Picture courtesy Foreign Policy – South Asia.
“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.” – Arthur Schopenhauer
“If an offense come out of the truth, better is it that the offense comes than that the truth be concealed.” ― Thomas Hardy
On October 20, 2015, the Sri Lankan Parliament will debate the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) resolution on alleged war crimes, crimes against humanity and the systemic violation of human rights in Sri Lanka. This debate will make history if, and only if, it ends the legacy of political parties coopting debates concerned with ethnicity-related human rights issues to consolidate their political power. This legacy gives life to the same forces that continue to obstruct viable political solution to the ethnic issue.
The current debate will turn into another political fiasco if the government condones and fails to rebut arguments that shift the debate’s focus from the moral core of the UNHRC’s demands. For this purpose, those opposed to truth and transitional justice will employ multiple tactics (e.g., red herrings and strawmen) to undermine the government’s ability to accept foreign assistance to ensure the investigation’s credibility. Such a predicament is an inevitable risk in any society that has lost the culture of a deliberative democracy that values the search for truth and justice through democratic debate and is fearful of true freedom.
The Culture of Debating
Sri Lankan parliamentary debates mostly consist of screaming matches, popularity contests, demagoguery, and sophistry, and they are primarily organized along political fault lines, factions, and demographics, rather than in the pursuit of truth and justice. These sophists’ and demagogues’ truth claims are particularly dangerous because they appeal to the populist consciousness, and no-one can challenge them when they are at the height of their popularity. They gain popularity from their educational credentials, oratorical skills, and the affinities they claim to have with those credited for ending the war against terrorism and defending religion, sovereignty, and national security.
The most vociferous opponents of the UNHRC resolution lack intellectual or moral integrity because they either “prostitute” their intellect and morals for personal gain and popularity or lack shame in their unwavering servitude to their political masters. After expunging reason and morality from political discourse, these opponents continue to celebrate their success in the obstruction of truth and accountability, as national victories, which have spurred tensions among ethnic communities, created obstacles to meaningful post-war reconciliation, provided ideological cover for rulers to destroy the country’s democracy and rob its wealth, undermined the international credibility and Tamil community’s trust in the Armed forces, and made the country vulnerable to geopolitical exploitation.
Indeed, the government’s fear of true freedom was the fundamental reason behind removing morality from the debates on the UNHRC resolutions: It refused to let people seek truth and justice beyond the narrow confines of hegemonic ethno-religious nationalism. True freedom requires the political will to embrace and advocate for righteous governance based on inclusive and just meanings of the national identity, sovereignty, and security. These new meanings require a break from the hegemonic ethno-nationalist narrative upon which the mainstream political parties’ power bases rest.
Setting the tone of the debate
If the government is sincere in its promise to create a reconciliation process that will “involve addressing the broad areas of truth seeking, justice, reparations and non-recurrence,” it cannot allow the hegemonic nationalist narrative to frame the debate. Sri Lanka’s nationalist narrative has been unsuccessful in suppressing the truth, and the only choice it now has is to verify the truth, which is fast becoming self-evident.
If the government is committed to truth and justice, it needs to rediscover the long-lost art of debate as a mature and dignified exercise in deliberative democracy that guides diverse interests within society toward just and equal ends. Accordingly, the leader of the government’s side of the debate needs to set a clear tone and stance for the debate by recognizing that it no longer has the luxury of avoiding accountability and transitional justice.
To that end, it must first center the debate on the moral basis of the UNHRC resolution: the opposition to violations of universal human rights and human dignity. Second, the government must acknowledge that the debate’s purpose is not to verify allegations from the UNHRC report, but to find the best judicial mechanism through which to verify the allegations in a manner that paves the way for accountability and transitional justice. The government must challenge and discard any deviation from this primary objective. Third, the government needs to demonstrate the necessary resolve to accept its own faults and limitations and directly address its opponents’ arguments to dismiss the case for a legitimate investigation, thereby keeping the debate’s focus intact. Countering the tactics typically used to divert attention from and suppress the debate’s main purpose requires vigilance.
An essential prerequisite for a genuine debate is the government’s public acknowledgement and apology for the ambiguities and contradictions in its defenses of the domestic investigation. The government must candidly reveal the truth about the nature of international assistance in the investigation, and the necessity of bolstering its capacity to address domestic issues. International intervention is not an exception but the norm in every area of the country’s social policy. Thus, there is no moral basis on which to refuse such intervention when it comes to addressing the concerns expressed in the UNHRC resolution.
The government’s boast that it successfully avoided “an international inquiry and a hybrid inquiry” is premature. Claims about “victory in Geneva” and “victory against imperialism in New York” are frivolous attempts to appease the same ethnonationalist narrative that serves to obstruct a credible inquiry. The real victory is the hope that the people have placed in the government’s promise to pave the way for meaningful transitional justice. The manner in which the government sets the tone of the debate will be the first proof of its willingness to manifest that hope.
The argument that a credible inquiry can take place without external assistance is morally and factually indefensible. The government is highly mistaken to think that, in this day of social media and the growing power of transnational human rights groups, it can hide the report’s findings from the public. The report demands an inquiry, not about isolated events or the conduct of a few unprofessional individuals, but rather into the grave systematic, nationwide human rights violations. The government is obligated to comply with the report since its demands are part of international law.
Successfully making the moral case that external assistance is indispensable would be the first tangible victory for the government. This triumph would bolster the credibility of the inquiry and the domestic justice system and prevent the inquiry from being exploited for corrupt ends. In defending the case for potential foreign interventions, the government should be candid about the limitations of the domestic justice system and its vulnerability to manipulation by those opposed to truth and accountability. A show of humility by the government for its failure to be fully transparent about its responses to the UNHRC’s demands would enhance its credibility. It would place the government on high moral ground, help dispel baseless public fears over the resolution, and expose the hypocrisy of those who opposed foreign assistance in the inquiry but not in the country’s social and economic policies.
Keep Morality as the Central Focus
The focus of the debate must be kept simple and appeal to the people’s moral consciousness. The two most important prerequisites for allowing morality, as opposed to politics, to shape the outcomes of the debate are the government’s capacity to accept the uncomfortable truths exposed in the UNHRC report and to not allow the accompanying embarrassment to compromise the inquiry’s judicial autonomy and integrity.
The report’s allegations are first and foremost about morality and the people’s right to know the truth about war crimes and crimes against humanity. Keeping the debate focused on these entitlements will prevent those seeking to justify their opposition to a credible inquiry from shifting the focus of the debate to domestic politics, international human rights bodies, the West, and the diaspora.
The debate will lose the moral purpose behind the UNHRC report if it uncritically accepts the distinction between “international” and “domestic” made by those opposed to the report. When politicians use domestication as a tool for winning the people’s approval and gaining power, universal humanitarian issues become exclusively domestic issues needing domestic solutions subordinated to national interests.
Framing demands for truth and reconciliation as a pretext to international intervention in Sri Lanka’s domestic affairs disguises the fact that those demands are first and foremost made by the citizens. The opposition’s calls for a domestication of the inquiry is a stratagem that serves to keep public attention away from the fact that internationalization was, in part, a result of the incapacities, vulnerabilities and loss of faith in the domestic justice system, and the increasing influence of transnational human rights groups on states.
Allowing those in opposition of the resolution to center the debate within the narrow confines of institutional politics, i.e. tensions between ‘international’ and ‘domestic’ interests, will undermine the original moral intent of the resolution with potentially disastrous consequences. Such a misguided view could be deadly because it permits deception, manipulation, and even violence, particularly when the opposition seeks popular legitimacy for rejecting the UNHRC proposal by claiming to defend history, security, national sovereignty, and political consciousness.
No one is suggesting that the UNHCR is an apolitical entity, or that its moral claims are immune to political maneuverings by those states that command a disproportionate amount of power over its affairs. The emphasis here is the historical abuse of power by the Sri Lankan state to obstruct truth and accountability and expunge morality from politics. In so doing, the state lost its moral authority to navigate its international relations in ways that are not harmful to the country’s domestic affairs.
How can the tactics of those opposed to a credible inquiry that would lead to meaningful accountability and transitional justice be countered?[i] Let us look at some examples.
Expose the Real Conspirators and the Traitors
The government cannot simply let the debate be framed by the distinction that is often used to discredit the legitimacy of a resolution; that is, those who support the resolution and a credible inquiry with international assistance are traitors and conspirators, and those who reject the resolution and a credible inquiry are patriots. Instead, the government could easily reverse this distinction by reasoning that real patriots refuse to compromise on truth and accountability.
The terms “conspiracy” and “traitor” carry emotive power to persuade people to reject core elements of the resolution. Such wielding of emotive power desensitizes people to the cognitive and descriptive contents of language and prevents them from thinking about and meaningfully responding to the unpleasant realities of the war. Such political exploitation of language jettisons the notion that a commitment to truth and accountability can pave the way for reconciliation and solidarity across the ethnic divide.
Another deceptive claim is that “caving” into the demands of the report endangers the credibility of the war and the security forces that safeguard national security in the present and future. War is a thing of the past. The UNHRC report is not an indictment of the war. It makes no demands on the government to justify the war. The report is about the impact of the memories and psychological wounds of the war on meaningful reconciliation. In fact, the demands for truth and accountability support the government’s argument that the war was a precondition for a lasting political solution to the ethnic crisis that initially sparked the war. What reasonable argument can be made in favor of suppressing the memories and psychological wounds of war to pave the way for reconciliation?
Perhaps the most seductive argument that distracts public focus from the debate at the moral core of the UNHRC report is the claim that the report is an attempt to discredit the soldiers who sacrificed during the war.
The country needs a strong professional army. But professional armies are rigorous in disciplining their members’ transgressions. The US Army, which is one of the most professional in the world, has prosecuted and imprisoned those convicted of crimes on numerous occasions. The Army and the President of the country issued public apologies for those crimes. It is true that these US responses are controversial in terms of their proportionality to the seriousness of crimes. When it comes to human rights violations the UNHRC is lenient on the powerful countries like US and its powerful allies (e.g. Kurds, war in Yemen). On the other hand, the US is quick to address the issues with a great deal of strategic diplomacy and not leave room for the external actors to interfere.
Political parties in the US do not overtly seek political mileage by interfering with the investigations and the disciplinary actions concerning its own military conducted by the Department of Justice and the military, certainly not to the extent that Sri Lankan political parties has done since the war. The US government’s dealing with the discipline of its’ own military is a far more mature and strategic way of negotiating morality and human rights. However, the Sri Lankan government’s first response to charges against its military made by its’ own citizens and international community was one of outright denial (e.g. zero civilian casualties) and discredit to those who made charges.
The Sri Lankan government position significantly changed only after the international pressure.
Given the loss of credibility of the domestic justice system, Sri Lanka has no justifiable reason to compromise finding the truth about UNHRC allegations by avoiding a hybrid inquiry. After the allegations are verified the country can make case that the punishments for those found guilty should be consistent with the punishments meted in other countries for similar crimes. At the same time Sri Lanka should strive to pursue superior moral standards better than US (imperialists!), if it wants to claim moral high grounds in the pursuit of truth and justice, truthful to its cherished religious values. Sri Lankan government’s first priority is to reconcile with its’ own people. It cannot avoid this responsibility by pointing to the hypocrisy and double standards of the external actors.
Sri Lankan security forces are a part of the international community as they interact with the security establishments of the other countries and participate in the international Peace Keeping missions. They are obligated to follow the international laws in order to maintain their international credibility. Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka noted, only a credible inquiry will clear the good names of those officers who conducted the war within the rules of war and humanitarian laws. The Lieutenant General Crishantha De Silva shared similar sentiments when he expressed his gratitude during his address at the Sri Lankan Army’s 66th Anniversary to those soldiers who conducted the war in “a professional manner” and “to the families of our men and women in uniform.”
The debate over sacrifices made during the war should also take into account the trauma of the victims of alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity—the trauma caused by not knowing the truth about the alleged abuses of rights that victims, mostly ethnic Tamils, endured during and in the aftermath of the war. Military in a multicultural nation cannot serve its’ true national interests, unless the nation brings closure to these victims yearning for truth and justice. A credible inquiry is the beginning of a long process of helping the military to enhance its’ credibility among minority Tamil community. In Army Commander De Silva’s words, “the military’s sole aspiration is to safeguard our motherland and its citizens at all times. It requires unity of purpose and the ability to focus on issues to be addressed united with a spirit of reconciliation.” Without a commitment to truth and transitional justice the military cannot expect to be ‘united in the spirit of reconciliation.’
Avoid distractions: “Batalanda” Ranil and Crimes of the West
When the opposition is no longer able to suppress the truth, it will attempt to discredit Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe and those who support the current government. Pointing the finger at the international community’s leniency toward the crimes of Western countries will certainly distract the debate from its moral purpose.
Any discussion of personal traits or Western crimes would form a dangerous tangent because the debate is primarily concerned with the interests of the people and not the personal histories of politicians who support the resolution. Neither the UNHRC report nor the victims are concerned with the alleged role of the prime minister in the Batalanda torture chambers or with a comparative assessment of war crimes committed by Western and other non-Western countries.
Unravel the Truth about Imperialism and Anti-Imperialists
Often the opposition to the UNHRC resolutions presented as a part of country’s struggle against imperialism. The fear anti-imperialist rhetoric generates is so seductive that there is no compulsion to examine its relevance to the demand for truth and accountability. The moral purpose behind the UNHRC report would be lost if it is framed as an imperialist conspiracy. During the debate, the JVP will likely be in a better position to disarm the argument’s credibility and demonstrate its complexity. The emphasis should be on how those opposed to truth and accountability forestall the possibility of creating the social conditions necessary for inter-ethnic solidarity and a meaningful fight against imperialism.
The primary concern is verifying the allegations in the UNHRC report. The alleged human rights violations did not originate with imperialism, as the opponents of the resolution claim, and the connection between imperialism and the UNHRC report is far-fetched. The victims demanding justice are not collaborators with imperialism, and they are not pursuing any anti-imperialist agenda. Likewise, no opponents of the UNHRC resolution espouse an anti-imperialistic agenda or an ideology even remotely connected to anti-imperialism.
All powerful countries support the UNHRC resolution, but none of them let human rights concerns stand in the way of their imperialistic ambitions. Imperialism is a global economic and political phenomenon: It is a project of the all states. Owing to their ethno nationalist biases, opponents of the resolution only levy charges of imperialism against the West, particularly the countries that actively advocated for the resolution. This political strategy simultaneously appeals to the dominant ethno-nationalist narrative and distracts the masses from the Sri Lankan state’s complicity with, or class character of, global imperialism.
The anti-imperialistic rhetoric derives its power to dismiss the moral basis of the UNHRC resolution from the uneven distribution of economic and political power among states. The UNP and every member of the UPFA, regardless of their stand on the UNHRC report, are imperialistic in their economic ideology and structural relations with the global economy. The lesser bargaining power of Sri Lanka in this global imperialistic project is its failure to address the human rights issues in the country. The UPFA government sought to increase its spoils of the global economy by soliciting financial and political support from countries that were unconcerned with Sri Lanka’s human rights violations, whereas the current government is seeking to achieve the same economic goal by declaring its commitment to addressing human rights issues to the international community.
The current premises upon which the oppositions’ stance on the resolution rests is blatant racist ethno-nationalism masquerading as anti-imperialism in service of the imperialists. The government’s promise to address human rights issues does not entail a commitment to anti-imperialistic policies. Under these circumstances, the only hope for a genuinely anti-imperialist struggle is to create broad-based solidarity across the ethnic divide inside and outside of the country. Building such solidarity is impossible as long as truth, accountability, and transitional justice issues remain unaddressed and continue to divide communities.
Those who obstruct accountability and transitional justice are de facto imperialists because they hide the global character of imperialism and prevent the creation and sustainability of the social conditions necessary for an anti-imperialistic struggle, which I, in the final analysis, believe necessary to safeguard human rights and security on a global scale. At the moment, only the JVP seems capable of articulating a position during the debate that would simultaneously safeguard the entitlements of the victims of alleged war crimes and help create domestic conditions to continue the global struggle against imperialism. However, given the JVP’s history of ethno-nationalism and its wavering position on the UNHRC report, it remains to be seen how much political will is to be expended to challenge the dominant ethno-nationalist narratives and whether the JVP will also hide behind the cover of domestic nationalism to oppose a credible inquiry.
[i] The most common tactic the opposition uses is discrediting society (an ad hominem attack, sometimes called the genetic fallacy) to refute an argument by citing the credibility of the source, which is unrelated to the topic and nothing to do with the substance of the argument itself. Arguments are also dismissed by simply referring to similar wrongdoings committed by another (tu quoque). Often, arguments offer conclusions based on an unstated or unproven assumptions (petitio principii). Opposition debaters use ambiguous language to shift the argument (equivocation) to a conclusion that has nothing to do with the argument’s core premise. Often, the weakness of the arguments against truth and accountability are hidden (red herring) by drawing attention away from the core issues of the debate. Arguments are falsely justified or used to intimidate others by name dropping of the popularly admired (ipse dixit or ad verecundiam), not necessarily qualified people. The arguments are justified using the assertion that they are reflective of the popular opinion or majority sentiment (ad populum or playing to the gallery). Such public sentiments can be manufactured by the debaters or those sentiments are proved wrong or detrimental to addressing the core issues of the debate. Many times, arguments appeal to ignorance or lack of proof (argumentum ad ignorantiam): “You can’t prove I’m wrong, so I must be right.” But the proof one is looking for is irrelevant to refute the argument.