Genocide claims, number games, and margins of error

By Chandre Dharmawardana


June 23, 1983 known as “BLACK JULY” was a day of shame for Sri Lanka, where a government calling itself a “Dharmista Rajya” (a Righteous Regime) aided and abetted armed mobs to attack a section of its citizens — civilian Tamils. The fact that there were looters, or that other forces fished in troubled waters etc., are irrelevant. That state-aided terror happened in the Capital city itself, is a fact and not an allegation, based on how many Tamils lived in the Metropolis before and after the event.


On the other hand, the claim of Genocide during the last days of the Eelam wars, as resolved in the Northern Provincial Council of Sri Lanka, and in three municipalities in Canada, as well as in various rallies sponsored by Tamil Diaspora groups is a very different matter. Lumping the alleged genocide with Black July is to diminish the latter to the level of the alleged genocide.


The authors of the Darusman report that came up with a death toll of 40,000 were not scientists or statisticians, who routinely deal with numbers and their interpretations. Any such person would cringe in horror at the scant attention to error margins in the data used by the UN panel.


If we determine the speed of light in an undergraduate laboratory experiment, the result usually comes to about 299,000 km per second plus or minus 3.7%. So the actual speed may be anything between 287,000km/sec and 310,000 km/sec. The measurement has a ‘margin of error’ of plus or minus 11,100 km/sec., while the most probable estimated value is 299,000 km/sec. That kind of caution is not exercised when people talk of the 299,000 IDPs rescued from the LTTE cordon during the first three weeks of May, 2009.


Only three significant figures are given in the upper and lower estimates of the speed of light, namely, 287,000 and 310,000. The others are rounded to zeros. Since our error is 3.7%, strictly speaking, one should give the lower and upper values as 290,000 and 310,000 km/sec., keeping just two significant figures.


However, Frances Harrison, writing on the death toll in the Huffington Post (17. Dec. 2012) naively gives a figure of 101,748, i.e., a number with six significant figures! Such accuracy implies a precision of one part in a million! Clearly, Harrison has no idea of significant numbers in giving a probable estimate. If this number was given as 102,000, Frances Harrison passes the math test, although that does not make the figure correct.


Unlike measurements in physics, measurements on populations, numbers dead, etc., are open to large errors, not repeatable, and not credible unless corroborated by several sources. The numbers must also be internally consistent. For instance, when a population is shelled, for every person killed, some 3-4 persons are also injured. If Harrison’s figure of 102,000 killed were used, we should expect some 300,000 injured among those rescued from the war zone in May 2009.


And yet, these claims are used to even refuse visas to Lankan security personnel who attempt to visit friends and family in western countries, such as Canada and Australia. These genocide claims have been enshrined in judgments at Kangaroo courts in Ireland and Bremen, run by moral crusaders and clerics combating “evil” with righteous indignation. On the other hand, no such restrictions are imposed on US soldiers with tarnished human-rights reputations from Iraq or Afghanistan. Instead they are invited into the country with various ‘Acquisitions and Cross-Servicing Agreements’.


Estimates of the death toll


The claim of 40,000 dead given in the first Darusman report (2011,) was followed by a second UN report (2012), which claimed a final-phase death toll of 70,000. This implies that even the estimate given in 2011 was in error by 20,000, and the error bars are even bigger.


One of the best analyses of the available data was given by the Marga Institute (2013 – The Numbers Game; Politics of Retributive Justice). The four-part article (Island, 4-Feb-2014 to 8-Feb-2014) by Prof. G. H. Peiris, succinctly discusses the difficulties of credibility, injured-to-death ratio etc., and in estimating a death toll.


Consequently, the death-toll figures from various organizations are destined to differ by wide margins. We have: US state department 7,000-8,000, UN-internal estimate 7,737, University Teachers for Human Rights, Jaffna (UTHR-J) 20,000-40,000, The International Crisis Group (ICG) 35,000. The Marga Institute study proposed a death toll of 15,000, while the recent British House of Lords study led by Lord Naseby in 2017, used information from previously unavailable British diplomatic cables as well, and estimated a figure close to 7000. The Sri Lankan Dept. of Census and Statistics (2013) released a death toll figure of 7400 for the last phase of the war.


War crimes are those perpetrated on unarmed civilians by armed warring groups, be they government soldiers or those who wage war against the state. If the attack on civilians is part of a deliberate policy of eliminating one ethnic group, that becomes genocide. The UN has not indicted Sri Lanka for genocide of Tamils during the Eelam war.


The LTTE blurred the distinction between civilians and fighters by recruiting civilians and even children and creating “Makkal Padai” (people’s armies). The Makkal Padai consisted of “Eelappadai” and “Gramappadai”, each consisting of some 5000 conscripted civilians. The LTTE’s deliberate use of civilians as well as protected facilities like hospitals, as a cover for its military operation is also well established. Using a “human shield” and also creating a humanitarian catastrophe were parts of the LTTE’s end game. Simultaneous street demonstrations by LTTE Diaspora groups in the West pushed for “Right to Protect” (R2P) interventions in Sri Lanka.


The Darusman report acknowledges these difficulties, and states (paragraph 239): “… Credible allegations point … that the LTTE deliberately located or used mortar pieces, other light artillery, military vehicles, mortar pits, bunkers, and trenches in proximity to civilian areas. These locations included hospitals and concentrations of IDPs, including in each of the No-Fire-Zones”.


Error margins for the


Darusman data.


The Darusman report depends crucially on the accuracy of two numbers. These are: (i) number N1 of people in the second No-Fire-Zone in February 2009; this may be anything from 290,000 to 330,000; (ii) the actual number N2 of IDPs rescued by the army on breaching the LTTE cordon in May 2009. A probable value of N2 is given as 299,000. It is the difference between these two numbers, i.e., N1-N2 that is used to claim that some 40,000 people are unaccounted for, and allegedly willfully massacred, entirely by the army, with no killings ascribed to the LTTE.


The first number N1 used in the Darusman report depends on an estimate from a SINGLE SOURCE, Mr. K. Parthipan, the Assistant Government Agent (AGA) of Mullativu. He informed (‘Situation Report’, 2009) that “…The IDPs of Mullaitivu and Kilinochchi and parts of Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna Districts are now in Mullaitivu District … The population at present is about 81,000 families, … about 330,000 persons”.


This number was not a head count, but an estimate with four per family. The number was used to ask for an increase in the food and other commodities sent to the Vanni through the UN World Food Program and the Red Cross. Hence the number is open to exaggeration. For instance, the AGA ignored the fact that families were smaller than four due to conscription of the young. Also, some 26,000 to 36,000 IDPs were already in camps outside the LTTE cordon in February 2009. Thus there probably were 294,000 to 304,000 people within the LTTE cordon. We should add to this uncertainty that some 5000-10,000 people were included in “Makkal Padai”, and hence the “civilian count” is likely to fluctuate by at least 5000. We may conclude that N1 is uncertain by at least plus or minus 15,000 or even 20,000.


The number N2 of IDPs received in May 2009 is about 299,000. This excludes IDPs who had arrived earlier and been cared for and moved to make place for new arrivals. Furthermore, many new “IDPs” were LTTE cadre or Makkal Padai and not civilians. There were many who escaped, or paid their way out and even emigrated. So, N2 itself is uncertain by several thousands.


A stupid way to find the weight of the crew of an ocean liner is to weigh the ship with all the crew, and then without the crew. The difference between two such large numbers is subject to gross errors. The 40,000 unaccounted for in the Darusman report is as large as the error in taking the difference between two large numbers N1 and N2, subject to large uncertainties.


The Darusman estimate has not been backed up by locating mass graves or other circumstantial evidence, even after five years of control of the North by the TNA. They claimed genocide of Tamils by every government since independence. Contrary to that ‘Genocide Claim’, the Tamil population had grown by a factor of at least 3.5 since independence!


Interestingly, Christopher Hitchens was one who questioned the Tamil genocide claim and raised strong doubts about it (see Michael Roberts:

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