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download (2)I was privileged last month to attend the Oslo Forum, an annual gathering of those engaged in mediation and conflict resolution. I had been invited, along with Mr Sumanthiran, to debate on whether it was correct to talk to extremists. The concept paper referred in some detail to recent developments in Nigeria and Afghanistan, but we were in fact the only participants in the debate from a country which had recently been in grave danger from extremists. We were able however to benefit during the Forum in general from informed inputs from several delegates from countries now suffering from extremism, such as Nigeria and Syria and Yemen.

Our own debate was chaired by Tim Sebastian, and though it was generally accepted that I came off well, I told him afterwards that I was glad my Hard Talk interview had been not with him, but with Stephen Sackur. Interestingly, that interview still raises hackles amongst those who seem stuck in an extremist agenda, so I presume they are grateful to our government for no longer using the services of anyone who can engage effectively in Hard Talk. In turn I am grateful to the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, based in Switzerland, which organizes the Oslo Forum, and more recently to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, for giving me a forum in which to argue the case for what the Sri Lankan government has achieved. Contrariwise, those now with the mandate to represent us internationally seem busily engaged in undoing that achievement day by day.

But that discussion, grandly termed the Oslo Debate, was only part of a very interesting programme. Amongst the contributors were Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter, and I felt particularly privileged to talk to the latter, still thoughtfully constructive at the age of almost 90. I look on him as the best President America has had in recent times, perhaps the only idealist of the 20th century apart from Woodrow Wilson – which is perhaps why their tenures ended in what seems failure. Certainly, as I asked him, his signal achievement in putting Human Rights at the centre of American Foreign Policy seems to have been perverted by his successors who have turned using it for strategic purposes into a fine art.

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Medical services for evacuated civilians - 2009

Our Armed Forces have done a fantastic job in recent years. Not only did they deal conclusively with one of the most accomplished terrorist groups in the world, they also assisted the civilian victims of terrorist with strict discipline and respect of rules of engagement, and at the same time ‘a very respectful and kind attitude to help those in need’, to cite a letter sent by the head of the ICRC. However they now find themselves on the defensive, having to face excessive charges that even normally sensible diplomats seem to be encouraging.

I believe there are two reasons for this, one entirely our own fault, the other much more sinister and requiring to be dealt with firmly, though sadly our continuing incoherence of policy in this regard means we will continue to suffer. The first reason is the presence, despite the decency of the generality, and the excellent training that we have provided and improved on over the years, of a few elements that behave badly. Unfortunately we have not dealt with them at all sensibly.

In the old days I used to recommend taking a leaf out of the Anglo-Saxon model, which

Lynndie England drags a detainee known as Gus by a leash around the neck. Megan Ambuhl looks on - Abu Ghraib, Iraq 2004

would charge some individuals when there was basic evidence of wrongdoing, acquit all of them but one, and then claim that they had fulfilled the claims of accountability – as happened for instance with the torture allegations at Abu Ghraib. This was not, I said, the classic Anglo-Saxon vice of hypocrisy, rather it made sense by pointing out to the rest of the forces that what had happened was wrong, while at the same time not being too harsh on personnel who it had to be assumed generally did their best in difficult circumstances.

But if that seemed too tough for us, the Americans have now gone one better, and acquitted all of those who killed Afghan civilians and cut off their fingers. They will, I suppose, claim that the inquiry they held proved their bona fides, while at the same time allowing Barack Obama in an election year to escape charges that he is letting down our brave boys on the front by punishing them from doing what God evidently wanted them to do.

That provides the best answer to what the then Attorney General would tell me when I would urge him to prosecute those considered responsible for the murder of five boys in Trincomalee. He did not have enough evidence, he claimed, and they would be acquitted. It was useless my telling him that that was not the point, he should not fear shame over a lack of success in the classic Sri Lankan way, he should be happy that the State had made the point that what happened was wrong. I should add that, as I have also been constantly suggesting, we need to investigate the White Flag case more thoroughly, and our failure to pay due attention to what the Americans initially brought to our attention, citing a speech in which Sarath Fonseka seemed to claim credit for what had occurred, was a blunder which has contributed to the complete volte face the Americans have since undergone in that regard.

Fortunately we seem after the LLRC report to be moving towards proper inquiry, though there again we see what I can only describe as the sheer carelessness of our decision makers, who waited until after American diplomats had come to Sri Lanka to wag their fingers at us to announce this fact. The inquiries had begun in fact soon after the LLRC report came out, as I found out when I asked the army commander a month ago what was happening. I advised him to publicize the fact, but of course no one ever takes my advice seriously, so we have to suffer the ignominy of international and even national reporting that claims we instituted an inquiry in response to American pressure.

I am immeasurably sad about this, because I see us now as going through some of the absurdities the Jayewardene government went through in the mid-eighties, when it always yielded too little, too late, in the face of pressure. The irony is that this government is actually in many respects doing the right thing – which Jayewardene rarely did – but its incapacity to communicate means that we seem to be granting under pressure what we had decided to do anyway. Read the rest of this entry »

1. Why do you believe a number of Western nations are so determined to pursue a resolution against Sri Lanka at the HRC meeting?

I don’t believe a number of Western nations are determined, it seems this time round to be largely the United States (whereas in 2009 it was mainly Britain, with France tagging around – though Kouchner later I was told granted to his much more sensible Ambassador here that the latter had been right). Though the British will end up supporting any American initiative as they generally do, and other Europeans will probably follow, I believe that most of them are not too enthusiastic, and in at least some cases such a decision would I believe be contrary to advice given by ambassadors on the ground here. You can see the difference in the initial reactions to the LLRC report, where the Americans were really quite preposterous, given their own record, while others, including the British, were much more nuanced.

As to why the Americans are in an extreme position on this one, I believe there are several reasons involved, beginning with what a Republican friend told me, that the Bleeding Hearts in the Obama Administration had to do a volte face on Afghanistan and Iraq etc and so they salve their consciences with Sri Lanka. Then there is the essentially Manichaean American view of the world, which is why for instance during Cold War days, when they found a willing warrior here in the form of President Jayewardene, they encouraged his anti-Indian postures. Now, given their fear of China, they are trying to suggest that they are supporting India by pressurizing Sri Lanka, whereas the Indians know perfectly well that, if they got a better offer, they would sell India down the river, as happened with Pakistan earlier on.

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...a massive belt of oil and gas resources.

In this series of reflections, I have looked at various aspects of Western involvement in the Middle East, and in the Wider Middle East as well. The latter term refers, as Craig Murray defines it, to ‘the Middle East as we understand it, plus the Caucasus and Central Asia, which is of course a massive belt of oil and gas resources.’ Given his stress, it makes sense to include North Africa too in any generalizations of the subject.


I realize of course that my generalizations are just that, simply points to be pondered if we are to make sense of what is going on in the region. I have looked at the moral aspects of actions and reactions, while noting that it does not make sense to expect consistency of outlook or indeed any commitment to principle in the dealings of the various nations concerned.

I have looked too at the historical record, since this is often forgotten. It is important to remember the manner in which various nation states were constituted after the two World Wars, and then how some of them changed governments through revolutions. I referred to the socialist military bent of the most notable of these revolutions, and pointed out how the West, in reacting to these, thought regimes based on religion preferable. Indeed it is worth noting here that one reason for the British desire to see an independent Pakistan (as indicated both by Narendra Singh Sarila and Jaswant Singh in their recent accounts of the struggle for Indian independence) was the view that India would be governed by dangerous socialists, and solidly conservative Muslims were more likely to continue loyal to the West.

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Craig Murray

After Craig Murray had sent his written objections to what he saw as British condoning of torture, which he thought was in contravention of the International Convention against Torture, his objections were addressed at a meeting in London over which Linda Duffield presided. He was told then that using material ‘obtained under torture and subsequently passed on to us… would be inadmissible in a court of law, but that is the only restriction on the use of such material arising from the convention.’ It seemed that the official British government position was that it saw ‘no legal obstacle to our continuing to receive such information from the Uzbek security services.’

I can understand of course that a country in serious danger from powerful terrorist movements might sometimes feel it had to bend the rules.

I am quoting Murray, but obviously what he puts in direct speech in his book can only represent his recollections of what occurred. Still I feel this makes it clear that the British were condoning and endorsing, indeed even supporting, the use of torture. I can understand of course that a country in serious danger from powerful terrorist movements might sometimes feel it had to bend the rules. But such behavior should be carefully controlled, and should certainly not give carte blanche for the type of appalling cruelties Murray thought he had evidence of. Unfortunately once one gets on the slippery slope of tolerating such excesses, it is far too easy to ignore unpleasant evidence. This can lead too to shooting of the messenger as happened to poor Craig Murray.

I can do no better here than cite other passages from his book which underline the appalling hypocrisy of the New Labour government. I can only hope therefore, as I have mentioned in an Adjournment Motion I have proposed for our Parliament, that the current government makes clear its abhorrence of such practices, and that the current leadership of the Labour Opposition makes sure that such practices are not repeated. Read the rest of this entry »

Daily News 30 June 2011 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2011/06/30/fea17.asp

David Miliband with President Mahinda Rajapaksa, Apr 29th 2009 in Colombo

I found reading Craig Murray’s ‘Murder in Samarkand’ extremely disturbing. I had of course known before that to expect international relations to be conducted on the basis of morality was absurd. However I was not prepared for what seemed the total lack of principle that seems to have governed New Labour in its relations with the world.


I must confess to some prejudice in this regard, for I had realized that the British government was totally amoral in its approach to Sri Lanka. I do not mean the government as a whole, for I have the highest regard for most British officials, and I believe the Security establishment worked positively with us to eliminate terrorism. Yet even the police, when dealing with demonstrations in Britain that contributed to rousing public opinion against us, behaved with an indulgence that suggested a lack of concern about how terrorism gains strength.


This could not have arisen from their own judgments, for I felt the senior police officials whom I met once with our High Commissioner knew very well the implications of their failure to deal firmly with the demonstrations outside the House of Commons. But it was clear that they would be allowing the organizers a free hand, and I have no doubt that the decision in this regard was a political one.


David Miliband

It was obviously meant to send a conciliatory message to Tiger sympathizers. We realized why this was being done, and we must be grateful to Wikileaks, and to the more clearsighted Americans, for making clear David Miliband’s desire for votes, that led him to behave so callously towards us. Had he succeeded in his efforts, there is no doubt that we in Sri Lanka would still be living under the shadow of terrorism. He would have cared nothing, not for the obvious victims of bombs, not for the poor youngsters forced into brutality and death on a battlefield they did not understand by a ruthless Tiger leadership.


Joint Forward Interrogation Team (JFIT) which operated in Iraq – used illegal "coercive techniques" and was not answerable to military commanders in Iraq.

But that he should have done this, and dared to preach to us about human rights, while part of a government that had knowingly connived at torture, seemed to me to have pushed cynicism beyond acceptable limits. I should note that my comments here are based on Murray’s book, and it is possible that he has exaggerated. I have tried to get the views of the Foreign Office on this, as I was advised to do by Linda Duffield, a former British High Commissioner here, but I have not as yet received a response. This is not surprising, given that their information desk must be occupied with disseminating information, and possibly disinformation, about Libya, but meanwhile I can only proceed on what seems plausible in Murray’s account.


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Daily News 28 June 2011 – http://www.dailynews.lk/2011/06/28/fea15.asp

Palestinian militants from Hamas

I used to wonder about how the United States could possibly support Israel so excessively , to the extent of blocking UN resolutions which even the Europeans supported. Surely they must understand that what seems such blatantly unjust partisanship will continue to upset the Muslim world, and contribute to increasing radicalization of all those with political or moral understanding. And while many people, even though they feel a burning sense of injustice, will think that nothing can be done, and keep quiet, those with devout religious fervor will feel obliged to act. What they do might be appalling, but they will excuse themselves on the grounds that they are not acting but reacting.

A bright if somewhat cynical British friend provided one explanation when he said that American politics is dominated now by what he termed Premillenial Dispensationalists. These believe that the end of the world foretold in the Book of Revelations requires that Israel expand massively, after which we shall be visited by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The world as we know it having been destroyed, God will then resurrect the Chosen, though according to my friend this will not include any of the Jews, since they have not accepted Christ.

Right-wing Israeli extremist Baruch Marzel (C) leads a provocative march with flags March 24, 2009

The theory seemed to me quite potty, but he assured me that, while possibly even the most extreme Israeli politicians would be content simply to take over all of Palestine, the American extremists wanted them to conquer much more of the area, extending downwards into Africa too. Their aim would ultimately lead to the destruction of the Jews, but meanwhile they needed extremist Israelis, who were quite happy to go along with them, if not only for the ride.

Dotty though all this sounds, I found what I can only describe as a more nuanced version of this approach when I read ‘Murder in Samarkand’ by Craig Murray, who had served as British ambassador to Uzbekistan. He was sacked for his pains, largely he believes because he objected to British connivance in gross human rights abuses by the regime. The book he published in 2006 suggests that this was largely because the Blair government had fallen in completely with American policy in the region, and that the Americans, and because of them Tony Blair himself, were actively involved in his dismissal.

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The Island 25 May 2011 http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=26212

In the decades when the Cold War raged, or simmered, or whatever, several major countries in the Middle East turned to socialism. Except in the case of Aden this was not extreme Marxism, but as time passed the variations became more extreme and with little concern for democratic practice.

It has been argued that this is a necessary characteristic of socialism, but the practice in South Asia belies this. Mrs Bandaranaike and even more so Mrs Gandhi may have been imperious in their approach to government, but they were firmly convinced that their programmes were what the people wanted. Accordingly they held unarguably democratic elections, and were soundly defeated.

Mohammed Mossadegh, Iran's ousted prime minister, during his trial in the wake of the CIA-MI6 orchestrated coup that overthrew his elected government in 1953. Photograph: AFP

The Middle East had no such luck. Unfortunately the first experiment in socialism through the ballot box was traduced, when the West got rid of Mossadegh in Iran, and established the autocracy of the Shah. What had been presented as a battle between free and restricted politics turned into a battle between free and restricted economies, and the West made no bones about its preference for political restrictions provided economies were capitalist. These were not necessarily free, but it took Cold Warriors a long time to realize that free economies could not really develop under authoritarian rule.

So, at the height of the Cold War, we had dictatorships all over South America, encouragement of authoritarian rulers such as Ayub Khan and Marcos and Suharto in South Asia (to say nothing of Generals Park and Chiang Kai Shek in East Asia), and the overthrow of African leaders who had achieved independence by right wing military regimes in Africa, most notably those of Mobutu and Idi Amin and the chap who got rid of Nkrumah in Ghana. Fortunately some of these characters were so preposterous that the West tired of them, but many lasted for unconscionably long period.

In the area in the Middle East carved up by the West after the First World War however, though three major countries had left leaning military regimes – which were indeed linked together briefly through the Ba’ath Socialist Party – the hereditary rulers of the other states that had been established continued to exercise authority. The most important of these was the largest, Saudi Arabia, named thus after King Saud got rid of the former Sharif of Mecca whom the British had initially installed as King.

That had been a brilliant stroke, to use someone with religious authority as the figurehead of the revolt against the Turks, but the Sharif’s family was in fact comparatively secular in its approach to politics. Not so the Saud family, which embraced the more fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam, and made Saudi Arabia a solidly Islamic state. They also used their resources to proselytize for their particular version of Islam, but doubtless this seemed to the West a good thing in those days, since it was a forceful alternative to godless Marxism.

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Island 7 April 2011 – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=22621

Colonial Africa 1914

The current division of the Middle East and North Africa into different countries is largely the result of decisions made by European countries. This indeed goes for Africa as a whole, for the carve up of that continent took place when colonialism was at its height, and there could be no local input with regard to the drawing up of boundaries in the drawing rooms of Europe. The most notable example of this occurred at the Berlin Conference of I think 1888, which handed over the Congo as his personal property to that rapacious old rascal, Leopold of the Belgians. But the process had begun before, and continued well into the 20th century.

By and large however those divisions were almost accidental. It was in the settlement after the First World

Turkish Empire 1300 - 1922

War that strategic considerations dominated, with the dismembering of the Turkish Empire. While there were many reasons for that War, not all of them entirely amoral, one principal reason for fighting it to a total finish of the enemy was the urge to destroy the old land empires, the German, the Austrian and the Turkish.

The first two occupied much of Central and Eastern Europe. Given all the rhetoric about freedom, as well as geographical considerations, it would not have done for the victorious European powers, Britain and France, to have carved up those empires for themselves. Instead they created a number of independent states, though these had to be large enough to withstand possible future aggression. Hence the portmanteau nature of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the relative size of Poland and Romania.

With different races in a more distant location however empire could reassert itself. Thus, contrary to the promises extended to the Arabs by Lawrence of Arabia and his ilk in the main theatre of action against the Turks, there was no question of independence for the Arabs. Total subjugation would however have been impossible, given the propaganda that had been encouraged, and so various mechanisms were devised to make control less obvious. There were Mandates which meant direct control, and Protectorates, which meant effective control, though there was a titular ruler with absolute monarchical powers, subject only to direction by the local representatives of His Imperial Majesty in London. Read the rest of this entry »

Island 6 April 2011– http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=22449

March 2011 - Source: AP, Reuters, Global Security | Tim Goheen / MCT

The recent events in Libya have given rise to much discussion about the morality of decisions with regard to international relations. There have been allegations of inconsistency and double standards, of greed masquerading as compassion, of power purporting to be righteousness.

All this analysis ignores the one obvious fact about international relations, namely that they must be conducted by any country so as to benefit that country. Equally obvious is the fact that countries cannot afford to claim simple self interest as their motive when dealing with others, particularly when those others – or victims of collateral damage – are being harmed. Countries must necessarily therefore construct pretexts that dignify their actions.

To expect consistency as to pretexts that are advanced is not sensible. If one country is an enemy and behaves in a way that can be construed as bad, one will take advantage of the situation. It would be utter folly however to expect one to be equally critical of similar actions by a country that is a friend.

Thucydides made clear long ago the absurdity of expecting morality in the conduct of foreign relations. But, at the same time, in the debate on the Athenian attack on Mytilene I think it was, he also indicated why so much attention is paid to moral questions. In essence one needs to win the support of others who do not have self-interest at heart, both other countries and also inhabitants of one’s own country who might have different views. Read the rest of this entry »

Rajiva Wijesinha

April 2015
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