Confronting the Past, Protecting the Future

by Michael Patrick O'Leary

This article was published in the Sunday Island on November 12, 2011 


Lakshman Wickramasinghe, media coordinator of the LLRC (Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission) announced that the final report will be handed over to the President by the second week of November.
President Rajapaksa announced the establishment of the LLRC on May 15 2010 (hearings began in August). The Daily News, described this as “a domestic process in pursuing an agenda of restorative justice, to address the human and emotional repercussions of the decades-long conflict and thereby lay the foundations for continued reconciliation”. However, the terms of reference did not quite say that and the LLRC has been criticised for seeming to pin the blame on the UNP for the CFA as the cause of all the trouble.
The US State Department in the person of former ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert O Blake found Sri Lanka’s chosen method of confronting its past inadequate. What lessons has the USA learnt from its own recent conflicts? Sri Lanka marked the two year anniversary of the end of its conflict in May this year. The USA marked ten years of Operation Enduring Freedom in October and the attack of the World Trade Centre in September.
The retaliatory attack on Afghanistan was originally called “Operation Infinite Justice” but the name was changed to avoid offending Muslims. How many Muslims have been offended by being killed? The US does not publish casualty figures. Some critics claim that the war on terror is truly a war on Islam itself.


Remember the euphoria when Obama was elected? Here was an attractive, articulate charismatic man of mixed race with a middle name of Hussein. Hope and change were in the air. What happened? In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama vigorously attacked the Bush administration’s lawless ways, and promised reform. In May 2009, round about the time Sri Lanka was defeating its terrorists, Obama, delivered a major speech on the importance of fighting terrorism within the rule of law, insisting that “time and again, our values have been our best national security asset.”


The US continues to delude itself about those “values”. Bush thought the rest of the world was jealous of the freedom enjoyed by the USA. Professor David Cole has been a cogent critic of the US record on torture. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) he too seems to have succumbed to the self-delusion that overcomes Americans and leads them to sentimentalise their own system of governance. Whatever the evidence of crimes against humanity going back to its foundation, the nation continues to be marketed as an overall force for good. Cole still seems to see a spectral outline of the Obama we had hoped might change the USA. I am not convinced by his arguments that pressure from the public, the press and the courts – the rule of law- forced the federal government to retreat from its illegal actions.


What was seen then as a clean break with the GW Bush past turned out to be a refusal to acknowledge the crimes committed by that administration. The Convention Against Terrorism requires the US president to conduct a criminal investigation because there are certainly credible allegations that persons within his jurisdiction committed torture. How many times does that word ‘credible’ occur in the Darusman Report?


Bush lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee have left enough of a paper trail for the Office of Professional Responsibility to recommend that they be referred to their bar associations for disciplinary action. Obama’s Justice Department vetoed that recommendation.


There have been efforts in Spain to investigate US responsibility for torture of Spanish citizens held at Guantanamo. Obama’s administration has worked hard to stop those efforts. The Obama administration continues to oppose a commission to investigate the USA’s departure from the rule of law and routine use of torture, abductions and disappearances.


Who can forget those images of Obama watching another human being, Osama bin Laden, murdered unarmed in cold blood on his orders? Look at the jubilation at the corpse of Quadaffi.


In spite of its own crimes, the USA continues to suggest that the Sri Lankan government was engaged in disappearances and placing civilians in detention camps. Obama’s weird attempts at bi-partisanship, often rolling over and surrendering to the Tea Party Republicans before he needs to, come across as weakness rather than being above the fray. He certainly cannot claim the moral high ground if he is stonewalling against a legal and moral accounting of the wrongs done in the past.


Donald Rumsfeld famously said ; “there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. And so people who have the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried have capabilities that are [beyond mine].”


Irish Booker-prize laureate John Banville commented on the Irish child abuse scandal: “We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today.” Some western criticism of Sri Lanka and blindness to the crimes of the US and the UK goes beyond hypocrisy into some kind of psychosis.


The ostrich can be vicious beast.


Thanks to the Red Cross we know about abusive interrogations of high level detainees, but we do not know how many people the US has abducted and tortured. Maher Azar, a Canadian citizen was abducted and tortured on the basis of misinformation. He has not received even an apology. There are many others we know about. There must be many others we do not know about. Obama has defended a sweeping interpretation of the laws prohibiting “material support” to designated terrorist groups. Members of the board of the nation’s largest Muslim charity were sentenced to as much as 65 years in prison for providing humanitarian aid to indigent West Bank families.


Cole admits that Obama “has continued to rely on broad claims of secrecy, invoking the ‘state secrets privilege’ to block lawsuits seeking redress for victims of torture and extraordinary rendition. He has dramatically expanded a program of targeted killings using unmanned drones, without setting forth the general procedures or criteria he is employing. Killing the enemy during wartime is not illegal, of course, but assassinating people outside of war is. As long as the contours of the targeted killing program remain secret, we cannot know whether it accords with basic principles of constitutional and international law.”


Mark Danner, also writing in the NYRB says that 9/11 began what he calls a State of Exception:


“To Americans, those terrible moments stand as a brightly lit portal through which we were all compelled to step, together, into a different world. Since that day 10 years ago we have lived in a subtly different country, and though we have grown accustomed to these changes and think little of them now, certain words still appear often enough in the news—Guantánamo, indefinite detention, torture—to remind us that ours remains a strange America. The contours of this strangeness are not unknown in our history. Our country has lived through broadly similar periods, at least half a dozen or so, depending on how you count; but we have no proper name for them. State of siege? Martial law? State of emergency? None of these expressions, familiar as they may be to other peoples, falls naturally from American lips.”


Danner notes that knowledge of American crimes helped Egyptians topple their own dictator. They were forbidden to talk about Egyptian torture, but could freely initiate a discussion of human rights and dignity by condemning American torture. Danner writes: “This raises a question for Americans: Are we still waiting to have that debate in the United States—or is it already over? The story of torture is widely known, voluminously documented. It is part of our present, not our past.” When Obama officials handed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” over to the FBI Republicans and Democrats demanded that he be tortured.


Despite what Dick Cheney writes in his memoirs it is unlikely that torture gleans any useful information. Cole writes: “The principal reason that we have yet to bring any of the September 11 conspirators to justice, ten years after their abominable crimes, is that we chose to ‘disappear’ and torture them, thereby greatly compromising our ability to try them. And the decision to deny those at Guantánamo any of the most basic rights owed enemy detainees turned the prison there into a symbol of injustice and oppression, exactly the propaganda al-Qaeda needed to foster anti-Americanism and inspire new recruits and affiliates.”


Can we learn lessons for Sri Lanka from the US’s failures? What will happen after the LLRC has reported?


These words appeared in the Banyan blog in the Economist: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”