Civilian casualties: setting the record straight
Last modified on: 10/24/2008 10:41:44 AM
One of the most common fabrications being spread about by those working against the Sri Lanka is that a large number of civilians are being killed in air strikes. Nobody likes conflict, and it's easy to conjure up images of death and destruction being rained down from the air - we've all seen plenty of war films. It isn't just fiction, of course. Air strikes have a thoroughly ugly past, and people tend to believe these stories without feeling the need to ask for supporting evidence. But they simply aren't true.
Just this week, a British Member of Parliament called for an urgent debate on the conflict in Sri Lanka because of his concern about what he described as Government bombing of areas in the North and East of the country.' Barry Gardiner, representing a constituency that is home to a considerable number of Tamil expatriates, demonstrated how uninformed he is - the East hasn't seen violence on anything other than a very local scale for over a year now. And he was almost equally wrong about the North. The LTTE will have fed Barry Gardiner this disinformation in the hope that he would agitate for pressure to be exerted on the Government to capitulate to the separatist demands of the organisation.
It is but one example of the kind. Foreign observers are regularly to be heard pontificating on this topic, spurred on by local propagandists.
The Peace Secretariat has been collecting data on all accusations of civilian deaths and injuries made in Tamil newspapers and websites, including from a number of publications that are known to be intimately associated with the LTTE. While this opens up the possibility of abuse by keenly encouraging the generation of false claims, it also gives a clear indication of the maximum possible extent of any issues there might be with air operations.
The findings are highly instructive. In the last two and a half years, the Sri Lanka Air Force has carried out hundreds of strikes against LTTE targets. But Tamil media sources have reported the demise of no more than 106 civilians, while only another 281 civilians are professed to have sustained injuries. This covers almost the entire period in which the Government has been responding to LTTE actions - from June 2006 to October 2008.
It should be noted that all but 45 of these 106 alleged deaths occurred in a single incident at the beginning of the confrontations. The Sri Lanka Air Force hit an LTTE camp in the jungles of Mullaitivu in August 2006. It maintains that those killed were cadres undergoing military training, and testimony of injured girls who subsequently found their way to areas under Government control backs up photographic and intelligence data supplied by the Sri Lanka Air Force. However, the LTTE claimed that the young women were attending a residential first aid course. Proof of this hasn't been established, and the reputation of the organisation for the recruitment of girls as suicide bombers as well as fighting cadres must surely be taken into account.
The Sri Lanka Air Force can therefore be said to do a good job. Their efforts to safeguard the civilian population compare favourably with those of other countries, including military forces much better equipped than ours.
Human Rights Watch has carried out analyses of the air strikes of the United States Air Force in both Afghanistan and Iraq. They show a far more worrying record.
In Afghanistan, two studies have been conducted. The first looked at the six months from October 2001 to March 2002. Human Rights Watch found evidence of an absolute minimum of 152 civilian deaths, which it put down to the fairly widespread use of cluster munitions. These release a large number of smaller bombs, a proportion of which don't explode on impact and therefore become landmines. The United States Air Force dropped a total of 1,228 cluster munitions containing around 248,056 bombs in the period studied, and Human Rights Watch says that a conservative estimate of the number that wouldn't have exploded on impact is around 5%, which would leave more than 12,400 landmines. Human Rights Watch noted that unexploded bombs from cluster munitions dropped by the United States Air Force and its allies in the first Gulf War eventually killed a total of 1,600 civilians.
The second report on Afghanistan looked at the two and a quarter years from May 2006 to July 2008. Human Rights Watch says that the United States Air Force killed at least 556 civilians in this period. It blamed this very high number of deaths on the tendency of the United States Army to call in air strikes on unverified targets in support of ground troops to avoid casualties on their own side.
In Iraq, Human Rights Watch didn't attempt to quantify the number of civilians who were killed in air strikes. However, the British medical journal The Lancet published an article suggesting that a total of 601,027 Iraqis died because of the conflict in the three and a quarter years from March 2003 to June 2006, of which 13% or over 78,000 people in air strikes. Human Rights Watch did say that the majority of the civilian deaths in air strikes occurred as the United States Air Force targeted Iraqi leaders, unwisely relying on intercepts of satellite phones that could only narrow down a location to the nearest 100 metres. All 50 of the acknowledged hits on Iraqi leaders failed, and Human Rights Watch claimed that most Iraqis they questioned were convinced that the targets weren't even present at the time of the attacks.
We dwell on these experiences because they demonstrate the restraint with which the Sri Lankan Government is prosecuting its air operations. Tactics that have led to significant numbers of civilian deaths in other theatres of war have not been employed here. It should be remembered that the methodology used by the Peace Secretariat in collecting these figures is rather more prone to overestimation than that used by Human Rights Watch, especially given the well known propaganda capacity of the LTTE.
Civilian deaths and injuries are a truly appalling prospect, and it is the duty of the Government to ensure that they do not occur under any circumstances. This effort by the Peace Secretariat to quantify the instances in which such things may have taken place supplements the routine work done by the Sri Lanka Air Force to monitor the results of its strikes and take action to ensure the safety of our people. This has also born fruit. Since fighting intensified in the North, only five allegations of civilian deaths in air strikes have been made in the three months from July 2008.
Interestingly, Sri Lankan NGOs who are known for their hostility to the Government admit that there have been very few civilian deaths in this phase of the conflict. Kumar Rupesinghe, head of the Anti-War Movement, was quoted in an interview in The Island this week admiring the introduction of what he called precision bombing to the Sri Lanka Air Force. Planes have been flying very low, so they have been able to study the maps and be very precise about their targets, he said. If the Anti-War Movement chief ideologue admits that the Government is succeeding in its attempts to safeguard civilians, others must surely be ready to accept it.
The Government welcomes accurate and relevant criticisms of its policies and is very happy to engage with those who can assist it to achieve its objectives of looking after its people. Such healthy dialogue is however at risk of being overshadowed by the current plague of fabrications that are attaching themselves to our record.