Nuclear holocaust: Clock ticks closer to midnight

By Ameen Izzadeen
Hibakusha in Japanese means bomb-affected persons and the word is exclusively used to refer to the survivors of atomic explosions in Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August 1945. Today, there are about 170,000 Hibakusha and they are fast becoming extinct. In 20 years or so, there may be none.
The Hibakusha live with the horrid memory of the devastation that visited them in the form of atomic bombs which the United States dropped on the two cities, killing more than 350,000 people, mostly civilians, in a war crime that remains unaddressed and unpunished. While the perpetrator justified the use of the atomic bombs on the basis it was necessary to end the war that had killed some 60-80 millions of people, the victims wondered what sins they had committed other than being the citizen of a country that had dragged them into a war. The Hibakusha, sometimes, wished they had been dead – for they are still traumatised not only by what happened seven decades ago, but also by discrimination their descendants face, particularly with regard to marriage. But they are happy to be alive mainly for one reason: they could relate the horror and be peace messengers to eliminate nuclear weapons.
Their stories are etched in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. They were so touching that only an evil-incarnate would come out of it and say that nuclear weapons should stay.
In May 2016, then US President Barack Obama made a historic visit to Hiroshima Peace Memorial. Becoming the first sitting US president to visit Hiroshima, Obama called for a “moral revolution” to counter the evil the technology of today churned out in the form of weapons of mass destruction.
“Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us,” Obama said.
Shorn of any compunction to stockpile nuclear weapons, what we see today is moral decadence, instead of progress in human institutions. It was only last month that the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (BAS), an advocacy group seeking to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons, decided to keep the Doomsday Clock at two minutes to midnight.
The time on the hypothetical clock symbolises how close the Earth is to destruction from nuclear war and other threats such as global warming.
With some de-escalation in global tensions after talks between the US and North Korea in May last year, it was expected that the clock’s time would be put back by a few more minutes. Alas, it was not to be. The reason: Nuclear powers, especially the US, Russia and China are now in an open arms race, which has seen a major escalation in recent weeks and months.
The clock’s present position indicates that the situation is much graver than what the world faced during the Cuban missile crisis. The 13-day crisis, from October 12 to October 26, 1963, over the deployment of Russian missiles in Cuba, did not warrant the Doomsday Clock keepers to bring the minute hand closer to 12 and warn the world of a likely catastrophe. Instead, they put back the clock from 7 to 12 to 12 to 12. This was because the crisis became a catalyst for several positive developments. Significant among them was the setting up of a hotline between US and Soviet leaders. Within months, they also signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty outlawing underground nuclear weapons testing. It was the first treaty addressing the nuclear weapons threat. This led to several bilateral arms treaties such as the Anti-Ballistic Missiles (ABM) Treaty of 1972, the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty of 1987 and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) of 1991, in addition to the international treaties such as the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
But today, the big powers, especially the US and Russia, are moving in the opposite direction. Instead of disarmament, they are ditching key treaties and moving towards rearmament, deployment and enhancement. What is also alarming is that the very designs of their modern weapons could become an inadvertent trigger for a nuclear holocaust that will make the Earth uninhabitable.
On February 1, less than two weeks after Doomsday Clock scientists warned of the danger the world faced from nuclear weapons, President Trump withdrew from the INF treaty, citing Russia’s non-compliance. Since October last year, the Trump administration had been threatening to pull out of the INF treaty, claiming Russia had, in a clear breach of the treaty, deployed land-based cruise missiles capable of reaching countries in Europe.
On February 2, Russia did the same, and accused the US of violating the provisions of the INF treaty, which required the two countries to eliminate their nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500 kilometers.
Next year, the START treaty which limits the number of nuclear weapons the two nations could hold comes up for renewal. Given the present one-upmanship mode in US-Russia relations, the prospect of a renewal is beset by uncertainty. Besides, there is also an arms race amid a blame game. In March last year, addressing the Federal Assembly, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin made a computer animation presentation that showcased Russia’s latest weapons to counter the US threat, which he said was arising from Washington’s 2002 withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Putin bragged that no anti-ballistic missile system – Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars — would be able to detect or stop Russia’s weapons. He warned Russia was ready to “annihilate” any attacker who would use nuclear weapons against it.
One need not be a rocket scientist to know that a nuclear arms race only guarantees MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction. Apart from the US and Russia, the race also involves China, with six other nations with nuclear weapons running at some distance behind. China, not bound by a bilateral nuclear weapons agreement with the US, feels it has been surrounded by US bases and has armed itself with intermediate-range nuclear weapons to face any challenge.
The world’s disarmament community has another worry – the dual-purpose design of modern missiles. They can carry nuclear or conventional payload and it is difficult to say what it carries. This poses a danger of an accidental nuclear war. It is likely that an incoming Russian or Chinese missile carrying conventional payload could be misunderstood by the US to be a nuclear missile and provoke it to launch a nuclear attack in response.
Sadly, life goes on for many people who are unaware of the dangers the current arms race and nuclear weapons pose. The people, especially from nuclear weapons states, must pressurise their leaders to enter into a comprehensive nuclear disarmament treaty aimed at eliminating not only nuclear weapons, but also any miscalculations that could trigger an accidental nuclear holocaust prior to that.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Why Lanka needs a NewsGuard like body to rate media

By Ameen Izzadeen
The double whammy that jolted journalism this week exposed the wide gap between what journalism is and what it should be. In an ideal sense, journalism is a noble vocation, the voice of the voiceless and the watchdog or the fourth estate.
The first blow came when Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor investigating Russia’s alleged involvement in the election of Donald Trump as the United States President, denied an exclusive story carried in the popular news website BuzzFeed, which claims it has a 650 million plus global audience. The story claimed President Trump had advised his embattled former lawyer Michael Cohen to lie to the Congress. The story created a major uproar, pushing from the margin to the mainstream calls for the President’s impeachment. The discredited ‘scoop’ had stirred a debate on news websites’ reliability as they forge ahead to be the main source of news in the digital era while engaging in a stiff competition with the traditional mainstream media. Notwithstanding BuzzFeed’s popularity, sensationalism or yellow journalism vindicates Trump and his coterie who scoff at the media, calling them fake news manufacturers.
The second blow to journalism came in the form a Microsoft browser plug-in. On Wednesday, the talk of the media circles was that the Microsoft browser Edge’s NewsGuard plug-in carried a ‘Proceed with Caution’ tag to warn visitors to mailonline, one of the world’s most popular websites. Of course, mailonline, the web arm of Britain’s Daily Mail, questioned the reliability of the NewsGuard rating, joining the Russia government mouthpiece sputnik and several anti-establishment websites which also had questioned the Microsoft’s motive.
NewsGuard, an industry-based body consisting of veteran journalists, in response said the website rated one out of five because the mailonline “generally fails to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability”.
When asked by the BBC, NewsGuard’s co-chief executive Gordon Crovitz, who used to oversee the Wall Street Journal’s business and journalism operations, said, “Our journalist analysts always contact websites if they get a negative rating on any of our nine journalistic criteria. The Mail Online chose not to reply.”
According to the watcher of the watchdog, based on its journalistic criteria on credibility and transparency, dozens of news websites had changed their practices to become more reliable sources of news.
Journalism has evolved from tom-tom beaters of the ancient times to today’s ‘fast and quick’ news alerts via mobile devices. Along with the progress evolved professionalism and high standards in news dissemination. Facts are sacred, comments are free. This is basic journalism. But do journalists follow this hallowed principle? To answer this question, one needs to be media literate. Shorn of media literacy, most people swallow, hook, line and sinker, whatever the media churn out.
Take Sri Lanka where virtual anarchy reigns in web and tv journalism. The unsuspecting and ‘innocent’ people, most of them in rural areas, believe as the truth what they hear on radio and television and read in newspapers. They know little about media ownership and possible agendas with which some private media outlets operate. During the recent 52-day political crisis, the partisan manner in which some media outlets presented news made those who had a modicum of media literacy wonder whether these media outlets were against democracy.
If media outlets declare their endorsement of a candidate or a political party, then their bias or partiality is somewhat acceptable. In this case, at least they are honest and have no intention of deceiving their readers, listeners or viewers when they present coloured and loaded news, while serving the agenda of a person or a party, instead of public interest. But even in such instances, their right to be partial is challengeable. This is because journalism, in an ideal sense, is based on a commitment to tell the truth and a journalist’s loyalty is primarily to the people. This is more so in the case of radio and television journalism, because they are given the licence to operate a business based on an air frequency, which is essentially public property given to them by the people through the government as a trust on an undertaking that they would use it to empower the people with truth and correct information.
How many of us are media literate to discern that beneath the façade of independent media, there could be an agenda. Take, for instance, the BBC. A few years after it was founded in 1922, Britain’s post-World War I Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin saw a strategic purpose in BBC’s independence. He believed that if the government preserved the BBC’s independence, it would be much easier for the government to get its way on important questions and use the news outlet to broadcast Government propaganda.
Many private media, too, adopt this strategy. It is easy to sell propaganda as facts, once they earn the reputation as ‘fearless’ newspapers or channels.
Against this backdrop, a NewsGuard like monitoring body is an urgent need in Sri Lanka to protect the people from the poison being dished out by media chefs. Sri Lanka has quality journalists known for their commitment to media freedom and independence. They should come together or be brought together not only to monitor the media, but also to name and shame the errant media outlets, by rating their trustworthiness and warning the people that they generally fail to maintain basic standards of accuracy and accountability.
This newspaper has started publishing fact checks carried out by Verite Research. They expose the exaggerations politicians make or the falsehood they utter. The Daily Mirror has won much public praise for this new feature on its Page one. But this is an exercise every news outlet should do as a practice.
Fact-checking is part of journalism. Parroting some one’s views or publishing it verbatim is not journalism. If a newsmaker utters a falsehood or makes a claim, it is the journalist’s duty to inform the people of the correct position. Top US media channels do this often, especially with regard to President Trump’s bizarre claims. But sadly this practice is not adopted when Israel makes egregious statements vilifying the Palestinian freedom struggle or reproving Iran.
Also in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion by the US and Britain, most Western media outlets deliberately or otherwise made no effort to fact check the claims about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs).
The well-known war correspondent and media activist John Pilger asked Charles Lewis, the distinguished American investigative journalist: “What if the freest media in the world had seriously challenged George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and investigated their claims {about the WMDs}, instead of channeling what turned out to be crude propaganda?”
He replied that if we journalists had done our job “there is a very, very good chance we would have not gone to war in Iraq.”
In Sri Lanka, we would have prevented an unconstitutional coup in October last year.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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US withdrawal from Syria: Fighting may end soon, but causes not addressed

By Ameen Izzadeen
Less than a month after United States President Donald Trump declared that the US troops in Syria would be called back, four Americans, including two soldiers, were killed on Wednesday in a suicide blast carried out by ISIS, the very terrorist group he had claimed to have routed.
According to reports, Wednesday’s toll matched the largest number of American deaths from hostile fire in a single incident overseas since Trump became president.
The anticipated US exit from Syria is replete with complexities. It does not appear to be as easy as the US troops’ entry into the Syrian conflict. The announcement prompted Defence Secretary James Mattis to resign. It has put the US and Turkey on a confrontational course, with Ankara planning a major military campaign against the very Kurdish militias with whom the US military had allied to fight ISIS. It is also being seen by Trump’s critics as another Trump move to placate the Russians, while recent reports in the New York Times and the Washington Post gave credence to claims that Trump was working for Russia.
But it must be mentioned that the US military presence in Syria is illegal. Whereas the Iranians, the Russians and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah entered Syria with invitations from the Syrian government, the US troops had no such invitation. The US boots on the Syrian ground were illegal and in violation of international law.
True, terrorism is a global scourge and should be eliminated, but no international norm or convention allows a nation to go after a terrorist target in another country without obtaining that country’s permission. But powerful states such as the US, Russia and Israel, in pursuit of their national interest goals, have no qualms about violating the sovereignty of other nations.
In the Syrian conflict, the US involvement was initially auxiliary. It played a supporting role in the Saudi-Qatari project to oust the Bashar al-Assad regime. The project was marketed as an Arab Spring uprising aimed at ousting a dictator, though the projects’ authors themselves were averse to democracy and free thought. The schemers thought that just as they got rid of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi, they could easily topple the Assad regime. But Syria was a bigger geostrategic pivot for countries such as mighty Russia, rising regional power Iran and the Middle East’s only nuclear power, Israel.
Beneath the Arab Spring façade of the Syrian conflict are Big Oil and Saudi Arabia’s fears about a rising Iran. Saudi Arabia and Israel believed if Syria was cut off, Iran would not be able to send supplies to the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, a formidable military force which scored a moral victory resisting Israel during a month-long invasion in 2006. Then there was a botched Saudi-Qatari bid to build energy pipelines across Syria and Turkey to Europe. Syria opposed the proposal as it went against the national interest of its ally Russia, which accounts for nearly 60 percent of the European energy market. Russia did not want Middle Eastern oil to glut the market and erode its clout on European nations. This explains Russia’s military involvement in the Syrian conflict. Besides, Russia also has a military base in Syria.
There is another oil chapter: The oil discovered in the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967. Israel is unable to export this oil as international law prohibits it to sell the resources of an occupied territory. Israel wants Assad ousted and set up an Israeli-friendly regime which will cede the Golan Heights to Israel.
Then there is the ISIS issue. In hindsight, it now appears that the rise of ISIS was not a coincidence but was part of the project to oust Assad. The project worked as planned initially, with some Gulf nations providing military and financial support to the rebels. To win international legitimacy, they were called moderate rebels, despite their ISIS and al Qaeda links. The US trained them in camps in Jordan. But the project began to crumble, first with the entry of Iranian revolutionary guards and Hezbollah militia into the Syrian conflict, then with the arrival of the Russian troops and then with ISIS behaving like a Frankenstein’s unruly monster or a brutish evil force. With public opinion in support of a tough military response against ISIS building up in the US and other Western nations, the Barack Obama administration was compelled to act.
Washington’s war on ISIS began in Iraq. During this campaign, the US found itself on the same side as Iran which was providing military and material support to Iraqi paramilitary groups fighting ISIS.
After defeating the ISIS in Iraq, the US in late 2015 took the war to Syria, where it teamed up with Syrian Kurdish and a ragtag group of Arab fighters, dubbed the Syrian Democratic Forces. But in Syria, the ISIS rout is not solely an American feat. A bigger portion of the credit is due to the Russians, the Syrian government troops, the Iranians and the Hezbollah.
As Trump agrees to withdraw the 2,000-strong US military force from Syria, the Syrian Kurdish group YPG which allied with the Americans has become a military target for Turkey. This is because the YPG now controls a large swathe of territory bordering Turkey. Ankara sees this as a security threat because the YPG is an ally of the Kurdish separatists in Turkey.
Reacting angrily to Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton’s call that Turkey guarantee the security of the YPG militia, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan said his government saw no difference between ISIS and the YPG.
As the US-Turkey war of words continued, Trump warned Erdogan that if Turkey dared to attack America’s allies in Syria, he would take measures to devastate Turkey’s economy. This week, the two leaders had a telephone conversation, following which Turkey decided to set up a security zone along the border and defer the military campaign.
It now appears that the US is phasing out the withdrawal from Syria, although Trump has said he is determined that the troops leave sooner rather than later. While Trump has succeeded in cajoling Erdogan to hold fire, the Russians, the Syrians and their Iranian allies are now on the outskirts of Manbij, taking on ISIS remnants. It is only a matter of time before they subdue the YPG, through military means or a surrender deal. The good news is that an end to the Syrian conflict is on the horizon. But the bad news is the conflict’s causes such as the Saudi-Iran rivalry and oil-driven politics remain unaddressed.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Whatever Trump does, Sri Lanka needs to deliver transitional justice and take the high road

By Ameen Izzadeen
In 2012, addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council sessions Sri Lanka’s then Human Rights Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe questioned the United States’ moral right to bring in a resolution, while it itself was being accused of committing war crimes. He spoke prior to the passage of the resolution calling for an investigation into alleged war crimes during the last stages of Sri Lanka’s separatist conflict. He ended his speech by saying “Physician, heal thyself.”
The Biblical phrase has not lost its relevance since it first appeared in Luke 4:23, with there being no dearth of nitpickers looking at the speck in other people’s eyes instead of the log in theirs.
The phrase will remain relevant, as long as double standards, duplicity and deception are seen as a norm in realpolitik or dirty politics.
Following the change of government in January 2015, Sri Lanka ditched its confrontational approach to Western nations’ moves to hold the then government accountable and adopted the strategy of partnering with the accusing nations. Accordingly, in October 2015, the new Maithripala Sirisena-Ranil Wickremesinghe government, together with the US and other Western nations, became a co-sponsor of a new UNHRC resolution. This, among other things, called for transitional justice mechanisms, including the setting up of a special tribunal with the participation of international investigators, prosecutors, and judges, to ensure that on both sides those criminally responsible were brought to justice.
However, days after the resolution was passed, government leaders, in a bid to placate ultranationalist forces, began to say they would not allow any foreign judges or observers to get involved in any judicial process to try military officers, who are, for millions of southerners, war heroes.
With filibustering tactics and what was seen as deliberately slowed-down reconciliatory measures, Sri Lanka seems to believe that it has subdued the international calls for the setting up of a hybrid court or the participation of foreign judges in the transitional justice process. The government seems to believe that together with Sri Lanka’s geopolitical advantage, measures such as the setting up the Office of the Missing Persons, returning some of the lands taken over by the military to the rightful owners and acceding to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture and adopting a National Human Rights Action Plan have done the trick.
But the UN Human Rights Commissioner’s report last year also noted “with much regret” Sri Lanka’s slow progress in establishing transitional justice mechanisms. “In the absence of concrete results or publicly available drafts of legislation, it seems doubtful that the transitional justice agenda committed to by the Government under this Council’s resolution 30/1 could be fully implemented before our next report in March 2019,” the report said.
The report came with a caveat: Before March 2019, Sri Lanka has to initiate a credible local mechanism and the failure could lead to a UNHRC proposal in favour of universal jurisdiction. The continuous delay in initiating a domestic inquiry may not augur well for Sri Lanka during the March sessions of the UNHRC. Also sending a signal of defiance is this week’s appointment of Major General Shavendra Silva as Chief of Staff of the Sri Lanka Army, despite war crimes allegations against 58 Division which he led during the last stages of the war.
War crimes committed by all sides of Sri Lanka’s conflict should be probed and the culprits punished — or pardoned under a truth-and-reconciliation system in keeping with the principle of restorative justice.
The international concern is not so much over the form of the probe — whether Sri Lanka should follow the domestic or universal jurisdiction. Rather it is about justice through a credible process.
As the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna Parliamentarian Bimal Ratnayake pointed out in Parliament on Tuesday, Sri Lanka’s Superior Court judges are capable of handling a domestic war crimes trial, as they have proved their independence with their landmark ruling on the presidential actions during the constitutional crisis. So why fear?
Since the Nuremberg trials, the international practice has been that either war crime allegations are tried under universal jurisdiction — as happened with regard to the conflicts in Cambodia, Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Liberia – or brought under a credible domestic mechanism – like the Chilcot inquiry in Britain.
Besides, UN member-states are required to cooperate with UN investigators with regard to allegations of ongoing human rights violations. Failure to cooperate may lead to the member-state being named and shamed in the Human Rights Commissioner’s annual report while the member-state may also come under fire during the periodic review. Apart from this, there is no penalizing mechanism for non-cooperation. However, the biggest blow will be the non-cooperating member-state losing its moral right to champion human rights and point fingers at violators.
It is in this context, the phrase ‘physician, heal thyself’ appears apt to question the United States’ moral right to be the co-sponsor of the resolutions against Sri Lanka. Not only has the Donald Trump administration withdrawn from the UNHRC, calling it a “cesspool of political bias”, it has also, of late, stopped cooperating with UN investigators over potential human rights violations occurring inside America.
Early this week, Britain’s Guardian newspaper in an exclusive article exposed the Trump administration’s non-cooperation with the UN human rights officials and commented that the move, apart from delivering a major blow to vulnerable US communities, was sending a dangerous signal to authoritarian regimes around the world.
The article says the Trump administration, in a clear departure from the past, has not extended any invitation to a UN monitor to visit the US to investigate human rights inside the country since the start of Donald Trump’s term in January 2017. The State Department has ceased to respond to complaints from special rapporteurs, it said.
If the US could close the door on UN investigators, Sri Lanka and other countries which face charges of human rights violations could adopt the same approach. In June last year, days after the US withdrew from the UNHRC, the then US ambassador Atul Keshap conveyed to the Sri Lankan government that the US would remain fully engaged with the Sri Lankan Government to help it meet its continuing and standing commitments to the international community to advance the cause of reconciliation and lasting peace for all Sri Lankans.
In the Trump administration’s pullout from the UNHRC and its policy of non-cooperation with UN human rights investigators, some may see an opportunity for Sri Lanka to call on the US to withdraw the UNHRC resolutions. Whether the US cooperates with UN investigators or not and whether the UNHRC includes Sri Lanka on the agenda or not, Sri Lanka must see delivering transitional justice to the war affected as a moral obligation. This will help Sri Lanka walk tall as a noble nation, after decades of conflict.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Trump’s aversion to multilateralism plunges world into multilateral crisis

By Ameen Izzadeen
Pax Americana 2.0 was the title of a political discussion on Russia Today television on New Year’s Eve. The Crosstalk programme conducted by Peter Lavelle had as its theme a recent speech delivered by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Addressing European leaders last month at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels, Secretary Pompeo critiqued multilateralism and questioned the worthiness of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organisation and the International Criminal Court. The topic of the lecture was “Restoring the role of the nation state in international order.”
Pointing out that the United Nations was founded as an organisation of peace-loving nations, he asked whether the world body continued to serve its mission faithfully. His answer was that not only the UN, but most multilateral institutions also had not lived by their ideals.
Then dismissing criticism that the Donald Trump administration has undermined multilateralism, Pompeo said, “Critics in places like Iran and China, who really are undermining the international order, are saying the Trump administration is the reason this system is breaking down. They claim America is acting unilaterally instead of multilaterally, as if every kind of multilateral action is by definition desirable. Even our European friends sometimes say we’re not acting in the world’s interest. This is just plain wrong.”
Though, Pompeo was critical of multilateralism, he defended NATO, describing it as “an indispensable institution. He called on all NATO allies to strengthen what he hailed as “the greatest military alliance in all of history.” Perhaps, such praise was heaped on NATO because since it was set up in 1949, it has been acting like an appendage of the US military. This is selective and self-centred multilateralism, which gives little thought to humanity’s wellbeing or the health of the Planet Earth.
Though the US Secretary of State declared in international affairs multilateralism was a failure, he was promoting a new liberal order led by the US, prompting the Russia Today programme host to ask whether such an international order meant the universalisation of American law and whether it would limit sovereignty for the rest of the world.
From Day One, the Trump administration has made it clear that it will not uphold multilateralism at the cost of the United States’ national interest. Trump’s ‘America First’ declaration is paved with selfish undertones which are now evident in his administration’s international, political and trade relations. This does not mean that his predecessors did not put America first in their foreign and trade policies. The difference is that they understood the larger picture and realised the importance of making compromises in bilateral and multilateral agreements. They believed that multilateralism with a give-and-take spirit would be beneficial to the United States in the long run. If not in terms of immediate economic benefits, it was still a price worth paying for in terms of long-term benefits and, of course, to maintain the United States’ global leadership.
But in his first act symbolising the America First Policy since taking office on January 20, 2017, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, a trade deal that was pressed ahead by his predecessor Barack Obama to prevent a China-led international trade order from taking shape. The Trump administration has since then withdrawn from the Paris climate deal and from the United Nations Human Rights Council. On January 1 this year, the US formally withdrew from the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), accusing it of having an anti-Israel bias.
Nikki Haley, the outgoing US ambassador to the United Nations, in a harsh tweet blasted the UNESCO as being among the most corrupt and politically biased UN agencies. “Today the U.S. withdrawal from this cesspool became official. #USStrong” she tweeted, bringing out the incompatibility between Trump’s America First policy and multilateralism.
The appointment last year of hardcore Neocon John Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor is yet another proof of the Trump administration’s aggressive nationalism and contempt for multilateralism. Bolton once disdainfully remarked that the UN headquarters could easily lose ten of its floors without any impact. On another occasion, he remarked that there was no United Nations.
True, in a stricter sense, there is little altruism in multilateralism. Countries subscribe to multilateralism because there is much to gain from it. In overcoming the challenges the humanity faces at large, concerted action through multilateralism can bring quicker and speedier results than what can be achieved individually at national level. The Ebola outbreak in Africa was a case in point. If Liberia, for instance, had been left alone to tackle the issue on its own, it would have failed miserably and millions would have died, while the disease would have become a worldwide pandemic. It is largely because of global efforts and the involvement of the World Health Organisation that the outbreak was contained.
Then take the crucial issue of climate change. Although the Trump administration, in keeping with its disregard for multilateralism, has withdrawn from the Paris agreement, other nations are not as mindless as Trump’s America as to dismiss climate change as a hoax. It goes without saying that the global warming can be contained only if the entire world comes together.
Multilateralism has contributed towards the relative success of the UN’s ambitious Millennium Development Goals. As a result, member-states have been motivated to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal targets now. Multilateralism has improved the quality of life of billions of people worldwide. Life expectancy, literacy and access to health have seen remarkable gains in the past fifty years largely due to multilateral efforts.
Despite criticism, multilateral institutions such as the World Trade Organisation and the International Monetary Fund have contributed towards the smooth functioning of world trade and helped many nations to overcome economic crises.
If multilateralism collapses, it would only spell further misery to humanity. Already, in many countries, anti-multilateralism sentiments have led to the erosion of liberal values. Right wing demagogues opposing multilateralism are gaining strength in Europe, Latin America and elsewhere. One wonders whether the disturbing trend has a direct correlation to the US failure to live up to the values multilateralism advocates.
Washington needs to realize that the collapse of rules-based multilateralism could lead to world wars and an erosion of values. In this international anarchy, powerful countries will try to pursue their empire-building ambitions.
With the US not in favour of all-out multilateralism, while the European Union is under strain due to a tendency to disintegrate following the Brexit example, is the alternative a China-led multilateralism in which universal values such as democracy, human rights and freedoms of speech, movement and worship have little or no recognition?
Regardless of China’s quest to be the world’s number one economic power, the US could still be the world leader if it gives leadership to a rules-based global order and takes genuine measures to promote peace and justice. Is this wishful thinking?
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on Jan 4, 2019)

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Abolish the executive presidency or reduce its powers further

By Ameen Izzadeen
For forms of government, let fools contend; whatever is best administered is best, said Alexander Pope. The 18th century poet’s one-liner still rings true, in the context of ceaseless constitutional crises and ubiquitous debates over political reforms. No country is an exception. Even in Saudi Arabia, arguably the most rigid monarchy, political reform is a major demand of the dissidents. This was amply reported in news items on the recent killing of journalist and democracy activist Jamal Khashoggi.
In the United States, the call for political reforms is widespread. Hundreds of resolutions are proposed every congressional term to amend the US Constitution. It is said that from 1789 till January 3, 2017, about 11,699 measures have been proposed to amend the US Constitution.
In the United Kingdom, too, political reforms are an ongoing process; more so, after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. The nature of the union has undergone drastic change, with not only Northern Ireland, but also Scotland and Wales getting parliaments or assemblies of their own.
Although sacrosanct, constitutions should not be airtight. When the exigencies of the situation demand, constitutional changes need to be done. That is why constitution framers include provisions outlining the process to change or replace the constitution.
Going by the political undercurrents of the past 55 days, it appears that the crisis or the conflict President Maithripala Sirisena unleashed on October 26 is still not over. But it has rekindled the debate on the abolition of the executive presidency. Suddenly, there seems to be an urgent need to bring in more constitutional provisions to check the president’s excesses. The irony is that the United National Party, which introduced the executive presidency through a new constitution in 1978, is now calling for its abolition, while the Sri Lanka Freedom Party has now become its main advocate though it earlier opposed the executive presidency on the basis that it would undermine the democratic structure of Sri Lanka’s post-independence government.
Against the backdrop of the Supreme Court’s December 13 ruling that the Executive President had acted illegally and violated the constitution, lawmakers in parliament this week argued in favour of and against the executive presidency. Government and Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna MPs urged that the executive presidency should be abolished, given the temptation of the Presidents to resort to undemocratic and unconstitutional measures. United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) MPs insisted that it should be retained at least with enhanced checks and balances to ensure the territorial integrity of the country.
The need of the hour, however, is to eliminate backdoor avenues and plug loopholes to avert constitutional dictatorship, the types of which was seen during the 52-day crisis created by President Sirisena — and also during the presidency of Mahinda Rajapaksa, who, by introducing the 18th Amendment, suffocated the democratic spirit of the constitution. Sadly, the war-winning President Rajapaksa, who built his political career by promoting himself as a defender of human rights, especially during the 1988-89 era of terror, is now known the world over as a ‘strongman’ – certainly not a flattering description. It is a term used by political analysts to describe a military or political figure who exercises far more influence over the government than the constitution permits. World history may not be kind to Sirisena and Rajapaksa. It will not enshrine their names as defenders of democracy, if they continue to be adamant in not seeing the virtues of democracy.
Prior to the adoption of the 1978 constitution, many a warning was sounded about the threats it could pose to democracy. A seasoned politician of yesteryear rightly said that he dreaded to think the consequences if a mentally unbalanced person became the President and was to enjoy the virtually unlimited and unchecked powers associated with the office.
The power the executive presidents wield is a trust the people place in them in terms of a social contract. But Sri Lanka’s executive presidents, from J.R. Jayewardene to Maithripala Sirisena, perhaps the only exception being D.B. Wijetunga, have abused that power, so much so that every succeeding president became a bigger tyrant than his or her predecessor. The problem is not over whether a constitution is good or bad, but whether the politicians who wield the power are good or bad. As this column has said before, a constitution, however good it is, can be bad in the hands of a bad leader, while a constitution, however bad it is, can be good in the hands of a good leader.
Sri Lanka’s 40-year tryst with the executive presidency, especially in the context of the current political crisis, is not a pleasant experience. Either it should be abolished or more checks and balances need to be introduced, so that there will be stability even when a cohabitation government is in power. The JVP’s proposed 20th Amendment is indeed a step in the right direction.
Sri Lanka’s experiment with cohabitation governments paints a dismal picture. The fact that cohabitation governments have miserably failed is proof enough that our leaders are power-hungry. Rather than coming together for the benefit of the people and the country, our politicians are interested in enhancing their political power – and for this purpose, they have no qualms about abusing the constitutional powers and taking cover behind warped interpretations of the constitution.
Sri Lanka’s constitution is neither exclusively presidential, nor purely Westminster. It is a hybrid system which can, at times, bring about a cohabitation government.
Political cohabitation is a form of governmental arrangement between the executive president and a rival party prime minister.
In the absence of clear-cut constitutional provisions, cohabitation governments are usually associated with political backstabbing. In Sri Lanka, this was first witnessed in 2001, when Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe’s UNP-controlled Parliament was dissolved by President Chandrika Kumaratunga before parliament completed its six-year term, though she had promised she would not do so as long as the UNP had the majority in Parliament. It happened again on October 26 this year, and we all know the political turmoil came after that. Thanks to the 19th Amendment, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe could withstand the presidential salvos against all odds, and defeat the constitutional coup. But the battle, it appears, is not yet over.
In recent decades, this country has seen disaster after disaster, natural and man-made, economic and political. On top of these problems, the political crisis the President has created has dealt a devastating blow to the economy. We do not need any more disasters. What we urgently need is development that will free us from the shackles of poverty and provide jobs for our youths. For this, we need to ensure political stability. Under the present constitution, cohabitation governments have proved a failure and cannot ensure that political stability. The 1978 constitution has not delivered political stability, though it was drafted and adopted for that purpose. We need to go for a new constitution that will make prime minister the head of government and the president being appointed by Parliament or an electoral college as the head of state – like in India and Pakistan. We need a constitution that will promote development and that will contain provisions to solve the country’s ethnic issue through meaningful devolution of power.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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Lanka on judicial cliffhanger: A lesson from Pakistan

By Ameen Izzadeen
Sri Lanka’s constitutional coup or crisis, as the case may be, has an eerie similarity to a constitutional coup that took place in Pakistan in 1953 – and the evolution of that country’s judiciary – from servility to supremacy – stresses the importance of judicial activism.
The Pakistan coup, that country’s first in a series of coups, teaches us an important lesson: It tells us that generations to come will suffer if any one of the government’s arms is to make a mistake, when called upon to play their constitutional role, particularly at a time when the nation’s existence as a democratic entity is threatened.
Sixty-five years after that constitutional coup and a judicial ruling favouring it, Pakistan is still struggling to establish itself as a fully-fledged democratic state – with the biggest threat to democracy being the military hanging on to that appalling judicial decision.
If only the Federal Court that was called upon to judge the legalities of the 1953 coup had sided with justice and understood how important democracy was to the nascent state, Pakistan would have been spared of its many military coups that have only contributed negatively to the country’s stability and socio-economic development.
First, the details of the doomful coup which overthrew the government of Prime Minister Khawaja Nazimuddin, a prominent figure in the Pakistan movement: The new nation was struggling to stand on its feet as an independent state. Muhammad Ali Jinnah had died. The country had already faced its first war with India. Its first Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan had been assassinated. The country’s stability was being shaken by never-ending protests and demonstrations. Religious tension was high with Sunni groups urging the government to declare that the Qadianis or the Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Adding to the government’s woes were agitations over the Bengali language issue in East Pakistan. Accusing the prime minister of mismanaging the situation, Governor General Ghulam Mohammed dismissed the government in April 1954, although the prime minister had won a confidence vote only a fortnight earlier. Military chief Ayub Khan, who took over the government a few years later as Pakistan’s first military dictator in the country’s first ever military coup, openly backed the Governor General’s decision.
The coup happened at a time when the country was drafting its first constitution. In the absence of a constitution, governance was subjected to the Government of India Act 1935, a British colonial law which served as an interim constitution.
In September 1954, sensing the danger to democracy, the Constituent Assembly curtailed the Governor General’s power to dissolve the government by amending the Government of India Act 1935. The amendment decreed that the Governor General could do so only with the approval of the Cabinet.
An angry Governor General dissolved the Constituent Assembly itself. The head of the Assembly challenged the dissolution of the Assembly in the Federal Court of Pakistan. In a major blow to the foundation of Pakistan’s democracy edifice being built, the bench, except for one dissenting opinion, backed the dissolution. The bench, headed by Chief Justice Mohammed Munir built its judgment on the grounds of the doctrine of necessity — a doctrine that recognises that the well-being of the people is the supreme law. The judgment was also built on the assumption that Pakistan was still a British dominion with the Sovereign being the British Crown and, therefore, not a republic where the supremacy of the Assembly or the sovereignty of the people was upheld. Many analysts say this verdict by a group of conservative judges gave licence for military chiefs to topple democratic governments in Pakistan and interpret their actions in terms of the doctrine of necessity.
In his widely acclaimed book, ‘the Destruction of Pakistan’s democracy’, Allen McGrath notes that Pakistan moved from democracy to military dictatorship, not so much because the military was waiting in the wings to capture power, but because the judiciary gave its stamp of approval for the nation’s chief executive’s immoral and democracy-killing move.
He says when Chief Justice Munir denied the existence of the Assembly’s sovereignty, he destroyed Pakistan’s existing constitutional basis.
Seven decades later, Pakistan has evolved from a nation of judicial servility that justified coups to one of judicial proactivism which upholds the democratic spirit of the nation. So much so that the Supreme Court has, in recent years, unseated not one but two prime ministers, in a zealous display of judicial independence. Supporters of the ousted prime ministers, however, decried the judges’ behaviour as judicial dictatorship.
Whatever the criticism, Pakistan’s judiciary has come of age to check the excesses of the executive and it is the only institution the military is scared of. This is more so after the judiciary’s courageous stand against the excesses of former military strongman Pervez Musharraf.
In 2012, Pakistan’s Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, who became internationally known for giving moral leadership to a countrywide movement to topple the Musharraf regime, disqualified Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani after he was found guilty of contempt of court for not carrying out a Supreme Court order.
The court had ordered Gilani to write to the Swiss authorities to reopen fraud investigations against Pakistan’s then President Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani was summoned to the Supreme Court and told he had been convicted and, therefore, he was disqualified from being a member of Parliament or prime minister.
In April this year, Pakistan’s Supreme Court stripped the then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of his premiership saying a person who had been found guilty of corruption was not fit to hold such a high post. The court ruled that anyone disqualified under a constitutional clause requiring legislators to be “honest and trustworthy” would be considered banned for life. Sharif was hauled before court after the Panama Papers exposé by a team of international investigative journalists showed he had secret offshore accounts.
Judicial activism in Pakistan, in recent years, has made the military to think several times before venturing out to stage a coup and capture power. Musharraf is today a fugitive from law. He is facing several cases in the Supreme and High Courts, including one for treason — for allegedly subverting the constitution.
Judicial activism is part of democracy. At a time when President Maithripala Sirisena has placed Sri Lanka on a cliff, it is only judicial activism that can save the country from doom and save democracy.
The constitution has a body and a spirit. While the body consists of the letters and the wordings, the spirit is found in Article 1 of the Constitution. It says: “Sri Lanka is a Free, Sovereign, Independent and Democratic Socialist Republic and shall be known as the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.” Every adjective in this Article describes what Sri Lanka is and what it should be. Ours is essentially a democracy and a republic where the supreme power resides in people and elected representatives responsible to them and governing according to law. Therefore, any move to undermine democracy is an attempt to subvert the constitution and its spirit. Protecting democracy is, therefore, not only judicial activism, but also the sacred duty of the judiciary and every citizen of this country.
(This article first appeared in the Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka)

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