Fortunately, this shortcoming has now been remedied. In November 2011, the Department of Census and Statistics of Sri Lanka completed a full census of the Northern Province. The data is in their website, and the numbers are as follows: there were a total of 22,329 deaths between the years 2005-2009, about half of which (11,172) occurred in 2009. Of that, 2,523 were due to natural causes, while 7,934 are classified as “other deaths” meaning “accidents, homicides, suicides, etc.” However, the Census Department also goes on to say, “71% of deaths that occurred in 2009 are reported as due to extraordinary circumstances but majority of deaths prior to and beyond that are reported to be the results of natural causes.” The conflict, it should be recalled, ended in late May 2009.
What all this boils down to, then, is that roughly 8,000 persons died in the first five months of 2009 as a result of the conflict, and this is inclusive of LTTE combatants. It is generally understood that around 5,000 LTTE combatants died in the closing phases of the war. That means that at most roughly 3,000 civilians died in the last phases of the war. That is the inevitable conclusion to which one is led if one starts with the Census Department’s numbers.
Now, it is always possible for a critic to say that the Government has fixed the numbers, in other words, that the Census Department has deliberately given a low-count of the total dead in 2009. The fact remains, however, that the Department at least on the face of it has conducted the most scientific and exhaustive survey of the population in the Northern Province so far, and if someone wants to question the Department’s figures, it is not enough to give an argument along the lines, “Well, they are the Government’s numbers.”
The Census Department is run by professionals whose work can be evaluated and assessed by other professionals. If a critic disagrees with the Department’s numbers, the thing to do is to conduct a technical evaluation of its numbers and methods, or have an expert do it, and then present some sort of coherent argument as to why exactly those numbers or methods, or both, are wrong. It is not enough simply to present alternative figures or numbers.
Meanwhile, there appears to be some independent corroboration for the Department’s numbers. First, there is a UN Country Report, completed in 2009, during the conflict itself (but suppressed at the time because the UN felt the numbers couldn’t be “verified”), which gives an estimate of the number of persons killed between August 2008-May 13 2009 as 7,721. Obviously, that number is very close to the one generated by the Census Department.
Second, there is a study by the American Association for the Advancement of Science of aerial photographs of the conflict-zone at the very peak of the fighting. The purpose of the study was to find out, among other things, if there was evidence of a rapid expansion of gravesites, or evidence of mass graves, which would indicate that large numbers of people were in fact being killed. The study found little or no expansion of gravesites, and no evidence of mass graves, leading to the obvious inference that large numbers of civilians were not being killed. So, all this as I said goes to show that the Census Department’s numbers may in fact be right.
To return to the Census Department’s numbers, no technical evaluation or assessment of the Department’s numbers has yet been conducted by any of the critics, and this includes the Secretary General’s experts. For instance, the Secretary General’s second report was commissioned nearly a year after the Department put out its figures, but it doesn’t say a word about the Department’s figures, and instead continues to give its own conjectures about “tens of thousands” killed. In the absence of any coherent and reasonable challenge to the Department’s numbers, and given also the corroborative evidence just mentioned, those numbers must stand. So, what does that mean?
It means that 40,000 civilians did not die, nor even 30,000 or 20,000. The actual number is roughly 3,000. Now, that’s not a small number. From the standpoint of the victims, it doesn’t matter if the total number of dead is 3,000 or 30,000, each unnecessary death in war is a tragedy and a travesty. But the question we are pursuing here is whether war crimes were committed in the sense that civilians were indiscriminately targeted. If the civilian death toll over 6 months was roughly 3,000, and that under the extremely trying conditions under which the last phases of the war was fought (I will get to this in a moment), I for one cannot see how any reasonable person can cay that there is a case to be made here that civilians were indiscriminately attacked
It is convenient at this stage to digress a moment and discuss the aforementioned “trying conditions” under which the last phases of the war was fought, and also discuss in a little more detail the specific nature of the allegations that the Secretary General is making against Sri Lanka. For this purpose, I shall turn to the Secretary General’s first report, the “Panel of Experts” report, which deals with the issues in question at length.
The most important thing that a general reader has to understand about the conditions under which the last stages of the war was fought is that the LTTE during this time had taken upwards of 300,000 civilians as hostages and was moving that massive population from place to place as the Sri Lankan army began to close in on it. Here is what the Secretary General’s experts say:
Around 330,000 civilians were trapped into an ever decreasing area, fleeing the shelling but kept hostage by the LTTE.
And then again, specifically with regard to the purposes for which the civilians were used:
Retaining the civilian population in the area that it controlled was crucial to the LTTE strategy. The presence of civilians both lent legitimacy to the LTTE’s claim for a separate homeland and provided a buffer against the SLA offensive. To this end, the LTTE forcibly prevented those living in the Vanni from leaving. Even when civilian casualties rose significantly, the LTTE refused to let people leave, hoping that the worsening situation would provoke an international intervention and a halt to the fighting. It used new and badly trained recruits as well as civilians as “cannon fodder” in an attempt to protect its leadership.
Finally, the following admission by the panel is also crucial:
From February 2009 onwards, the LTTE started point-blank shooting of civilians who attempted to escape from the conflict zone, significantly adding to the death toll in the final stages of the war. It also fired artillery in proximity to large groups of internally displaced persons (IDP’s) and fired from, or stored military equipment near, IDP’s or civilian installations such as hospitals.
The important point that emerges from all of the above passages is this: the taking of 300,000-plus civilians was not something that happened spontaneously or on the spur of the moment—for instance, say, when an armed group is being chased and cornered, and, finding themselves out of options, grab a few hostages to try and negotiate their way out of the situation—but was an integral part, indeed the cornerstone, of the LTTE’s strategy of war during the last phases.
So, it is under this that one has to look at the specific charges or allegations as to war crimes. The Secretary General’s experts list five categories of alleged violations committed by the Government: i) killing of civilians through widespread shelling; ii) shelling of hospitals and humanitarian objects; iii) denial of humanitarian assistance; iv) human rights violations suffered by victims and survivors of the conflict including both IDP’s and suspected LTTE cadre; and v) human rights violations outside the conflict zone, including against the media and other critics of the Government. Of these, the categories that pertain to this paper are the first three. So, let’s look a bit more closely at the specific allegations as to the first three categories.
On the issue of “widespread shelling” the report says:
The Government shelled on a large scale on three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, even after indicating that it would cease the use of heavy weapons. It shelled the UN hub, food distribution lines and near ICRC ships that were coming to pick up the wounded and their relatives from the beaches.
On the “shelling of hospitals,” the report says,
The Government systematically shelled hospitals in the frontlines. All hospitals in the Vanni were hit by mortars and artillery, some of them were hit repeatedly, despite the fact that their locations were well-known to the Government.
Finally, on “denial of humanitarian aid,” the report says,
The Government also systematically deprived people in the conflict zone of humanitarian aid, in the form of food and medical supplies, particularly surgical supplies, adding to their suffering. To this end, it purposefully underestimated the number of civilians who remained in the conflict zone. Tens of thousands lost their lives from January to May 2009, many of whom died anonymously in the carnage of the final days.