When the saints come marching in

Ramesh Thakur,** courtesy of the Canberra Times, 12 November 2011

Two recent events have brought home some ugly truths. A Sri Lankan-origin Australian tried (unsuccessfully) to lay charges against the President of Sri Lanka, visiting Perth to attend the Commonwealth summit, for alleged war crimes during the final weeks of the war against the Tamil Tigers. Meanwhile, another former head of state has been buried in an unmarked grave in the Libyan desert. Muammar Gaddafi and one of his sons were captured, wounded but alive, and executed on the spot. A shocked and outraged “international community” is demanding a full and credible investigation, just as it did with charges of war crimes by the victorious Sri Lankan armed forces.

It is hard to know how much of this self-righteousness reflects the innocence of “inner-city elites” about the realities of war, and how much is double standards bordering on racism. With due deference to English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, war is always nasty and brutish, but not always short. The Sri Lankan civil war was very, very ugly. Spread over 26 years in a unique fusion of ethnic-religious cleavage, insurgency, terrorism and secession, it claimed 80,000 people.

The Tigers, among the world’s most ruthless of terrorists, pioneered the use of women suicide bombers and the explosive suicide belt. They killed many civilians, including Tamils, former Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, and Sri Lanka’s president Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993; recruited child soldiers; and often raised funds from the Tamil diaspora community through extortion. In the final chaotic battles, civilians were held against their will by the Tigers, not the army. Many Tamils who tried to flee were shot by the Tigers. Expat Sri Lankan Tamils who failed to criticise the Tigers have little moral authority to complain about the government.

The problem with Sri Lanka is not how they ended the last war but how they are creating the conditions for another civil war through vicious triumphalism instead of reconciliation through reasonable power-sharing arrangements.

In North Africa, at the same time as the “Arab spring” blossomed into democratic elections in Tunisia, the brutalisation and killing of Gaddafi laid bare the ugliness of a revolution. Since then, another 53 corpses, hands tied behind backs, have been discovered in Sirte. During the eight months of the fighting, the rebels undoubtedly engaged in abductions, torture, killings and other atrocities against loyalists. Black-skinned Libyans and African migrants have also been presumed to be mercenaries and roughed up.

It may be that the liberal conceit of wars regulated by laws and justice is a fantasy. Not only is the sense of justice and vengeance an integral part of human nature; it is not easy to see how the alternatives would have helped Libyans to put the past firmly behind them.

International criminal prosecution of Gaddafi at the Hague in distant never-never land would have prolonged the Libyans’ nightmare – think Slobodan Milosevic. Pittsburgh University’s Robert Hayden argues that the international criminal tribunal for former Yugoslavia has impeded, not promoted, stability and reconciliation in the Balkans and, as the primary beneficiaries of its operations, international human rights agencies and lawyers are de facto “anti-war profiteers”. The International Criminal Court cannot impose the death penalty. Gaddafi alive would scarcely have helped to bring closure to the Libyans. His swift execution may bring catharsis. Regardless, do outsiders have the right and standing to judge whether this served their sense of justice and most urgent political needs going forward?

What is the essential moral and legal difference between what the rebels did and what NATO was doing nightly? Had Gaddafi been shredded to death by one of the thousands of strikes on Tripoli targeting his hideouts, would that have been any less gruesome and revolting? Why the calls for investigation into how Gaddafi died but not Osama bin Laden, who was unarmed when US Navy Seals burst into his room? Why the insistence on investigations into the final days of Sri Lanka’s military campaign but not into US actions in Falluja in Iraq in 2004? Is President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presence on our soil any more grotesque than Tony Blair being a Middle East peace envoy?

Many others see double standards and selectivity of Western governments who aggressively promoted the rhetoric of the war on terror, waged an illegal war of aggression in Iraq where civilian lives are so devalued they were not even counted, and support the war on terror in the Afghanistan-Pakistan battle space with its high toll on civilian casualties and drone strikes.

Images of Gaddafi’s final moments shock our sensibility because wars have been successfully sanitised. A US-based drone operator can kill families in the Afghanistan-Pakistan badlands and Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen by remote-controlled missiles, then drive home for a family meal; neither he nor we have to come to terms with the reality of torn limbs and destroyed families.

The hated and dreaded dictators of Romania after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe (Nicolae Ceausescu, shot on Christmas Day 1989) and Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal (Mohammad Najibullah, castrated and killed by being dragged behind a truck through the streets of Kabul on September 27, 1996, then hung from a traffic light) were successor stories to Benito Mussolini, shot on April 28, 1945 and the next day his body hung upside down from a meat-hook in Milan and stoned by civilians.

Trophy photos with Gaddafi’s corpse in a freezer may seem macabre to us. The fact that Libyans formed long queues to do so suggests that it was not out of the ordinary for them. Do we really have the right to judge them, who suffered 42 years of his tyranny? Those who live by terror shall be consumed by the furies of the formerly terrorised. This is not necessarily any more perverse than celebrating victory in a war fought to protect civilians which claimed around 30,000 lives (best-guess estimates), compared to 1,000-2,000 before outside intervention.

War is bad. Sometimes it may be necessary. Then, squeamishness is not always an option. The final image of Gaddafi wiping his blood-soaked face and being brutalised by his young captors is the face of war: washed in blood and bathed in brutality. We should drop the pretence that “they” are savages and “we” are saints. Those who do not embrace pacifism have no call to be shocked when confronted with this ugly reality. “Inter arma silent leges”: in times of war, the law falls mute, noted Chicago law professor Eric Posner in a Foreign Policy blog.

We want to let loose the dogs of war, but restrict them to barking and keep them from biting and mauling their prey. The choice between the slaughter of the innocents by Gaddafi without intervention, and collateral civilian deaths plus atrocities committed by rebels with intervention, was an unavoidable trade-off. Existing laws provide little guidance on the proper terms of the trade-off. We are all complicit in moral ambiguities.

Several conclusions. The rule of international law, human rights standards, and international criminal justice institutions are meant to level the playing field between the rich and poor, powerful and weak. They are not additional sticks for Western governments and NGOs with which to beat up the rest. War should be waged very rarely. If the standards regulating wartime conduct are too stringent, they will be violated by military and political necessity. This will foster a wider, more generalised disrespect for the principle of conduct being governed by rules, norms and laws.

Those fighting ruthless opponents with no moral scruples, especially in chaotic and confused conditions at the very end, deserve some slack. We should all focus efforts mainly on our own governments to ensure conformity with our moral compass and humanitarian-cum-legal norms. Whether stringent or soft, international standards should apply equally to all. Westerners cannot impose moral and international criminal strictures on others but exempt themselves. And those who have escaped from ethnic violence at home should not import the conflicts here.

** Dr. Ramesh Thakur is Professor of International Relations in the Asia–Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University and Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Ethics, Governance and Law at Griffith University. He was Vice Rector and Senior Vice Rector of the United Nations University (and Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations) from 1998–2007. Educated in India and Canada, he was a Professor of International Relations at the University of Otago in New Zealand and Professor and Head of the Peace Research Centre at the Australian National University, during which time he was also a consultant/adviser to the Australian and New Zealand governments on arms control, disarmament and international security issues. He was a Commissioner and one of the principal authors of The Responsibility to Protect (2001), and Senior Adviser on Reforms and Principal Writer of the United Nations Secretary-General’s second reform report (2002). He was a Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo (2007–11), Distinguished Fellow of the Centre for International Governance Innovation (2007–10) and Foundation Director of the Balsillie School of International affairs in Waterloo, Ontario. The author or editor of over thirty books and 300 articles and book chapters, he also writes regularly for quality national and international newspapers around the world. He serves on the international advisory boards of institutes in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. His most recent books include The United Nations, Peace and Security: From Collective Security to the Responsibility to Protect (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006) – winner of the ACUNS 2008 Award for the best recent book on the UN system; Global Governance and the UN: An Unfinished Journey, co-written with Thomas G. Weiss (Indiana University Press, 2010); and The Responsibility to Protect: Norms, Laws and the Use of Force in International Politics (London: Routledge, 2011). His next major project is The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy co-edited with Andrew F. Cooper and Jorge Heine (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming).


Filed under accountability, atrocities, historical interpretation, LTTE, politIcal discourse, power sharing, Rajapaksa regime, Rajiv Gandhi, Sinhala-Tamil Relations, suicide bombing, Tamil Tiger fighters, truth as casualty of war, world events & processes

3 responses to “When the saints come marching in

  1. Guest

    Dr Thakur conclusions are unarguably correct in the context of Sri Lanka’s war with the Tamil Terrorist group (LTTE). The reality is that a western based lobby of money hungry “international jurists” see a low hanging fruit in the issue of alleged “war crimes” during the SL-LTTE war.

    Prompted by the same lobby western powers (USA, UK, EU) as well as other do godders like the Norweigians, Canadians and many INGOs have tried their utmost to usurp the authority of the democratically elected gov of Sri Lanka
    (SL). The recent sanctimonoius, though odious, pronuncements of the Canadian PM at the commonwealth summit was an attempt to please the same lobby as well the large number of ex tiger activists “volunteering” for the Conservative party in Canada; it was not in anyway prompted by a concern for human rights, given the sorry record of the conservatives on human rights.

  2. The author says “Regardless, do outsiders have the right and standing to judge whether this served their sense of justice and most urgent political needs going forward?“.
    The powerful nations have established various instruments for exercising their powers, and their agenda, hidden within a cloak of respectability. The World bank, the IMF, many agencies of the UN, Human-rights agencies which now carry the “white-man’s burden”, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the international court of the Hague are examples which can do good but only operate under the control of the strong nations.

    But, besides these seemingly legitimate instruments, they also use other weapons, including the funding/arming of dissenting militant groups, supporting devolution and weakening of strong states, and encircling strong states like the Soviet Union at that time, and now China.

    Obama’s visit to Australia is a renewal of the old “containment of China” doctrine of Secretary Dean Rusk, in the days prior to the launching of the Vietnam war. Today the Americans go at it with greater caution. Nevertheless it is useful to review what Charles West, Senior Advisor to the Pentagon and the Rand Corporation think-tank Guru told the congressional committee hearings at the time.
    I am dubious that China’s fears of encirclement are going to be abated, eased, in the long-term. But what we do in SouthAsia would help to develop within Chinese body politic more of a realism and willingness to live with this fear …American foreign policy is … whether China can be faced with a structure of incentives, of penalties and rewards, of inducements and punishments that will make it willing to live with this fear”.

    Sri Lanka’s resistance to devolution is not merely a matter of internal arrangements, but also a part of the South Asian Geopolitics, and Tamil Nadu politics. Ramesh Takur has totally neglected the fact that the civil war was funded from India at the outset, and then by the Diaspora after the 1983 attacks on Tamils, provoked partly by a vindictive JRJ government.

    As far as I know, the MR government has offered full 13th amendment but without police powers. The TNA wants all powers except foreign policy . But given that they rush to India and the USA even today, and with the Tamil Trans-national Govt, foreign policy is already practiced by them!

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