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DateLine Sunday, 1 June 2008

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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 final day.

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 registered.

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 rivals.

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.

Monsters

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 true.

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 prove beneficial.

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 hand.

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.

Ethnic cleansing

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 one side

. 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 Kosovo.

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 its citizens.

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 Ugandans.

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 separate State.

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 world.

Cold warrior

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 1987.

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 economic dispensation.

Gospel

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 this country.

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 opportunities.

We need, as far as the Western components of the international community go, to address ourselves to their pragmatism rather than their hypocrisy.

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.

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