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Why UN panel may not see the big picture

2014 Jul 01

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay on Wednesday announced three advisors to the UN panel investigating alleged war crimes committed during the final phase of the war in Sri Lanka. Panelists: Silvia Cartwright, Asma Jahangir and Martti Ahtisaari, are all too good hearted individuals known for their human rights activism and conflict resolution skills.
Silvia Cartwright is the former Governor-General and High Court judge of New Zealand, and a judge of the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts in Cambodia, which has been trying the leaders of the former Khmer Rouge regime for genocide and crimes against humanity. (However, despite US$ 173 million spent on the Court from its inception in 2005 to 2012, it has delivered only a single ruling in that entire period).

Ms Asma Jahangir is the former President of Pakistan's Supreme Court Bar Association and of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. She has held several Human Rights Council mandates and a member of a recent fact-finding body into Israeli settlements.

Martti Ahtisaari is the former President of Finland and a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, who has also served as a UN diplomat and mediator. The Nobel committee awarding him the peace prize in 2008 overlooked the dissident Chinese human rights activist Hu Jia for the less contentious choice of the former Finland president.

There is little contention about the integrity and the calibre of Pillay's chosen advisors and their commitment to human rights and peace, except one hiccup: counter terrorism is not their expertise. Counter terrorism has its own intricacies and sense of urgency, which cannot be handled within the normal channel.

However, good intentioned peace mediators and rights activists evaluate terrorists in their liberal prisms. That keeps them in the dark about the psychology of terrorists, especially, of the maximalist terrorist groups, such as the LTTE, Hamas or Al Qaeda and its franchises.

It was Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese strategist (and the author of one of the earliest treatise of war, 'Art of War') who said, know your enemy and know yourself, you will win thousand battles. The fact of the matter is that the modern day terrorists are not liberals, nor are they champions of human rights; whereas they are prepared to push moral barriers further and discard fundamental human values of our societies to advance their political goals, be that the recreation of a medieval caliphate or carving out of a monolithic Tamil homeland.

And though the untrammeled terror and violence that the terrorists gleefully unleash on civilians and military apparatus would have the bleeding heart rights activists nauseating, there is always a receptive audience that would cheer for those horrendous attacks. The increased terrorist funding, be it from the Middle East (to the Al Qaeda) or to the former LTTE (from the Tamil Diaspora), after every major terrorists attack is a case in point.

Maximalist terrorist
But, all three experts of Pillay's panel have not dealt with maximalist terrorists groups, the type of terrorists who want to keep the cake and eat it, the type that is not prepared to give and take in order to achieve a peaceful settlement. And a hard core realist would tell you there is no role for peace negotiators and mediators in a battle against a maximalist terrorist group. Perhaps the only utility of such negotiators would be to have a public relation coup that would justify the military operations.

Naively enough that the Nobel committee while awarding Ahtisaari the Nobel peace prize, hoped that the gesture would help bring a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Iraq. Athisaari, by then, was holding impromptu meetings between Sunni and Shia leaders under his organization Crisis Management Initiative.

That is being overly optimistic. (No different than expecting that Kumar Rupasinha's multi–million kroner, Council for Co-Existence, which was active in the East during the same time, would herald peace in Sri Lanka). Whereas what de-escalated the conflict in Iraq was co-opting of Sunni militants into the 'awakening councils' by the American military, in order to fight foreign jihadists and the al Qaeda. Similarly, the Sri Lankan military intelligence orchestrated a split within the LTTE in the East, thereby de-escalating violence in the province.

Why Iraq is back to square one is because its Shia Prime Minister who has monopolized State power with his sect and alienating the Sunnis and the Kurds, disbanded the awakening councils, contravening an earlier promise to absorb those Sunni militias into the Iraqi army. (The disenchanted militants joined the underground Sunni rebellion led by former Baathists, and the Al Qaeda affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIS) exploited the sectarian fault lines. Iraq is now falling apart.) My contention is that leaving the evaluation of a counter terrorist/ insurgency operation in the hands of human rights/ peace activists, no matter how good intentioned they are, is not only counterproductive, but also does set a dangerous precedent. Let's assume, hypothetically that Pillay picks from the West Point or the Naval War school, or appoints some retired Israeli or Russian generals for her panel, instead of her current choices. They would arguably offer a contrasting perspective on Sri Lanka's counter terrorism campaign against the LTTE. In fact, those gentlemen have a greater intimate knowledge on the terrorist psychology and its working.

Die- hard terrorists groups could not be broken into submission without the infusion of enhanced counter terror. That was vindicated in Algeria in the late 90s, in Chechnya in early 2000 and to a certain extent in Sri Lanka. The lack of political will to take those difficult decisions have seen some other countries, such as Nigeria and Pakistan condemned to senseless violence from groups that thrive in the absence of political will.

The militancy of the LTTE had the characteristics of terrorism since the very beginning; while other Tamil militant groups exercised restraint, the LTTE thrived on attacks against civilians. Sri Lanka saw a full blown terrorist campaign post Indo-Lanka peace accord. While the governments in the early independence were indifferent to the Tamil demands, the same cannot be said about the governments since the 1980s. Beginning with the Thimpu talks, up to the Norwegian brokered peace process, successive governments tried to sue peace with the LTTE, only to be pushed back into the battle front by a maximalist terrorist group which was not wavering on its demand for a separate Tamil homeland.

Political will
It was not the political will to seek a political solution to the conflict that was absent in the Sri Lankan political leadership; it was the political will to take that difficult military decision to fight a total war against a maximalist terrorist group.

Mahinda Rajapaksa took that decision in 2006 and he had at his disposal Sarath Fonseka, a general known for his ruthless implementation. Fonseka did not hesitate to push the ethical boundaries of fighting terrorism and soon Prabhakaran had a taste of his own medicine.

In the counter factual history, Sri Lanka has another choice. What if President Rajapaksa wavered on taking that difficult political decision which all his predecessors hesitated and what if Fonseka failed in delivering on the government's green light? The result would have been that we would be fighting a low intensity war for the next two decades until Prabhakaran dies a natural death. Our annual growth figures would be much lower than 7.3 per cent recorded in the previous quarter of this year. Investors would be shying away from the garrisoned cities in the South. We would not be planning for 2.5 million tourists by 2016. I myself, a former defence correspondent, would be occupied with reporting the daily carnage.

Better place
War is a nasty and brutal affair. The war in Sri Lanka was no different. But, today, five years after the end of the war, albeit with all the imperfections of our political system, Sri Lanka is a much better and promising place than it had been eight years ago.

However, I doubt none of the bleeding heart human rights champions of Pillay's panel would be able to appreciate that. Their principled standing could hardly be linked up with the intricacies of counter terrorism, especially against the modern day maximalist terrorist group. (Some such arguments are as academic as the New York Times and the American Civil Liberty Union's challenging of the justification of the killing of Anwar al Awlaki, an American citizen and a terrorist preacher who was plotting attacks against the USA).

However, those esoteric reasonings would take precedence over the complex realities of counter terrorism. Sri Lanka is surely placed in an uneven position. But placing Sri Lanka in that position – notwithstanding the imperfection of its government, which has subordinated the independent institutions and checks and balance mechanisms – would not help anyone, especially when the world is already experiencing a new generation of war, waged by terrorists groups of Salafi Jihad ideology. Those terrorists, unlike the practitioners of all four previous generations of war, have shown scant regard to moral barriers . Sometimes, rather hesitantly though, a government is forced to be the mirror image of their enemies. After all, the war is always the collision of two living forces.

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