetrators.

In addition, the president established a Commission of Inquiry in November of last year (COI) to look into the ACF incident, along with 15 other cases of human rights violations. It is feared that the COI, that has an advisory committee known as the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons (IIGEP), will not be able to bring the perpetrators in any of these crimes to justice. Most fear that the COI is treating the smoke but not the fire; Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions, asserted that the government has been mostly concerned with “a public relations campaign designed to head off international scrutiny.”

In a report by the Centre for Policy Alternatives6, a Sri Lankan think-tank, the progress of the COI thus far is criticised, citing setbacks in investigations attributable to the state, as well as provisions that give too much power to the president and institutional bodies unilaterally appointed by the president, in violation of amendments to the Constitution.

Culture of Lawlessness

Abductions and disappearances are so pervasive, even in the capital city, that it has apparently reached a perverse level of normalcy among the population. The system of abductions is so well crafted that it has been referred to as an industry, flourishing on a failing justice system7. The Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka reported more than 100 abductions and disappearances this year alone, while last year over 1000 were reported missing.

The government has to stop deflecting blame for the spiralling lawlessness. It must make a concerted effort to stop roadblocks on the COI. It must conduct a thorough and effective investigation into the killings of the ICRC workers, while at the same time, remedy holes in the system that allow such massive human rights violations to continue.

1 Secretary-General mourns deaths of two aid workers in Sri Lanka
2 Red Cross / Red Crescent Movement condemns murder of Sri Lanka Red Cross staff!OpenDocument
3 Police point fingers at Karuna in Red Cross killing
4 ‘Concerted effort to discredit President'
5 “Sri Lanka: The Investigation and Inquest into the Killing of 17 Aid Workers in Muttur in August 2006”〈=en
6 “Commission of Inquiry and the International Independent Group of Eminent Persons: Commentary on Developments – January – April 2000”
7 “An Overview of the ‘Enforced Disappearances’ Phenomenon”