Protestocracy: Mind the rights of the silent majority

By Ameen Izzadeen
It appears that protests have become a part of our lives. Not a day passes without a protest being held in Colombo or elsewhere. Indeed it is a good sign of a vibrant democracy, so long as the state is not turned into a protestocracy or government by protesters for protesters. Sadly, this appears to be the case in Sri Lanka.
To get the maximum visibility for their protests, one of the techniques the protesters resort to is blocking key roads. They have scant regard for the fact that their protests inconvenience tens of thousands of people. Commuters and motorists are struck for hours in traffic jams. Children come home late after school or tuition classes. Young women returning from work get late to go home, while anxious parents keep calling them via mobile phones to ensure that they are safe as they walk through dimly lit streets well after dusk. Those who want to be on time for doctor appointments or job interviews do not make it. Even tourists are inconvenienced. The country simply cannot afford the work hours lost almost every day in protest-related traffic jams. The motive, it appears, is to cause as much public inconvenience to make the people hate the Government.
One can bear with a protest if it is held as a last resort after exhausting all other avenues of finding a solution to a grievance. But the protests we see on a daily basis range from the sublime to the ridiculous, so much so that we wonder whether soon we will see a booming protest industry in Sri Lanka just as it exists in Indonesia, where professional protesters have even business cards. Sri Lanka is not unfamiliar with hired protesters with the going rate being around Rs. 500 in addition to food and liquor.
It is also interesting to note that many an issue over which protesters are shouting themselves hoarse has not arisen due to the fault of the present Government. Most of the issues such as the Malabe private medical college have been part of the baggage this Government inherited. None dared to protest over many of these issues during the Mahinda Rajapaksa government, probably for fear of being white-vanned or due to the then opposition’s aversion to protests.
In striking contrast, the so-called Joint Opposition, in recent weeks and months, has been using regular protest rallies in key cities and towns as a technique to whip up public discontent against the Government over the increase in Value Added Tax and other issues. Yesterday, it launched a pada yatra or a protest march from the outskirts of Kandy to Colombo.
It is universally recognised that people have the right to protest when they feel the government they have elected betrays the trust they have placed in it.
Article 14 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution says every citizen is entitled to the freedom of peaceful assembly. The key word is peaceful assembly – not demonstrations that threaten the peace of society or that cause inconvenience to non-protesting people. If the actions of a handful of people could bring hardships to millions of others, then the State and the law enforcement authorities have to step in to stop it.
This is because protests can be good and bad. If they are people-powered and peaceful, they are good. If they are powered by politicians with ulterior motives and aggressive in nature, then such protests have little space in a democracy. Good or public-spirited protests are made of greatness of purpose and are devoid of political manipulations. Mahatma’s Gandhi’s salt campaign that heralded the great independence movement in 1930 still shines as a good example of a peaceful protest that achieved glorious results. Martin Luther King’s march and his historic “I have a dream” speech in 1963 still inspire oppressed people around the world to have faith in peaceful protests. The American people’s flowers-for-guns campaign in the 1970s to end their country’s atrocious war in Vietnam is another example where peaceful protests can bring policy change. But all peaceful protests do not change policy. Weeks before the then United States President George W. Bush and the then British Prime Minister Tony Blair launched the war on Iraq in March 2003, millions of people in world capitals marched protesting against the impending war. But the two warmongers showed no respect for the voice of the people.
Recent examples of people-powered protests were the Arab Spring protests in Tunisia that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Tahrir Square protests that ended the 30-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak. Though the protesters were largely peaceful, the law enforcement authorities who have little regard for noble concepts such as the people’s fundamental right to peaceful assembly used violence in their efforts to uphold tyranny.
As opposed to protests powered by people for a just cause, there are protests scripted or manipulated by cunning politicians who want to hide their nudity or their sins. We need to be wary of such politicians.
It is no secret that US and Middle East policy makers played a big role in the Libyan protests that led to the death of strongman Muammar Gaddafi. These same policy makers engineered the protests against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in 2011 but ended up only creating a civil war and the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II.
Protest manipulation is not just confined to international politics.
In local politics, protest manipulators are equally deceitful. They know how to manipulate populism or the power of the people to advance their political agendas, especially when economic grievances build up.
Protest manipulation is a deceitful art or even a science. It involves the study of crowd psychology, mob behaviour and media handling. Often crowd manipulators benefit from deaths. This is because protest deaths dominate news bulletins for days and weeks giving undue publicity to bankrupt politicians, while the funerals themselves could be turned into much bigger anti-government protests.
The Government should be aware of the ulterior motives and exercise restraint; but it should also remember that it has a duty by non-protesters, the silent majority, to ensure that they are not inconvenienced.
The people elected this government with the aim of restoring democracy, not to establish a protestocracy. Good governance is too precious a principle to be squandered in anarchy or protests scripted by power-hungry politicians.
Just as the freedom to join peaceful protests is a fundamental right of a citizen, the freedom of mobility is also a fundamental right. Getting stuck for hours in a traffic jam, therefore, could be construed as a violation of a fundamental right of the people. The government should find a middle path solution to the protest mania. On Wednesday, Police, citing public inconvenience, obtained a court order to prevent the pada yatra’s launch from Kandy town. Similar court orders should be obtained to prevent politically motivated protests in the Fort, Town Hall and other key areas in Colombo City, not least during peak hours.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Anti-coup charade in Turkey: Erdogan cracks the whip

By Ameen Izzadeen
An elderly gentleman was preparing our breakfast in an Ankara hostel. My friend and fellow journalist Latheef Farook and I greeted him as we walked into the kitchen. Leaning against the pantry cupboard, we watched him make a special omelet for us. Then we saw a few ants moving towards some food items he had prepared for us and kept on the pantry table. When someone tried to wipe the table with a piece of cloth, the old man stopped him and read out a Quranic verse, which meant, “Whatever is in the heavens and on earth, glorifies Allah.” Turning towards us, he said: “Let the creature live so that it can continue to sing the praises of its Lord.”
This incident happened six years ago, when we were the guests of the Hizmet movement headed by Fethullah Gulen, the man Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan is accusing of launching last Saturday’s failed military coup. At a time when terror groups have hijacked Islam and are turning it into violent satanism, the Gulen movement is an organization that is rediscovering Islam and its spirit which has long gone missing under the influence of various distorted interpretations steeped in political shenanigans. The ISIS, al Qaeda and the Taliban do not represent Islam, but the Gulen movement does. Practitioners of Wahhabism – a type of Islam practised in Saudi Arabia – may claim that theirs is the purest form of Islam. But critics say their statement is only partially true. This is because Wahhabism focuses more on ritualistic purity than on the spiritual essence of Islam. Then there are Thareeqas (paths) and sufi schools of thought. They claim to be spiritualists. But their exegeses are largely distortions.
The Gulen movement, on the other hand, sees the worship of one God as a liberative experience to serve humanity. Its members are encouraged to gain knowledge and impart it to others or use it in the service of humanity. They are encouraged to do business, but told to spend the surplus profit in charity. Today, the Gulen movement, also known as the Hizmet movement – Hizmet means service – runs schools and charities in 170 countries, including Sri Lanka.
The movement has its origins in the struggles of Sa’id Nursi, who stood as a bulwark against Kemalist secularism. With Islam being wiped out from public life in Turkey under the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the secular visionary who founded modern Turkey from what remained of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1, Nursi, also known as Badi-uz-zaman, tried to show that Islam and democracy were not incompatible and that Islam was in harmony with modern sciences. Nursi declared: “I shall prove and demonstrate to the world that the Quran is an undying, inexhaustible Sun, by updating it to meet modern life requirements!”
After Nursi’s death, Gulen revived the movement to keep Islam alive in secular Turkey, where under Kemalist reforms, the hijab was banned from public life and Friday sermons became a script-writing affair of the state. The movement survived throughout the repressive regimes that captured power in military coups claiming that democratically elected governments were veering away from the state principle of secularism. Since Turkey was a key member of the NATO alliance during the Cold War, the United States supported the military regimes despite their atrocious human rights records. One of the undemocratic acts of every military regime was to ban political parties, especially those parties inclined towards Islam. But every time a party was banned for suspected Islamic inclinations, it reemerged under a different name. Erdogan’s Justice and Development (AK) Party also evolved in such a manner.
The AK Party’s owes it rise to power in 2002 to the Gulen movement which by then had emerged as a powerful religious movement or cemaat (pronounced jemaat). Gulen and Erdogan were the best of allies. The military which often had its way in politics, thanks to the existence of a Kemalist deep state in the Turkish administration, appeared helpless to defeat the Gulen-Erdogan alliance. But the alliance fell apart in 2013 when Erdogan, who as a poor schoolboy sold lemonade at traffic lights, faced corruption allegations. He and his son were accused of amassing billions of dollars through corrupt deals. In February 2014, the Turks were shocked when Erdogan in leaked recordings of phone conversations was heard instructing his 33-year-old son, Bilal, to dispose of large amounts of hidden funds from their private home. He and his son also allegedly had links with Iranian billionaire Babak Zanjani who was sentenced to death in March by a Teheran court for fraudulently pocketing US$ 2.8 billion of state funds. Bilal was also accused of profiteering from oil deals with ISIS.
During our visit to Turkey in 2010, we noticed the fast return of Islam into Turkish public life. With the wives of Erdogan and the then President Abdullah Gul sporting Hijab, many women began to emulate them. In our conversations with Gulen movement Turks, we asked them whether there would be another military coup, since Erdogan appeared to be violating the state principle of secularism. Their response was: “We will take to the streets, if that happens.”
Turkey saw this happening this week when tens of thousands of people braved military tanks and low-flying aircraft to defeat an attempt by a small group of ill prepared military officers to capture power.
But the coup had all the makings of a mercenary job, though it may not be so. This is because it had the support of only 3,000 soldiers. Besides, the coup plotters made no effort to arrest Erdogan or the Prime Minister or take over the state-run television. Rumours doing the rounds in opposition circles say the soldiers who took part in the coup did not know they were launching a coup. Many thought it was a military exercise. It is also rumoured that the coup soldiers were those who had got their jobs back after their release from jail. They were jailed for their role in a 2013 anti-government conspiracy by a clandestine group called Ergenekon.
And what’s more, it provided Erdogan the opportunity he was waiting for to strengthen his hold on power. Yesterday, he declared a state of emergency for three months. The move, which Erdogan described as a bid to root out the virus behind the coup, came after the police acting under orders from him arrested nearly 10,000 military personnel. So far some 50,000 state sector officials, including top judges and university dons, have lost their jobs, while nearly 600 schools run by the Gulen movement have been closed. The purge has helped Erdogan, who is being accused of acting like an Ottoman sultan, to remove civic-conscious bureaucrats who are not Gulenists.
Gulen has denied any role in the coup and said if the United States wants to extradite him to Turkey, he was ready to face trial.
Erdogan’s post-coup moves have raised international concerns. Even before the coup, Erdogan came under international criticism for his lack of respect for democratic norms such as freedom of expression and the independence of the judiciary. In recent months and years, he has nationlised opposition run media groups, arrested some 20 journalists and removed judges.
Just prior to the botched coup, Erdogan’s popularity was at all-time low, with the country being devastated by regular suicide attacks, a renewed war with Kurdish separatists, the Syrian refugee crisis and a stagnant economy. The coup has helped him to take control of affairs for a while. But how long is the question.
This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on July 22, 2016

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Peace in South Asia: Listen to the Kashmiri people

Like a volcano that erupts every now and then throwing out lava, Kashmir this week exploded. Instead of lava, blood flowed as more than 30 Kashmiri protesters were killed in four days of protests and clashes with Indian security forces.
The authorities imposed day-long curfews while hospitals struggled to cope with a large number of wounded people, most of whom were suffering eye injuries as the security forces were firing pellets at their faces.
The protests erupted following the death of a popular Kashmiri freedom fighter, Burhan Wani, whom India and the Indian media called a terrorist.
Arguments over who is a terrorist and who is a freedom fighter apart, the disturbances, the deaths or the dreams of the people in this disputed region will not make Kashmir an urgent international issue. However, Kashmir, over which India and Pakistan have fought two major wars and many battles, has been on the United Nations agenda for the past 68 years, albeit dormant. Like the Palestinian issue, the Kashmiri dispute is another example that in world politics, justice has little place. What matters is power. Powerful nations set the global agenda.
What was the response of the United States to the bloodshed in Kashmir? In deference to the United States’ growing military and strategic alliance with India amid China’s military rise, Washington said that what was happening in Kashmir was an internal matter for India, though a State Department spokesman diplomatically added, “Obviously, we’re concerned about the violence…. We encourage all sides to make efforts towards finding a peaceful resolution.”
As the death toll was rising in Kashmir, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement on the situation in South Sudan, reminding UN members about their responsibility to protect the innocent people caught up in a war situation. His office reacted to the Kashmiri situation only after a Pakistani journalist remarked that the Secretary General had brushed aside the Kashmiri issue.
“No one is denying that we are concerned about the situation in Kashmir. The fact that the Secretary General did not raise it as he did not raise many other critical situations around the word does not mean he is brushing anything aside,” Stephane Dujarric, the UN spokesperson said.
Later Ban’s office issued a statement saying: “UN Chief Ban Ki-moon calls on all parties to exercise ‘maximum restraint’ to avoid further violence in Kashmir and hopes that all concerns would be addressed through peaceful means.”
The Secretary General appears to be more concerned about running the administration of the UN – paying salaries, changing bulbs and cleaning toilets – than policies or principles to protect people or children caught up in wars, as his recent surrender to Saudi Arabia indicates when the oil kingdom threatened to withdraw funds to the world body. Bowing under pressure is nothing new to Ban. During the 2010 Kashmir uprising, with the death toll reaching more than 200, Ban, just new to the office, issued a bold statement. India thought it amounted to internationalising the Kashmiri issue. Within 24 hours of issuing the statement, the Secretary General’s office withdrew it under pressure from India.
But there is no gainsaying that the dispute demands international attention. This is because it can trigger a nuclear war between neighbours India and Pakistan. It is the only issue that prevents the takeoff of the South Asian Association for Regional Countries (SAARC) as a viable economic bloc. It also figures prominently in India’s suspicion-ridden relations with China. So, the sooner the Kashmiri dispute is made a high priority international issue and a solution is found, the better it is for India, Pakistan, the region and above all the people of Kashmir, who have suffered enough without peace.
As an initial step towards this search for peace, India and Pakistan should remove the hangovers of the past. What matters are the lives of people — not abstract concepts such as sovereignty. Leaders of the two countries should de-politicise Kashmir and look at it from a humanitarian angle.
Booker prize winning writer Arundhati Roy was bold enough to say, “Kashmir has never been an integral part of India. It is a historical fact. Even the Indian government has accepted this.”
But she remains condemned by the hardliners, who believe justice and peace are subservient to sovereignty and national pride.
Kashmir remains a no-go zone for the world media and the human rights rapporteurs and commissioners. There is hardly any independent inquiry among Indian academia or journalists into what’s going on in Kashmir. Public opinion is largely shaped by government statements.
Now with a Hindutva- backed government at the helm of affairs in New Delhi, sadly emotions are running high with the Kashmiri people’s freedom struggle being demonised as a terrorist problem that requires the shock and awe treatment that George Bush and his war coalition adopted to force Iraq’s meekly surrender. India insists the whole of Kashmir – including the part now under Pakistan – is Indian territory in terms of the accession treaty the maharaja of Kashmir entered into with the Indian government in the wake of the 1947 invasion by Pakistani tribesmen.
India says the Kashmiri crisis is a law and order problem. Whenever Pakistan urges that India respects the UN Security Council resolution that calls for a plebiscite in the Muslim-majority Kashmir to decide on the fate of the state, India cites regular elections it holds in the state as proof to show that the Kashmiris have accepted India’s sovereignty.
But those who oppose India’s control of the state ask how the elections could be free and fair when the state has the dubious reputation of being the world’s most militarised region: some 700,000 Indian troops control 12.5 million Kashmiris. They say people go to vote for fear of being labelled as rebel supporters. They fear the fate that befell 8,000 people who have disappeared in the past two decades. They fear the horror of their women being raped during raids by security forces.
But funerals have become a silent mode of protest in Kashmir and a message to India that the peace it claims to have brought into the region is nothing but the peace of the graveyard. Every time a Kashmiri is killed in the valley, people in their thousands gather for the funeral, making it a powerful political statement.
On July 8, when a Burhan Wani, the 22-year-old young rebel commander who used social media to convey his messages of freedom, was gunned down in a clash with security forces, the people in the valley gathered in unprecedented numbers for his funeral. The Kashmiri people yearning for freedom decided it was time again to rise up and confront the Indian forces. Shouting ‘India, leave Kashmir,’ the youth threw stones at the troops. An angry mob drowned a policeman by pushing his car into a river.
The government blocked the Internet and mobile services, preventing the news from reaching the outside world. The troops armed with the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which effectively gives them immunity from prosecution, fired at will. Let alone pressure, there is hardly any whimper from the western nations. There is no Geneva resolution. For India is not Sri Lanka.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on July 15, 2016)

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Chilcot indictment: B-Liar lied and millions died

By Ameen Izzadeen
At last the long awaited and much delayed Chilcot report is out. The question that looms large is: Will former Prime Minister Tony Blair who took Britain to war 13 years ago be tried for war crimes as demanded by antiwar activists?
Blair, who is at the centre of the Chilcot commission probe, was branded by angry antiwar activists worldwide as a murderer, and spoke to the media hours after the report finally saw the light of day after seven years of painstaking probe marked with difficulties in obtaining classified records or evidence. Now a likely war crimes suspect, the former prime minister offered an apology for making mistakes, but not for launching that war that put hundreds of British lives and millions of Iraqi lives in harm’s way. The man, who told untruth after untruth to mislead the Britons into believing that the war was a just war, was once again heard on Wednesday telling more half-truths to cover up the lies he had already told 13 years ago. Blair lied and millions died!
The report is indeed a damning indictment of Blair, who, it is now confirmed, overstated or sexed up half truths in a bid to convince Britons that Saddam Hussen’s Iraq with its weapons of mass destruction posed an existential threat to Britain. Yet the Chilcot report has drawn immediate criticism of being wishy-washy, for it does not directly accuse Blair – or B-liar as the antiwar activists renamed him — of ‘deceit’. The anti-war community has denounced the 2.6 million-word report as a half-balanced document.
Sir John Chilcot, who headed the commission that prepared the report, said the 2003 invasion was not the “last resort” action presented to MPs and the public and there was no “imminent threat” from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein — and the intelligence case was “not justified”.
Summarising the report, the BBC in its main lead story on Wednesday said Blair overstated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, sent ill-prepared troops into battle and had “wholly inadequate” plans for the aftermath.
Yet, the report does not unequivocally call Blair’s action a war crime or the war as ‘illegal’. It does not require a 2.6 million words or seven years of inquiry to slam Blair’s invasion as illegal and a war crime. Kofi Annan, who was the United Nations Secretary General when Blair and the then US President George W Bush manipulated the UN process to find legality to their action, in a statement in September 2004 said, “I have indicated it was not in conformity with the UN charter. From our point of view, from the charter point of view, it was illegal.” Similar views have been expressed by several international law experts also.
Soon after the report was released on Wednesday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn — who as a Labour MP voted against military action when Labour Prime Minister Blair presented his case for war in the House of Commons in 2003 — said the report proved the Iraq War had been an “act of military aggression launched on a false pretext”, something he said which has “long been regarded as illegal by the overwhelming weight of international opinion”.
Despite criticism, the Chilcot report, which rejects Blair’s case for war, offers plenty of reasons to set up a war crimes tribunal to try Blair. A family member of a British soldier killed in Iraq described Blair on Wednesday as the world’s worst terrorist. She was right. The Blair’s war not only led to the deaths of 179 British soldiers but also some 1,455,590 Iraqis, according to a count maintained by the Informarionclearinghouse.info website.
Launching a war without a valid reason is a crime against humanity. According to the Nuremberg trial judgment, war is essentially an evil thing. It says the consequences of war are not confined to the belligerent states alone, but affect the whole world. “To initiate a war of aggression… is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”
More than a million people marched in London to stop the illegal war Blair together with Bush was to launch while legal experts said the UN Security Council resolution 1441 which the war party in America cited as authorising war was not adequate and pointed out any use of force required a fresh security council resolution in terms of Chapter 7 of the UN charter. The Chilcot report now confirms this view. It says the Cabinet simply rubber stamped Blair’s decision to invade Iraq and none asked whether what they were doing was legal under international law. The then Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, when called upon to provide his opinion twice sent his opinion saying the United Nations would have to pass a new resolution authorising the war – but Blair did not share this view with his Cabinet. However, mysteriously the Attorney General changed his mind days before the invasion, allowing Blair to wage the war.
The Chilcot report notes that none in the Cabinet bothered to call for a written submission from the Attorney General on why he changed his mind.
In the build-up to the war, Blair, who was derided by antiwar critics as the lapdog of Bush who planned the attack on Iraq, presented a dossier telling Britons that Saddam Hussein could assemble his weapons of mass destruction within 45 minutes and launch an attack on Britain. This was dismissed as a damn lie even before the war began. Antiwar researchers pointed out that the dossier was not based on intelligence but on a thesis of an Egyptian student.
United Nations weapons inspector Scott Ritter who supervised Iraq’s destruction of WMDs from 1991 to 1998 insisted that Iraq had virtually destroyed all its WMDs. But Bush and Blair paid no heed to what he said. British Defence Ministry weapon scientist David Kelly leaked information to BBC claiming that the government was manufacturing intelligence to support its claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Days later he was found dead. Bush and Blair deliberately misinterpreted reports of weapon inspectors Hans Blix and Mohammed El-Baradi to suit their war agenda.
In the end, the war party did not find a single WMD in Iraq. Instead Bush and Blair brought death and destruction to Iraq and the Middle East. It was because of their war Iraq was plunged into sectarian violence and the terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) emerged to bring chaos across the globe. If not for this genocidal war, those 250 Iraqis who were killed in this week’s pre-Eid bomb blast in Baghdad and the 20 foreigners killed in the Dhaka café would have been alive along with millions of other dead. So would have been the 40 who died in the Istanbul airport attack, the 49 who were gunned down in the Orlando night club carnage and those innocent civilians killed in terror attacks in Paris and Belgium. ISIS would not have taken control of parts of Iraq and Syria and 250,000 Syrians would not have been killed, while the Arab Spring would have brought real democracy to the Middle East.
Now that the Chilcot report is out offering a prima facie case against Blair, Britain’s reputation as a vibrant democracy nourished by the mother of all parliaments depends on the action it takes on Blair.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Human rights: The force and the farce

By Ameen Izzadeen
The United Nations Human Rights Council is in session. As expected it is assuming the moral high ground to name and shame those countries that have violated human rights and humanitarian laws. Largely at the butt end of UN censure are politically isolated countries or countries that wield little or no power in the international arena. Among those paraded as suspects in the highest human rights assembly is Sri Lanka. Slapped with a long-war-crime charge sheet, Sri Lanka has, since the end of the 30-year war in 2009, got itself entangled in a UNHRC gauntlet and finds itself in the company of international pariahs such as Syria and South Sudan.
Sri Lanka got into this mess largely through its own doing and mishandling of the UNHRC process. Remember it was the Rajapaksa government which permitted the UN Secretary General to internationalise the accountability process. Not only that, it then went on to confront the United States and the West in the erroneous belief that by allying itself with China it could frustrate any international attempt to punish Sri Lanka on account of its alleged war crimes. Little did Sri Lanka realise that in international politics, power is a key factor. A country should assess its power before it ventures out to challenge another country. One of the first lessons Machiavelli learnt as an ambassador, when his small city state, Florence, was ridiculed at the court of Louis XII, was that in the game of politics, economic and military power held sway. A country that wields power sets the agenda. It can kill and still emerge as the saint of saints to preach to other countries the virtues of human rights and the importance of upholding humanitarian laws and the rules of warfare.
Where was Sri Lanka in this global power equation when it set out in 2012 to challenge the powerful nations at the UNHRC? We were just like Machiavelli’s Florence – Ser Nihilo or Mr. Nothing. If a country does not wield the power to prevail over the rest of the world, then it should adopt the next best policy – call it cooperation or paying pooja to the very powers that are gunning for you. Well this is what the present government is doing, after the previous regime, counting on the political support of China, in what could be regarded as Sri Lanka’s biggest foreign policy faux pas, dared to challenge the US and the European Union
As a result of this policy correction, Sri Lanka heaved a sigh of relief on Tuesday when United Nations Human Rights High Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein presented his oral submissions to the UNHRC sessions, without calling for any punitive measures in lieu of Sri Lanka’s lack of progress in inquiring into allegations of war crimes.
From the point of view of power, the issue of human rights has a political aspect. To escape censure for human rights violations, all that a country has to do is to have the right ally or allies: In Sri Lanka’s case, it has now rightfully chosen the United States and its Western allies, which are seen as human rights champions, though their conduct in the wars they wage may paint a different picture. However, it is a political liability for a country to ally itself with a country that itself is accused of violating human rights, however powerful the ally is. This was what happened to Sri Lanka when it allied itself with China and Russia.
The bottom line is there is nothing called human rights in dirty international politics. It is all sheer power. The rich and powerful get away with blue murder, while the weak without the right connections when they violate human rights have the rich and the powerful pouncing on them. Incidentally, this allows them to cover their own sins. Should we remind ourselves of how the West had, for 52 long years, pampered the white supremacist regime of South Africa, of how the then US President Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly remarked in 1939 that Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza, one of history’s most ruthless dictators, “may be a son of a bitch, but still he is our son of a bitch,” or of how the West justifies the horrendous crimes of Israel in occupied Palestine?
When some developing nations — like Malaysia under the legendary Mahathir Mohamad — argue that human rights should be viewed from the point of view of cultural or moral relativism, according to which the limits of human freedom are determined by the culture or moral values of a given society, the West insists human rights are universal. But when the rich and powerful commit human rights violations or use cluster bombs they call it a necessary evil for the greater good of the greater numbers. But politically weaker nations have no luxury to say this and get away.
If this double standard was conspicuous and shameful, the United Nations Secretary General’s recent action — under threat — to delist Saudi Arabia from a list of nations and groups committing war crimes against children can be the peak of ignominy.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, whose 10-year term expires in December, caved into pressure when Saudi Arabia warned the world body that it would withdraw millions of dollars in humanitarian funding if it was not removed from the annex to the UN’s annual report on children and armed conflict.
One Asian diplomat told veteran UN correspondent Thalif Deen, on condition of anonymity, “The credibility of the United Nations has been undermined…. Ban Ki-moon should be inducted into a UN Hall of Shame.”
According to a UN report released earlier this month, the Saudi-led coalition was responsible for nearly 60 percent of child deaths and injuries in the Yemen conflict last year, killing 510 and wounding 667.
When confronted by journalists, Ban said, “I’m Chief Administrative Officer of this Organisation. I have to take care and consider so many crises happening at the same time.” He said the decision to backtrack on the list was “quite painful for me” but that he “had to make a decision just to keep all United Nations operations, particularly humanitarian operations, continuing.”
What has the United States, the co-sponsor of the Sri Lanka Resolution at the UNHRC, done to condemn the Secretary General’s cowardice? Virtually nothing. When a journalist posed the question, Mark C. Toner, deputy spokesperson for the State Department, said, “Look, I’m not going to second-guess the UN’s decision and the secretary-general’s decision. It’s up to him to explain and defend his rationale for doing so.”
Well, this was not the only occasion that Ban, under pressure, has removed a country from the blacklist. Last year, he removed Israel from the list. This he did after he came under pressure from the United States, which protects Israel whether it is right or wrong. Ban apparently feared that the US which in 2011 withdrew funding for UNESCO in retaliation for the agency’s recognition of Palestine as a full member, would take similar action.
So money talks, Mr. Secretary General. A country’s economic power or political influence is much weightier than the United Nations’ commitment to human rights.
So whom are we deceiving by the thrice-a-year UNHRC circus in Geneva? If the rich, the powerful and those with the right connections can bully their way out of blacklists after committing war crimes, then why pursue other countries? We are not calling for the dissolution of the United Nations or its human rights council. We call for a uniform human rights code and an end to the farce.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Refugees: Feel their pain and hear them weep

By Ameen Izzadeen
Why do some people fear or dislike refugees? Why are they xenophobic? Isn’t harbouring ill-feelings towards fellow human beings inhuman, especially at a time when they are in misery and going through hardships?
These questions loom large against the backdrop of rising xenophobia in Europe and the United States, and revelations this week by the United Nations that the earth is at present carrying the recorded history’s biggest refugee population – 65 million. The shocking figure includes 41 million internally displaced people due to wars and conflicts but excludes 19 million people displaced by natural disasters. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is unable to cope with the rising refugee numbers while relief organisations are overwhelmed. With many affluent nations, towards which thousands of refugees continue their march, closing their borders and taking other measures to stem the flow, the UN now seeks to turn its annual General Assembly sessions in September into a world refugee summit.
The refugees on the run include those fleeing the wars in Syria and Iraq and the conflicts in Afghanistan, South Sudan, Nigeria, Libya and Somalia. Not to mention nearly two million Palestinian refugees who have been languishing in refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank for the past 70 years or so. This week, Iraq’s war against the terror group ISIS in Fallujah and Mosul created more than 100,000 displaced people.
On Saturday, during a visit to Lesbos, the Greek island where thousands of asylum seekers arrive before they struggle towards affluent European nations, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon denounced “border closures, barriers and bigotry”. He implored European leaders to stop treating refugees as criminals and start the process to resettle more refugees.
Pope Francis in a prophetic plea last week said, “We are bombarded by so many images that we see pain, but do not touch it; we hear weeping, but do not comfort it; we see thirst but do not satisfy it. All those human lives turn into one more news story. While the headlines may change, the pain, the hunger and the thirst remain.”
As hostility toward migrants and refugees surges in Western countries, the European Union has shown signs of fracturing over the refugee influx, with the issue taking centre stage during debates that took place in the run up to yesterday’s British referendum where voters decided whether to remain in the EU or leave.
Why cannot countries open their borders and welcome refugees? After all, they are fellow members of the human race. When there are no racial, cultural or linguistic barriers to love or sex between two human beings, what prevents us from achieving the unity of mankind?
Sociologists may come up with several theories to answer questions on xenophobia, but the search for the unity of mankind remains elusive. Former United States President Bill Clinton told a US talk show in 2014 that an alien invasion “may be the only way to unite this increasingly divided world of ours”. But the answer lies not in an external threat but within us. We need to break artificial political and cultural barriers – and move towards the world order that existed prior to the 19th century nation-state, before which no visa was required to travel from country to country.
The concept of nation-states, perhaps the root cause of present day xenophobia over refugees, took root in Europe as a response to the uneasiness of accommodating diversity. So they combined the cultural boundaries of a ‘nation’ with the political boundaries of a ‘state’ to create what came to be known in political jargon as the nation-state.
Though post-World War II Europe has made strides towards liberal values, it has not completely freed itself from the yoke of the nation-state. Whatever took place in terms of accommodation of “migrants” apparently was largely due to economic factors. The first influx of migrants was the army of cheap labour: In Germany, the Turks — and in Britain, France, the Netherlands and other European countries the people from their former colonies in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean.
Yesterday’s referendum in Britain was perhaps a move towards returning to the nation-state shell, with warts and all. It appears that a sense of panic over a refugee invasion – some identify it as Islamophobia or the fear of Islam — has beset a majority of the people in the US and Europe. Their fear of fellow human beings has reached such ridiculous proportions that it has become easy for hate-mongering politicians to rise to the threshold of power. In the US, it is Donald Trump. In Britain, it is the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in Germany, it is Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West); in Austria, the Freedom Party; and in France, the National Front led by Marine Le Pen, who faced hate speech charges last year after she compared Muslims praying in the streets to the Nazi occupation.
Little do they realise or acknowledge that the past and present actions and policies of the US and Europe have led to the crises that have driven millions of people out of their homes and villages. The US, European nations and their oil rich Arab allies were responsible for the wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere.
Yet these countries are not in the least bothered about the plight of the refugees. The closest US shore is more than a safe distance away across the vast Atlantic Ocean. Saudi Arabia and other affluent Arab states won’t open their doors to refugees fully, while, ironically, fleeing Syrians and Iraqis see the Islamophobic West as a far better refuge than Islamic Arabia.
The US has the power to end these wars and bring peace that will in turn bring the refugees home. If not self or selfish reasons, what is preventing this great nation from doing so?
If the countries that have the power to end wars do not use that power to do so, they not only renounce their responsibility as civilised nations but also become accomplices in the crime of creating refugees – the crime of heaping misery upon misery on a people who, just the day before the war started, had everything in life.
The Syrian refugee fleeing the conflict had a home of his own, a family, a job and access to health services and other basic necessities. His children went to school and had a dream of becoming scientists, doctors, judges and journalists.
But, alas, when the war broke out and bombs and missiles destroyed neighbourhood after neighbourhood, his family escaped to Turkey, where he paid all his life’s saving to people smugglers to undertake the dangerous journey in a rubber dinghy to reach the Greek island of Lesbos across the Mediterranean Sea that has become a watery grave for thousands of people, including the four-year-old Aylan Khurdi. His children have no school to go now. But he now learns from the UN report that about 100,000 children who are in search of a safe haven in Europe have no parents or are separated from their parents. Reports say an increasing number of children are sexually abused by predators and paedophiles in refugee camps. All that the refugee wants is a place to start life anew. Certainly the misery-driven refugee is not a missionary with a mission to Islamise Europe.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Orlando terror: The answer is blowing in the wind

By Ameen Izzadeen
A deranged mind and easy accessibility to guns form a lethal combination. What has religion got to do with mass killings such as last Sunday’s Orlando massacre? Terrorists or killers have no religion. Killing innocent people is not religion.
Several questions are being raised following last Saturday night’s horrendous massacre at the Pulse night club frequented by the LGBT community in Orlando: Does Islam tell its followers to kill gays; was the massacre an act of terrorism or a hate crime? Should gun laws be tightened?
Islam does not command Muslims to kill gays, though the Quran, just as the Old Testament does, citing the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, describes homosexuality as ’fahishah’ or an abomination and urges Muslims to shun it. But there is accommodation and even special status as far as the transgender community—mukhannathun — is concerned.
Mass shooting takes place almost on a daily basis in the United States where gun violence has killed 288 people in 182 incidents so far this year and had killed 475 people in 372 incidents last year. But when a gun crime is committed by a Muslim, its news value rises and it is given a political twist by the corporate media. This is not so much in view of the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential candidate Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim stunts, but more on account of the United States’ half-hearted war on terror. It should be noted here that Timothy McVeigh who killed 168 people in Oklahoma City in 1995, Anders Behring Brevic who killed 77 youths in Norway in 2011 and US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales who gunned down 16 civilians including nine children in Afghanistan were not associated with a religion.
Orlando mass murderer Omar Mateen’s declaration of allegiance to the terror group Islamic State (ISIS), which he is said to have made during a phone call while he was killing people, raises many questions but provides no answer to why he did what he did. Details that are emerging of the killer appear to be contradictory. He was an Islamist and gay; religious and a drunkard; anti-gay and not so religious. He was questioned twice for suspected terrorist links but he raised no alarms when he bought the AR-15 type rifle and a handgun some ten days before the horror. The security lapse had a chilling resemblance to the 2013 Boston bombing. The Boston bomber was regularly interviewed by FBI agents, but still he managed to set off two pressure cooker bombs, killing three people in April 2013.
There is a lot of ammunition for conspiracy theorists to fire with in the Orlando massacre.
Already Trump has seized on the opportunity to accuse President Obama of hiding something. Trump told Fox TV: “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind—you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.”
For Trump, radical Islam is the reason why Mateen, an American-born Muslim, killed 49 people in a carnage described as the worst gun violence in US history. Trying to make political capital out of the Orlando carnage, the anti-Muslim hate monger ripped President Obama and Democratic Party presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton for avoiding the term “radical Islam” in their condemnation of the bloodbath.
But the issue is not the Obama-Trump clash. It is about terrorism, gun violence, the Middle Eastern crisis and the bizarre intelligence failure.
Radical Islam, some may say is different and dangerous. But violence and radical Islam form a different combination which cannot be understood in isolation as it is steeped in geopolitics, socio-economic injustices, oppression and aggression. The people of the Middle East see the United States and Israel as the cause of the misery, mayhem and millions of deaths in the region. The failure of any Arab ruler to emerge as a leader worthy of being followed has enabled extremists like Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to turn Islam upside down and mislead tens thousands of youths. It is to their ideology that Trump refers to as radical Islam.
The term radical Islam is a misnomer. Being a radical is a virtue, for one has to be a radical to change the world for the better. Being a radical does not mean being violent. Socrates was a radical, for he stirred the people and urged them to question the corrupt moral order.
Linking terrorism with Islam is a distraction from the main issues. Islam has existed for the past 1,400 years, but the words radical Islam and Islamic terrorism are of recent origin. The Islamists who fought the West’s war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s were not called terrorists or radical Islamists. Demonising Islam began with the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The end of the Cold War in 1991 brought about a new situation where the US found it had no enemy to justify its global domination. It was at this juncture, the new bogey – the so-called Islamic terrorism – surfaced, giving the United States the much-needed excuse to expand its military presence not only in the Middle East, but also in Eastern Europe and Central Asia.
But the war against the enemy does not appear to be a determined one. The ground reality indicates there are wheels within wheels. For instance, in Syria, the ISIS is both a friend and a foe – friend when ISIS fights Bashar al-Assad, foe when it carries out terrorist attacks in the West. Not to mention the alleged links Washington’s Middle Eastern allies maintain with ISIS in the hope that it is the only group capable of defeating Assad. The so-called global war against terrorism smacks of multi-level deception of George Orwell’s 1984 proportions.
As a result of the never-ending US military campaigns around the world, homeland security has become a major issue. But the bigger worry should not be homegrown terrorists but the fact that the people are becoming increasingly desensitised to violence and human suffering. There is little condemnation in the US of civilian deaths in drone attacks, of extrajudicial killings or of a secretary of state who justified the deaths of half a million Iraqi children as a price worth paying. Adding to this dehumanisation process is Hollywood. Statistics show almost 90 percent of Hollywood movies had at least one gun fight. “The gun is the leading character in the blockbuster Hollywood film,” says filmmaker Abigail Disney, whose new documentary “The Armor of Light” depicts an evangelical minister’s journey to preaching against gun violence. “The Gun brings in more in box office than George Clooney, Chris Prattle or Quentin Tarantino could ever hope to generate.”
The Orlando massacre has once again kindled the debate on tight gun laws. So did the Sandy Hook Elementary school massacre in 2012. But no sooner the memorials for the victims are over than the issue is put back into the holster.
(This article first appeared the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka).

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