Not so wise after all,gordon

Once upon a time there was an individual named Gordon Weiss. He was the spokesman for the United Nations in Colombo. He was an Australian national.

That should not be necessarily held against him though like many rough and tumble Aussies he has a penchant for garrulity.

It was precisely this loquaciousness that got him into trouble. Instead of being a spokesman for the UN he wanted to plough his own furrow and spoke for himself instead of the organization that was paying his salary.

Having thus extended his mandate beyond that for which he was hired, Gordon Weiss unwisely started shooting off his mouth to visiting journalists and others during the last months of the war against the Tamil Tigers.

The Sri Lanka Government apparently decided not to extend his visa when it expired and so Gordon the Unwise left the country when the time came.

For reasons which we have never been told and never bothered to find out because minions come and go like women talking of Michelangelo, Gordon has chucked up the UN.

Or it could be the other way round-that the UN said enough is enough seeing how it has to keep dissociating itself from Weiss’s unsolicited remarks.

Having gone Down Under he should have remained that way without bobbing up like a cork in a bathtub.

Probably still rankling from the telling off he had received from the Sri Lanka Government for stepping out of line, Gordon Weiss seems to want to get his own back on Colombo.

Speaking to reporter Eric Campbell of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Gordon Weiss held forth the other day on the last months of the war and his assessment of the situation.

In the introduction to the report Campbell says: "Mr Weiss has resigned from the UN after 14 years and returned home to Australia. He’s now free to speak openly about the situation in Sri Lanka, for the first time and does so candidly and unflinchingly."

So I waited with bated breath for the candid and unflinching words of Mr Gordon Weiss, former UN spokesman and whatnot.

A lot of civilians died inside the siege zone, said Weiss. "I have heard anything between ten and forty thousand people and that’s from reliable sources who had a presence inside the zone."

That’s a shocking figure, says the reporter, his voice not registering even one point on the Richter scale. But then it takes more to shock an Aussie.

Yes, agrees, Weiss dutifully, it is a terrible figure.

Since it is so shocking, so terrible if it is indeed true, one needs to spend a few minutes scrutinizing the figures and their veracity.

One thing that has always puzzled me as a person with a statistical proclivity is how in times of war and serious conflict, casualties are most often reported in round figures, be they figures released by governments and their agencies or others.

When it comes to accidents, say train accidents, reports would refer to 167 dead and 312 were wounded. That is probably because there is a careful body count.

When there are natural disasters like earthquakes the first figures are generally based on the number of persons that lived in the village or town who are presumed dead or buried.

As rescue operations go on the figures are refined in terms of bodies found or living persons rescued.

Yet one finds that in the Sri Lankan conflict the casualties are all in round figures that amount to several hundreds or even thousands.

So Marie Colvin of the Sunday Times, UK writing from London finds 1000 amputees on a beach in the northeast awaiting evacuation. Catherine Philip of the sister paper the Times says 20,000 civilians were killed in the "no fire" zone.

And now we have Gordon Weiss who says that civilian deaths were anything between 10,000 and 40,000.

All three have one thing in common besides the incredible ability to give round death tolls. None of them was where all these killings are said to have happened.

To that all three would probably say in unison that they were not there because the government would not allow them into the place.

Okay, that’s fine. But then the figures would have to be given from one or more sources. Neither the two journalists nor Weiss are privy to actual figures and believe the figures on hearsay.

They cannot say with any degree of certainty that the figures have not been cooked up by interested parties or individuals.

For the sake of brevity let us consider the Gordon Weiss estimate only. The figures cited by him vary between 10,000 and 40,000. That, even Weiss would admit if his arithmetic is up to it, is a difference of 30,000.

That, one must admit, is a hell of a difference, if you’ll pardon the language. Weiss says he obtained these figures from reliable sources. How reliable would these sources be that cannot tell the difference between 10,000 and 40,000?

And how pray did these sources manage to go around counting thousands of dead bodies, if it is claimed at the same time the area was under heavy fire from artillery as well as small arms.

With this kind of rubbish what could one expect but a general suspension of disbelief!

One is surprised that Eric Campbell who passes off as a journalist allowed Weiss to make these statements and did not question him closely about his sources and over the widely differing figure of those supposedly killed.

Besides the ICRC carrying out humanitarian operations in the conflict areas who else was inside them to be able to provide these statistics? Weiss calls them reliable.

The discrepancy and the fact that there would not have been too many inside the area who were not directly involved in the conflict one way or another, it brings into question not just the reliability of the sources and but also the naivete of Weiss in announcing figures which he cannot really vouch for.

Is it surprising that the United Nations quickly dissociated itself from the Weiss estimates saying that they were his personal views and not that of the agency.

The UN admits that it maintained internal estimates but since circumstances did not permit it to independently verify them on the ground it does not have verifiable figures of the number of casualties.

So reliable are Gordon Weiss’s sources that they seem unable to decide whether 10,000 were killed or 40,000. One thing is for sure. No bank would give them a job. Well not even a primary school.

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