Columns -Thoughts from London

Oh! Come off it Boucher

By Neville de Silva

More often than not visiting officials, whether they are from foreign governments, multilateral organizations or INGOs proffer reams of advice on how to run this country and what we should do to be acceptable to them. Criticism of the country, particularly on human rights, is liberally made as though the moral authority to do so rests with them and them alone. At times these homilies are offered from the safety of their headquarters in New York, London or Hong Kong as though coming from such prestigious and exciting cities legitimises their words.

The other day Richard Boucher, US Assistance Secretary of State for South and Central Asia gave an interview to a website in Washington before leaving with the US Observer mission to the SAARC conference in Colombo earlier this month. In it he reportedly said that Sri Lanka’s “democratic government has a responsibility for all of its citizens.” Mr Boucher is not enunciating some new political theory. There is nothing memorable in his remark, just a reiteration of what had been studied in our schooldays. He might, however, have thought that we needed to be reminded of the responsibilities of government if we had indeed forgotten them. A gentle hint perhaps of where political responsibility lies.
One cannot quarrel with the Boucher observation. One cannot chastise the US official for that. What one can do however is to question his right to do so on other grounds. I am not thinking here of freedom of expression but of the moral right of an American official to be reminding us of our obligations and responsibilities when the US has not found such obligations weighing too heavily on its own conscience or even its shoulders. If Boucher says-and he is correct- that governments have responsibilities to all of their citizens surely the same is even more applicable to foreign occupiers of other countries.

When the US with other western allies, especially the UK, invaded Iraq on the pretext that Baghdad was involved in the terrorist attacks on the US and posed a threat to western interests, it illegally occupied a sovereign state. International conventions and international law impose special responsibilities on occupying powers in their dealings with the people of the state that is occupied. I wonder whether Boucher or the administration he represents would go so far as to claim that the US, as an occupying power, has conducted itself in accordance with those responsibilities and in keeping with international law.

I suppose it is arguable which is the graver moral offence- not looking after all your citizens with equal concern, as claimed, or not extending that concern to all the people that one has brought under one’s heel by the sheer use of military power. Some might argue with great vehemence that illegal occupation and treating some of the citizens of the occupied state like criminals is the greater crime. Yet the United States which offers us advice on the rules of governance has been more than remiss in its own conduct thousands of miles from its soil. While most readers would be aware of the torture of Iraqi prisoners in detention centres such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq and others in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba and has been well documented, there is a need to remind ourselves of these violations of basic human rights lest we be overwhelmed by Boucher’s reasonable argument. Unfortunately comments such as these are cherry-picked and used as ‘evidence’ by those who would like to do Sri Lanka harm.

We have also heard about the lack of media freedom here and a host of arguments why a free press is vital. Nobody, not even sensible government ministers, will deny the shabby and intolerable treatment meted out to media persons in this country in recent years. That is to be condemned as some ministers have done. Such condemnation however must be followed up by action under the law against the culpable if the public is not to dismiss the condemnation as political rhetoric.

That, however, is not the quarrel I have with Richard Boucher, a normally sensible diplomat I have known from my Hong Kong days when he was US Consul General there. A Boucher who talks for his government obviously cannot criticize his own unless the fate that befell some US officials and other western diplomats who spoke critically of their governments, befalls him too. Otherwise Boucher might have told us what a blow it was to media freedom when US troops blasted the office of Al Jazeera Television in Baghdad killing a newsman or when US tanks opened fire at the hotel in Baghdad in which journalists were housed in what was obviously an attempt at the intimidation of the media. Nor would one expect Boucher to speak about “extraordinary rendition”, the US tactic of flying terror suspects out of US territory or from other places to friendly countries where torture is not unknown as a method of extracting information.

I don’t think Boucher needs to be reminded that the one human right that is absolute and which is not circumscribed by caveats is freedom from torture. But this is precisely what the US has been guilty of by flying suspects out to countries in Europe and elsewhere with the complicity of European allies including the UK and Germany. The operation of these rendition flights- which take suspects to places outside US jurisdiction and therefore away from US law-have also been well documented by European investigators and European legislators. That is not all. The US has been using the controversial US air base in Diego Garcia in the west Indian Ocean as a secret prison for detainees suspected of terror, a secret that had been kept even from the British Government which leased out the island to the US by evicting a couple of thousand residents and dumping them in neighbouring Mauritius and Seychelles.

Just this month the London newspaper The Daily Telegraph carried a story saying that a “senior American official has admitted for the first time that a US base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia hosted a secret prison.” If the US could lie through its teeth (and it has done so previously on this issue) to its closest ally then what could we expect from Washington? Those who have followed the Diego Garcia story carefully would know how the UK and US actually misled the UN committee on decolonization by claiming that the residents of Diego Garcia were in fact contract labour brought to work on the coconut plantations which was a downright lie.

If the US is so concerned with how other governments treat their citizens why is it that we have not heard a squeak out of Washington on the blatant violations of human rights by the Uzbek administration which has even been accused of killing victims by boiling them in hot water? Is it because Uzbekistan is a strategic partner in Washington’s war on terror? Why have we not heard much about human rights in Saudi Arabia where even migrant workers are treated contemptuously and their dignity denied?

Admittedly Sri Lanka needs to brush up its human rights record, it needs to make officials more aware of and responsive to humanitarian laws. But it is irksome to be told so by those who themselves fail to observe international norms of conduct, who think that international laws apply to all but themselves and whose moral selectivity deprives them of any right to preach to others. When pressed on the record of the US in this regard, Richard Boucher told a Colombo press conference that the US itself is learning because democracy is an evolving process. There is no doubt the US is learning. But could it not do so without making demands on others. Then we could all get on without sermons from the pulpit.

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