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The question of civilian deaths

Extracts from the Ban-Ki-moon panel report (Part 1)



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Following upon the exclusive reportage of the The Island on the Ban Ki Moon expert panel report last Saturday, we begin serializing today, verbatim excerpts from the panel report in relation to the various allegations made against Sri Lanka. Moon’s expert panel has made five major allegations against Sri Lanka, the first being civilian casualties. In the first installment of this serialization, we deal with the question of the number of civilians killed according to the calculations of Moon’s panel. The following is what the panel report has said in this regard:


E. The number of civilian deaths (Pages 39-41)


132. There is no authoritative figure for civilian deaths or injuries in the Vanni in the final phases of the war. Several actors make it very difficult to calculate a reliable casualty figure: (a) the number of persons in the conflict area remains uncertain, although it was likely to have been as many as 330,000; (b) the lack of an accurate count of the number of persons who emerged from the Vanni, due to the lack of transparency in the screening process; (c) lack of certainty on the numbers of LTTE combatants, complicated further by the increase in forced recruitment in the final phase; and (d) the fact that many civilians were buried where they fell, without their deaths being registered, in some cases, unobserved.


133. Some have developed estimates based on the statistics of the injured and dead collected by the doctors, which were collated by the hospitals and the District Disaster Management Unit. One estimate is that there were approximately 40,000 surgical procedures and 5,000 amputations performed during the final phase. Depending on the ratio of injuries to deaths, estimated at various times to be 1:2 or 1:3, this could point to a much higher casualty figure. Others have put the estimate at 75,000, a figure obtained by subtracting the number of people who emerged from the conflict zone (approximately 290,000) from the estimate of the number thought to have been in the conflict zone (approximately 330,000 in the NFZ from January, plus approximately the 35,000, who emerged from the LTTE-held areas before that time).


134. The United Nations Country Team is one source of information; in a document that was never released publicly, it estimated a total figure of 7,721 killed and 18,479 injured from August 2008 up to 13 May 2009, after which it became too difficult to count. In early February 2009, the United Nations started a process of compiling casualty figures, although efforts were hindered by lack of access. An internal "Crisis Operations Group" was formed to collect reliable information regarding civilian casualties and other humanitarian concerns. In order to calculate a total casualty figure, the Group took figures from RDHS as the baseline, using reports from national staff of the United Nations and NGOs, inside the Vanni, the ICRC, religious authorities and other sources to cross-check and verify the baseline. The methodology was quite conservative: if an incident could not be verified by three sources or could have been double-counted, it was dismissed. Figures emanating from sources that could be perceived as biased, such as Tamil Net, were dismissed, as were Government sources outside the Vanni.


135. The number calculated by the United Nations Country Team provides a starting point, but is likely to be too low, for several reasons. First, it only accounts for the casualties that were actually observed by the networks of observers who were operational in LTTE-controlled areas. Many casualties may not have been observed at all. Second, after the United Nations stopped counting on 13 May, the number of civilian casualties likely grew rapidly. Due to the intensity of the shelling, many civilians were left where they died and were never registered, brought to a hospital or even buried. This means that, in reality, the total numbers could easily be several times that of the United Nations figure.


136. It is worth noting that the United Nations raised casualty figures in private entreaties with the Government, but never publicized its specific estimates. Government officials strongly refuted the figures provided by the United Nations, stating that the numbers were fabricated and that this was not the business of the United Nations. Publicly the United Nations referred to the "heavy toll" of the fighting on civilians, or that the casualty figures were "unacceptably high", but that the actual figures were not verifiable. The decision not to provide specific figures made the issue of civilian casualties less newsworthy. However, this position was maintained by senior United Nations officials until 13 March 2009, when the High Commissioner for Human Rights publicly stated that 2,800 civilians may have been killed and more than 7,000 injured since 20 January, many of them inside the NFZs. Pressure from the Government of Sri Lanka and fears of losing access may have resulted in a general under-reporting of violations by United Nations agencies. Some have criticized the failure of the United Nations to present figures publicly as events were unfolding, citing it as excessively cautious in comparison with other conflict situations.


137. In the limited surveys that have been carried out in the aftermath of the conflict, the percentage of people reporting dead relatives is high. A number of credible sources have estimated that there could have been as many as 40,000 civilian deaths. Two years after the end of the war, there is still no reliable figure for civilian deaths, but multiple sources of information indicate that a range of up to 40,000 civilian deaths cannot be ruled out at this stage. Only a proper investigation can lead to the identification of all of the victims and to the formulation of an accurate figure for the total number of civilian deaths.


(To be continued tomorrow)


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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