Sri Lanka’s government has started counting the dead, wounded and missing in its quarter-century civil war amid international pressure to conduct a credible investigation into allegations of war crimes.
The move on Thursday comes two years after a local war commission recommended a census to determine the number of civilian deaths in the civil war which ended in 2009.
Tens of thousands are said to have perished in just the last few months of the fighting.
Government census official, A.J. Satharasinghe, said some 15,000 workers will go house-to-house asking about war victims for the count, which is to be completed on December 20.
D.C.A. Gunawardena, director general of the Department of Census and Statistics, said the country-wide survey would assess the death toll and damage to property since 1982.
But he conceded that the census could not give a full picture of the scale of losses.
“There is a limitation,” Gunawardena told the Reuters news agency. “If somebody’s whole family died or fled the country, then nobody will be there to give their details.”
Sri Lanka is under pressure over its delay to implement the recommendations of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission which includes a local inquiry into allegations of war abuse against government soldiers and the now-defeated Tamil Tiger rebels.
Countries like the US and Britain have warned that Sri Lanka could face an international war crimes investigation if it fails to conduct its own inquiry and the UN Human Rights Council has passed two successive resolutions calling for one.
UN human rights chief, Navi Pillay, is expected to submit her findings from a visit to Sri Lanka at the council’s next session next March.
Lack of accountability
Sri Lankan troops in May 2009 defeated Tamil Tiger rebels who had fought since 1983 to create an independent state for the country’s ethnic minority Tamils.
The government expelled international aid workers and UN staff from the war zone in the last stages of the fighting and blocked independent journalists from covering the war, making it impossible for outsiders to know the extent of civilian deaths.
For two years after the war, Sri Lanka’s government had insisted that not a single civilian was killed. But later in 2011, it acknowledged some civilian deaths and announced a census of the war dead but its results were vague.
New Delhi-based rights group Asian Center for Human Rights criticised the census as a “sham” and said the issue in Sri Lanka was not a lack of statistics but accountability for human rights abuses.
Government troops were accused of deliberately shelling civilians, hospitals and blocking food and medical aid to hundreds of thousands of people boxed inside a tiny strip of land as the rebels mounted their last stand.
The rebels were accused of holding civilians as human shields, killing those escaped their control and recruiting child soldiers.