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Reflections on Hilary Clinton’s Libyan triumph, Chris Stevens, and the price of regime change

Chris Stevens following the attack which resulted in his death.

When I read of the sad death of the American ambassador in Libya, I wondered whether Hilary Clinton, who had reacted with such depressing vulgarity and Caesarian pretension to the death of Colonel Gaddafi, registered the link between this killing and what the Americans had done in Libya. At the very least, she much have realized that, had Gaddafi still been in power in Libya, the American ambassador would not have died.

I presume the lady would assume that the death of her representative was a small price to pay for having got rid of Gaddafi. The fact that American interventions have resembled another less famous line from Julius Caesar – Cry havoc, and let slip the dogs of war- is probably of little consequence to her in comparison with what seems the enthronement of American capital and the enhancement of American power. Which is more important in her eyes, God alone can tell, if indeed he can cope with the schizophrenia that seems to govern American relations with what they see as lesser breeds without the law. Cunningly, though, now the responsibility for continuing deaths can be seen as lying with other agents, unlike in the days when the chosen instruments of American domination, from Papa Doc to Pinochet, got away with mass murder on the grounds that they were saving their people from godless radicals.

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UK Riots 2011

The recent riots in Britain have taken many Britons by shock. The general reaction of the British people has been adverse, and understandably so. No one wants law and order disrupted, and there is ample evidence that many of those involved in the riots have been engaged essentially in plunder.

However, there were obviously also people who saw rioting as a way of registering a protest. Initially there were strong feelings based on the killing of a man by the police. I have no idea what actually happened in that incident, and I hope the inquiry that has been started will not only find out what happened, but will also do so in a manner that carries conviction. Sadly the history of official British inquiries suggests that their capacity to inspire confidence is minimal.

We all know what happened in the first ‘Bloody Sunday’ inquiry and, even though a second inquiry finally finished after several years, and seemed to many Britons to have moved nearer to the truth, the reaction of Bernadette Devlin suggests that doubts still remain, with the overall responsibility for brutality transferred to individuals, and no proper examination of the policies involved.   Read the rest of this entry »

Police officers, Sri Lanka

I have often been critical of the Sri Lankan police, so much so that, when I was Secretary to the Ministry of Human Rights and chaired a committee to make suggestions as to police reform, senior police officers would accuse me of being biased about the army. Certainly I made no bones about the fact that I felt the human rights record of the forces was generally admirable, whereas I could not say the same about the police.

The senior officers who served on the committee however explained to me that one of the reasons for this was the enormous demands made in recent years on the police, without adequate resources being made available. They too felt that the service they had been proud to join had declined over the years, not through its own fault but because of pressures that had mounted, for political as well as social reasons. They talked of the professional training they had received, the various courses they had followed that had honed their skills, and the systems that had been in place to ensure merit based career development. As a simple example of what they had suffered, they noted that the training period for Sub-Inspectors, the rank at which officers joined, had been ruthlessly cut, and was down to just a few months. Contrariwise, even in the midst of the war, the training period for officer cadets had been increased from two to two and a half years.

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Listening to the speeches of the British Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition in the House of Commons, following on the recent riots in Britain, I was struck by a few principles that should be enunciated again and again. However we should also note the way in which any country, any politician, will pick the principles that are most convenient to them at any moment. This is eminently understandable when a country faces a crisis, so we should not for a moment marvel at David Cameron’s stress on maintaining law and order when violence breaks out that threatens the innocent. Even though the BBC showed scenes, while telecasting the Prime Minister’s speech, of what seemed frightening police brutality in dealing with suspects, we must suppress our distaste – provided of course that no permanent damage is done, a proviso that will need to be considered carefully – in recognizing the need to protect the innocent and make it clear that violence will not be tolerated.

While a crisis continues, and it concerns one’s own country, it is the principles relating to the restoration of law and order that will be paramount. However, when other countries are concerned, it will be other principles that are stressed. This may seem hypocrisy to those who are adversely affected, but we have to recognize that this is simply a facet of human nature, and few people bother to discipline their natures when they see no benefits to be gained from doing so. On the contrary, when there seem to be gains to be made from sanctimonious pronouncements, they will be made insistently, with a ruthless eye to what might be termed the balance sheet.

To digress for a moment, the British capacity to pontificate while guarding their own interests came home to me vividly a few years back when I was helping to edit Derrick Nugawela’s excellent autobiography, ‘Tea and Sympathy’. In describing his work as a leading tea planter, he noted how he had tried to improve things for his Tamil estate workers, only to be told by his Managing Director from London that funds could not be available for this.

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Anders Behring Breivik

When I wrote last week about the two terrorist attacks that had taken place in Norway, I was also making the point that these were not especially significant in terms of the Norwegian relationship with Sri Lanka. I was indeed worried that some Sri Lankans might see this as an opportunity to vent their resentment at Norway for the encouragement it was thought to have extended to terrorists, and I wanted to make it clear that I felt this would be inappropriate. In fact, though there have been one or two regrettable pronouncements, by and large the reaction has been suitably sympathetic.

Obviously there was some sort of link, in that Sri Lanka had suffered appallingly for terrorism for a long time, and Norway had been involved in trying to help us to overcome this, though as I have noted, their involvement was not always of the wisest. That however was in line with the attitude of some Sri Lankans too, so we should not blame them. On the other hand, a few recent pronouncements, after the LTTE was destroyed in Sri Lanka, seemed unnecessarily provocative, and I believe Erik Solheim in particular spoke out of turn some months back. However he too has been more sensible recently, while the Norwegian Foreign Ministry has by and large behaved circumspectly, in a manner I had thought indicated its comparative professionalism, as opposed to the ambitious Mr Solheim.

Utøya Island - Norway

So, despite the occasional continuing dissonant voice from Norway, balanced by the recent arrest of one of the more extreme characters trying to revive the LTTE, I thought it necessary to preserve a distinction between our own victimization by terrorists and what Norway suffered last week. But I was shocked out of this position when I saw an aerial view of Utøya Island, where the main tragedy happened. It is shaped exactly like Sri Lanka, even down to a small peninsula at the top and an indentation on the East Coast which looks like Trincomalee Harbour.

And then I read, in the article to which the picture was attached, the last quotation, of a Norwegian girl who said, ‘It is unbelievable that a Norwegian guy could do this to his own country.’ That phrase struck me then as symptomatic of a whole mindset about terrorism, which needs to be adjusted, if we are to get rid of terrorism worldwide, or at least reduce its impact.

First is the assumption that terrorists are alien, not like us, and they harm others, not people like themselves. This is obviously a part of the truth, because terrorism thrives on othering, on hardening distinctions between those who act and those against whom they act. This has been encouraged by the dichotomizing the West engages in as a matter of course, in terms of its own dialectics, and I suspect we would all be much better off if we had a more oriental view of our relations, in which we thought in circles rather than straight lines, in terms of overlapping inclusivities rather than oppositional compartments. Read the rest of this entry »

The terrorist attacks in Norway are profoundly upsetting. The number of those killed may be familiar to us, having gone through such anguish frequently in the past, but nothing should make us fail to register the enormity of such horrors, the brutal extinguishing of so many lives, the deep suffering for those that remain.

Sadly I fear that there will be a few people in Sri Lanka who see what has occurred as some sort of retribution, for what seemed excessive indulgence to terrorism. I do not believe that was the case at all, as far as Norway as a country was concerned. What seemed encouragement was part of a mindset that some Sri Lankans too shared and, though that mindset was betrayed, we cannot morally fault those who tried to promote solutions based on mutual understanding. There was certainly a failure of intelligence and understanding when indulgence continued long after it was clear that Tiger terrorists were incapable of compromise. But I believe many Norwegians too realized that things had gone wrong, and some of them certainly tried, though not with much success, to restrain Tiger brutality.

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The recent seminar on Countering Terrorism was a rich and enlightening experience. It helped me to understand further the deep sense of hurt that our military and political officials feel about the swarm of attacks they now have to face with regard to allegations of war crimes. I had known earlier from the statistics I collected from daily TamilNet reports that we had done our best to fight a clean and careful war. Until the end of 2008 we had succeeded, in the Eastern Province, and also during the whole operation to retake the Western part of the Wanni. Even then though, we had to face allegations that had no basis whatsoever in fact, as with the Human Rights Watch claim that we had engaged in indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the East.

The Report that accompanied this assertion, which hardly anyone read in full then, which has now been forgotten though the sensationalistic claim still reverberates, makes it clear that there had been only one incident in which civilians had died. That had been caused by mortar locating radar, with the LTTE having been proved to have been inside a refugee centre, bearing weapons and with bunkers having been prepared.

Human Rights Watch grants this but claims that there is no evidence that the LTTE used heavy weapons. Sadly, in their zeal to target the Sri Lankan government, they omitted to put on record the obvious demand, that the LTTE should not use refugee centres as places from which to fire. The stunning silence of the now hysterical international community seems to have encouraged the LTTE to use this tactic with impunity again and again.

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'A view to a kill'

Amongst the plethora of photographs released after the killing of Osama bin Laden, there is a particularly telling one of President Obama and senior officials. In Time magazine it is captioned ‘A view to a kill’, which suggests that the group is looking at a screen on which the last moments of Osama are being displayed.

One feature stands out immediately in the picture. In a group of hard-faced men, Hillary Clinton sits with her hand over her mouth, her eyes seemingly displaying a sense of shock that no one else in the picture shares. The others are most of them involved in security activities, including military men, with the only other female amongst them, White House counter-terrorism chief Audrey Tornason, sharing in her eyes the steely determination of the rest.

9/11

To me it was an endearing photograph of Hillary Clinton, for it suggested the human dimension that should never be forgotten when hard decisions are made. I can quite understand the anxiety of the Americans to do away with Osama bin Laden, and after the appalling nature of the 9/11 attack, it would be churlish to claim that the force they used was excessive. But it is important that the occasion should not have been one of unrepressed aggression, and that a sense of decency was also maintained by at least one participant is salutary.

And not only one. The other face that stands out is that of Barack Obama himself. All the other faces are complacent, his is not. His face registers the enormity of what is happening, a determination to see it through, but also an understanding that the decision was not an easy one. The face no longer exudes youthful exuberance, and this is clearly a man who has aged in the last couple of years. But it is still a human face, with no trace of the easy sanctimoniousness that both George Bush and Tony Blair displayed when they justified selfish excesses.

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Sam Zarifi - Amnesty International

Response requested by the BBC

Thanks for your query about the recent Amnesty report, and also the press release. The latter shows Sam Zarifi, one of the new sensationalistic breed of Amnesty officials, exaggerating as usual. The report does raise issues that also concern government and, while I was Secretary of the Ministry of Human Rights, we worked on an Action Plan that tries to address these. This is near adoption now, and meanwhile we are also trying to address long standing problems such as too ready use of remand mechanisms by magistrates under archaic laws (such as the Vagrants Ordinance) which have lasted from British times.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency (though obviously overused by the Government that, without elections, ruled from 1977 to 1988, which perhaps led to an increase in terrorist activity) was essential in dealing with the type of terrorism from which we suffered appallingly for decades. As Western governments appreciate, though sometimes we feel you need to be less brutal about things like secret renditions, prophylactic regulations are essential in any society under threat from terror. We managed over the last five years first to ensure a reduction in terrorist attacks, and finally got rid of the Tiger leadership in Sri Lanka. Unfortunately we know there are efforts to revive the movement, and we need to be careful.

Bearing that in mind however, we have managed to release many of those taken into custody, including about half the former cadres who confessed, after basic rehabilitation. The number of those taken earlier into detention is much less now – not the thousands Zarifi claims, as indeed the release itself makes clear – but the numbers are reducing rapidly, as investigations are concluded.

It is kind of Mr Zarifi to recognise the right and duty of the Sri Lankan government to protect its citizens from violence by armed groups, but frankly those of us who are accountable to our people understand about all this better than hired hands. I am sorry that, as I pointed out recently, Amnesty seems to have changed from the days when Human Rights were not so fashionable and lucrative an exercise. I should end by saying the last resident head of the officer Amnesty Office in Sri Lanka rang me up yesterday to congratulate me on recent statements, and I wish Amnesty still had people like that instead of people with political agendas. Some of what they saw chimes in with what we have also been saying in Sri Lanka, and I wish they would stick to values rather than drama.

Irene Khan

The following was sent in response to queries from the ‘Island’ regarding a recent report of the payoff to Irene Khan, when she left Amnesty International

Thanks for the query, and also for characterizing me as ‘one of the few critics of sordid NGO/INGO ops’. I appreciate that since there are lots of critics in Sri Lanka, and I suppose what you mean is that I am one of the few who distinguishes between the appalling things a few NGOs did, and the generally good intentions of the majority. It is for this reason that I have kept trying to get government to go more closely into details, what funds are received and for what purpose, how projects are coordinated with government and how their results are monitored. Recently I was delighted that one of my dedicated parliamentary colleagues, Dr Sudharshani Fernandopulle, also asked relevant questions, though she too did not receive fully satisfactory answers.

If we check on these carefully, ensure accounts are filed with relevant authorities (Directorate of Companies or NGO Secretariat or whatever), reports are submitted and read and discussed, and tax paid, we can also develop more productive relationships with hard-working capable NGOs. Unfortunately our government structures are as loose about accountability as most of their critics.

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Rajiva Wijesinha

December 2014
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