Kath Noble

Calling in the marines

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on January 30, 2013

Why struggles for justice and the independence of the judiciary cannot be outsourced to the international community

20130130_Calling in the marinesAs I said last week, it is easy to become disheartened with the way that things are moving in Sri Lanka. One disappointment follows another, and each is more extraordinary than the last.

The impeachment of the Chief Justice was particularly disturbing. It demonstrated just how little space there is for dissent. Even the mild disturbance created by Shirani Bandaranayake when she ruled that the Divi Neguma bill had to be referred to the provincial councils or passed with a two thirds majority was intolerable to the administration. She had to go. It didn’t matter that there was no evidence of actual wrongdoing on her part. She was removed on the grounds that she might try to cover up the corruption of her husband, which is what Mahinda Rajapaksa claims to have done himself!

Since very few of us are willing to agree with everything that the Government says all of the time, it was appalling to see the lengths to which it is ready to go to impose its will.

No doubt that was the objective of the exercise.

Our distress was compounded by the failure of the Opposition under Ranil Wickremasinghe, who appeared to be far too busy plotting his next move against Sajith Premadasa to bother with something as mundane as the independence of the judiciary. Having successfully ousted his rival from the deputy leadership of the party – whether temporarily or permanently remains to be seen – he finally managed to pen an article on the impeachment for the Sunday Times this week, but readers may not have had the stamina to get past the rather laborious exposition of his knowledge of the history of English country houses and meetings of the Commonwealth to locate his point.

Once again, the widespread information campaign that was so badly needed to counter the propaganda put about by the Government has been left to others.

Worse, by focusing our attention on the Commonwealth and the sanctions that it may impose on Sri Lanka as a result of the impeachment, the UNP leader is pushing us into the same old trap of ‘internationalising’ what must be a national struggle.

Honestly, who cares about the Commonwealth?

If Ranil Wickremasinghe tries very hard, it may decide to move the 2013 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting away from Sri Lanka. But what use is that? I don’t believe that Mahinda Rajapaksa would be in the slightest bit upset.

Quite the reverse, he is at his most comfortable when under fire from abroad.

No doubt the Government is totally hypocritical when it calls people traitors for taking their problems to international fora. We all know that Mahinda Rajapaksa did the same thing in the late 1980s, when the UNP administration was butchering Sinhalese youth.

It is also wrong. There is nothing traitorous in informing the world about what is happening in Sri Lanka.

It can even be useful in some circumstances.

I don’t believe that it had any impact on the anti-JVP campaign. The architects were either convinced that Sri Lankans would never prosecute them for their excesses or too desperate to care about what might happen once it was all over. On the whole, they were right – not morally but factually. If they were punished, it was almost exclusively by extra-judicial means.

Even today, as the JVP calls for an inquiry into the discovery of a mass grave from that era in Matale, there is little chance of it being granted and no chance whatsoever of that resulting in jail time for the politicians who ordered such activities.

The JVP will not push on the issue, for to do so would be to remind people of its own role in the slaughter.

But imagine what would happen if it did. Imagine it calling on the international community to investigate, as many people are doing today with regard to the deaths of Tamils in the Government’s war against the LTTE. Would justice be done?

No.

Even after the passage of more than twenty years, and with an SLFP-led coalition in power, there is nothing the international community could do about it.

Why? Because the international community doesn’t get to vote in elections in Sri Lanka.

It is the opinions of Sri Lankans that matter to Mahinda Rajapaksa. So long as they aren’t bothered about the mass grave in Matale, he won’t be either. Likewise, so long as they don’t want an investigation into the anti-LTTE campaign, even Ranil Wickremasinghe wouldn’t do it.

The international community has zero moral authority, as everybody in Sri Lanka is very well aware.

We know that other countries have dirty wars of their own. Indeed, if we needed reminding that some things remain the same even after the replacement of George Bush by Nobel Peace Prize winning Barack Obama at the top of the world’s greatest democracy, Dirty Wars is the name of a documentary that premièred at the Sundance Festival in Utah last week.

Sri Lankans love to blame the Western media for focusing on abuses in this country while remaining silent about what their own governments get up to, but this is rather myopic. Everything we know about the crimes of Western nations has been brought to our attention by Western journalists.

According to an interview with the producers, the documentary looks at how the War on Terror, which started overtly in Afghanistan and Iraq, has now become covert. We know everything there is to know about the night raid that killed Osama bin Laden, which has even been made into a rather captivating Hollywood film, but there were 30,000 other night raids in Afghanistan that year. Nobody talks about them. The documentary recounts the story of one in which an elite squad of American soldiers killed a senior policeman and his family while they were in the middle of a birthday party, and tried to cover it up. While the survivors watched, they dug the bullets out of the bodies, then announced to the world that they had stumbled onto the aftermath of an honour killing.

How very honourable!

The American ‘kill list’, which had only seven names on it after 9/11, now includes thousands. That is thousands of people that Barack Obama has said that it is perfectly acceptable to murder, never mind whether they are holding up white flags.

It also talks of the American drone programme, which allows them to do so without getting close enough to see a white flag. Indeed, George Bush established a policy, which Barack Obama has endorsed, of dropping bombs on people even when they aren’t on the ‘kill list’. In certain areas of Pakistan and Yemen – countries with which the United States is not at war – all young men are assumed to be terrorists and can be killed as and when convenient.

This is also top secret. Barack Obama personally intervened to stop the Yemeni government releasing a local journalist who photographed the remnants of American cruise missiles that he says regularly kill civilians.

American funded warlords in Somalia are shown on camera saying in a completely matter-of-fact manner that they execute foreign prisoners on the battlefield.

The War on Terror goes on in another equally repugnant form.

Given this well known background, if the international community tried to use its economic or other power to force prosecutions in Sri Lanka, the public would rally behind the Government, and Mahinda Rajapaksa is very good at encouraging such a response.

There really is no short cut.

To succeed in the pursuit of justice, it is the minds of Sri Lankans that have to be changed. If they start to want prosecutions, it will happen.

It is a national struggle, and trying to involve the international community can only make it harder.

Likewise, ‘internationalising’ the effort to restore the independence of the judiciary is also going to create more problems than it solves.

Mahinda Rajapaksa showed how uninterested he is in the opinion of the international community by announcing the impeachment of the Chief Justice just days before Sri Lanka faced its Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.

Deceiving ourselves may make us feel better, at least for a while, but it isn’t going to result in any actual change.

This article was published in the Midweek Review on 30th January 2013. The internet version may be accessed here.

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Slaves to slogans

Posted in The Island by kathnoble on December 29, 2012

A few thoughts on the UNP’s criticism of flood relief efforts

sajithAs I concluded last week, it is the failure of the Opposition that has put Sri Lanka into its current mess. This political system requires competition between the two main parties, since it is only fear of being thrown out of office that limits the behaviour of the Government. When the Opposition is weak, the Government doesn’t take it as an opportunity to solve the long-term problems of the nation, free from the compulsions of electoral politics – it focuses on its own future and how it can further strengthen its grip on power. It becomes dictatorial.

Ranil Wickremasinghe has been defeated so many times that his name must surely be entered in the Guinness Book of Records. People don’t like his policies, and he refuses to change them.

His economic agenda is no more popular than his conflict resolution strategy. Indeed, they are very similar. He wants to hand over responsibility for the well-being of the Sri Lankan people and the resources that belong to them to unelected individuals with a record of exploitation.

My point was that the country seems to be doomed to undergo more spectacles like the impeachment of the Chief Justice, since the Opposition is apparently determined to remain ineffective. Eighteen years in any position should be enough. But the UNP has agreed to give Ranil another six as its leader, guaranteeing his grip on the party until well after the next presidential and parliamentary elections. (Anybody who thinks that Ranil would run the country more democratically than Mahinda Rajapaksa is an idiot – wearing a suit and tie doesn’t make him a ‘gentleman politician’!)

One really begins to wonder whether there is anybody in the UNP who is up to the job. Several of its politicians have been agitating for reforms in the party, but their campaign has now been going on for more than half a decade without any results.

And this week offered a look into the thinking of Sajith Premadasa.

Addressing the media on the floods that have afflicted Sri Lanka in recent days, he attacked the Government for its response. The Security Forces had done a good job of rescuing people, he said, but the relief being provided was condemnable. In particular, he questioned the offer of Rs. 5,000 in exchange for ten days of work, which he said amounted to ‘enslaving’ the victims.

Now, I am sure that the affected people could do with rather more than Rs. 5,000. According to the Disaster Management Centre, by Sunday, 35 people had been killed and 22 injured. A total of 44,901 people had been displaced, while 3,136 houses had been destroyed and 7,693 partially damaged. These problems obviously cannot be solved with such a small sum of money, and they are only part of the burden the victims will have to bear – the Disaster Management Centre has not collected data on the impact of the floods on livelihoods. Since the Government regularly wastes a lot more than Rs. 5,000 on totally useless activities, Sajith was right to be critical.

The people of his own district would surely prefer a bit more assistance to a Rs. 4 billion cricket stadium, for instance!

If that amount had been divided among the 66,299 families reported to have been affected by the floods, they would have each received a little over Rs. 60,000.

This is an important argument, but it is not the point that Sajith was making. He was concerned not so much with the amount as with the way in which it is to be provided – in exchange for labour. Apparently, even if the Government gives Rs. 60,000, it must be a gift.

Of course gifts are very nice. But they limit the amount that people can be given.

If the victims each need Rs. 1 million, it would require a genuinely impossible allocation, taking up the budgets of several ministries.

The idea of offering employment in exchange for assistance has already been used to good effect in this year’s drought, with farmers who couldn’t cultivate their fields due to lack of water being paid to rehabilitate local tanks instead.

The Government claims to have spent almost Rs. 5 billion for this purpose. The advantage is that instead of being cast as victims, unable to do anything to help themselves, the affected people were involved in productive work that should contribute to avoiding a repetition of the drought, or at least to reducing its severity.

Farmers will benefit from their own work, and so will the country.

We should remember that natural disasters are becoming ever more frequent. Climate change is a reality, and Sri Lanka is now facing drought and floods on a regular basis.

It is important to be prepared, and I believe that the Disaster Management Centre has done some work in that direction. But the Government should also have a clear and consistent policy on the assistance that it is going to offer to people affected by natural disasters – their fate shouldn’t be decided according to the whims of politicians.

Of course the Government doesn’t like to guarantee anything.

In lieu of such a promise, it has started to push insurance schemes.

Mahinda Rajapaksa announced in the budget speech that farmers who receive chemical fertiliser from the Government at a subsidised rate will now have to pay Rs. 150 per 50 kilo bag towards crop insurance. No doubt the motivation behind this move is not what is best for farmers but how to reduce the cost of the fertiliser subsidy, on which the Government spends more than Rs. 30 billion. Instead of providing bags at Rs. 350, they will be given for Rs. 500. This is not very honest, but perhaps one should not complain too much since the fertiliser subsidy is clearly not the best way to support farmers. (In addition to the now widely accepted impact on the environment, and hence on our health and the economy as a whole, the fertiliser subsidy is totally inefficient. To cultivate one acre, farmers use three bags of chemical fertiliser. These are sold to them for Rs. 350, when the market rate is Rs. 6,500. For the amount that the Government thus has to hand over to the manufacturers to support a single individual – nearly Rs. 20,000 – it could have bought them an indigenous cow! And such an animal would have fertilised as many as 30 acres for several years, without any of the disadvantages of chemical fertiliser. Why is it not done? Because the fertiliser companies are enthusiastic sponsors of a whole range of activities of both officials and academics.)

The problem with ulterior motives is that things don’t generally work out as we expect. One would have to see how easy it is to make a claim, since it is well known that the other major intervention in agricultural markets – purchasing at a minimum price – is largely ineffective, with the Government purposely making it difficult for farmers to take advantage.

Better than insurance schemes, or at least as well as them, would be a guarantee of work in exchange for a minimum income.

My advocacy of this idea is inspired by the experience of India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, passed in 2005, which guarantees 15 days of employment at the minimum wage to Indians living in rural areas willing to do manual labour. Despite being plagued by corruption, as most things are in India, it has made a vital contribution to the development of the country.

The situation in rural areas in Sri Lanka is nowhere near as difficult as in India, except perhaps in the former conflict areas, but the country could still think of such a scheme islandwide.

Alternatively, this could also work as a Disaster Recovery Scheme.

It would be the opposite of enslavement, since it would confer on the Sri Lankan people a new right that they do not as yet enjoy, without imposing on them any new duties.

And that is bound to be popular.

Sajith Premadasa had better give it some more thought.

Of course Ranil Wickremasinghe cannot be expected to approve. His neoliberal handbook says that it is only a matter of time before we are all as rich as him, so long as the Government doesn’t try to help the process along.

He must love being in the Opposition!

This article was published in The Island on 28th December 2012. The internet version may be accessed here.

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