November 5, 2009

War Crimes Not Created Equal

Overwhelmed by isolation, Senator Jim Webb left Yangon with the only prize he could hope - John Yettaw. But his hands felt empty. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Ha had been sentenced days before to three years hard labor and Webb’s appearance, the first by an American official in ten years, failed to undue her punishment.

Shocked by how low Myanmar had slipped since he first visited eight years ago, Webb attempted to formulate a strategy when he returned to Washington. In the process he stumbled upon a greater truth that applies the world at large.

“The United States needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the nondemocratic world,” Webb wrote in a NYT op-ed. “Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy.”

America could use articulation with democratic and nondemocratic states alike. A current case in point - Sri Lanka.

Steady pressure is mounting on Colombo to speed up the release of Tamil refugees, promote political equality, and address accusations of human rights violations and war crimes. Government inaction and two unflattering reports from America and the EU fueled rumors that General Sarath Fonseka of the Sri Lankan army would be investigated by US officials while on vacation to see his family.

According to Al Jazeera, Foreign Minister Rohitha Bogollagama said US authorities were trying to force Fonseka to testify “as a possible source” against Gotabhaya Rajapakse, the defense secretary and brother of Mahinda Rajapakse, the Sri Lankan president.

Finally the bluff was called, with the help of intense diplomatic pressure. A Foreign Ministry statement reported, “The Chief of Defense Staff General Sarath Fonseka left the United States this morning to return to Colombo. He was not subjected to any questioning prior to his departure by the United States Department of Homeland Security or any other agency of the US Government.”

America made the correct decision to let Fonseka go. The time to investigate Sri Lankan war crimes and interview key participates isn’t while they visit relatives, but the time must come eventually as America’s soft treatment has attracted scrutiny.

Sri Lanka is settling into the common pattern that Webb described: “distinct policies toward different countries.” Sure enough, in every direction we see, “a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy.”

Take Iran and Afghanistan's elections. President Obama withheld the hammer on Tehran because he was afraid to be seen as meddling, but still lobbed all the fire he could without crossing reds line, a policy that earned him scorn from the right.

Yet those same Republicans cast Dr. Abdullah into the garbage and are eager to begin Karzai’s second act. Obama responded by congratulating Karzai on his victory, one that Abdullah declared “illegal," and everyone is either happy or faking it. The difference between Iran and Afghanistan: Obama needs Karzai and not the Ayatollah.

Needs dictate America’s situational ethics more often than justice, creating the foggy diplomacy plaguing today’s world. She’s peeping under the blindfold.

Condemnation on human rights rings loudest where America's interests are fewest - Sudan, the DRC, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, North Korea - and where it needs leverage - China, Russia, Venezuela. Silence and condonation in Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Indian-ruled Kashmir, Kyrgyzstan, and Sri Lanka is the situational ethics that Senator Webb speaks of.

America allows Israel to wage disproportionate warfare against Hezbollah and Hamas despite the suffering of local populations, the opposite strategy proposed for Afghanistan. War crimes bounce off Israel like Superman for a simple reason: America needs Israel to prune Hezbollah and Hamas, to keep them in check, or it has no way to counter them.

Each time Israel hopes to finish the job, but it always comes up short for America.

Sri Lanka is of the same mold. America had no reason to halt the Sri Lankan army as it marched through Tamil territory and broke the Tiger’s back. The world, possibly through the UN, may have stopped Sri Lanka with a real effort, but in reality the West was rooting for the government. The Tigers had their hands all over Asia and war crimes were a necessary price to chop them off.

The opposite played out in Georgia during its war with Russia in 2008. American officials flocked to Tbilisi to portray Russia as a brute and Georgia as the poor victim. Even though both sides sparked the conflict, America supported Georgia with its full power because that was the need. Never mind that America is deliberately invading Russia's backyard.

The Iraq war is another possible example of need trumping justice.

Now, need is a pillar of realism. America’s actions could be perceived as correct through this prism, but it's weighed on an ends-over-means scale. The Iraq war will succeed or fail based on its long-term stability. The end of Afghanistan is beginning to outweigh the means of 9/11, courtesy of Hamid Karzai. Hezbollah and Hamas cannot be defeated regardless of force applied.

Sri Lanka is no different, the war will be judged on the end result. Many Tamil refugees summarize themselves in this thought, desiring “liberation,” as the government called it. Except the price was extremely high, exceeding Gaza, Lebanon, possibly post 9/11 Afghanistan in casualties. No one actually knows because Sri Lanka won’t allow a true outside investigation.

America would be wise to push for one through the UN, the only means available. Sri Lankan officials claim 41,685 people have been relocated to their homes, but that leaves over 250,000 in the squalor of Malik Farms. The government says it's weeding out hundreds of Tigers in disguise, but tales from the camps indicate an oppressive state.

“The government told these people it would look after them,” said Veerasingham Anandasangaree, a Tamil politician and staunch supporter of the war against the Tigers. “But instead they have locked them up like animals with no date certain of when they will be released. This is simply asking for another conflict later on down the road.”

Without political and social progress Sri Lanka will revert to a state of warfare. Maybe not to the same intensity, and the Tigers may take a lesser form, but the current situation is moving in the wrong direction. Speaking of realism, Sri Lanka will resist any attempt to investigate the war or issue punishments, opting for the Gaza route.

Yet the two conflicts swing wildly in America, from the moderately harsh reaction to Sri Lanka to condemning Goldstone in the House. US officials wouldn't dare think for a second of detaining an Israeli general.

This “does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy.”

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