A quarterly reflection:
Pragmatism or hypocrisy?
Some years back I was a member of what is termed the Dutch Third
Chamber, a body of individuals supposed to help prepare policy
guidelines for Development Assistance provided by the Netherlands.
It is an interesting body, though it has no real influence, and
earlier this year it had an anniversary celebration to which several
former members were invited. I could not attend all the sessions,
because in between there was a meeting of Asian and European Liberals in
Brussels, but I did manage to make the introductory sessions in the
The former included information about a fascinating project about
twinning schools to introduce awareness of development issues, while on
the latter we tried to contribute to a project at Utrecht University
about guidelines for a core curriculum in international studies.
I found there that perhaps the most significant contribution of the
Netherlands to the modern world, the destruction of the free trade that
had been the catalyst for Renaissance voyages of exploration, was not
This is a little known fact, that whereas when the Europeans first
came to Asia, it was to trade freely with local regimes, paying what
seemed very little to Europeans for goods they could make vast profits
on back in Europe, the Dutch soon became greedy and sought monopolies.
This led to exclusivist treaties with local regimes, and that in turn
made attempts to control those regimes inevitable. Hence the development
of empires, in which they were soon outmaneuvered by their British
All this was in marked contrast to what had happened earlier, when
the Portuguese and even the British for instance simply set up trading
outposts, in Goa or Bombay or Colombo or Malacca, Sri Lanka being the
only country which - typically because of internal divisions - handed
itself over to a foreign power nearly a century after it had first come
here to trade.
But I stray. The University of Utrecht will doubtless ignore my
intervention, and poor Dutch children will be deprived of the knowledge
of their seminal contribution to world history. People are taught what
teachers find useful, and the origins of forced and unfair trade are not
of interest to those profiting now from the advantages they derived all
those years ago.
What is more interesting perhaps is how they deal with competition
now. In the evening of the last day the Third Chamber had its
anniversary celebration, typically enough in the Koppelkerk, with former
Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers making a stirring speech for ideals he had
not quite been able to live up to during his period in office - or so
one of the Dutch participants informed me.
Before that we had had a journalist working in Africa, who seemed
deeply upset that Africans now demanded things from him, on the beach in
Kenya, at a checkpoint in Sierra Leone, without any understanding of the
sanctity of private property.
I was reminded of my old Librarian at University, a Conservative who
nevertheless had a marvellous sense of self-mockery, who would exclaim
whenever the Trade Unions made extravagant demands - this was before Mrs
Thatcher tamed them - that the problem was ‘Too much red meat, that’s
what it is.’
The journalist went further. He went on in his speech to indicate
that one of the problems facing Africa was the advent of the Chinese,
who he suggested would prop up dictatorial regimes in their eagerness to
exploit the resources of the continent.
He went on to talk of the attempts made by the West to promote
democracy and good governance in Africa, and was obviously insinuating
that these ideals would be defeated by Chinese support for the opposite.
The best answer to this was provided by one of my African colleagues
in the Third Chamber who pointed out that it was precisely the Europeans
who had not only propped up dictatorial regimes for years, but even
brought down democratic ones and replaced them with monsters. He did not
mention names, but obviously characters like Mobutu and Bokassa and Idi
Amin came to mind.
Coincidentally I had recently been reading a book entitled ‘Unpeople’
by Mark Curtis, subtitled ‘Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses’, which
goes into graphic detail about the horrors and hypocrisy of British
policy over the years with regard to Iraq and Nigeria and Indonesia and
Vietnam and Malaysia and Uganda and Chile and Guyana and the various
Arab states that were so skilfully created just after the First World
War as protectorates to safeguard British security concerns, and kept
under control for years - until they were finally able in recent years
to assert themselves through a combination of oil wealth and the general
education they had been deprived of during the time they were dominated.
The indictment was so forceful that I could not believe all of it was
But, given the plethora of references cited, I suspect some of it at
least must be. And if that is bad enough, there is certainly reason to
believe that the British are comparatively good compared to many others.
Of course this may be a result of my being locked into reading English
language books, but there is little doubt that for instance the British
record in Africa was substantially better than that of the Belgians.
My African friend’s point was that the Africans should be left to
deal with any problem presented by the Chinese, and that their presence
would at least make for competition and choice, which would in the end
This is the more urgent now, given that the Europeans no longer
really compete with each other, and that they are able to work in
concert to get the best possible terms for their investments and the
repatriation of profits.
Of course there will doubtless be some competition, but it will
certainly help that Africa, and indeed the rest of the developing world,
has alternatives in the form of Indians and Chinese and the Islamic
World, and I hope in time South America too, if the sleeping giants of
that region ever wake up and extend their wings.
Competition is after all healthy, and if one power props up
dictators, there will be others to support the people in various ways,
unlike in the bad old days when Mobutu etc were brought into power and
continued unquestioned for decades.
And at the same time, though it is irritating that today’s decision
makers in the West raise issues of democracy and human rights with a
sanctimoniousness that does not hint at their awful repression of these
in past - and some present - instances, one must also grant that the
increased attention to these issues can be of benefit to people deprived
of them for so long by the machinations of their masters of all shades.
Jimmy Carter and his almost overstated concern for moral values did
make some sort of a difference after the realpolitik of Nixon and
Kissinger that led to the ruthless bombing William Shawcross described
in ‘Sideshow’; and even if continuing realpolitik made even Carter in
effect support the Khmer Rouge after they were overthrown, perhaps had
he won re-election he might have been able to change gear.
Certainly Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s censure of him, when she was in
Colombo, for not having continued to prop up the regime of the Shah in
Iran suggests that we have to be thankful for small mercies, though the
poor Iranians did not see his policies quite in that light.
Had Ronald Reagan been in power in 1979, Savak, the Shah’s dreaded
Secret Police, might still be running riot, or else we might have had
the Taleban, good solid Sunni chaps, almost Christians in fact, as one
naive American professor described them when they were fighting the
Russians in Afghanistan.
I would argue then that there is certainly some sincerity in the
newfound Western concern for Human Rights, and that we in the rest of
the world should respond positively to these concerns in terms of our
own attempts to strengthen rights for our own people.
But at the same time we need to be aware that even the most sincere
people can be used, as poor old Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton have
been, to engage in generalizations that can only benefit the enemies of
democracy in Sri Lanka. And, sadly, we also have to realize that concern
for rights is generally expressed when there is some political goal at
Given too that powerful governments have means at their disposal to
focus the attention of journalists, and genuine human rights activists,
on particular situations, you then find a chorus of howls that can lead
to destabilization of independent governments and support for regimes
that will function as client States.
Thus we can see that, in the sanctimonious propulsion to independence
of Kosovo, there was a great deal of sleight of hand. Serbia under
Milosevic may have been guilty of appalling crimes in Bosnia, but in
Kosovo at any rate there is evidence that the balance was not wholly on
. This became more marked after the UN intervention, so that you had
what seemed close to a process of ethnic cleansing of Serbs, which thus
allowed the West to claim independence was inevitable, contrary to the
commitments made when Serbia allowed the UN to in effect take over
The result is a country truncated on the basis of ethnicity, deep
bitterness and suspicion on all sides, and a world that wonders whether
otherwise desirable devolution should be avoided in case it leads to
separatism championed on high moral grounds by the West.
Certainly it is understandable that China would worry more now about
autonomy for Tibet, despite the protestations of the Dalai Lama that he
never contemplated separation. And it is certainly relevant that, in
reports on what occurred in Tibet in March, there was little coverage of
the attacks by Tibetans on Han Chinese, simply assertions of repression
of Tibetans accompanied by frenetic demonstrations against the Chinese
in Western cities.
The Chinese, now professionals in their own media coverage, were able
soon enough to restore some balance - but had they not done so, the myth
would have gained credence that they alone were responsible for the
problem, that this was a story which did not have two sides.
Shockingly, recent revelations suggest that there is also another
side to the universally believed story of what happened in Rwanda.
There is no reason to doubt that there was genocide by Hutus, and
that had to be stopped, and steps taken to prevent it recurring. But in
a recent trial of one of those deemed responsible, it was claimed that
Louise Arbour - in a previous incarnation that was thought to have
qualified her to be in charge of Human Rights for the whole United
Nations system - had suppressed evidence that the present leader of
Rwanda was in part also responsible for what occurred.
And scrolling through the connected material, there are arguments
that the West has no problems with this, or with suggestions that some
of his forces also engaged in massacres, because the current regime
supports Western exploitation of the resources not only of Rwanda but
also of the Congo, where Rwandan control holds sway.
Many of these claims may be exaggerated, but their articulation
suggests that the world at large has given full credence to a black and
white version of what happened, has accepted ‘othering’ generalizations,
and has given full moral as well as political authority to a regime that
just happens to be totally acceptable to the West. Perhaps the moral
considerations will ensure that it continues, if not wholly democratic,
at least pluralistic and generally melioristic in its governance.
But certainly this is a case where some competition would be healthy,
so that we would not see again the entrenchment of a particular
self-sustaining regime, paying its dues to Western economic interests
whilst not caring overmuch about the social and economic development of
Unless attention is also paid to development and indicators on all
Human Rights indices, stressing that it emerged from a horrendous
situation will not help the people, just as in the old days stressing
that Amin saved Uganda from socialist excesses did not help the
Currently Rwanda is the flavour of the month, as doubtless Kosovo
will be soon, and as Israel has been for many decades now. The creation
of Israel indeed provides an object lesson on how a moral problem can be
turned to distinct political advantage. Jew were treated appallingly in
Europe for many centuries, but finally came into their own after the
Industrial Revolution, when credit became vital.
But despite their new distinction, extending even to social
acceptance, they still suffered, and so sprang up the idea of their own
Demanding anything in Europe might have led to even greater
persecution, so it seemed safest to go for what they considered their
place of origin, which had no one there to speak of, the existing
inhabitants being of no consequence in their eyes, or in those of the
Europeans who would make the decisions.
And so they got a vague commitment from Balfour, after the war they
had helped to finance, in contradiction to the more distinct commitment
given to the Arabs who had helped the British against the Turks.
But the Jews were the more sophisticated, and so they gradually built
up their presence there, driven in many cases by renewed persecution in
Europe. By the end of the Second World War, their claims were
irresistible, given what they had suffered. No matter that it was not
the Europeans who had illtreated them who had to pay the price.
So Israel was set up with a store of moral capital, capital that has
inexhaustibly renewed itself against the new victims of the compensation
provided to old ones, through the interest paid by the perpetrators of
the original crimes against Jews.
But this has also been helped by the intransigence of some Arabs, who
are then taken to stand for the whole, to justify corresponding
intransigence on the part of successive Israeli governments. The end
result is a Western oriented enclave at the gateway to the East, and if
occasionally the tail wags the dog, that is a small price to pay for a
permanent presence in a wealthy and otherwise also key part of the
Reading over the allegations about what happened in Rwanda, and is
happening there now, one wonders whether Africa too, with its vast
mineral wealth, was deemed to need a surrogate regime set up now with
moral fervour, as opposed to the bad old days of dictatorships. And so
perhaps there is a temptation to encourage something of the sort down in
the Indian Ocean.
This does not mean something on the crude lines J. R. Jayewardene
envisaged, when he tried to hand over Trincomalee to the Americans, not
knowing that those more circumspect warriors had taken over Diego Garcia
instead. But certainly in those days, when he saw himself as the scourge
of the Gandhis, the Cold Warrior par excellence, there was no criticism
of his authoritarianism from the West, no questioning of the Prevention
of Terrorism Act or the postponement of elections.
India put paid to all such pretensions, with the Indo-Lanka Accord of
The West in general accepted this with good grace, though one noted a
certain frisson of delight amongst at least some Western diplomats when
the Tigers turned against India. After we had foolishly helped them to
see India off, they then turned against us, and so for several years we
continued in a state of tension.
There was a brief interval of relief in 1994 before they reopened
hostilities, and then in 2002 we once again had a government that seemed
happy to conform to Western expectations entirely whilst trying to
negotiate a settlement with the Tigers.
The excuse offered for the indulgence given to the Tigers then,
allowing them to take over control of new parts of the country, and
bring in arms, and destroy other Tamil forces, was that a security
blanket had been set in place through Western powers.
The Tigers could not go too far, it was fondly assumed, because the
West would come down on them like a ton of bricks - a view that showed
no knowledge whatsoever of the lessons of history and the infinite
flexibility of realpolitik.
Therein lies the continuing affection of some Western powers, or
perhaps merely their personnel, for the current opposition. It cannot be
based on any great ideals, for the record of that opposition while in
government is too well known.
But since naked expressions of self-interest are no longer
acceptable, as they were in the old Kirkpatrick days, some sort of ideal
has to be advanced. Sadly, given that we could do much better ourselves
in dealing with human rights abuses, we provide excuses for what is
essentially self-serving nostalgia.
But more dangerous than the UNP, which is scarcely likely to get
popular support in the country at large, is the strategy of the Tigers.
One of the reasons the Tigers were able, after the horrors of 1983, to
command the confidence of the understandably bitter members of the
Colombo Tamil elite who had gone into exile was that they eschewed the
socialist rhetoric of the other militant groups.
Indeed they went further and knocked them all off, insofar as they
were able to do so. Though they continue ruthlessly collectivist, it is
a collectivism that could live quite happily with a Western oriented
In the rest of Sri Lanka, with the liberation of the East and the
establishment of a multi-ethnic administration, with the support for the
government expressed by several Tamil and Muslim parties, we seem well
on our way to a political settlement acceptable to all communities,
based on empowerment through devolution. We can of course expect many
spoilers to intervene, but if we manage to go along this path we should
achieve peace and stability before long.
That will not leave room for the patronage that has been exercised
for so long, not so much by countries, but by individuals in dominant
positions by virtue of the countries they represent. Since unfortunately
Sri Lanka is so small that other sources of information are lacking, it
is the picture those representatives present that is taken for gospel.
To deal with this we need to engage more actively, not only with
people in this country, but with decision makers in parliaments as well
as the executive in countries that can affect our future.
We need to make it clear that we are committed to human rights of all
types, not only the social and economic rights in which our record is
extremely good, but also the civil and political ones in which we are
certainly better than we were, but can still do more.
We need to accept assistance for goals we lay down in pursuit of
mutually agreed objectives, and not allow massive amounts of what is
termed development aid to be used by forces opposed to the interests of
We need to strengthen civil society, not just those elements that
live on criticism, but those that contribute to the uplift of deprived
segments of society through investment and training and employment
We need, as far as the Western components of the international
community go, to address ourselves to their pragmatism rather than their
Monopolies may have served the Dutch in the short term, but in the
end they were a disaster. Idi Amin soon enough turned against his
masters, as the Taleban did more recently. Of course there have been
success stories based on hypocrisy, and perhaps an independent Kosovo
will prove the stuff of dreams.
But on balance we should be able to make it clear that a pluralistic
democracy can work, and allow room for all the world to enter, provided
they are willing to work alongside others.