1 December, 2020

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Dictators Are Not Immune From Justice Processes

By Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena –

Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena

Dictators who believe that they are immune from being brought to justice for the crimes that they commit should take a long, hard look at what is happening around us in the wider global community. And let me add a caveat right at the start. This is not a precursor to a discussion on the mechanisms of international justice by the United Nations, the workings of which (it must be conceded) have a long way more to go before they can be a sufficient deterrent to abusive leaders.

Persistent demands by the Guatemalan people

On the contrary, the focus of this reflection is to look at the realities of domestic justice. Guatemala is an interesting case in point. Horrific human rights abuses committed by the administration (with the covert support of the United States) against its own people more than thirty years ago, are now before the domestic justice institutions.

 

Led by a courageous prosecutor and former human rights activist, this process has resulted not only in charges of war crimes being brought against soldiers who had tortured and murdered civilians but also, most remarkably, the prosecution of a former military leader and president of the country.

Certainly, International attention in regard to the plight of the victims played its part in bringing about this demand for justice. But make no mistake about the fact that it was the persistent cries of the Guatemalan people which led to this transformation of a long standing culture of impunity for abusive state agents and political leaders. The process has been laborious, painfully slow and at times, frustrating. However, current events show that the wait has been worth the while. The voices of those whose loves ones were slaughtered without mercy are ultimately having their proverbial day in the sun, however bitter sweet and tormenting this may be.

Voices for justice

Indeed, these voices for justice never lost their power throughout the dreary years when it seemed that the abusive and the powerful would triumph. When a most extensive report detailing the abuses that took place was compiled by Guatemala’s Commission for Historical Clarification, (the body was mandated not to judge but rather to clarify the history of the civil war), their findings were prefaced by an appeal from a survivor’s testimony that “Let the history we lived, be taught in the schools so that it is never forgotten, so that our children may know it”.

Instructively for Sri Lanka as we mark the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances this week, this Commission documents an exceptionally moving account of three decades of agony. It expresses the hope that the violence and horrors described in the report should leave no room for despair. That, ” (on the contrary), despite the shock that that the nation should suffer upon seeing itself reflected in the mirror of its past, it was to be hoped that the truth would lead to reconciliation  the victims whose past had been degraded and manipulated will be dignified (while) the perpetrators, through the recognition of their immoral and criminal acts, will be able to recover the dignity of which they had deprived themselves.”

Its main purpose was to place on record Guatemala’s bloody past. The country’s armed confrontation, largely between its ruling elite and the ethnic Mayan people, had caused death and destruction. But the gravity of the abuses suffered repeatedly by the people had yet to become part of the national consciousness.

Questions of key import

Its mandate was to seek answers to questions of key import. Why were innocent people compelled to live under the shadow of fear, death and disappearances for more than 34 years? Why were there daily threats in the lives of ordinary citizens having no connection with armed groups or paramilitary groups? Who can explain the extreme human rights abuses committed by both forces and specially by the State? Why did defenceless children suffer acts of savagery? Why did these acts of outrageous brutality, which showed no respect for the most basic rules of humanitarian law, religious ethics and cultural spirituality, take place? No doubt many in Sri Lanka would feel immediate empathy with these searching questions that go to the very core of a country’s moral and legal dilemmas.

In Guatemala’s case, persons killed since the outbreak of the internal armed confrontation in 1962 were estimated to be over two hundred thousand with state forces and related paramilitary being responsible for 93% of the deaths. Guerrilla forces were held accountable for 3% of these atrocities while the remaining 4% concerned deaths where it had not been possible to determine responsibility. The victims included men, women and children of all social strata, working professionals, church members, politicians, peasants, students and academics. In ethnic terms, the vast majority were Mayans.

Complicity of high political authorities

The majority of human rights violations occurred with the knowledge or by order of the highest authorities of the state. Drawing important parallels with current conflicts and in a forerunner to the determined efforts of state prosecutors decades later, the Commission on Historical Clarification dismissed the excuse that lower ranking army officers were acting with a wide margin of autonomy without orders from their superiors. It reminded relevantly that, up to that point, no high commander, officer or person in the mid level command of the Army or state security forces had been tried or convicted for human rights abuses. Only significantly lower ranking personnel, whose trials were attended with monumental publicity, had been tried and convicted. These violations were determined to be the result of an institutional policy, with impunity handed down by high officials for those aberrant state agents.

The high military commanders of the insurgents were meanwhile cited for deliberate attacks on civilians. Interestingly, the role of the Church in the Guatemalan conflict was severely critiqued with the Commission observing that the divisive policies it adopted led to a further fragmentation of the national identity.

The mills of justice grind exceedingly well

The discussions that evolved around the findings of this Commission and other similar bodies were the primary impetus that led to Guatemalan state prosecutors ultimately bringing high political leaders to trial.

True, problems remain regarding the reach of the law to those who are still powerful on the political stage but the trials that are taking place are a good reminder that the mills of domestic justice in some countries may grind slow but do indeed grind exceedingly well. Certainly, these are apt warnings to political leaders who dismiss the need for accountability in governance with disdain and contempt, believing themselves to be invincible.

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    August 2012 another Sri Lankan disappeared in Sri Lanka.

    On 21st at 2.31pm, August 2012, 32 year old Vasanthamala sent a sms from her mobile to her relatives saying she had been taken by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in Vavuniya. Around 8pm the same night, she made short phone calls to her mother and father, and said she was alright. When her parents had tried to find out where she was calling from, the call had been cut off and has been switched off thereafter, to date as her parents are still unable to get through to her.

    When her father tried to complain to the Vavuniya Police, they had refused to accept the complaint. Vasanthamala’s parents were amongst the around 500 families of disappeared persons who gathered in Vavuniya today, 30th August 2012, the International Day of the Disappeared, demanding for justice, accountability and the whereabouts of their loved ones.

    Does this Sri Lanka woman have any rights as Sri Lanka citizen ? Why people can disappeared so easily into the thin air and never heard from again ?? What happen to the dissapered ?

    Everyone in Sri Lanka knows who are behind this brutal acts…..The god father and mafia behind this inhumane system are well known and continue to perform such acts with impunity. They think that they have the right to judge and dispose of people as if they are vermin. Some time back we heard of the crematorium at Kanatte being operated in the night. These people can now make people disappear into thin air without any evidence.

    The victims and their families cry out for justice. But civil society shuns this subject. The state media is silent. They shower their platitudes on the perpetrators. They are lauded for ‘cleaning up the country’.

    Buddhist monks and pious devotees protest against the killing of animals but none shed a tear for those human beings who are exterminated without any mercy daily in Sri Lanka. In their eyes the life of a human being is not worth the trouble to protest.

    Can such duplicitous behaviour result in a just society? Can the country prosper on the suffering of other people? Do we have conscience? These questions we must ask as we choose to remain silent or look the other way. What is the use of our religon and piety if we continue to support such an inhumane monstrous system?

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    Any human, be it a dictator or other, might find some loophole to seek and even find immunity from the man-made justice process. But he will not be able to escape the Justice Process of God, the Creator. We need not go elsewhere and talk of Ghaddafi, Hosni Mubark or the fate that will befall on Bashar Al-Assad. We saw in our own land God’s wrath on those who were responsible for the death of Richard de Soysa, the Island Reporter who then published the questionable photo of the one who posed to be the Great Lady, and many other innocents.

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    @Marzook, I agree generally with your comments but you are factually wrong on the reference to Richard. He was not working for the Island and he did not publish that photograph. That was someone else who also disappeared. Richard was dealt with by Ranjan W. for his political writings as he was a well known writer for an overseas wire service if I remember right.

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      Agreed ommission of a few words and punctuation marks conveyed the wrong message. Richard de Soysa and the Island reporter are two different persons. But is well known that the team that abducted Richard is the same that died in Babu’s bomb blast. Is it not the Justice Process of God?

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        Definitely the justice process of God or some similar force operated in both cases. What I heard was that the senor police officer died in the Thotalanga blast (that killed also Gamini Dissnayayake) and not in Babu’s bomb blast.

        All the same, I guesss. Brutal final justice. AS will be the fate of our current state-murderers.

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      Pandukabaya, I would like to correct you that it was not Ranjan Wijeyratne who was responsible for Richard’s murder. It was Sirisena Cooray using Ronnie Gunasinghe. For information of yet another mystery murder that of Judge Sarath Ambepitiya please refer comments on “Murder of the Judiciary’ by Thirantha Walaliyadde in this news blog.

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        Thanks for this. Good to know.

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        Sirisena Cooray RP’s right-hand man; Ronnie Gunasinghe was Head RP’s
        Security Division. Am I correct. If so, the riddle who did what for whom and why is solved. In all the God’s Process of Justice prevailed and no immunity is possible.

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          Precisely Mohamed. Now read how Judge Sarath Ambepitiya was murdered and by whom under Thirantha Walaliyadde’s article, ‘Murder of the Judiciary’.

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    A good essay from Kishali as always. But it’s important to point out the crucial role the United Nations played in negotiating the peace accord that brought an end to Guatemala’s long civil war and in establishing the Commission for Historical Clarification, which Kishali praises. Yes, the Guatemalan people have played the most important role, as it shoud be – but without assistance from the UN and international bodies, they might not have gotten the chance. I suspect the same will be true of Sri Lanka, should it ever be lucky enough to enjoy at least some justice for the massive crimes of past and present governments and militant groups.

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    Where does Tony Blair stand in regard to the reference of Arcbishop Desmond Tutu ?
    ” I could not sit with someone who justified the invasion of Iraq with a lie”
    “On what grounds do we decide that Robert Mugabe go to an International Criminal Court””

    Kishali… remove your blinkers…………..
    Are tony Blair & George Bush immune from Justice Process ??

    KP-J… you are one track mind. [Edited out].
    First read what desmond Tutu had to say in these very pages.

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      @Dickybird, please read carefully what she says without rushing to biased conclusions. She pushes aside international justice for the reason that it is not fair and does not operate equally or harshly against powerful leaders. I have seen many similar comments regarding the hypocrisy of the Western nations in her columns.

      What she talks of is NOT international justice but national justice – for example in Guatelmala even after thirty years!

      You are the one wearing blinkers. Take them off!Pronto!

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    The anti-US/West lobby world-over and particularly those in Sri Lanka, who have been talking of this, now have an ideal opportunity with Father Tutu taking the lead to support him and see that George Bush and Tony Blair are put on trial. But the question is will they do so as they would fear that such an action could boomerang on them as there are similar accusations on them too.

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    IMMUNITY !!!! FOR WHOM?? THE WORST RULER WE HAVE HAD IN RECENT TIMES
    WHATEVER RELIGION ONE PROFESSES AND PRACTICES IT IS SAID THAT THERE IS DIVINE RETRIBUTION. OUR RULERS HAVE DONE SO MUCH THAT THEY BEING BUDDHISTS SHOULD BE REBORN TO BE PUNISHED AGAIN AGAIN AND AGAIN.
    LET THEM TAKE A LESSON FROM RECENT HAPPENINGS AROUND THE WORLD
    IT IS JUST A MATTER OF TIME.

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      Man’s punishment, which is instant, may or may not happen, but divine retribution is certain an will happen at any moment unannounced.

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    Deaths and suffering resulting from armed forces performing its duty to protect a nation from mindless terrorists like what happened in SriLanka with the former JVP and the LTTE and those resulting from armed forces invading other nations and indiscriminately killing their citizens in order to plunder their resources like what happened in Iraq, Lybia, Tibet, Vietnam etc or a dictator using its armed forces to subjugate its own people like what happened in Guatamala are all different scenarios. While the SriLankan event was a necessity, the others were not, and though the perpetrators of such crimes should face justice, it may happen only to those from militarily weak nations like Guatamala. So it is a bit rich for Keshali to isolate only “dictators” from weak nations and exclude democratically elected bully boys from eventual justice.

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      How do you classify Guatemala as a ‘militarily weak’ nation? So in your mind is Sri Lanka a ‘militarily strong’ nation? If so, would you classify Sri Lanka also as a ‘democratically strong’ nation? That is a more interesting question.

      Right now we have a dicator – MR – who is subjugating his own people. Are you blind not to realise that?

      And by the way, there is nothing called ‘dictators from weak nations’. As history has surely taught us, dictators can emerge from a superficially democratic proess also as when elections are held but they rig the electoral process like what happened here at the last Presidential electio. Dictators are dictators. It is as simple as that. There is no colour coding involved!

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        Chandra G has misunderstood my comments. SriLanka is indeed a militarily weak nation and so are the majority of nations. As far as I am aware, only the USA, UK, Russia, EU, India and China could be considered as militarily powerful enough for their leaders to escape punishment for any crimes committed. No one will dispute dictators could emerge from militarily strong nations. The point I want to highlight is that today there are democratically elected leaders from militarily powerful nations who have violated and are violating human rights, just like the dictators referred to in the main article, but they will never face justice. One must not be blind to this fact and assume human rights violators are only the dictators.

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          Dear Raja… again I can only repeat myself.

          Dictators are dictators. In the US, George Bush was dealt a crippling blow by the American people by their wholehearted repudiation of him and their election of Obama. Today he is a joker. I just returned from visiting my daughter in Oregon, not a radical state by any means. They speak of him in total contempt. Yes, he was not brought to courts but lets face it, he did not slaughter hundreds of his own people like in Guatemala and in Sri Lanka (I refer to decades of bloodletting where the UNP and the SLFP combined killed Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, all civlians.).

          Even so, the way that the world is turning, these militarily strong nations that you refer to will face their own justice just in the way that Britannia ceased to rule the waves and as other powerful empires before that.

          But let us worry about our own country for the moment and the need to bring justice to those who have suffered. Let us forget about others for some time please.That is my plea.

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