Media freedom: The good, the bad and the ugly

By Ameen Izzadeen
How free are Sri Lanka’s media and how responsible are they socially? Experts, media activists and senior journalists expressed their views within the scope of this question at a landmark symposium to mark the 20th anniversary of the Colombo Declaration on Media Freedom and Social Responsibility. The 1998 declaration is a milestone in Sri Lanka’s media history. It paved the way for the abolition of the draconian and archaic criminal defamation law which had been misused by the powers-that-be to intimidate and penalise journalists. It also led to the setting up of the Press Complaints Commission of Sri Lanka, a non-statutory body promoting self-regulation.
Another of the 1998 Declaration’s achievements was the passage of the Right to Information Act. Despite its few flaws, this piece of legislation is regarded as one of the best RTI laws in the world and it, indeed, has empowered the citizens, though much needs to be done to explain its benefits to grassroots level people who are being lied to and misled by unscrupulous politicians and bureaucrats.
However, the 1998 Declaration’s two key aims remain unfulfilled. One of them is the abolition of the Press Council Law, under which a government-appointed Press Council operates to address the grievances of those who are wronged or defamed by the Press. The council can initiate legal action against a newspaper or magazine if, in its opinion, the newspaper or the magazine has defamed someone. This is a good arrangement, only as long as the council maintains its independence. But the issue is there is room for interference and abuse. Self-regulation activists say their opposition to the Press Council is based on the provision that the Council has the power to jail journalists and publishers.
A free press is a key feature in a vibrant democracy, where self-regulation by the press itself is preferred to regulate media freedom rather than a government-imposed and politically manoeuvrable mechanism. Perhaps, some Sri Lankan political leaders out of sync with democratic values and enlightened principles see in the Press Council Law an instrument to gag the media. Or, perhaps, the Press Council Law is still relevant in the absence of a rule to make membership in and compliance with the industry-led self-regulation mechanism – the PCCSL — compulsory for registration as a newspaper or a magazine. At present, the PCCSL membership is voluntary, and most mainstream newspapers and periodicals have voluntarily subscribed to its rulings and accepted the Editors’ Guild’s code of practice. But there are those which still have not. Years ago, a mainstream popular Sunday newspaper withdrew its recognition of the PCCSL following a trivial dispute.
The Colombo Declaration’s other key objective is the enactment of contempt of court legislation. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, in his speech at Thursday’s ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1998 Declaration, said, “We can go into the contempt of court issue. We need legislation but we have to remember there are other stakeholders — including the judiciary. We have to work together with judiciary and Parliament. We need laws on contempt. I don’t think it’s impossible. The Parliament oversight committee on the judiciary can also go into it but this requires extensive consultation.”
The sooner this law is enacted the better it is for Sri Lanka’s democracy, given the surge in contempt cases in recent months and years, and also given the need to insulate judges from allegations of judicial dictatorship.
Another key area that drew much discussion at last week’s symposium was the possibility of extending the self-regulation mechanism to electronic media and online media, which, at present, virtually have a free run, with some of them enjoying the freedom of the proverbial wild ass. The symposium was told that the Norwegian media have adopted such an all-encompassing self-regulation mechanism.
The symposium also saw some media activists turning the searchlight inward to express their disgust at sections of the media which abuse the new found media freedom after the 2015 change of government.
Journalism may be one of the best of vocations and may be hailed as the voice of the voiceless and the watchdog or the fourth estate to monitor the government’s actions. But there are good journalists, bad journalists, evil journalists and those masquerading as journalists.
Good journalism is largely an ideal concept and there are only a few who sincerely strive to practice it. Bad journalism manifests when media practitioners lack professionalism. Evil or ugly journalism is found when journalists become pawns of politicians and businesses. There is no harm in a media outlet supporting a particular politician or political party, provided it openly declares its endorsement of the politician or the political party.
It is not ethical journalism when we bash the guy whom we hate or with whom we have some personal disputes and cover it up with a public interest label. If journalists resort to skullduggery like politicians, and twist and turn news to promote the agendas of politicians, political parties or businesses, then they are qualified to be called ‘presstitutes’.
Journalist and worker rights activist John Swinton (1829-1901), who worked for the New York Times and, later, other publications, described such journalists as intellectual prostitutes.
Of such intellectual prostitutes, he said:
“The business of the journalists is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of mammon, and to sell his country and his race for his daily bread. You know it and I know it, and what folly is this toasting an independent press?
“We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping jacks, they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”
Journalists who are embedded to a political agenda or to a businessman to make money through backdoor channels only produce bastardised news.
People with high media literacy can spot such crooks in journalism. But how many of us are taken for a ride daily by stories planted by unscrupulous journalists?
In journalism, we say dog does not eat dog, but we are duty bound to expose the scoundrels among us, for our silence in the face of blatant deterioration of professional standards and ethics is tantamount to endorsement of foul journalism.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Maldives: Democracy restored, but more to be done

By Ameen Izzadeen
The Maldivian people have spoken loud and clear. There is no place in democracy for an autocrat. The humiliating defeat was overwhelming, for he lost in the first round of the presidential poll. The problem with democracy is that if often produces autocrats and even dictators like Adolf Hitler. It enables eccentrics like Donald Trump and war mongers like George W. Bush to become Presidents of the United States, the world’s most vibrant democracy.
But in the United States, the system is provided with checks and balances for politicians to play the power games within the confines of the Constitution and the democratic framework. The Robert Mueller investigations into alleged Russian moves to prop up Trump and Moscow’s alleged links with the Trump team during the 2016 election campaign and the numerous oversight committees in the Congress underline the safeguards embedded to the system. In the US, there is little room for politicians to abuse political power. If they do, the system follows them, exposes them and penalizes them. Strengthening the rule-based political order in the US is a media culture that has produced courageous journalists. Through their investigative journalism, they have brought the downfall of many politicians, including Presidents.
True, only those who live in a fool’s paradise will expect a young democracy such as the Maldives to manifest the features of a powerful democracy like the United States. But one cannot dismiss the Maldivian constitution as inadequate or weak. The 2008 constitution – the country’s sixth — was adopted after a long process of deliberation and input from constitutional experts, including foreign experts. During the constitution-making process, there were cries and protests from pro-democracy activists and opponents of the then President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom over clauses which they thought could be misused by a Government in power to distort the people’s verdict or to act against the spirit of democracy.
The Maldivian democracy may not be as vibrant as that of the US, but its constitution is as good as that of the US. The problem is not with the constitution but with the guardians of the Constitution. Even a bad constitution can be good, if implemented in the true spirit of democracy. Similarly, a good constitution can turn bad in the hands of power-hungry people. Perhaps it was the weakness of the system – not the constitution – that made an autocrat out of Yameen. If democracy in the Maldives is to be strengthened, institutions such as the judiciary, the public service and the police should be insulated from political interference and their independence should be fiercely protected.
The tiny archipelago of some 350,000 people has seen in its post-independence history many political upheavals. More so, after it became a multi-party democracy in 2008.
In the 2011-12, political crisis, President Mohamed Nasheed, who won the country’s first multi-party elections after the 2008 reforms, was forced to sign his resignation letter at gun point and he had to find refuge in the Indian High Commission. The coup d’état saw Nasheed’s deputy Waheed Hassen taking over as president.
A wild card entry into the Maldivian presidential election race in 2013 after Gayoom’s retirement, Yameen – who is Gayoom’s half-brother — contested on the Progressive Party of the Maldives ticket but won only 25 percent of the votes, far behind top runner and former President Mohamed Nasheed who won 45 percent of the votes during the first round. However, Yameen narrowly managed to beat Nasheed in the runoff.
During Yameen’s rule, the judiciary had been under constant attack. Even the Chief Justice was arrested after he ordered the government to release political prisoners in a February 2018 ruling and also declared the arrest of former President Mohamed Nasheed unconstitutional. A new chief justice appointed by the president later reversed the order, making the judiciary a mockery under Yameen. Yameen also declared a state of emergency and ordered the armed forces to resist any attempt to impeach or remove him. He even ordered the arrest of former President Gayoom, his political mentor.
Usually, an autocracy is also a kleptocracy. Like Sri Lanka, the Maldives is no exception. In weak democracies such as ours, corruption is deep-seated and the law is applied only selectively. In covering up the theft, the rulers think the people can be mesmerised with showpiece development. In the Maldives’ case, Yameen, with Chinese aid, built the country’s first causeway linking the capital with the airport, new ports and several resorts.
But behind these white elephants was corruption. Al Jazeera, in a series of investigative documentaries, exposed the Maldives’ mega corruption under Yameen’s rule. One documentary exposed how US$ 79 million was siphoned off from the country’s tourism revenue by people connected to the ruling party. It showed secret camera recordings of those involved in the scandal boasting about how they carried bundles of dollars in black bags all the way to the President’s house. Yameen denied the allegations.
Yameen’s autocracy grew under the charade of showpiece development against the backdrop of an emerging cold war in the Indian Ocean region. Nasheed was seen as pro-India. His government let an Indian company manage the Maldives’ main international airport. Yameen was seen to be pro-China and, lately, pro-Saudi, too. Probably because of the China connection, the Yameen regime had the courage to tell India to mind its own business when New Delhi expressed concern over the arrest of Nasheed in 2015, and was not ruffled a bit when the Commonwealth suspended the Maldives’ membership due to the erosion of good governance. In another boorish move, he severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 after Saudi Arabia and its some of its Arab allies did so.
He became arrogant and his hubris was his downfall. He could not coax or cajole the election commission, which stood as the last hope of a democracy-loving people.
In the rise and fall of Yameen, there is a lesson for Sunday’s winner – president-elect Ibrahim Solih — contesting from Nasheed’s Maldivian Democratic Party. A long time MP, he was seen to be a moderator in the crisis-ridden Maldivian politics and loved for his calm demeanor. The Maldivian people have shown their political maturity by overthrowing an autocrat and placing their faith in democracy. The challenge before the president-elect, fondly called Ibu, is not only to restore democracy and constitutional rule, but also to chart a middle path in the Maldives’ foreign policy to stay clear of the emerging cold war politics in the region.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Oslo, 25 years on: Peace in tatters!

By Ameen Izzadeen
Shalom, Salaam, peace: Twenty-five years ago, these words reverberated in the White House lawn and were flashed across the front pages of newspapers worldwide, as the adversaries became partners of peace to sign what was then hailed as the peace deal of the century.
On September 13, 1993, President Bill Clinton facilitated a handshake between Israel’s then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat after they placed their signatures on an agreement which was reached after painstaking secret talks facilitated by Norway. Peace at last in the Middle East, thought the peace-loving people, heaving a sigh of relief.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall enter the Kingdom of God: The land that witnessed Jesus Christ proclaim these words would no longer see bloodshed, peace zealots thought and wondered whether the time had come to beat swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruninghooks and whether the era had dawned when a nation would not lift up sword against another nation.
Alas! A quarter century later, the Oslo deal exists largely on paper. Even before the white paper on which the agreement was typed turned yellow, the agreement suffered blow after blow. Within years, the much hailed Oslo deal was dumped in the dustbin of history by hardliners opposed to peace; by the arms dealers who profit from wars, by the Zionists who dream of setting up an exclusively Jewish state in the whole of Palestine by expelling all the non-Jews; and by the American neoconservatives who are hand-in-glove with the Zionist lobby.
Jurists may insist that Pacta sunt servanda or agreements must be kept, but who cares when hardline and peace-allergic Israeli regimes are given protection by the world’s mightiest nation, the United States of America. Encouraged by the continuous US support, the Zionist nation commits war crimes and walks free among the civilised nations. Washington’s mollycoddling of Israel undermines the US Constitution which is nourished by the founders’ ideals of justice, peace and morality. The US action is tantamount to aiding and abetting Goliath to oppress a helpless people crying for freedom and condemned to statelessness.
If Israel had adhered to the Oslo deal in spirit and letter, a Palestinian state would have been set up in five years. In 1979, that is 14 years before the Oslo deal was signed, Israel and Egypt signed the Camp David agreement, in terms of which, Israel was expected to take measures to end its occupation of Palestine. If Israel had not observed the Camp David agreement in the breach, a Palestinian state would have long become a reality, US President Jimmy Carter who facilitated the Camp David talks, later observed in his book, ‘Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid’.
In terms of the Oslo deal, which gave the Nobel Peace Prize to Rabin, Shimon Peres who was the then Israeli foreign Minister, and Arafat, the occupied West Bank was to be divided into Zones A,B and C. Israel was to pull out completely from the Gaza Strip and the Zone A. The security of the Zone B was to be the joint responsibility of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority to be set up, while Israel would be in charge of the security of the Zone C until a final agreement was reached. In terms of the Oslo deal, the thorny issues such as the final status of Jerusalem, the Palestinian refugees’ right to return, the Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian lands, and the borders of the two states were to be discussed within five years. The arrangement gave Israel 80 percent of the control in the West Bank, while the Palestinian got a glorified local authority called the Palestinian Authority.
The Oslo deal was conceived at a time when the Palestinians were at a point of despair. They were battered in whichever country they had found refuge –in Jordan, they were butchered and in Lebanon, they were massacred. By 1987 Palestinian youths were sick and tired of being labelled as terrorists for launching a freedom struggle, just as many liberation movements had done during the fight against European colonialism. They began an uprising – called Intifada in Arabic – in December 1987. It lasted until the 1991 Madrid Conference, which, for the first time, brought a Palestinian delegation stuffed into a Jordanian delegation face to face with an Israeli delegation. The Intifada — during which 1,500 Palestinians, including some 300 children, died — spurred the Oslo-mediated secret talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, while adding pressure on world powers to intensify diplomatic efforts to find a solution.
During this crucial period, Arafat and the PLO denounced terrorism and recognised Israel’s right to exist, key conditions Israel and the US had placed for direct talks.
Rabin was a willing partner for peace and wanted to give peace a chance. Arafat appeared pragmatic and agreed to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, as had been recognised by the United Nations Security Council resolutions 242 and 338.
But the peace haters scuttled the deal. Four months after the deal, a Zionist extremist massacred worshippers at the Hebron mosque which houses the grave of Abraham, the father of both the Arabs and the Jews. Despite this blow, the peace process led to the September 28, 1995 Taba agreement, also known as Oslo II Accord. Months later, the peace process suffered its biggest blow. On November 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish hardliner.
His death only increased the resolve of the peace lovers to push the peace process forward. President Clinton made hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to sit with Arafat and sign the Wye River Agreement in 1998. Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush set up the Middle East Peace Quartet comprising the US, Russia, the European Union and the UN to salvage the peace process. In the meantime, Arafat died in November 2004, allegedly after he was exposed to radioactive polonium poisoning.
President Barack Obama made valiant efforts to beat the odds and revive the peace process. But Israel’s intransigence and the shrewdness of placing more conditions and pushing the goal post further each time the Palestinians reach it prevented any resurrection of the peace process.
In the present US President Donald Trump, Israeli hardliners have found a willing peace killer. Trump has undone decades of hard work that went into the peace process. In May this year, he recognised Jerusalem as the undisputed capital of Israel in violation of international law and last month he stopped US humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian refugees. Till Trump is ousted, the peace process will remain comatose.

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Threat to world court: Trump provokes emergence of dangerous world order

By Ameen Izzadeen
Months after United States troops invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, Mazar-i-Sharif earned the notoriety as the city of torture and extrajudicial killings, quite at variance with its worldwide fame as the city of Islamic and Hellenic architectural glory.
It was also as paradoxical as it is shocking, for at the centre of the torture allegations was the United States, a country which till the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on New York and Washington DC had been seen to be championing human rights and democracy worldwide.
At the Mazar-i-Sharif prison, it is alleged that hundreds of detainees were subjected to severe forms of torture. Many died there or were taken to the nearby desert and killed. ‘Massacre at Mazar’ was a name of a documentary Scots film producer Jamie Doran made. It was shown in the Reichstag, the German parliament building in Berlin and the European parliament in Strasbourg in July 2002. What the documentary had exposed was corroborated by a report the US Human Rights Group, Physicians for Human Rights, had released the same year. (https://www.scotsman.com/news/world/us-had-role-in-taleban-prisoner-deaths-1-609624).
The then US government advocated a culture of impunity, supporting even forms of torture such as waterboarding to elicit information from terror suspects, while a majority of US citizens, not in a proper state of mind after the shock of the 9/11, remained silent. Their silence was licence for the George W. Bush administration to commit human rights violations in total disregard for international humanitarian laws and laws on warfare.
The ugly truth behind the US-led war on terror is that the US has committed war crimes and the US will not allow an international tribunal or another nation to bring US war crime suspects to justice. Now whatever the faults of the US, since World War II ended, the rest of the world looked to it for global leadership.
If leadership implies followership, the example the US sets with regard to the issue of war crimes only gives rise to a dangerous trend. Already, with a maverick president in the White House, the international order is fast hurtling towards chaos because of US misbehavior.
In yet another outlandish move, on Monday, the White House National Security Advisor, John Bolton, sounded like a bully to warn International Criminal Court judges, prosecutors and investigators that they would face sanctions and even arrest, if the world court took action to prosecute US soldiers for alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan.
Bolton, a neoconservative hawk, said to be one of the architects of the United States’ illegal invasion of Iraq, has many a time in the past spoken contemptuously about international diplomacy which he has slammed as an affront to the US sovereignty. He once infamously said if the United Nations building in New York “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.” Such was his scorn for the UN, though President Bush appointed him as the US ambassador to the UN.
Bolton’s full-scale attack on the ICC is not surprising. That his remarks had the backing of President Trump, who is equally contemptuous about international systems, is also not surprising. After all, Trump, claiming that climate change was a hoax invented by China, had withdrawn the US from the Paris climate deal, the United Nations Human Rights Council and has threatened to end the US membership in the World Trade Organisation.
The ICC was set up in 2002 after years of negotiations in Rome and elsewhere. The talks were held at a time when a new world order was emerging after the end of the Cold War. It was a period, when the sole superpower, the US, had been urged to play its global leadership role responsibly — and more significantly, it was a period when consensus was being built up for an international world order based on respect for and strict adherence to human rights. This was because the international community was feeling guilty of not taking effective action to stop genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. Giving leadership to this campaign was the European Union — with the US wavering, its eyes wide opened and mind fully occupied with the possible consequences if the Rome Statue was to become a reality, especially with regard to its military plans.
Though the Bill Clinton administration was somewhat agreeable to the Rome process in principle, the Bush administration, hell bent on launching the neoconservative-scripted wars on nations, was totally opposed to the idea of setting up an international court to try war crimes. The Congress hurriedly passed the American Service-Members’ Protection Act to undermine the universal jurisdiction of the ICC. Washington also began signing bilateral agreements with other nations, preventing them from taking American soldiers to the ICC or trying them for war crimes in domestic courts.
Even before the 9/11, the US had not been a great respecter of international humanitarian laws or world court judgments. Should we remind ourselves of the US atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the use of Agent Orange chemical weapons in Viet Nam and the use of cancer-causing depleted uranium in Fallujah, Iraq? In 1984, the US refused to obey an International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling which found Washington guilty of placing sea mines in Nicaragua’s waters. Then in 2003, it invaded Iraq in what was later described by the then United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan as an illegal war.
On the one hand, alarmed by what it sees as China’s aggressive behaviour or assertive diplomacy with regard to disputed islands in the South China Sea, the US calls for a ruled-based word order. But on the other hand, feeling no compunction, it flouts international norms and shakes the foundation of international law, painstakingly wrought through decades or centuries by nations which wished to solve disputes through diplomacy rather than bloodshed. Such double standards indicate that rules are only for less powerful nations, while big powers can do whatever they think is right or wrong to further their national interests.
Some may justify such duplicity as part of power politics. But they need to realise that it will only lead to an anarchical global order, where human rights violations and war crimes will be non-issues, with Hitlerite dictators having a field day.
While, under Trump, the US has squandered its moral right to the mantle of global leadership, China which is gradually replacing the US as the number one world power, is not interested in promoting human rights or democracy. Perhaps, the only silver lining is the EU, but its outreach is limited. Need we say more about the evolving world order? The sooner the Americans unseat Trump the better it is not only for them, but also for the rest of the world.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Watergate hero Woodward drops bombshell on Trump

By Ameen Izzadeen
In two weeks, world leaders will gather in New York for the annual sessions of the United Nations General Assembly. They need to put away diplomatic niceties and pluck up courage to right the wrongs of United States President Donald Trump – a man, who is being described by his own staff as a moron, a joker and a dangerous man to run a country, if we were to go by the books written by journalists and ex-White House employees.
On Tuesday, the US woke up to a controversy over revelations the Washington Post’s award-winning journalist, Bob Woodward, has made in his soon-to-be-released book, “Fear: Trump in the White House”. Woodward, who busted the Watergate scandal that led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon in 1974, is not known for fake news or sensationalism. Those who know the veteran journalist and those who have read the book “All the President’s Men, which he co-authored with the other Watergate hero Carl Bernstein, are assured of his adherence to the highest journalistic ethics. They believe he had recorded his interviews and taken down notes, checked and double-checked what he had collected from sources, before publishing his damning account of the president. Besides, he knows what libel is all about. Also the publishers would not have gone ahead with the book unless they got clearance from their expert lawyers.
The upcoming book’s shocking revelations are probably material for a possible impeachment of the President. For, no US President has been seen by his own staff as a danger to the country. In the book, Woodward presents accounts of how White House chief economic adviser Gary Cohn, Staff Secretary Rob Porter and other senior staff surreptitiously kept certain documents away from an impulsive president, for they felt if he had signed them, the consequences would have been disastrous to the US. The book describes the officials’ strategy as “no less than an administrative coup d’etat”. One such document was to authorise the withdrawal of the US from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
In another shocker, the book reveals that Trump’s personal attorney John Dowd staged a mock interview to gauge how the president would fare if Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating a possible Russian role in the election of Trump, was to hold a real interview.
The mock interview did not go well and the president, annoyed by the intensity of the questioning, departed, shouting “a goddamn hoax”. The lawyer feared that if Mueller was to grill the President, Trump would “look like an idiot” and embarrass the nation on the world stage.
The book also claims that Trump ordered the assassination of Bashar al-Assad in a move that some senior administration officials call a poor understanding of world affairs.
“Let’s kill the [expletive] lot of them,” the president reportedly said and ordered Defence Secretary James Mattis to go ahead with the move. Mattis ignored the request, probably he knew, as he is quoted as saying in the book, that Trump’s foreign policy understanding was that of a “fifth- or sixth-grader”.
Another short-sighted foreign policy action the book records was an instance when he asked for a plan to launch a pre-emptive strike on nuclear-powered North Korea during the height of his feud with Kim Jong-un.
The book projects Trump as a person who is mentally not fit to hold the office of the president. The contents give a picture of Trump behaving without decorum or dignity. About, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Trump is reported to have told a White House staffer, “This guy is mentally retarded. He’s this dumb Southerner. He couldn’t even be a one-person country lawyer down in Alabama”. Of late, Sessions has also been publicly vilified by Trump, for his decision to recuse himself from the Muller investigations.
Probably, the most caustic of comments were the ones attributed to the White House Chief of Staff, John Kelly. The book quotes Kelly as saying, “We’re in Crazytown. I don’t even know why any of us is here. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.” It is reported that Kelly calls Trump an “idiot” … and it is “pointless to try to convince him of anything”.
Now, Woodward is not the only one to expose how dangerous it is to keep a man like Trump in the White House. And he will not be the last either. Earlier this year, American author and journalist Michael Wolf came out with a book titled “Fire and Fury” explaining the behind-the-scenes queer happenings in the Trump White House. On Wednesday, the New York Times published an op-ed written by a senior White House official who wished to remain anonymous. This article corroborates much of what Wolf and Woodward say.
That Trump has not so far announced that he will file a case against Woodward for libel shows that the US president has no firm ground to stand on. All what he could do about the bombshell revelations in the book is to take to Twitter and claim that the book contains “fabricated stories” by “former disgruntled employees”.
“The already discredited Woodward book, so many lies and phony sources…,” tweeted Trump, whose popularity has plunged to an all-time low.
Now there is a message for the American citizens and the world in what Wolf, Woodward and others reveal. It raises a serious question about Trump’s suitability to hold the office of the President and also about the United States’ global leadership. Probably, the books’ descriptions of Trump may still not provide the stuff for impeachment. Yet, the American people need to seriously ponder the question whether Trump is suitable for the presidency or for reelection.
At global level, his actions have largely brought chaos to the world. Wasn’t his decision to withdraw from the Paris climate deal a horrendous global crime? His decisions to shift the US embassy to Jerusalem and to stop the US aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) that has been looking after the needs of five million Palestinian refugees for the past six decades, have killed the Middle East peace process. He has dealt more blows to the world peace by pulling the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and starting trade wars with China, Europe, Mexico and Canada. His meetings with world leaders such as Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un have proved to be a more liability than an advantage to the US.
His predecessor Barack Obama put the US on the right track and to a great extent restored the United States’ global leadership position after George W. Bush’s war-and-profit-driven presidency for eight years. The world began to respect the United States during the Obama presidency. But today, Trump has made the governance a laughing stock and the White House a dangerous place.

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Dictatorship in UN and politicisation of genocide

By Ameen Izzadeen
On Monday, the United Nations behaving like Popeye the Sailor after a spinach drink, fired from all cylinders at Myanmar. A damning report by a UN probe team recommended that Myanmar’s military chief Min Aung Hlaing and several other military leaders should be investigated for genocide, and that the case be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Give a big applause to the UN probe team, which included familiar figures like human rights lawyer Marzuki Darsuman of Indonesia, and our own Radhika Coomaraswamy, for a job well done.
A day later, UN officials said that they would soon release another report holding different parties responsible for war crimes in Yemen.
The two reports give the impression that the UN has suddenly become emboldened to take on war criminals. But UN reports see little follow-up action, especially in cases where the perpetrator is protected by a powerful nation. Just because the UN has chided Myanmar, the regime is not going to stop its ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. Just because of an incriminatory UN report, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Houthis will not resolve, henceforth, to abide by international conventions on warfare and international humanitarian laws. To hell with the UN system, the perpetrators, with the backing of powerful states, will carry on with their crimes. In Myanmar, the Rohingyas will continue to be persecuted. In Yemen, children will continue to be victims — like those who died in the school bus bombing last month — and vital ports will continue to be under siege preventing food and medicine from reaching the sick and the starving.
Yet, the UN reports seem to be the best way out for the world body to absolve itself of the sins being committed under its very nose. In terms of follow-up action, the UN as an organisation lacks teeth. For instance, in 2016, the then UN chief Ban Ki-moon blacklisted Saudi Arabia for committing war crimes against children in Yemen. But within days, he removed Saudi Arabia from the list, under “unacceptable pressure”. Saudis, it is said, threatened to slash funds to UN programmes.
This was not the only occasion that the UN has buckled under undue pressure. In 2009, a UN fact-finding mission headed by South African jurist Richard Goldstone in a report accused Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas of war crimes during the Gaza war and recommended the case be referred to the ICC. But under pressure from the US and Zionist Lobbies, Goldstone recanted the report in 2011, though the other members of the panel stood by every word of it.
It is easy to appoint fact-finding missions and prepare damning reports. But what is challenging is genocide prevention. The UN will be worth its salt as the primary organisation tasked with maintaining world peace and security, only if it acts fast with the very first sign that something dreadful is going to happen.
Unlike an earthquake, genocide does not take place all of a sudden. It is predictable and preventable. Yet it takes place in full view of the international community. The system needs to be strengthened, if the UN’s primary interest is to serve and save humanity. Otherwise, the UN conventions may seem empty words or routine while post-genocide UN resolutions and declarations will be akin to last rites over a dead body.
That the Responsibility-to-Protect concept came into the UN system only in 2005, some 60 whole years after the Nazi Holocaust, is a damning indictment of the international community’s lack of urgency in reinforcing the system.
At the core of this failure is big power politics. Often humanitarian intervention or non-intervention is tagged to a political agenda of a powerful state. War criminals are protected by a powerful ally in the UN Security Council. Millions of Palestinians have died without breathing the air of freedom, due to the US protection given to Israel, the oppressor and occupying power. In Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, it is the US made bombs that are largely responsible for the deaths of children. Then in the case of Myanmar, China, as usual, has come to its rescue. It has said Monday’s UN report is not helpful in resolving the problem. Also backing Myanmar is Russia. Analysts say the report offers China another opportunity to drag Myanmar into its orbit, at a time when the new regime in Naypyidaw is, in a balancing act, improving its ties with the US.
Not again another Holocaust was the cry when the UN General Assembly, on December 9, 1948, adopted the Genocide Prevention Convention. Yet genocides keep happening. Three years before the convention was adopted, it happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Though the convention urges member-states to prevent genocide also in war and in peacetime, it happened during the Korean War, a war authorised by the UN. Some 3 million Koreans were killed within three years – two thirds of them civilians. In terms of the civilian-to-combatant ratio, the Korean War was far deadlier than World War II.
In the Vietnam War in the 1960s and the ’70s, some 3.8 million people died. It is only those who say that everything is fair in love and war would not call the Vietnam War’s civilian deaths genocide. Then, in the Cambodian killing fields from 1975 to 1979, more than a million civilians were massacred by the Khmer Rouge regime which had the backing of China and the US.
The worst — after the 1948 convention was adopted — was the Rwandan genocide. Nearly a million people were massacred by Hutu gangs and government forces in a pogrom from April 7 to mid-July 1994. The world simply stood by and did nothing when the streets of Rwanda began to fill with Tutsi corpses. The UN had a peacekeeping mission in Rwanda but US and Britain ignored its calls for intervention.
Even after the failure of the international community in Rwanda, massacres and war crimes still take place. It happened in Srebrenica, with the UN soldiers remaining passive when the Serb forces led the Bosnian men and boys to their graves.
In another clear case of UN failure is the last stages of the separatist war in Sri Lanka in 2009. An internal UN report in 2012 said, “Events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN.” Questioning the UN officials’ withdrawal from the warzone, the report implied that civilian lives would have been saved if the UN had acted differently. It said that following this “systematic failure”, the UN should in future “be able to meet a much higher standard in fulfilling its protection and humanitarian responsibilities”.
But, alas, hundreds of thousands of civilians have perished since then and continue to perish in conflicts largely due to the politicisation of the UN system. As nations, including big powers, call for a rule-based international order, they should first focus on making the UN system rule-based by freeing the Security Council from the dictatorship of the veto-wielding permanent five. This is a way to prevent genocides and war crimes.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Afghanistan’s bloody mystery: Little progress in war or peace talks

By Ameeen Izzadeen
That the United States has still not been able to defeat an enemy much weaker in terms of military resources in a war that is continuing for 17 long years in Afghanistan does not bode well for its image as the world’s mightiest military power.
Armed with nuclear weapons, mother-of-all bombs, precision-guided missiles and the advanced satellite technology, it can surely eliminate the Taliban and the ISIS in a matter of days or weeks even without the use of a single nuclear weapon. Then why has the US failed to defeat the Taliban? It is not that the US has no will power to end the war. The answer is rather linked to its strategy.
Landlocked Afghanistan provides the US a strategic base to keep watch on a host of hostile or not-so-friendly nations. In the west of Afghanistan is Iran, a US enemy. Sharing a 2,430km-long border with Afghanistan in the south and the east is Pakistan which now gives more importance to close defence ties with China than to ties with the often unreliable and ‘ungrateful’ US. Unreliable, because history shows the US uses Pakistan only to ditch it once its objectives are achieved. Ungrateful, because the Pakistanis feel the US has not appreciated the heavy price their country has been forced to pay for joining the US war on terror. In the north, Afghanistan shares a 76km border with China, with which the US is locked in a trade war and military competition befitting a fully-fledged cold war. Afghanistan also shares a 2,300km-long border with Central Asia, where the US has no military presence now after Kyrgyzstan closed down the US airbase in 2014 following pressure from Russia.
The US is not naïve to withdraw from Afghanistan and thereby squander the strategic advantage it enjoys. Its presence in Afghanistan is legalised and legitimised through a controversial Strategic Partnership Agreement the two nations signed in 2012. The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, after the Taliban rulers refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda which carried out the 9/11 attacks, although some analysts believed the invasion had more to do with a pipeline project to enable US oil companies to exploit Central Asia’s oil and gas.
President Donald Trump, surrounded by hardline advisors, is for an indefinite prolonged war in Afghanistan. Trump has said he has become convinced that the only thing worse than staying in Afghanistan is pulling out. In the context of this large picture, Afghanistan finds it difficult to extricate itself from the superpower power games. Afghanistan is being bled to a slow death, with none of the peace efforts undertaken by various interested parties moving beyond the preliminary stages. In 2013, Qatar facilitated a Pakistan brokered peace initiative between the Afghan government and the Taliban, only to see its early collapse after Taliban leader Mullah Omar was killed in a US operation. Recently, Qatar launched fresh attempts, facilitating secret contacts between the warring parties, including the
US. However, it appears that after every step taken in the direction of peace, there comes a blow pushing the process two steps backwards.
There were also China-brokered peace initiatives. China sees Afghanistan peace as a crucial factor for the success of its Belt-and-Road project. Even these talks could not make much progress, because the US was left out.
In the aftermath of intense clashes for the control of the city of Ghazni last week, Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani made a ceasefire offer to the Taliban, but it was met with Taliban rocket attacks on Kabul’s high security zone housing the presidential palace and the US embassy.
Russia, a country badly hit by narcotics drugs produced in Afghanistan, is also working out a multilateral peace initiative, but this is also likely to end as a non-event. On Wednesday, adding to the bloody mystery, the Kabul government indicated it would not attend the Moscow conference, although the Taliban said it would.
Not only peace talks, even war appears to be going nowhere. The Taliban control large chunks of the country’s territory. In addition, since last year, following the crushing defeats in Iraq and Syria, the ISIS has also been making its presence felt in Afghanistan. Probably carrying out a foreign power’s agenda, the ISIS largely targets the Shiite population. Two weeks ago, the ISIS carried out a massacre at an Afghan school, killing some 34 Shiite students. As if this bloodshed was not enough, the US-based war mercenary company Blackwater, notorious for massacres and human rights violations in Iraq, wants the Trump administration to privatise the Afghan war. In a recent interview with MSNBC, Blackwater founder Erik Prince said the privatisation of the war would be a big saving for the US government. He said his plan would see US troops replaced with private military contractors who would report to the President through a special envoy. Although the Pentagon is opposed to the Blackwater proposal, Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton is receptive.
The proposal takes us to the warning the then US President Dwight Eisenhower issued 57 years ago about private defence contractors. “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist,” he warned.
Adding to the conundrum is Pakistan’s new government headed by cricket hero-turned politician Imran Khan, who has said his foreign policy priority will be peace with India and Afghanistan. However, he is scoffed as ‘Taliban Khan’ for his comments which critics interpret as supportive of the Pakistan Taliban. A virulent opponent of US drone attacks that have killed many civilians, Khan has lambasted Trump, calling him “ignorant and ungrateful” after Trump had commented that the US got nothing from Pakistan in the fight against terrorists, though US had given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid. After his election victory last month, Khan, striking a conciliatory note, said, “With the US, we want to have a mutually beneficial relationship … up until now, that has been one way, the US thinks it gives us aid to fight its war … we want both countries to benefit, we want a balanced relationship.”
It is too early to say whether it is the military or the elected government which will decide Pakistan’s Afghan policy. However, for the US military to remain in Afghanistan, the support of Pakistan is crucial, because it is the only nation, through which the US could send supplies to its 15,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan. Occasionally, Pakistan has shut down the supply route to soothe public anger after US drone attacks killed civilians.
Even democracy has not provided an answer to Afghanistan’s conflict. Next year, there will be a presidential election, but as usual, the Taliban would not only take part, but also violently disrupt the process, thus offering the US a justification to continue its military presence in the country. When war becomes a daily routine, for Afghans, peace is, probably, anathema and suffering fait accompli. For the rest of the world, after 17 long years, Afghanistan is now the least spoken about war.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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