By Rajan Philips –
The caption above is from the gospel story in John about Jesus exposing the male and religious hypocrisies of the scribes and the Pharisees, who were trying to trick the Nazarene to say yea or nay to their question whether they could punish, without trial, and only the woman for an alleged act of adultery. John 8:1-11 is not the assigned gospel reading for Easter Sunday. But it is appropriate reading for secular reflections on a religiously significant day and in the current global context of human rights assertions, disputes and controversies.
Sri Lanka is in the vortex of all of these, even though its immersion is hardly consequential globally but hugely so nationally. There is also the added and very painful twist because today is the second anniversary of the 2019 Easter bombings in Sri Lanka. And in many parts of the world for the second year in succession Covid-19 and its new mutations are preventing full congregations celebrating their traditional Easter service.
There is really no serious parallel between the dispute over adultery in Judea and the contemporary disputes over human rights except for the symbolism of throwing stones. In the old patriarchal way of dealing with adultery the woman is condemned to double jeopardy and any man on the street gets to feel entitled to throw stones at her. The gospel story pushes back on men by questioning their entitlement when they themselves are not without sin. Worse, they are the perpetrators. In the matter of human rights, there is hardly a government that is without the sin of violating human rights, but that does not stop governments from throwing stones at one another. And the victims of human rights violations are caught in the middle, in the crossfires of often cynical realpolitik stones, with little agency and even less reparations.
New Cold War
There are opinions that human rights are becoming the defining premise for a new Cold War between the US and China. The world is a different place now for a replay of the old Cold War that involved the decoupling and the disengagement of the US and the Soviet Union, and the division of world polities into two camps behind the two superpowers. The world is far too integrated by markets to become decoupled and disengaged all too easily. What is already evident is the disposition of governments to selectively engage in some matters and disengage in others, to cooperate on some issues and confront over others, and to be part of different alliances for different goals and objectives. The Biden Administration has said as much in signaling its approach towards China.
There could be a restatement of the old wisdom that there are no permanent allies or enemies or camps, but only permanent interests. This is evident in the stone throwing over human rights. In what some observers are calling ‘a big thing in international politics,’ the US, EU (with its 27 countries), Britain and Canada have combined to impose sanctions on four Chinese officials and one state corporation for alleged human rights abuses of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
Sanctions targeting individuals are the new tool of choice to deal with human rights violations. There are now sanctions imposed against Russians, North Koreans and the military junta in Myanmar. The US began this procedure after the Magnitsky Act, a bipartisan US legislation that President Obama signed into law in 2012 to sanction Russian officials who were accused of killing Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian tax lawyer, in a Moscow prison in 2009. Although controversial, the law authorizes the US government to act globally against individuals accused of human rights violations by freezing their assets and banning them from entering the US. Other western countries, including the EU, have since developed their own sanction mechanisms.
China has hit back with its own sanctions but has escalated its rejoinder to include political leaders and parliamentarians in the EU, Britain and in Canada. The unconventional escalation is in keeping with China’s aggressive global outlook and its ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy in western capitals that have become the hallmark of Xi Jinping presidency. Xi has emerged as the most powerful Chinese leader after Mao, and he has transformed China’s global outlook in his own assertive image, quite different from the approach of peaceful cooperation and development favoured by predecessor Hu Jinato.
The transformation in China may have come about after Trump became President in America. During President Obama’s first term, Xi Jinping was Vice President in China and he frequently met with Joe Biden, then Obama’s Vice President. Biden is said to be the western leader who has spent the longest time and travelled together with Xi. But Biden has to contend with a different Xi now. At the same time, unlike any other President before him Biden carries on his shoulders the expectations of human rights organizations and activists. This became evident during his first call with Xi lasting two hours, during which Biden reportedly highlighted the issues of Hong Kong and Uyghurs. And gloves came off when their foreign secretaries met face to face in Alaska.
Along with sanctions, China is also being accused of genocide against Uyghur Muslims. The paradox here is in the ‘othering’ harassments of Muslim citizens in Western countries even as sanctions are imposed against China for its treatment of Uighur Muslims. So much so, “The Jew, Europe’s prototypical ‘other,’ has largely been replaced by the Muslim ‘other’,” according to the Israeli Political Scientist Amikam Nachmani. The paradox is also that India, while being a Member of the Quad (with Australia, Japan and the US) for the containment of China in Asia, will not join others in sanctioning China over Muslims. The Modi government in India is not ‘without sin’ in its treatment of India’s Muslims. Nor will Pakistan that calls out for international attention to the plight of Muslims in India’s Kashmir, raise its voice or throw a stone in support of Muslims in China’s Xinjiang.
There is more. While joining the Quad group as a strategic measure to counter China’s power in Asia, India is not abandoning its old ties with Russia for arms production. Nor is it going to risk or reduce its growing economic ties with China despite the border clash setbacks in Tibet. Australia is the first western country to seriously challenge China over the handling of Covid-19, and has been economically punished by China in return. Yet, while being part of the Quad for the containment of China, Australia will do everything not to lose the huge Chinese market for its exports.
It is the same with the EU and all of its member countries. More so with post-Brexit Britain looking for new trade agreements, and where Prime Minister Johnson is being ridiculed by his critics for going soft on Hong Kong for trade rewards from Beijing. In sum, the current global circumstances are not contributing to the formation of permanent blocs and alliances among countries. Rather, countries seem to be open to choosing between allies and alliances depending on specific issues and their specific interests.
Closer home, 11 of the 22 countries that voted for the UNHRC resolution on Sri Lanka have signed up for China’s intercontinental Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) that includes a total of 140 countries. The eleven countries are: Armenia, Austria, Bulgaria, Cote d’Ivore, the Czech Republic, Fiji, Italy, Poland, Republic of Korea, Ukraine and Uruguay. Also, 18 of the 22 countries are new members without prior baggage. And a majority of the countries in every region either voted for the resolution or abstained from voting. China stood by the Sri Lankan government in Geneva and helps with currency swaps to tide over foreign exchange depletions. But Sri Lanka needs the key countries who canvassed for the resolution – to access their markets for Sri Lanka’s exports. Without them, the government will have to permanently depend on currency swaps.
Human Rights Genealogy
A common assertion in debates over human rights is that they are a creation of western countries and imposed on developing countries as a new form of domination. This is a false assertion and/or manifestation of ignorance. The Cold War history is replete with examples of subversion of human rights by western countries and the fight by non-western countries and their leaders to defend human rights against their subversion. There is also a tradition of social movements in developing countries to expand the scope of human rights by emphasizing public interest over property rights and to privilege cultural specificities over universal similarities. And specific to the current debate over UNHRC and human rights, Sri Lanka has a tradition of civil rights and human rights movements that can be traced to the 1970s, if not earlier.
As Easter recollections go, four men of the cloth played key roles in championing human rights and protesting against their violations. Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe became the face of the Civil Rights Movement whose moving forces were Suria Wickremasinghe and that doughty courtroom defender of human rights S. Nadesan, Q.C. Complementing Bishop Wickremesinghe were Bishop Lakshman Nanayakkara, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, and Fr. Paul Caspersz, who were in the forefront of progressive Catholic action championing the goals of social justice, equality, workers’ rights, and, yes, human rights.
It is fair to say that the nucleus of the Civil Rights Movement was formed as a Sri Lankan protest response to the snuffing of the 1968 Prague Spring by the tanks of the Warsaw Pact countries. Then it was to protest against the forces of Yahya Khan trampling over what was then East Pakistan and soon to be Bangladesh. Strange as it may seem now, there were no domestic human rights issues to complain about. Everything changed with the JVP insurrection of 1971 and the deployment of the armed forces to put down the insurrection. The Tamil youth took their turn and went to lengths that no one could have imagined when Sri Lanka became a republic, one year after the insurgency. Human rights would no longer be a non-issue in Sri Lanka. And it was not the result of some neo-colonial imposition.