Sunday, August 30, 2015

Accountability and the politics of selectivity

When US Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Biswal speaks, there’s usually someone listening and taking down notes. The lady knows subtlety and there’s plenty of THAT in what she says. Big time. So when she makes her second or third (I forget which) visit to Sri Lanka barely a WEEK after elections were done and dusted, questions are raised. Whether she answers them or pleads ignorance, then, is not important. What’s important is inference. And conclusion.

We know Biswal wasn't exactly comfy with Mahinda Rajapaksa’s presidency. Whenever her colleagues visited here they usually privileged the opposition and more importantly parties known for hardcore communalist stances. They demanded accountability and THEN inserted reconciliation. Biswal in particular spoke about the international community and how its patience (whatever that meant) was running out with regard to this government "delivering the goods".

That was then. Times have changed. The lady who seemed to privilege and hobnob more with the opposition, strangely, has opted to do the same with the government now. She went easy on the government, curiously enough, and went to the extent of meeting the president himself, something she could never do with his predecessor given that she was someone whom the then president neither had the time for nor the patience with. Rightly.

Her choice of words is different too. True, some words haven’t changed. She still wants investigation into war crimes (“alleged”, please note). She hasn’t inserted “accountability” but that’s a word that’s still being tossed about, never mind whether it’s achieved through a domestic or international mechanism. But for the most, her comments on the USA sponsoring a resolution of “collaboration with the government” and thereby widening scope for domestic investigation merit assessment.

Biswal has a way with words. So does everyone representing her country’s interests in the field she’s cut out for herself, diplomacy. That’s why, when she inserts a caveat (she added “along with other key stakeholders” to “collaboration with government”) we should worry.

Let’s not forget that the US knows and (s)elects these stakeholders. Let’s not forget that it tends to privilege some stakeholders and push out others. Let’s not kid ourselves that the reaction of the “international community” to alleged war crimes here amounts to anything other than a need to bully a democratically-elected government into condemning and censuring itself, even irrationally.

And then there’s the investigation itself. As Chris Dharmakirti comments in an article (“Sinister Campaign Afoot To Block Sri Lanka Using Paranagama Report At UNHRC”), the TNA and an organisation calling itself Sri Lanka Campaign for Justice and Peace effectively tried to cripple the Mahinda Rajapaksa-sanctioned report on missing persons (the Paranagama Commission) and more importantly one of its chief advisors, Sir Desmond de Silva.

Having inferred that this move was tilted towards the pro-LTTE Diaspora, Dharmakirti then concludes that by stifling the Commission, what will get preserved is the accusation (unsubstantiated) that Sri Lanka’s war against the LTTE was committed by a “genocidal army”, in particular because the Commission at once rubbishes the findings of the controversial Darusman Report ON THIS COUNT.

Biswal will not speak about this and nor for that matter will the government. There’s no need to, some will offer. Maybe, but that doesn’t really counter the issue. If at all, by pleading ignorance here, neither the government nor whatever Biswal represents will be doing itself any favour.

Point is, Sir Desmond de Silva erred. He coughed up something the TNA wasn’t comfy with. He commented that the “great mass of civilian deaths which occurred in the final stage of the conflict were regrettable but permissible collateral damage”.

Now the TNA, despite that moderate-garb it wears from time to time, has been known to pander to anything that absolves (in part at least) the LTTE. It’s known to have censured the government and some of its heads have been wont to openly invite the international community to bully and arm-twist this country. So it shouted “rescind Sir Desmond’s appointment!” and (without really explaining) alleged “lack of independence”.

Having thus got rid (technically, that is) of Sir Desmond and therefore the crux of the Paranagama Commission (which mind you created to counter the United Nation’s howls against Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government), these people should, we feel, be grilled. They should be questioned.

There’s that allegation they levelled against Sir Desmond, for one thing. Speaking about independence or the lack thereof, what would the TNA say about the fact that a key panellist advising the NGO which opposed that gentleman was (surprise, surprise!) none other than Yasmin Sooka, who was on the Darusman Panel! This isn’t just about bias after all. It’s about conflict of interest too, never mind that Sri Lanka Campaign has denied that WITHOUT denying Sooka is in it.

Then there’s the fact that the Paranagama Commission was (technically speaking) a domestic mechanism. Isn’t that what Biswal wanted? Isn’t that what we were forced to resort to and didn’t that in the end become a mechanism through which Darusman and his credibility-challenged report (it speaks about 40,000 civilian deaths even as the UN itself concluded a figure of 7,721 towards the end of the war) could be countered? If so, why are we howling? Why are we arguing?

These are questions that will not be asked and for reasons of (we hope not but fear) expediency. In the end reconciliation is and will be a two-way process, whether or not the likes of the TNA will be okay with someone as distinguished and relatively untainted as Sir Desmond. As such the implications of both the Paranagama Commission and Biswal’s official support for Sri Lanka the next time the country’s grilled will, no doubt, be taken up and assessed.

Whether this bodes well for us is for another article. For now, what matters is whether Biswal comes with clean hands. Given that we have no option but to trust that the American government will stick by us (in a world where governments stick by each other as long as there’s submission to whoever’s affirming “sticking-by loyalty”), we can only wait and watch.

So far Karunandhi, self-professed lover of Sri Lankan Tamils and no stranger to the anti-Sri Lanka lobby in his country (India), has condemned Biswal. Superficially at least that bodes well, notwithstanding the caveat that all that might be “show”. The important thing however is that the US sticks by us and that in a way which sustains the truism that reconciliation (and yes, accountability) was and will have two sides or more, never mind what NGOs and civil society groups that love to badmouth the country will say.

I noted “no option” for Sri Lanka. This means, logically enough, that the US’s promise will have to be accepted and trust between that country and ours will be based on whether we accept the promise or act with caution, extreme or otherwise. Sad, yes. Can’t help.

Uditha Devapriya is a freelance writer who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com.