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Some weeks back I was sent, by a friend in England, a book entitled ‘The Language of Empire: Abu Ghraib and the American Media’. It was by someone called Lila Rajiva, but doubtless that was not the only reason to assume it would interest me.
I took some time to start on the book but, once I did so, it had to be finished. Published in 2005, it is a graphic and convincing account of the manner in which the Americans ignored all moral restraint in the war against terrorism they were engaged in.
That part was convincing, and simply fleshed out what one knows anyway, that countries in pursuing their own interests will stop at nothing. What was more startling was the suggestion that the wholesale prevalence of this absolutist mindset also represented a takeover of the ruling political dispensation by a culture of chicanery that strikes at the heart of supposedly predominant American values.
At the core of this transformation is the corporate supremacy represented most obviously by Rumsfeld and Cheney, and the takeover of much supposedly military activity by private contractors and special agents, who move with seamless dexterity from one world to another. Exemplifying this, and indicative of what C S Lewis would have described as a Hideous Strength which finds its own partisans dispensable, is the strange story of Nicholas Berg, the shadowy contractor whose beheading served to deflect the story of torture at Abu Ghraib, and in some minds excuse the institutionalized torture that was taking place there.
The last couple of weeks have seen very positive measures by government with regard to accountability. While the decision to go ahead with Provincial Councils in the North was a clear mark of government’s adherents to commitments it had made, even more significant was the indictment of those who are suspected of responsibility for the killing of students in Trincomalee way back in 2006.
This was followed last week by indictments in connection with the killing of a British national in Tangalle in 2011. And soon afterwards the President ordered the establishment of a Commission to look into disappearances that had taken place during the conflict.
Unfortunately the general perception about these is that government had given in to pressures, and in particular that it feels obliged to cater to international sensibilities in the context of our hosting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. Even more unfortunately, many actions taken by government give the impression that it does not really want to do what is right, but has to be forced into action.
Reconciliation and the role of India
Presentation by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP
At the Observatory Research Foundation
Delhi, December 13th 2013
I must admit to being deeply worried about the current state of relations between India and Sri Lanka. I contrast this with the excellent situation that obtained in 2009, when India was the chief component of the protective barrier against efforts to stop us eradicating terrorism from our shores. One might have thought that this was a goal the whole world would have supported, but sadly this is not an ideal world and countries will naturally put their own self interest first. Fortunately, not only did India’s interests coincide with our own at that stage, but given the terrible toll terrorism funded by external sources was taking on both our countries, I think it is also true to say that we worked in accordance with the highest moral perspectives.
But the aim we shared then, of eradicating terrorism on our shores, went hand in hand with another commitment, which was the promotion of pluralism in Sri Lanka. This again is a moral goal, but it also has a practical dimension, in that the full incorporation of the Tamil people in the body politic in Sri Lanka would have reduced the potential for future terrorism.
Sadly Sri Lanka has not pursued the Reconciliation process with the commitment it requires. Given its urgency I believe we should try to understand the reasons for this, and try to overcome them. In this process India has a significant role to play.
I continue surprised, though I should not be, given our infinite capacity for self delusion, at the virulence of attacks on India with regard to the several crises we brought upon ourselves. It is claimed that India was gratuitously nasty in supporting terrorists, and that it acted outrageously in 1987 in imposing the Indo-Lankan Accord upon us.
I think India was wrong both in supporting terrorists and in the final form the settlement of 1987 took, but in both instances there was nothing gratuitous about what was done, given our own conduct. It is claimed that India cannot claim to be a friend because she supported terrorism, but that is to ignore that countries will naturally act in their own defence, and we as it were started the problem by abandoning our traditional friendship with India and pursuing Western gods.
The appendix to the Indo-Lankan Accord says it all, in noting the decisions we had made which seemed to threaten India, the shenanigans with regard to the Trincomalee oil tanks, the agreement to allow the Voice of America a virtual self-governing enclave at a time when such entities were a significant part of Cold War armoury, and indeed what seemed efforts to flog Trincomalee to the Americans. This last is particularly ironic since I suspect the Americans – though their capacity to insure themselves against all eventualities, real and imagined, is infinite – did not really want the place since the British had flogged Diego Garcia to them and obligingly got rid of its inhabitants.
Once again, following the vote in Geneva, which made clear how influential the United States of America was, and how comparatively friendless we were, there is talk of re-establishing relations with the West. Thankfully this year it has not taken the form of denigration of good relations with others, as happened last year when those elements in the Ministry of External Affairs, which would have been described in the Cold War days as the running dogs of imperialism, danced on the graves of Dayan Jayatilleka and Tamara Kunanayagam.
This was profoundly ironic, for it was those two who had built up our friendships with other countries in the time honoured fashion that had brought us so much respect internationally in the days of Mrs Bandaranaike. At the same time they did this whilst commanding the respect of the West, as numerous cables in Wikileaks make clear. It was no coincidence then that two of our most sympathetic, if not uncritical, interlocutors from the West said to me in astonishment, after the vote, that we had made insufficient use of Tamara, who was clearly our best representative at Geneva.
How did they achieve this moral ascendancy, even while combating the political machinations of the West? It was through a careful understanding of the motivations of the West in persecuting us, and in appreciating that a blanket criticism of those motivations would not be convincing. To build up our support base, they had to respond positively to the arguments the West used to gain support from those who otherwise shared our view of the desired architecture of the world order. Read the rest of this entry »
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
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 »
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.
The short answer, I suppose, is that I do not know. I would hate to think she was, for about the first time we met properly, she sent me chocolate chip ice cream, and someone of such sensitivity cannot be all bad. It was brought to me by one of the nicest people in her embassy, one who finally told me that the embassy did have some very peculiar people in it. Being a loyal and professional diplomat, that was the furthest he would go, but it brought home to me the systematic schizophrenia, not only of the American Embassy in Colombo, but of their foreign policy in general.
A few months later, the much publicized comment of the Defence Attache in Colombo, which led to him being in effect reprimanded by the State Department in Washington, provided the frosting as it were on that particular cake – and his assertion that he knew he would get into trouble when he spoke made clear that there are at least a few straight people left in those hallowed halls.
What then is the problem with Ms Butenis? I raise this question now publicly because the Secretary of Defence has finally brought into the open what I can only call disgusting behaviour by at least one American diplomat. I mentioned this some months back, which brought what purported to be the lady’s deep indignation on my head, duly reported in the newspaper group which also leaked another State Department barrage recently. The report about me then claimed that I was to be boycotted by two embassies, but this turned out to be false, though one possible suspect did tell me that the Americans may have made the claim on their behalf without actually keeping them informed.
And Ms Butenis indeed was gracious enough to say I could continue to speak to her staff, many of whom I believe belong to that idealistic school which lulls one into affection before the Ugly Americans so splendidly described by Graham Greene and John le Carre take over. But I don’t think she was pleased when, the last time we spoke – in fact in the office of the Defence Secretary, whom her colleagues seem determined to demonize – I told her that I thought her chief agent of wickedness was Pavlovian in his approach to Sri Lanka.
I was referring to Paul Carter, whom I would not describe as evil because I do not think he is actually capable of moral responsibility. Someone who tries to suborn the generals of a supposedly friendly country really is totally beyond the pale, though I suspect that is not the only reason he reminds me of the Anthony Perkins character in ‘Psycho’. On the occasion I was referring to, a party for those who had been on Visitor programmes to the United States, he had burst out into indignation about the treatment of his hero Sarath Fonseka, with concomitant insults about our judiciary, to a lady whose interests were in language training. The American Deputy Head of Mission had tactfully taken him away quickly, but I have no doubt something else would soon have triggered the same sort of reaction, in someone whose moral sense has deserted him, to be replaced simply by not entirely metaphorical foaming at the mouth.
His inordinate concern about Sarath Fonseka is what has convinced me that, towards the end of 2009, something very pernicious took place in Foggy Bottom, or wherever it is that the more devious American diplomats make policy. A short while previously, Carter himself had told me in very measured tones about a State Department report that I found fingered Fonseka as the most suspicious element in what were presented as potential war crimes, but put together in a very civilized manner that seemed to invite a civilized reply. Not for the first time, I must say that I believe we blundered in not responding immediately to that report, and I continue bemused at the continuing lethargy of those to whom the President entrusts crucial tasks.
The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation is now public. It has been generally welcomed, and the exceptions that prove the rule sadly confirm the distinction between those who seek reconciliation and those who have other motives in the extraordinary campaign that has been conducted against Sri Lanka over the last two years.
The vast majority of local and international observers have welcomed the Report, though many have noted that a positive report will serve little purpose if its recommendations are not implemented. This is an understandable caveat, for Sri Lanka has not always acted as swiftly as it should, and it has also often failed to publicize its actions. This latter shortcoming is unfortunate, not just because it allows critics to claim that nothing is being done, but more seriously because it prevents the analysis both by government and by concerned persons with no axe to grind of achievements, and thus, as importantly, understanding of deficiencies that need to be corrected.
This inadequacy has been startlingly illustrated by the failure to work coherently enough on the interim recommendations submitted by the Commission. Initially these were not adequately publicized. This was not because of any commitment to confidentiality, since they were soon enough readily known by anyone who was interested, but simply because government did not seem to realize the importance of the recommendations and of, not only acting, but being seen to act. Though a committee was set up to ensure implementation, the lack of transparency in this regard, and what can only be described as a concomitant absence of any sense of urgency, allowed for the feeling that government was not really serious. The views of the Commission, that many current problems might have been avoided had their recommendations been implemented coherently, is quite understandable.
I say this with a slight but not overwhelming sense of guilt because one of my functions, as Adviser on Reconciliation, was supposed to be to ‘Monitor and report to HE the President on progress with regard to the Interim Recommendations of the LLRC, and promote appropriate activities for this purpose through the relevant Ministries.’ In mitigation I can plead that, though my appointment was made in January 2011, my terms of reference were only received in May. And I finally received an office only in October, with one operational staffer in December. I have no budget for work, though since December I have been supplied with fuel for visits to the North.
Why such incoherence? Whilst I have no illusions about the slowness with which government moves, in general, and find this culpable, I should also note that the more vociferous members of the international community, those who now criticize the LLRC Report, were not really concerned with reconciliation, as opposed to their own sometimes agendas. With a stunning ignorance of history, and exemplars such as South Africa and Chile where the country moved forward without bruising animosities, they confused reconciliation with retribution. Even more absurdly, they thought it was the democratically elected government that should be punished, not terrorists or those who hijacked power and used it brutally as the Pinochet government in Chile or the apartheid regime in South Africa, both of which were allowed to go away quietly as it were.
What is the reason for this? On the one hand there were countries such as Britain and other European states that were worried about the electoral power of the Tamil diaspora, and assumed that its more vociferous members were decisive factors. Fortunately that populist perspective has now diminished, and perhaps one of the most heartening developments in recent months has been the impression Britain has given of wanting to move on, instead of dwelling in the unprincipled wickedness of the Miliband years.
But, conversely, the United States of America seems to have got more intense, as was exemplified by its efforts to suborn military personnel to give evidence against the Sri Lankan state. The recent efforts of its political affairs officer to pressurize government with regard to Sarath Fonseka, whom earlier the Americans had fingered as a possible war crimes suspect, is only explicable in terms of a sense of guilt about the garden path up which he was led.
I should note that one should not of course generalize about the Americans. Even more than other countries, they seem to suffer from schizophrenia with regard to foreign policy, as was exemplified by the positive approach of their Defence Attache in Colombo, who was promptly rebuked for his pains. But, in addition to the endemic tussle between foreign affairs and defence perspectives, America also suffers from a strange combination of ruthless self interest, as their performances in Iraq and Pakistan over the years have shown, and a desire to be seen as decent guys. For Sri Lanka this has led to astonishing levels of persecution since, as one forthright Republican observer put it, the bleeding hearts had to keep quiet about Guantanamo and everything else they had shouted about before, so they transferred their attention to Sri Lanka.
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 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 »