The cost of terror
The vestiges of any claim that the United
States might have put forward in the past that its authority in
the modern world rests on moral rights of any kind whatsoever, have
now effectively disappeared. The 'most powerful country in the world'
projects its voice, considerable as it undoubtedly is, from a position
of brute strength and nothing more, a sad indictment on the years
of history during which the country, (with all its lapses), was
a beacon of hope with regard to fundamental rights of life and liberty,
including most importantly freedom from torture and freedom of speech.
this transferral from the real authority of the past to the thinly
disguised authoritarianism of the present is important for countries
such as Sri Lanka in several respects. In the first instance, this
calls for greater awareness and agitation among rights advocates
in this country when Sri Lanka accedes in a process whereby the
United States removes herself more and more from the reach of international
human rights law. This was classically seen recently when we were
among three SAARC countries which entered into non-surrender agreements
with the US early this year, with regard to the jurisdiction of
the International Criminal Court (ICC) established by the Rome Statute.
prescribe that the signatories would not surrender each others'
nationals without the consent of the country concerned, if the purpose
is to put them in the jurisdiction of the ICC. The agreements accordingly
limit the reach of the ICC, giving US citizens immunity from international
prosecutions, effectively crippling the broad mandate of the Court.
A similar move
in Thailand recently led to protests from Thai citizens and government
officials both from a moral point of view and on the basis that
the planned agreement offends the principle of sovereignty and must
be approved by Parliament. When a like agreement was signed in Sri
Lanka however, it passed by without comment, testifying alike to
the dismal nature of our activism and our awareness.
In the second
instance, the displacement of the United States from its high moral
perch means that it is high time and more that State Department
Country Reports are received with less than the traditional reverence
that they gave rise to in the past.
these Reports are, in fact, compiled by the State Department and
submitted to the Congress as required by provisions of the Foreign
Assistance Act of 1961 (as amended), and the Trade Act of 1974,
(as amended) in force in the United States.
These laws provide
that the Secretary of State shall transmit to the Speaker of the
House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations
of the Senate, "a full and complete report regarding the status
of internationally recognized human rights", in respect of
countries that receive assistance under this part. Reports are also
compiled with regard to countries which are members of the United
Nations and which are not otherwise the subject of a human rights
report under the laws.
upon release, were earlier looked upon as standard setting in the
manner not only in which the United States viewed countries for
obvious strategic reasons but also in respect of the observance
of internationally recognised rights norms. Sri Lanka, has been,
on more than one occasion, the recipient of several stinging comments
on her status of rights compliance and has treated such comments
with due respect. It does not seem however that such respect is
well deserved any more. Instead, the reports should be looked upon
purely as a matter of real politik and nothing else.
in the manner in which the United States is increasingly being regarded
by the rest of the world has gathered strength since the war of
aggression on Iraq. Whereas earlier, the lapses of the administration
with regard to internal or external policy were not paraded openly,
now it is a different story altogether.
blatant disregard for human rights governed the manner in which
the Bush administration shrugged off persistent complaints from
global human rights advocacy bodies that its treatment of detainees
in the 'war against terror', in Guantanamo Bay violated fundamental
tenets of respect for life. These complaints were supported by the
harrowing accounts of victims of these techniques who had been detained,
subjected to conditions amounting to torture and degrading treatment
and then released after having been found innocent by their captors.
most recent critique of the excesses of the administration in this
regard will not be so easy to dismiss, given the fact that it comes
from an internal source, none other than the Office of the Inspector
General (OIG), an agency watchdog within the Ministry of Justice.
In a report
released this Monday, the OIG has faulted officials of the Justice
Department, FBI, Immigration and the prisons for their treatment
of non-citizens detained ostensibly on immigration charges but under
investigation with regard to terrorism crimes. The body has found
prolonged detention without charge, denial of access to legal counsel,
and excessively harsh conditions of confinement with regard to the
The report had
examined the detention of citizens primarily from Middle Eastern,
South Asian, and North African countries. At most, no more than
a handful of these "special interest" detainees have been
charged with a terrorism-related crime. The Justice Department has
refused to release the identities of the detainees and has conducted
the majority of their immigration hearings in secret.
the report, Human Rights Watch, a widely regarded rights monitoring
body has called for immediate action by the Bush administration
to remedy the human rights violations documented by the Department
of Justice's internal investigation. Appropriately, Human Rights
Watch has pointed out that the report is a superb exposé
of how the Justice Department circumvented people's basic rights
after September 11, stating that the Attorney General would now
find it harder to circumvent allegations of abuses.
Among the findings
set out in the report was a pattern of physical and verbal abuse
by federal correctional staff at the detention centers and the extremely
restrictive high-security conditions under which the detainees are
kept including round-the-clock confinement in small cells that were
constantly illuminated. Those responsible for these excesses continue
without any inquiry despite having serious charges of rights violations
of torture and ill-treatment of detainees and impunity for those
responsible were exactly the same issues with regard to which the
United States had criticised other countries in the past. For example,
the US State Department Reports of 2000 and 2002 consistently makes
the point that, with regard to Sri Lanka, impunity for those responsible
for rights violations remained a problem.
point out that in the majority of cases in which military personnel
may have committed human rights abuses, the Government has not identified
those responsible or brought them to justice. They also specifically
make the point that though the U.N. Committee on Torture sent a
five-person mission to Colombo in 2000 to determine whether a systematic
pattern of torture exists in the country and, if so, to make recommendations
for eliminating the practice, the confidential report of the mission
which was submitted to President Kumaratunga in 2001, is yet not
Apart from Sri
Lanka, other countries rapped over their knuckles on similar counts
in the past include Burma, Eritrea, Iran and Jordan. The high mindedness
with which these reports are compiled cannot contrast more vividly
with the pattern of similar abuses that have now been documented
beyond dispute in the ongoing war against terrorism, the responsibility
of which has to be borne fairly and squarely by the United States.
The costs of such duplicity might however, like the mills of God,
be slow to come but when they do, promises to be appropriately high.