Apart from broadening the mind, travel also allows me to catch up on the ‘Economist’, which still remains my favourite news magazine. I used to be astonished that its entry into Sri Lanka was so often restricted since, while its headlines and some of the phrases it uses can be acid, its reporting is generally balanced. I also had a soft spot for it because a debate over something erroneous it had reported enabled me to pinpoint, so that the Norwegian head of the Sri Lanka Monitoring Mission had to grant my case, the source of the negative leaks about the Sri Lankan government that were emanating from his office.

With the offending publicity officer removed from his job, we stopped the nasty little digs for which the SLMM had been held responsible, but which its by then highly professional leadership repudiated. We got on very well thereafter, and the generally earnest personnel the Norwegians sent us told me some pretty harsh stories about the LTTE by the time they finally left.

Recently, while I regret that the normally judicious ‘Economist’ ignores the palpable distortions of the Darusman Report, it does make some suggestions about how we should deal with it which are eminently sensible. I had long assumed that the policies of the Sri Lankan government were very different to those sometimes publicly espoused by Sarath Fonseka, beginning with his majoritarian outlook and his scorn for Tamilnadu politicians, and concluding with his efforts to expand the army by 100,000 men and set up massive cantonments in the Vanni. It was understandable that government, which has never corrected the excesses of individuals, since that seems alien to our political traditions, never publicly reprimanded him, though more responsible authorities did make the position clear.

So nothing was said publicly to let Fonseka down, even over the last episode mentioned – which indeed the ‘Economist’ quizzed me about, repeating what Fonseka had said when I insisted that there was no such plan for militarization. It was left to Fonseka himself to make the innocence of the government clear, when in his resignation letter he noted that the President had thought he was mad to suggest such an expansion of the army. So too, he made it clear that he had tried to delay resettlement, which would have been appalling, given the commitments made by government. Fortunately, the determination of the civil branch of government, assisted by the military commanders on the ground who understood the real plight of the Tamils better and cared about it, ensured that by and large government kept its word.

It would be a pity then if what might be termed the Fonseka mindset prevented us from thinking about the suggestions the ‘Economist’ makes. The suspicious silence now about the claim he made in July 2009 about the White Flag incident suggests that those who drew attention to it earlier would now like it swept under the carpet. If his claim were true, it certainly provides an example in line with the suggestion the ‘Economist’ makes with regard to the allegations now brought against us, that government could insist ‘that its army’s behavior was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated’. It was on such lines that I used to request the then Attorney General to issue indictments against suspects involved in the killing of five boys in Trincomalee, since though he thought such indictments would not succeed, the purpose was not retribution but getting the message across that actions of that sort were unacceptable.

But we are not the only people who fail to take action to stop the unacceptable. The last issue of the ‘Economist’ I read had a stunning indictment of the American prison system, which made me wonder about the effrontery of Paul Carter, the American Political Affairs Officer, who asserted sanctimoniously when discussing a particularly bad attempt to cover up brutality in Afghanistan, that the United States had a ‘Government of Laws, not of Men’.

What the ‘Economist’ exposed, as though to mock that particular unfortunate formulation, was the appalling extent of sexual abuse in American prisons. The first case described suggests that it is homosexual abuse that is the major problem, since it is about Scott Howard who ‘was sexually assaulted by his cell-mate’ and I would assume this was not a woman. The guard who was indifferent to this was however a woman. Other guards were also indifferent, so ‘during three years in Colorado’s prison system Mr Howard was repeatedly raped, sexually assaulted and forced into prostitution’.  It seems that ‘In 2008, on average, almost 600 incarcerated Americans were abused each day’, and of the total of more than 217,000, 17,000 were juveniles. To make the enormity of what was happening clear, the ‘Economist’ notes that ‘that is the number of people, not incidents; most victims are abused more than once’.

All this goes on although in 2003 Congress passed a ‘Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), which required the collection of data on sexual abuse in prison’. On the recommendations of a commission, the Justice Department was supposed to issue standards within 12 months, which has not happened. Though the standards are supposedly due soon, it seems that detention facilities for illegal immigrants will be exempt. Doubtless those who are not American citizens will have to be subjected to Men, not Laws.

Given such horrendous callousness and delays, I suppose I should not feel too much despair about our failure to induce quick action to reduce the number of those remanded unnecessarily, and then kept on for far longer periods than necessary. In addition to those detained under Emergency Regulations, where I believe we should either charge or release within a prescribed period, there are horrendous stories of women taken in under the Vagrancy Laws, and left to languish in prisons for years. We have now been promised, at the Consultative Committee of the Ministry of Justice, that swift action would be taken to reform those laws as has long been recommended. But here too I fear that we will follow the example of the Americans, not the advice of the ‘Economist’.