By Jude Fernando –
The UPFA government used many deceptive strategies to avoid domestic and international calls for credible inquiry into the allegations of war crimes and human rights abuses. The present cohabitation government’s “strong intent” to address the demands for transitional justice is also extremely vulnerable to same deceptive strategies. Below I continue to the discussion on these strategies.
Deception #4 Pointing the Finger at the “other”
UPFA government avoided addressing the demands for accountability by pointing at the hypocrisy of those countries that supported the UNHCR resolutions. The motive of UPFA regime was to make the majority community feel better about itself and to justify not taking responsibility for its own actions. By blaming the others, the regime covered-up its’ lack of interest in addressing the profound effects of memory of the war on individual and collective consciousness. The regime blamed and humiliated the victims and those came forward to assist them. In the process the perpetrators of alleged crimes also became victims as they were denied an opportunity to clear their names or come to terms with their guilt and trauma. Certainly, the international community did not lose its power and influence to navigate the domestic process of accountability.
It is well known that many of those countries that supported the UNHCR resolution follow double standards and discriminatory approaches with countries that are their enemies or not so relevant to their geopolitical interests, especially where human rights is concerned. They have avoided international accountability by not ratifying international conventions that are in place to safeguard human rights and sometimes, even by supporting groups that violate human rights. For example, UN Charters I and IV do not allow the war for the purpose of regime change. Geneva Conventions 1949 and 1977 prohibit initiation of invasions of other countries and directly involving or providing any form of support for wars of aggressions against foreign states. Powerful countries often violated these treaties as they command greater leverage to manipulate and avoid compliance with treaties to serve their selfish interests. If the GOSL is sincerely committed to accountability to its own people and to good governance, then it should not follow footsteps or enlist the support of these powerful countries are disrespectful of international t treaties. At the same time we must acknowledge that in a number of instances, these powerful countries publicly acknowledged and apologized for war crimes, conducted domestic inquiries and punished a few who were found guilty.
It is useful, in this case, to look at an example that was more judiciously handled: President Bush called the allegations of abuse of Iraqi soldiers in Abu Ghraib “abhorrent” and promised to punish those responsible for them, even after Specialist Joseph Darby, a member of the U.S. Army’s Military Police Corps, delivered a CD full of documentary photographs to the Army’s Criminal Investigation Division. U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Antony Taguba’s report of investigations into abuses at Abu Ghraib, internally released March 12, concluded that U.S. soldiers committed “egregious acts and grave breaches of international law.” These acts were “sadistic, blatant, and wanton criminal abuses” and included “keeping detainees naked, pouring cold water on naked detainees, using military dogs without muzzles to intimidate and frighten, and threatening detainees with loaded guns.”
Later President Bush issued a public apology to Iraqis and a few soldiers were punished. But the US response was one of strategic diplomacy — it negotiated between its geopolitical interests and the demand for human rights. This was possible because the U.S. government did not prevent the flow of information to its public and used the media to create a broad-based consensus within the United States, that it should penalize those responsible for the abuses at the same time that it must maintain the good character of its security forces and promote patriotism. Many argued that the punishment was not proportional to the crimes committed, and that because of its power the U.S. avoided facing public scrutiny of its abuses by the international human rights groups. This may well be true, but it does not detract from the argument that the U.S. handled allegations of war crimes in a sophisticated fashion, as should Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan foreign service establishment during the UPFA regime had neither the mandate nor the professional expertise to pursue a credible transitional justice, as its’ priority was to safeguard the ethnonationalist power bases of the UPFA.
My point here is that to gainsay these hypocrisies of the ‘others’ would be to deny the same on the GOSL’s side. That said, finger pointing certainly was not a helpful strategy for meaningful reconciliation process in Sri Lanka, as it boomeranged. What were the UPFA’s motives of giving wide publicity to the hypocrisy of those accuse GOSL of human rights abuses and war crimes?
The reason for the UPFA’s to avoid accountability was certainly not the hypocritical words or actions of others who demand accountability; they are a product of the UPFA’s mindset that gives those words and actions prominence. That mindset is the same one that refused to take the responsibility for its actions and obstructed viable solutions to ethnic conflict since the 1950s. It was also a hypocritical approach (i.e., blaming others as means of avoiding responsibility) since, it was only used to suppress the demand for accountability by ‘other’ communities, not to suppress justice that is of personal or collective interest to those taking that approach. This is racism at its worse. Blaming others completely denies society’s capacity to be self-critical and address its own issues. And it further reflects a fundamental lack of empathy for others.
Pointing at the hypocrisies of others did not help the victims or the perpetrator of war human rights abuses and war crime. Lack the accountability alive the wartime memories of pain and suffering. The victims did not give up their pursuit of accountability. Nor did this strategy free those who could be falsely accused of human rights abuses and war crimes. Those who are guilty of these crimes are deprived of an opportunity to heal their wounds. They are forced to seek short-term and suicidal means to secure their comfort and security. The intention of transitional justice is to provide healing for the victims and perpetrators of crimes.
In order to cover-up its deliberate refusal to address the allegations of human rights abuses and transitional justice, the regime continued to nourish the extremist forces on both sides of the ethnic divide, further polarized the country along ethnic lines, and criminalized those sincerely pursuing accountability. The UPFA regime’s popular legitimacy would have been at stake had it chosen a positive approach to respond to the demands for accountability. Regime’s ideological and economic bases would not have supported such a credible approach. Apart from losing all opportunities for meaningful reconciliation, the country also lost the moral high ground to stand up in solidarity with other communities in the world in their struggles for accountability.
Deception #5 tarnishing the Country’s Image
Tarnishing the country’s image was one of the most populist and disingenuous charges that the UPFA regime used to ridicule and silence those who exposed human rights abuses during the war and demanded accountability. The charge deprived the country of the ability to build a positive post-war image resting on truth and justice and reflecting its cherished religious values. The same religious values purportedly provided the spiritual basis for extremists’ ethno nationalist claims. Ethno nationalist justifications for UPFA’s neglect of accountability ‘sacralized’ the alleged crimes against humanity and crowned those who refused to address them as national heroes. The regime did not provide the space for the public even to engage in a dialogue as to how sincere measures to ensure accountability would contribute to a positive image. Such space was certainly not a priority interest of the mainstream political parties either.
A cursory look at the UPFA’s conduct, including its Foreign Ministry, shows that it was least bothered with safeguarding the country’s international reputation. The UPFA regime provided ample space for politicians and their patrons to indulge in practices that harmed the country’s image (including protecting and rewarding the terrorists), as long they did not threaten the regime. Still the regime unsuccessfully spread extensive propaganda and invested millions to protect and enhance the country’s image. But the regime successfully convinced the majority of country’s population that protecting the country’s image required a rejection of international assistance in obtaining transitional justice and safeguarding human rights in Sri Lanka. Perhaps this is a reason there was no domestic social or political movement against UPFA’s failure to address the allegations of human rights abuses and war crimes, and their victims were forced to seek assistance from the international community.
In reality, the country’s image was not tarnished by the alleged human rights abuses but by the UPFA government’s arrogant refusal to investigate those allegations and hold accountable those who used undemocratic practices to protect the government. These allegations were not exclusively made by foreigners but also by the citizens of Sri Lanka, who were subsequently criminalized and even punished by the government. The lesson for the present government is that it should not naïvely believe that the truth about human rights abuses will disappear from public scrutiny, especially in a time when those affected by such abuses have multiple avenues to seek recourse outside of the country.
Sri Lanka’s international image was also tarnished by the in-fighting and personal egos of the GOSL delegates, the sophistry and misleading theories that they used to escape the question of their accountability for meaningful reconciliation, and efforts to insulate the UPFA regime from critics. The delegates’ conduct in UNHCR forums made a mockery of the country’s foreign policy establishment and intelligentsia, which contributed to international community’s apprehensions about Sri Lanka’s ability to ensure accountability on its own. Even after the defeat of the UPFA regime, these delegates continue to wield influence over forces that are likely to obstruct the current government’s efforts to positively engage with the UNHCR.
The UPFA government lacked professionalism and any pretense of the strategic diplomacy required for dealing with powerful institutions when it attacked the international and local media, and civil society groups that allegedly tried to tarnish the country’s image by castigating their selectivity and bias, fakery, and technical manipulation. The government spent colossal amounts of public funds to try to fight the internal media, pay for PR firms (US$2,88, 566.37 for Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough and Patten Boggs) to lobby international governments, and send delegates around the world to solicit support to defeat the UNHCR resolution. The media has already pointed out that these expense allocation procedures did not follow established protocols. Such colossal waste of funds only served to tarnish the country’s image further, antagonize the global community, further strengthened the case for an international inquiry into human rights abuses. Had the UPFA spent its resources to implement the UNHCR resolution, perhaps it would have escaped its current predicament and the country would be better positioned to address issues pertains to accountability.
Deception #6 The Extremists
The political interests of the extremists groups should not be the basis for deciding the appropriate course of action to ensure accountability and transitional justice. It was the people of the country, not the extremists, who demanded accountability. The alleged victims were members of all ethnic groups. The government is obligated to respond to demands for accountability even if they are made by the extremists. The UNHCR allegations do not refer to only isolated incidents of crimes against humanity, but those caused by systemic forces that spread throughout the country. In response to the UNHRC report, Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka noted that “the charges should be probed in case soldiers had been ordered by another military official to kill civilians. I have no objection to probing the charges, as probing them would clear the name of Sri Lanka if the charges are baseless; if not, action should be taken against the officials responsible” (DM, 16/9). I wonder how many will condemn Fonseka as an extremist!
The UPFA regime spewed extremism in the name of patriotism. It used brutal and simpleton approach complex issue of relating to transitional justice, and in the process it denied peoples’ entitle to justice and also destroyed the international credibility of country’s justice system. UPFA believed that its own way of pursuing justice was nonnegotiable and it has the right to pursue whatever the extreme means to achieve them. All these means revolved around blaming the extremists to cover the regime’s failure for not making headway in addressing the accountability issues. On the one hand, the UPFA regime blamed the extremists for exploiting transitional justice issues to achieve their political ends. It is also allegedly provided financial assistance to the LTTE during the 2004 elections on the conditions that the Tamil community will not vote for the UNP. On the other hand, the regime’s claim to protect the country from these extremists was simply a means to justify the violence and deterioration of democratic institutions to achieve its ideologically motivated political ends. There was no public outcry against such contradictory positions of the UPFA. Perhaps, the majority of the population (mistakenly?) believed that these contradictions are necessary to safeguard the ethnonationalist interests of the country and prevent undesirable foreign interference in the internal affairs of Sri Lanka.
The UPFA did nothing to mobilize public support for meaningful measures for transitional justice. The UPFA, in fact, contributed to extremism on both sides of the ethnic divide by using ethnonationalism to avoid accountability and to criminalize those civilians who demanded justice by rebranding them extremists, terrorists, and Eelamists. Moderation was anathema for the despotic regime as well as for the extremists because it deprived them of resources for to safeguard their legitimacy. Every strategy of the UPFA to avoid accountability and exposed its own extremism and its complicity with extremist groups. For example, the UPFA used the political projects of the extremist elements of the Tamil Diaspora as an excuse to avoid accountability to the Tamil community. It was during this period violent ethnonationalist groups were allowed to act with impunity against minorities and they became an influential force in countries politics. I think the most dreadful extremists are those who blame and exploit the extremism of the others to avoid truth and accountability and use force and political power to destroy democratic institutions that are in place to safeguard justice in the name of patriotism.
The UPFA’s identification with extremist majoritarian nationalism was also hypocritical. It protected and provided government portfolios for a few leaders of the LTTE accused of the cold-blooded killing of civilians and the abduction of children to fight in the war, and some members of the UPFA also allegedly granted the LTTE financial support simply to win the 2004 elections. The UPFA’s avoidance of accountability was tantamount to covering up and aiding and abetting acts of terrorism prohibited by the Prevention of Terrorism Act. In this sense, ensuring accountability for human rights abuses is about preventing terrorism and safeguarding national security by depriving of space those who seek to strengthen extremism.
The six deceptive strategies I discussed in this two-part article created what Mr. Samaraweera referred to as ‘deficit trust’ of the GOSL and provided the backdrop to the latest UNHCR report and its call for a ‘hybrid inquiry.’
*To be continued..