A genuinely credible estimate

By Kath Noble

Last week, I discussed a report on civilian deaths in the final phase of the war called 'The Numbers Game'.

As I said, it shows how the most popular method of estimating the body count - calculating the discrepancy between the population figures given by local officials at various times from October 2008 and the number of IDPs registered in June 2009 - falls apart when one compares the population figures. They simply can't all be accurate or even vaguely close to the mark.

But this approach opens up the possibility of much higher totals, so people like Frances Harrison are still perfectly happy to describe its results as 'credible'.

The author notes that there may well be good reason to doubt the credibility of the other method - based on specific reports of casualties as recorded by the network of informants set up by the United Nations - since at least some people may have died without being seen or without their death being recorded. Not all bodies would have been transported to medical facilities. The author says that this was most likely to have been the case in January and February, when the population was still quite dispersed, and also in May, as fighting became very intense.

To get over this problem, the report works from data on the number of injuries, on the basis that the injured would have all sought help.

The calculation is not straightforward and readers interested in making their own assessment of the assumptions made should refer to the full document, which is available online. However, since going through a 150 page report with its numerous linked references is not likely to be everybody's idea of a day well spent, I shall attempt to summarise.

The author starts by estimating ratios of the number of deaths to the number of injuries during the various stages of the final phase. The calculations begin from January 20th, when the Government first declared a No Fire Zone, and it is assumed that the situation became worse as time went on until the end of the conflict on May 19th, in particular with the Army's incursion into the No Fire Zone on April 20th and from May 9th as the operation to capture the No Fire Zone commenced. The author uses a ratio of dead to injured from serious injuries of between 40% and 50% - worse than the 33% to 50% range that was accepted by the Panel of Experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General - and a ratio of between 20% and 40% for lesser injuries, based on the findings of the University Teachers for Human Rights from their interviews with eyewitnesses.

The resulting average ratios of dead to injured range from 60% in January to 90% in May.

These estimates are then combined with another conclusion of the University Teachers for Human Rights, that at least 50% of the injured were shipped by the ICRC between February 10th and May 9th, to give the totals shown in the following table.


Figures for the periods up to February 10th and after May 9th were calculated by comparing eyewitness accounts from various sources.

The author checks this approach with three case studies - a report by the head of the TRO about shelling on March 9th and 10th, the Army's incursion into the No Fire Zone on April 20th as described by the TamilNet correspondent and staff of the ICRC, and interviews by the international media of local doctors when a mortar hit the admissions ward of a makeshift hospital on May 12th.

In all of them, calculating the number of deaths from the number of injuries results in overestimation.

When compared to other estimates of the total body count at various points in the final phase, this method also comes up with higher figures.

As the author notes, this makes sense because we are now including people who died unobserved.

The total body count is around 15,000.

Although the report does not attempt a breakdown according to perpetrator, it reminds us that both sides were responsible.

It points out that this does not mean that both sides had equally noble intentions, and its other important contribution to the debate on the final phase of the war is what it has to say about the targeting of civilians. The LTTE did it openly and is condemned for it by all other than its most ardent supporters in the diaspora, but what about the Army? The Panel of Experts appointed by the United Nations Secretary General did not give much credence to the Government's claims of a 'humanitarian operation', which is not very surprising given that they were accompanied by efforts to persuade the world that not even a single civilian had died at the hands of the military. But that does not mean that its intention was to kill as many people as possible, or even that it was absolutely careless of how many deaths occurred.

Everybody accepts that individual soldiers risked their lives to help civilians to escape. It is also commonly acknowledged that more than 100,000 people got out of the No Fire Zone because of the Army's incursion on April 20th, which cost numerous military lives yet need not have been attempted if the objective was purely to finish off the LTTE.

Still, following intensive campaigning about 'genocide', the United Nations has now decided that evidence from satellite images suggests that civilians were indeed targeted.

The report claims that this is not honest.

It analyses the available satellite images to arrive at a number of very interesting conclusions. It says that the vast majority of craters in the No Fire Zone that appeared in the final days of the conflict are from mortars, which are not classified as heavy weapons, requiring the Army to get closer to the fighting and well within range of the artillery and other munitions of the LTTE - it reported the deaths of 40 to 60 soldiers a day from such attacks. At the same time, the number of casualties from mortar attacks is generally expected to be lower, since the explosive yield and barrel velocities of the shells are lower. The author also draws attention to the clear difference between the state of the No Fire Zone and that of the area surrounding Anandapuram, where the last major engagement between the Army and the LTTE took place, resulting in the deaths of many of its senior leaders. This demonstrates what 'carpet bombing' really looks like.

The analysis shows that contrary to the assertion that the Army continually adjusted its batteries to target the No Fire Zone, what it was actually doing was supporting its advancing forward defence lines, while the vast majority of its fire bearings missed concentrated pockets of IDPs.

It also notes the way in which research commissioned by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch from the American Association for the Advancement of Science following the initiation of the operation to capture the No Fire Zone on May 9th, in which there was talk of indiscriminate shelling, is now completely ignored because it did not support this conclusion.

Unfortunately, this is almost certain to be the fate of 'The Numbers Game' too.

Kath Noble may be contacted at

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