by Tisaranee Gunasekara
WikiLeaks’ revelations have inflamed all our noisy propagandists… They are relieved. If the Americans are allowed to do it, so are we. Indeed the Americans are not allowed and neither are we.” — Gideon Levy (Haaretz – 26.20.2010)
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has asked Saudi Arabia to pardon Ms. Rizana, the Lankan maid convicted to death for ‘killing’ a child in her care, while she herself was still a minor. For the sake of the hapless Ms. Rizana and her sorrowing family, one hopes that the Saudi authorities do not respond to this international plea the Rajapaksa way.
Because, if the Saudis emulate the Rajapaksas, they will castigate the HRW for interfering in the internal affairs of their sovereign monarchy; the king will reprimand the HRW for insulting his legal system, while the King’s brother will thunder about diabolical ‘international conspiracies’ against the motherland.
In its latest statement on the Rizana case, the HRW opined, “Its time for Saudi Arabia to end its outlier status as one of the very few countries still executing people for crimes they are accused of committing as children.” If the Saudi Foreign Minister emulates that consummate political invertebrate, G.L. Peiris, he will accuse the HRW of harbouring a “most unattractive attitude… that is almost colonial, patronising and condescending.” (AFP – 19.10.2010).
And Ms. Rizana will die, a victim of the dangerous creed of absolute state-sovereignty, the fallacy that modern states have the right to omnipotence because they are infallible, as monarchs and popes were believed to be, once upon a time.
The Rajapaksas are votaries of the idea of an absolutist state. They believe that the state, as the embodiment of the ‘nation’, can do no wrong in the pursuit of ‘national’ interests. They abhor any limitations on their right to rule, especially the kind of international humanitarian intervention which is our only chance of saving Ms. Rizana. International law prohibits and dominant international opinion abhors the execution of people for crimes they committed as minors; it is humanitarian laws and norms such as these the Rajapaksas castigate and repudiate, in the name of absolute state-sovereignty.
In his recent address to the UN, President Rajapaksa proposed the exemption of ‘legally constituted states’ battling ‘non-state actors’ from international humanitarian laws (obviously unaware that perhaps the worst practitioner of terrorism in human history was not a ‘non-state actor’ but the ‘legally constituted state’ of Nazi Germany). The recent WikiLeaks disclosures demonstrate anew the danger inherent in this proposal. Gratuitous brutality and senseless cruelty are ubiquitous in war. Only stringent laws and constant vigilance and self-vigilance can minimise such crimes and misdeeds.
A policy of relentless introspection is particularly necessary in a ‘just war’, since blind faith in the eternal correctness of one’s own cause can become transliterated into a corrosive ‘ends justify means’ attitude, leading to moral myopia. A free and a critical press (unaffected by the ‘us vs. them’ virus) is a sine qua non for the success of such a policy aimed at preventing the gradual slide down the moral precipice. Whistle-blowers, who hold a mirror in front of their own nations, are thus essentials in times of war, especially for democracies.
The WikiLeaks disclosures detail how the coalition forces violated humanitarian laws and norms and behaved like terrorists, in their ‘war against terrorism’ (hardly surprising given the bloody histories of Western nations, especially Britain and America). The Rajapaksa administration and the Sinhala society are overjoyed to have incontrovertible evidence about Western war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this celebrative hype, two cardinal truths are forgotten.
Firstly, Western war crimes do not justify and cannot be used to justify, Lankan war crimes, just as the West cannot justify its own crimes by pointing fingers at the al Qaeda/Taliban. The point is not that everyone else is doing it; the point is that we should not have done it.
Secondly, a whistle-blower turns the light inwards and reveals the crimes not of the enemy, but of one’s own side. The man suspected of leaking information to WikLleaks is 22-year-old Pvt. Bradely Manning, an intelligence analyst in the US Army, tasked with going through classified information, i.e. information kept deliberately out of the public domain. “What he saw with his clearance level, it is believed, left him disillusioned with US foreign policy” (ABC – 26.7.2010). The equivalent of the WikiLeaks disclosures would be disclosures by Lankan servicemen, bureaucrats, journalists and ordinary citizens about the actions of the Lankan forces during the Eelam War and afterwards.
Lankan media should not only publish such disclosures in full; they should also seek to shed even more light on the darker chapters of the war. For instance, The Guardian appealed under the Freedom of Information Act for more details about the WikiLeaks incidents involving British troops. And the British Ministry of Defence, instead of threatening to hang The Guardian’s editor or storming the Guardian office, complied, releasing details about 21 incidents. Last week WikiLeaks head, Julian Assange, held a media conference in London, unimpeded and unmolested.
Members of the European Parliament are asking European leaders to challenge the US about WikiLeaks disclosures and to include the issue on the agenda of the November US-EU summit. Perhaps Tagore was right when he said, “While we find in Europe the evil giant’s fortress of nationalism, we also find Jack, the Giant Killer. The Giant Killer, the international mind – though small in size — is real. In India, even when we are loudest in our denunciation of Europe, it’s often her Giant’s Fortress we long to build with awe and worship. We insult Jack with ridicule and suspicion” (East and West). We should try to emulate the West when it is right, instead of using its crimes to justify our own crimes.
Just as the Tigers justified all in the name of national liberation, the Rajapaksas justified all in the name of patriotism and anti-terrorism. ‘Thou shall not criticise the Rajapaksa brothers and the armed forces’ was one of the maxims of the Fourth Eelam War. After all, the Rajapaksa myth of a humanitarian offensive with zero-civilian casualties could not have been maintained with a free and a critical media.
That is why the regime imposed a blanket censorship on local and foreign media, criminalising free reportage and decrying media freedom as an anti-patriotic vice alien to Sri Lanka. Post-war, we still censor and self-censor, as is evidenced by the non-coverage of LLRC testimonies critical of the Lankan side by most of the southern media.
The Rizana case and the WikiLeaks disclosures are timely reminders of the dangers inherent in the creed of absolute state-sovereignty. States must be sovereign, but within reason, subject to international laws and sensitive to international humanitarian concerns. Human solidarity is borderless; we have the right to identify with Palestinians under Israeli yoke and Iraqis and Afghans caught between brutal invaders and barbaric resistors, just as non-Lankans can solidarise with displaced Tamils or persecuted Rizana. And states are not infallible; they err.
Absolute state-sovereignty is as dangerous a creed as religious or market fundamentalism and as harmful to democracy as the terrorism of any non-state actor.