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TG View: Erasing the dead

Sri Lanka last week announced a census to ascertain the number of war casualties; an attempt to counter increasingly insistent international demands for a credible accountability process at the next UN Human Rights Council session in March 2014. But Sri Lanka’s intention is not to establish an accurate count of civilian casualties. The clue rests in census officials’ assertions that only those cases where relatives can produce a death certificate will be counted as officially dead. Sri Lanka has however stalled and delayed certifying the deaths of large numbers of Tamil civilians, particularly from the final months of the war, a point repeatedly raised by international agencies, including the UN Expert Panel. The government’s criteria of counting only death certificates, and even then only those provided in person by immediate family members, exposes a barefaced attempt to officially erase large numbers of Tamil deaths from the war record and thereby challenge well researched international estimates of at least tens of thousands of Tamil civilian deaths in the final months of the war.

Having repeatedly insisted that no civilians died during the last phase of the war, the growing and insurmountable weight of evidence on the scale of casualties has forced Sri Lanka to shift from blanket denial to open confrontation. The report of the UN Internal Review Panel stated that up to 70,000 Tamil civilians could have been killed, while the World Bank notes that over 100,000 Tamil civilians remain unaccounted for, after the end of the fighting in May 2009. Sri Lanka will use the distorted figures from its own census to undermine the gravity of international evidence and provide its allies in the UN Human Rights Council with ammunition to head off ‘western imperialism’.

The head of the Department for Census and Statistics DCA Gunawardena said that evidence by third parties and relatives will not be accepted. Furthermore, only those immediate family members with certificates or police documentation to prove death or disappearance will be able to submit their claim to the census. But the process to obtain death certificates is complex and has made it difficult for families to receive appropriate documentation.

“The lack of death certificates is a major problem in the north of Sri Lanka and in parts of the east. For the large number of female-headed households, death certificates proving that their husbands have died are essential to be able to claim compensation, to claim benefits, in some cases to put children into school, and to remarry.” – Minority Rights Group report 2011

Reports also suggest that certificates are only issued once family members provide assurance that no further legal action will be taken, an option that many would be forced to take. The UN’s Panel of Experts called on the government to not use the issuance of death certificates to preclude ‘any further legal recourse in the future.’

“While acknowledging the importance of expeditious issuance of death certificates when requested by a relative, the Panel stresses that in light of the experience in other countries, the issuance of a death certificate should not be used to distort or obscure the truth of the circumstances surrounding a death. Issuance of a death certificate following an administrative process is not a substitute for a bona fide investigation into the circumstances of an individual’s death, which meets international standards. It is also crucial that a relative’s acceptance of a death certificate does not lock the individual into a definitive legal position that precludes any further legal recourse in the future.” – UN Panel of Experts report

The government has also said that those who have fled the country would not be able to file the names of their dead relatives and nor will the families with no survivors be counted. Census officials were careful to point out that the LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran and his family will therefore not be counted as there was no one left in the family to submit the claim. In short while the Sri Lankan government acknowledges that the LTTE leader and his immediate family were killed in the war, with evidence suggesting that his young son was executed while in the hands of the Sri Lankan military, they will nevertheless not be counted as ‘officially’ dead. Equally, other Tamil families across the north-east, who have perished entirely or whose relatives have now fled abroad, will be erased off the record of war deaths.

The 16,000 employees of the Sri Lankan bureaucracy who will be deployed across the island to collect and record death certificates will establish an ‘official’ figure of civilian deaths which, Sri Lanka will petulantly insist, undermines established international estimates of tens of thousands of Tamil deaths, particularly those from the final months of the war. It is entirely predictable that Sri Lanka and its allies on the Human Rights Council will use the census to counter demands for a credible, independent investigation. Indeed Kamalesh Sharma, the Commonwealth Secretary General and notorious friend of Sri Lanka, has so far been the lone but prompt voice in welcoming the census.

It is significant that having called for more time and space over the past four years to establish its own investigation into war crimes, Sri Lanka has now changed tack and is instead preparing to challenge the now established and painstakingly collected evidence of war crimes. The government’s census will be far from credible, unlike the detailed reports by the UN and some NGOs and human rights organisations. But this shift from delaying accountability and justice to challenging the very need for it arguably clears the way for a decisive move towards a credible investigation of Sri Lanka’s crimes, an investigation that must undeniably be international. If left to its own devices, Sri Lanka will continue to create an alternative narrative of what occurred during the final months of the armed conflict, something it must not be allowed to do. An independent, international investigation is long overdue.