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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2680

The Times Report Of The Numbers Killed Raise New Questions

By Don Wijewardana

The LTTE gave the world not only the suicide vest but also the art of perpetuating a lie until it becomes accepted as the truth. Now the "Times" has taken it to new heights.

On 29 May the Times reported that evidence gathered by it has revealed that at least 20,000 Tamils were killed mostly by army shelling on the beach as the army closed in on the Tigers. The paper blamed the UN for underestimating the death toll. The interesting thing is the way they arrived at that figure and how they were able to make sure the army was responsible for most of the deaths.

The claim was based on what it said an average of 1,000 deaths each day up to 19 May, the day after the Tamil Tiger leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, was killed.

The rest of the media world was aghast. The Guardian and the BBC said they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks and questioned the methodology used by the Times. The New York Times reported that a coordinator for U.N. humanitarian relief, Elizabeth Byrs, had told that any estimate of the death toll must be based on extrapolation and guesswork.

Ban Ki-moon himself told the UN General Assembly "I categorically reject -- repeat categorically -- any suggestion that the United Nations has deliberately underestimated any figures."

The Times went on to claim its calculation was based on an analysis of "aerial photographs, official documents, witness accounts and expert testimony," and what the paper called "confidential United Nations documents." relying on an anonymous United Nations source.

But U.N. officials had told The New York Times, that they have no good estimate of the number of civilians killed in the final weeks of fighting and questioned the methodology. One described it as a dangerous extrapolation, multiplying by five the figures provided by three doctors who are currently under detention for providing false information.

New York Times went on to say that privately, U.N. staff admitted they were puzzled by the methodology used to achieve the new death toll. "Someone has made an imaginative leap and that is at odds with what we have been saying before," one official said. "It is a very dangerous thing to do to start making extrapolations."

If that is the type of 'investigative reporting; that the Times could undertake god help us. The founding fathers of what used to be a respectable newspaper must be turning in their graves. If a report like that was produced for any other recognised newspaper the journalist would be down the road the next day. It is a pathetic display of imbecile behaviour by a national newspaper. To make matters worse the paper then wrote an editorial based on the article. (Not certain whether the editorial or the article came first). That only made the hole the paper dug for itself deeper.

Why did the Times do this? Dr Palitha Kohona, Secretary of the Sri Lankan Ministry of Foreign Affairs offers an explanation. In an interview with the BBC he said the Times might be carrying on a bitter campaign based on unverified figures and unsubstantiated assertions out of spite since Sri Lanka had deported one of its correspondents. If so this revengeful fib is alarming. The guarantee of press freedom carries with it the responsibility to be objective and impartial. The Times has flouted both these with impunity.

Desired result

Anyhow, the Times fabrication had the desired result. There is a disgruntled lot from the UNHRC decision last week. What this group, led by the European Union and a horde of NGOs, set out to do was to get the Council to agree to human rights enquiry against Sri Lanka. What it got was praise for Sri Lanka eliminating the terrorist group that plagued the country for nearly three decades. The Times report was intended to stir this group up. And it did.

Amnesty International was the first off the block. It demanded an investigation citing the Times report, which said "some 20,000 civilians were killed in the final phase of the war". Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, and a retired Indian army general Mehta followed by blaming India for not preventing this scale of killing.

The same view emerged from another unexpected quarter. Navaneetham Pillay, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, continued to press for an independent probe into abuses during the country’s war with Tamil separatists even after a majority of the 47-member Human Rights Council rebuffed her appeal for that body to launch one.

Undaunted she seems working to build on the numbers. UN deputy spokesperson Marie Okabe was quoted in the UN website as saying that as more information will come out, more evidence will emerge about what did and did not happen. So an international inquiry could still happen further down the line.

Double standards

Western double standards were displayed by Pillay too. Although being the High Commissioner for human rights (HCHR) she did not utter a word of appreciation of Sri Lanka rescuing 280,000 civilians held as hostage by the LTTE. They were there to be sacrificed before the Sri Lankan army got to the LTTE leadership. That was the world’s largest hostage rescue mission, yet gone unseen.

Also how come routine US bombings of innocent people in Afghanistan in the name of attacking Taleban go unnoticed? FBI has categorised LTTE a far deadly terror group than the Taleban. If it was Osama bin Laden, and not Prabhakaran, that was killed would she make the same fuss? Pathmanathan or KP, the LTTE arms procurer had been in discussions with the UN top brass during the last days of the war.

Perhaps the high commissioner found it hard to accept that armed forces did not wait until a third party emerged for the LTTE leadership to surrender, in spite of her warning of ‘severe repercussions for a human catastrophe waiting to happen’. If not it is hard to explain her dogged insistence on a human rights violation enquiry.

The GOSL priority currently is the welfare and resettling of these rescued people which Pillay should be supporting in her capacity as HCHR. Instead she is going at a tangent hounding the Sri Lankan government, in what Steven Edwards of the National Post calls ‘an extraordinary step to override her own council’.

In contrast to this intransigence there is a more objective and sober response to the Times’ claim from a different arm of United Nations. U.N. Under-Secretary-General Sir John Holmes, who oversees the United Nations' humanitarian operations noted that the Times figure was based on an unofficial and unverified U.N. estimate of around 7,000 civilian deaths through the end of April and added on roughly 1,000 more per day after that. He said the initial figure itself of 7,000 deaths had been deemed far too questionable for official publication. Those were "estimates based on the best evidence that we had, but that wasn't very good evidence because we weren't really present in the (battle zone) in any systematic way," Holmes said. "That's why we didn't publish them."

Holmes was furious when in its editorial, The Times wrote that "the U.N. has no right to collude in suppressing the appalling evidence" of a government-executed massacre. "I resent this allegation that we've been colluding with the government in some way or not taking sufficient notice," he said. "We have been the ones drawing attention to this problem when the media weren't very interested several months ago." His focus now is on the welfare of the internally displaced.


This difference in views raise a number of questions which Secretary General Ban ki Moon may have to address in the long term interest of the organisation. How come there is such a divergence of approach from the two arms of the same organisation? Are they working on the same set of data and the same agenda? If his own high commissioner for human rights refuses to be bound by a decision of its own Human Rights Council what can he expect from members of the UN? Was HCHR involved with the Western conspiracy to get the LTTE leadership rescued? Was it possible that, just like the Times, HCHR may have lost objectivity when dealing with an issue relating to her own Tamil community? Answers to these questions are necessary to clear the air and for the good of the organisation.


Looking at the future Stephen Long writing in the Asian Tribune has sound advice. “Navi Pillay ..should listen to her comrades who supported Sri Lanka in the UN resolution last week in Geneva. ...I suggest that the UN and the "Western Powers" start concentrating on how they can help the IDP’s in the North – seriously and quickly – and accept the fact that the authorities in Sri Lanka simply did what they had to do to rid their country of a terrorist scourge (the same that they would have done on their own turfs.)"

"I think it’s time the media in Western countries takes an honest, serious look at the great progress Sri Lanka has made on a number of fronts – in spite of dealing with a 30-year war against terrorism: the elections and massive re-development programs in the Eastern Province, the appointment of a former child soldier for the LTTE as Chief Minister for the Eastern Province, the Government’s excellent health care and educational systems, the rehabilitation and appointment of former LTTE chief "Karuna" as Vice President of the largest political party in the country, the rapid rebuilding of tsunami areas (and compare this to post-Katrina New Orleans), and many others."

Don Wijewardana is an economist and freelance journalist.

- Asian Tribune -

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