Jehan Perera & Banyan on double standards in international politics

ONE :  Way forward internationally after war crimes,  by Jehan Perera, in The Island, late October

 Pic accompanying the article from Banyan in The Economist, 24 Oct 2011 — see below

The war in Libya has something in common with the last phase of Sri Lanka’s own war, and can provide perspective on how Sri Lankan society must deal with its fallout. Like it happened inSri Lankawith the LTTE, the remnants of the former Libyan army were encircled in the city ofSirtewhere, in the midst of civilians, soldiers fought their last battle to save their leader. The air bombing of Sirte by NATO aircraft and the presence of Western coalition military personnel, including advisors inLibya, means that responsibility for this extra judicial killing, and for the killing of an unknown number of civilians, has to be shared. It will strengthen the argument of those who say that sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander as well.

The triumphant tone in sections of the Western media today at the death of former Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi is offensive. It has overpowered another ethos that has a long history. This ethos was articulated in the year 1624 by John Donne who said, not to know for whom the bell tolls…” This verse is worthy of being quoted in full on account of its relevance in public and personal life and its deeper truth that is too often lost sight of in the world of the five senses.

 “No man is an island,

Entire of itself.

Each is a piece of the continent,

A part of the main.

If a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less.

As well as if a promontory were.

As well as if a manor of thine own

Or of thine friend’s were.

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.

Therefore, send not to know

For whom the bell tolls,

It tolls for thee. “

This kind of thinking based on the inter-connectedness of life, which religious teachers like the Buddha explained in depth over two thousand years ago, has gave rise to the concept of universal human rights. Human rights belonged to human beings irrespective of whether they were black of white, European or Asian, dictator or democrat. The rule of law, which it applies equally to all, whether high or low, arose from this basic understanding. It is on this basis that Western countries have demonstrated their commitment to universal values within their own societies that have made them a beacon to would-be-immigrants and students from all parts of the world.

 Post-war conduct: So far there has been little or no international condemnation from either governments or international human rights watchdogs for what happened. Undoubtedly, a big part of the reason is that the very countries in the forefront of the war inLibyaare also those that are the proponents of human rights. The ability to say one thing and do another internationally is due to the weakness in world government. When institutions are weak then there is different application of the rules to different parties, depending on their wealth and power. This is evident withinSri Lankaitself at this very time where the investigation into the killing of former MP Bharatha Lakshman Premachandra is concerned.

 However, it is not only the wealth and power of the anti Gaddafi coalition headed by theUnited Statesand NATO that is responsible for the relative absence of criticism of the last phase of Libya’s war. There is also the hope that after the war there will be democratic reforms inLibyathat will make the future better for its people. Western countries have scored high in this area after World War II. They learnt from the mistake of World War I that punishing countries by heavy sanctions is a recipe for a further outbreak of conflict in the future. Once they destroy their enemies they build up what remains to be much better for the majority of people of that country. There is no better example of this practice of Western countries than how they treatedGermanyandJapanafter World War II.

After the war ended, the Western countries helped the defeated countries to recover. They brought bags of wheat to feed the people, toys for the children and money for the rebuilding of their industries. They also helped them to come up with new constitutions and more democratic forms of government. As a result the healing of relationships took place very rapidly and the victors and losers are today partners on the same world stage. It is likely that a similar scenario will unfold rapidly inLibyaalso.

This is what Sri Lanka failed to do in the immediate aftermath of war and created a very poor impression for itself in the world. Instead of comforting the victim population that had been held hostage by the LTTE, they were further victimised by being put behind barbed wire camps guarded by armed soldiers and told that they might have to stay there for two to three years. Fortunately, wiser counsel and the need to win votes at elections intervened, and the people were out of those camps in about six months, but it was six months too late. Even today, those people have barely any resources to restart their lives in the war-destroyed lands of the Vanni districts. It sends a very negative message that this year too, the government’s budget has a sizeable increase of the already massive defence budget which is over Rs. 220 billion, and a further shrinking of the already small resettlement budget to less than Rs 0.5 billion.

Repentant leadership: There is also another reason why the coalition of Western countries is likely to emerge unscathed out of the Libyan war, as they have after the wars inIraqandAfghanistan. They have been prepared to have investigations done, both during and after the wars, into possible abuses. When stories began to surface in 2004 about systematic abuse of Iraqi prisoners by US troops in the country in the Abu Ghraib prison, theUSgovernment had those abuses investigated. The evidence that emerged was horrific, and several soldiers and other military personnel, including high ranking officers were punished with imprisonment and demotion. The latest information from Wikileaks documents reveals that abuses still continue, but the willingness of theUSauthorities to investigate specific cases is a reason why there is no sustained pressure.

By way of contrast, until a few months ago, the Sri Lankan government denied that there was any significant level of civilian casualties in the last phase of the war in the Vanni. The government seemed to equate its publicly stated policy of zero civilian casualties with the reality of the battlefront which was entirely different. It was well known that LTTE cadres were in the midst of a large civilian population that they were either holding hostage or who were trapped along with them in the face of the advancing Sri Lankan military. The stubborn refusal of the Sri Lankan government to accept that it was inevitable that significant or large numbers of civilians would be become collateral victims in such a situation have made it easy for human rights groups to insist on an investigation.

In this context, the forthcoming final report of the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by President Mahinda Rajapaksa offers an opportunity for Sri Lanka to get back into the world’s mainstream. It is to be hoped that the LLRC would propose that best practices from other countries that have experienced bitter and protracted conflict will be suitably adapted to Sri Lanka’s own situation. One such best practice that has been proposed by civic groups within Sri Lanka is a Truth and Reconciliation Commission as a follow up to the LLRC which could look into the entire history of the war, and not simply the last phase. All victims need an opportunity to know what happened to their loved ones and all identified perpetrators need an opportunity to repent.

On May 7, 2004, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made the following statements regarding Abu Ghraib before the Senate Armed Services Committee: “These events occurred on my watch. As secretary of defense, I am accountable for them. I take full responsibility. It is my obligation to evaluate what happened, to make sure those who have committed wrongdoing are brought to justice, and to make changes as needed to see that it doesn’t happen again. I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in US custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn’t do that. That was wrong. To those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of US armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was un-American. And it was inconsistent with the values of our nation.”

Serious human rights violations due to war and counter terrorism in Sri Lanka arising from the unresolved ethnic conflict have been occurring from 1979, when the army was initially set into Jaffna to deal with the militancy and terrorism of that time. Human rights violations did not take place only in the last phase of Sri Lanka’s war. They took place right through the course of the three decades long war. These all need to be investigated, not just the last phase, and not only the present government but the conduct of previous governments need to be investigated. The investigation would necessarily include the international community, not excluding foreign governments and members of the Tamil Diaspora who promoted the continuation of violence within Sri Lanka.


TWO: Hypocrisy and the West. When to celebrate a death, by Banyan in

AFTER days of shelling during which untold numbers of diehard loyalists and unfortunate civilians were traumatised, maimed and killed, the despised dictator was cornered like an exhausted fox at the end of the hunt. How he took the bullet that killed him was disputed—in crossfire, the confusion of battle, or in what amounted to an execution. But so what? It was kinder than the lingering, agonising death he deserved and he was better dead than alive. Whoever pulled the trigger should be counted a hero, not investigated as a war-criminal. This was a time for rejoicing: a war over at last, and one of the great villains of the past half-century rendered incapable of causing further cruelty.

The death of Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009 marked the definitive victory of the Sri Lankan army in a war that had dragged on for 26 years and entailed the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. He ran his fief of “liberated”Sri Lanka with an iron fist, systematically wiping out his ethnic-Tamil opponents, as he commandeered a monopoly on Tamil resentment at rule by a Sri Lankan government dominated by ethnic Sinhalese. Prabhakaran’s Tamil Tigers were pioneers of suicide-bombing, and notorious for the cyanide pills they wore as an alternative to capture and torture. He waged terror overseas, notably inIndia, where his agents assassinated a former prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in 1991. And Tamil expatriates around the world were bullied and frightened into providing him with finance.

Yet the end of the war in Sri Lanka was marked by little of the celebratory tone that has marked some of the reporting of the death of Muammar Qaddafi this month. A few days before the Sri Lankan army’s final victory, President Barack Obama had called on it to stop using heavy weaponry in civilian areas. And when victory came, there was almost immediate condemnation of the tactics the Sri Lankan army had used in the final months of the war; calls for war-crimes inquiries predated the last battle, and persist to this day. OverLibya, there was no such call for restraint in the battle for Sirte, and on Qaddafi’s death, Mr Obama was quick to hail “the end of a long and painful chapter for the people ofLibya”.

So it is not surprising that some commentators in Sri Lankahave been offended by the triumphalist tone of some of the Western coverage of the end of Muammar Qaddafi. Jehan Perera, a brave liberal voice who has constantly called for accountability in Sri Lanka, asked why there has been so little condemnation of the conduct of the last phase of the war in Libya, from either governments or human-rights watchdogs. His gloomy conclusion: “Undoubtedly a big part of the reason is that the very countries in the forefront of the war in Libya are also those that are the proponents of human rights.

It is not just in Sri Lanka that the hypocrisy of Western attitudes has rankled. In China, a commentary in Global Times, a Beijing newspaper, highlighted another aspect of it: “The more urgent question is why the countries that led a righteous crusade against Qaddafi, and rightly or wrongly are now triumphing in his defeat, are the very same that up until recently were busy trying to be his friends?”  So, of course, wasChina. But two hypocrites do not make a right.

The assassination inPakistanin May of Osama bin Laden, without the Pakistani government’s knowledge, let alone permission, and the Western-backed onslaught on Sirte which culminated in the death of Qaddafi leave an impression of double standards. Both men did great evil. Both deserved to face justice. But the way the American administration has, in one case, arranged their killing, and in both, reacted to their deaths, suggests that their crime was not to kill huge numbers of people. Rather, it was to kill—over Lockerbie, inNew York,WashingtonandPennsylvania—huge numbers of Americans. Of course, a different standard applies when you take on the superpower. But this superpower and its allies seek to assert their standards and values as universal.

Asia’s dictatorships have long taken this with a pinch of salt. In the most despotic of them all, North Korea, Kim Jong Il will have watched satellite footage, denied his people, of Qaddafi’s end, and thought: “There but for the grace of a minimal nuclear deterrent go I.” Whatever slim hope survived that Mr Kim might voluntarily dispose of his nuclear capability evaporated when the West swung its military might behind the anti-Qaddafi rebellion. Nor is Mr Kim likely to be tempted by ideas of political liberalisation. Why tinker with a formula—of utter repression—that has endured for more than six decades?

The generals in Myanmar, however, seem to have drawn the opposite lesson from the “Arab spring”. With a constitution in place that assures them of ultimate power—and that cannot be changed without their say-so—they are hastening to present at least the appearance of fundamental political change. They have relaxed some press restrictions, flouted the will of their allyChina by suspending a big dam project, and charmed the leader of the opposition, Aung San Suu Kyi, into contemplating the entry of her party into mainstream politics.

And yet, reasons to cheer: Regardless of the murky circumstances of Qaddafi’s demise, that is also the message taken by optimists across Asia. As Yang Hengjun, a widely followed Chinese-born Australian blogger, put it on the website of Hong Kong University’s “China Media Project”: “If the autocratic rulers of the world do not loosen their grip on power, they will find themselves without choices, like Nicolae Ceausescu, Saddam Hussein and Qaddafi before them.

And the hypocrisy of the Western powers is not absolute. It is tempered by the accountability democracy brings. As Mr Perera notes, Western governments have been willing to have alleged abuses investigated. Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary at the time, eventually took responsibility for American mistreatment of detainees at Abu Ghraib inIraq, calling it “inconsistent with the values of our nation”.Sri Lankaby contrast has tolerated no independent and credible inquiry into the end of its civil war. It matters far beyond the Middle East that the new order inLibyadoes so.


Filed under accountability, american imperialism, LTTE, military strategy, politIcal discourse, Rajapaksa regime, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, sri lankan society, terrorism, truth as casualty of war, war crimes, world events & processes

4 responses to “Jehan Perera & Banyan on double standards in international politics

  1. John Donne did not write the island thing as verse . It was prose as part of Meditation XVII

  2. It is refreshing to see Jehan Perera and Banyan of all people making these points.

Leave a Reply