Kath Noble

This is no game

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on July 3, 2013

What’s wrong with the various estimates of civilian deaths in 2009 

numbers gameSome months ago, my attention was drawn to a report on civilian deaths in the final phase of the war. The author – as yet unnamed – claimed to have something important to add to the debate that began in 2009 as the Army closed in on the LTTE in Mullaitivu.

I must admit that I didn’t feel very inclined to read it. Of course it is disturbing that estimates of the number of people killed between January and May that year vary from almost zero to 147,000. But there are many things to be disturbed about in Sri Lanka – the Government is pursuing a thoroughly regressive agenda on just about every front. Should we ignore its failure to tackle extremist groups, even if only for a moment? What about its effort to roll back the 13th Amendment? How could we justify focusing on a subject that is clearly no longer urgent? In 2009, the LTTE had surrounded itself with an unknown number of people, and the question of how the Army was responding was of obvious importance – lives were at risk.

Today, taking time to uncover the truth of that painful episode seems like a luxury. That alone is a tragedy.

When the report is called ‘The Numbers Game’, it is even more difficult to persuade oneself to proceed. Whatever the body count, we are talking about the violent end of somebody’s relatives.

Still, history is being made, with or without our participation.

In the last four years, global certainty about mass killings by the Government has increased substantially. Soon after the end of the war, the US Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues was quoted as saying, ‘The Army could have won the military battle faster with higher civilian casualties, yet chose a slower approach which led to a greater number of Sri Lankan military deaths.’ (Unlike our policy, he obviously didn’t add.) It would be almost unimaginable for an official from the United States to make such a statement today. Yet what new evidence has actually emerged?

Isn’t it the case that we don’t know anything more now than we did then, as regards civilian deaths?

Of course the United States is not generally very concerned about proof. If it has decided on a course of action – for whatever reason – it will find a way of justifying it. But that’s the United States.

One of the key contributions of the report is its explanation of where the various estimates come from.

The author shows that in essence two different methodologies have been applied. The first works on the basis of specific casualty reports, as recorded by people who were present in the Vanni, while the second calculates the discrepancy between the size of the population in the Vanni before the final phase and the number who were registered as IDPs afterwards.

Initially, more attention was paid to the first method.

The United Nations had a network of informants to monitor civilian deaths from January 2009. This included more than 200 of its local staff and the local staff of international NGOs – who had been prevented by the LTTE from leaving with their foreign colleagues in October 2008 – plus various medical officers, government agents, clergy, education department staff and community leaders.

While the conflict was going on, they compiled reports from around the Vanni for the purpose of keeping the international community informed of the ground situation. These figures were leaked to the media at the time – 17,810 civilian deaths up to May 13th, of which 7,737 had been verified by more than one source. (Verification was considered important to account for the pressure that was being brought to bear on the informants by the LTTE, which was keen to present as appalling a picture as possible so as to provoke an R2P intervention.) After May 13th, this monitoring became impossible due to the intensity of the fighting. At this point, the United Nations extrapolated on the basis of what it believed to be the daily body count to reach around 11,400 civilian deaths in five months.

Later, on the basis of information about a single incident, the United Nations decided to increase their daily body count for May, bringing the total to 20,000.

At the time, the United States was careful to add a caveat to these figures. The State Department said in its Report to Congress on Incidents during the Recent Conflict in Sri Lanka, ‘The UN did not rigorously seek to exclude the deaths of possible LTTE conscripts.’

In other words, it suspected that the number of civilian deaths was lower.

However, with the Government ignoring calls for a comprehensive survey listing who died and how – which could also have attempted to separate civilian deaths at the hands of the Army from civilian deaths at the hands of the LTTE – space opened up for this conclusion to be questioned using a far more doubtful methodology.

It was the University Teachers for Human Rights who first came up with the figure of 40,000, in December 2009.

This and all subsequent estimates, up to and including 147,000 – suggested by the Bishop of Mannar in his evidence to the LLRC in January 2011 – were based on the number of people supposedly unaccounted for in the Vanni. The figure of 40,000 corresponded to 330,000 minus 290,000, or the population in the No Fire Zone at the end of February 2009 according to an Assistant Government Agent by the name of Parthipan minus the number of IDPs who had been registered by the Government in collaboration with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs by the end of May 2009. That of 147,000 corresponded to 429,000 minus 282,000, or the population of the Vanni in October 2008 according to the Kachcheris of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi minus the number of IDPs in July 2009.

The figure of 70,000 – currently preferred by the United Nations – corresponds to 360,000 minus 290,000, or the number of people in the Vanni in January 2009 according to Government Agent for Mullaitivu Imelda Sukumar minus the number of IDPs at the end of the conflict.

The report questions these calculations from both angles.

It points out that the 290,000 IDPs were not the only people to come out of the Vanni. In May 2009, another 12,000 people were being held by the Government on suspicion of being LTTE cadres, while an unknown number paid to escape the camps.

More crucially, it exposes serious discrepancies in the population figures.

They all come from the same source, essentially speaking – they were provided by government officials. What happens when we compare them?

The report notes that there is a very obvious problem with the figure for October 2008. If it is accurate, 69,000 people had vanished into thin air by January 2009.

Also, the same Assistant Government Agent Parthipan who estimated the population in the No Fire Zone at the end of February 2009 as 330,000 said that it was 305,000 at the end of March 2009 and 150,000 at the end of April 2009. Meanwhile, the number of registered IDPs had increased from 36,000 to 57,000 and 172,000, implying that 4,000 people went missing in March and 40,000 in April.

If such huge numbers had been killed, this would have been captured by the informants.

Even TamilNet – the mouthpiece of the LTTE – claimed only 2,600 civilian deaths in April and 1,700 in March.

The report notes that the population figures were put together from lists maintained by Grama Sevakas, whose involvement in inflating the numbers for their own private gain or to serve the LTTE agenda had long been accepted.

It also points out that while the University Teachers for Human Rights stated that even if the counts had been conducted in good faith, they definitely included LTTE cadres, none of the other individuals or agencies who have used this second method have taken this fact into account. The University Teachers for Human Rights claimed that the LTTE maintained a strength of 15,000 until the very end by means of absolutely ruthless conscription. They said, ‘They were conscripted and used briefly like disposable objects, were brought by the dozens, about 50 a day on average, on trailers of tractors and buried unceremoniously, about three in the same hole, one above the other, covered and forgotten.’

Exactly how many people were killed in this way, nobody has bothered to ask.

Regular readers of this column would be familiar with my opinion of the LTTE. In particular, they would know that I regard its decision to fight to the very end – from behind a human shield – as by far the biggest crime of the final phase.

Next week, I will discuss the contribution that the report makes to the discussion on the intentions of the Army as it tried to deal with this situation.

I will also explain the author’s own estimate of civilian deaths, based on a third method.

Meanwhile, it is for those who use the various numbers to study the report and respond to its criticisms of their positions. The author makes particular reference to Frances Harrison – perhaps because of her industrious marketing of her book, ‘Still counting the dead’. Without reading it, I would refrain from comment, except to say that she has a responsibility to engage with information that would appear to contradict her conclusions. For example, the report says that if she had looked at the available satellite images, she would have understood that her story of the doctor – who talked of indiscriminate bombing of the hospital in which he worked by 2,000 shells in a matter of just ten days – could not possibly be true.

What else can be seen in the available satellite images will also have to wait for next week.

This article was published in The Island on 3rd July 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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