Sri Lanka’s plans for civil war body count met with chorus of criticism

Sri Lanka’s government is to count on its own how many civilians were slain at the end of its bloody civil war to counter international claims that tens of thousands were killed and to fend off calls for a war crimes investigation.

In revealing the plan, defence secretary Gotabhaya Rajapaksa yesterday also acknowledged for the first time that soldiers may have committed unspecified “crimes”.

He promised to investigate and punish them.

Both the count of the killed and the admission of misconduct were a major shift for a government that had sworn its soldiers were beyond reproach and insisted for more than two years that not a single civilian was killed by its forces during the final stages of the war.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mr Rajapaksa’s speech to a conference on post-war ethnic reconciliation was the government’s latest attempt to show it was taking action on its own and to blunt the calls for outside investigations into the war against the Tamil Tiger rebels.

He said the census department’s count, which is near completion and will be released soon, shows a very small number of civilians died because of military action.

He said people who died due to natural causes or accidents, as well as those who fled the country illegally, died fighting for the rebels or were killed by the rebels, were also counted in order to reconcile the number of people unaccounted for.

“It has been possible to identify by name all such persons [dead or missing],” Mr Rajapaksa said. “As a result of the census, we already know that the real number of the dead and missing is far too small to provide any substance to absurd allegations of genocide and war crimes that have been made.”

A United Nations report released in April said tens of thousands of civilians may have been killed in the last months of the decades-long war that a government offensive ended in May 2009.

Alan Keenan, senior analyst with International Crisis Group, said he was sceptical of Sri Lanka’s latest move, calling it an “attempt to short-circuit” calls for an investigation.

“No government accused by so many credible witnesses of such grave crimes can be relied on to count the number of their own victims,” he said.

“The process by which the supposed count has happened is not at all clear, but the conditions under which the census would have been conducted in the north – an area under effective military occupation by a victorious army accused of the crimes in question – are not conducive to a fair and accurate count,” Mr Keenan said.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Mr Rajapaksa’s statement “finally acknowledges that government forces violated human rights in the context of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict,” said Yolanda Foster, Sri Lanka expert with rights group Amnesty International.

“Until recently, the government claimed it had a ‘zero civilian casualty’ policy. This claim flew in the face of available evidence and now it seems that the government has abandoned this line of response.”

She said the government conducting its own count instead of allowing an international investigation is “simply another delaying tactic”.

The UN report said most of the casualties came from government shelling and called for an independent international investigation into what it called credible allegations against the government and the Tamil Tigers, who fought for more than 25 years to carve out a separate state for ethnic minority Tamils.

The government has dismissed as fabrications video footage apparently showing soldiers shooting blindfolded prisoners.

Christof Heyns, the UN’s independent investigator on extra-judicial killings, said the video was authentic and provided enough evidence to open a war crimes case.