Security matters

"The Government should already have a strategy in place to deal with this problem in any case, and if it doesn’t it should be well into the process of working it out. This must recognise that things are different now that terrorism has no base or organisational structure and leadership in the country."

By Kath Noble

(September 30, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) Security is a controversial word. None of us wants to be blown up in a suicide attack, but neither would we care to be incarcerated for months on end on mere suspicion of involvement in such a crime or even just sympathy for a terrorist’s cause. There is a balance to be struck. We generally accept this need for compromise, but what it should be and how we should go about reaching it isn’t always so obvious.

The ongoing detention of IDPs requires serious debate. While the Government claims to have released some 30,000 of the 290,000 people who came down from the Vanni, most of whom have been resettled in the East and parts of the Vavuniya, Mannar and Jaffna districts that have been demined, that isn’t enough. All of the IDPs have been held for at least four months, but it will have been much longer for some. Six months ago, there were already 60,000 people in Menik Farm.

I don’t agree with many of the criticisms of the facilities provided by the Government. When I visited Menik Farm in June, the situation was reasonable. People used to viewing the world from the balconies of five star hotels or through the darkened windows of their air-conditioned Pajeros would undoubtedly disagree, but neither I nor the IDPs fall into that category.

That said, things are probably worse now. It was clear to me at the time that arrangements that were manageable in dry weather would become unbearable as soon as the monsoon arrived. You don’t need to be an expert to predict the impact of heavy rain on life in tents that aren’t waterproof set up on vast swathes of bare earth with little in the way of drainage.

It is sad that improvements are being made at what can only be described as a woefully slow pace, and a good part of the blame for this must fall on the United Nations and other international agencies. They have been trying to force the Government to release the IDPs by refusing to provide more than the basics, but all they have succeeded in doing is making life worse for the people there. However good their intentions, the donors fundamentally misunderstood the Government and the nature of the pressure they could exert. The IDPs could have explained these obvious facts of life if they’d been asked.

Of course, the Government should have accepted that it wasn’t going to get its way and asked the Security Forces to do the work instead. Cutting back on unproductive foreign tours by ministers and their hangers-on would have paid for a good deal of the materials needed, I would have thought.

This is not the real issue. Even if life were blissfully comfortable in Menik Farm, we would still need to ask whether the threat posed by the release of the IDPs justified their confinement.

Last week, a Sri Lankan friend currently visiting family in America sent me a book that I found to be highly relevant to this discussion. Published in 2004, America the Vulnerable is a fascinating look at how successive governments have failed to protect their citizens from terrorism, even after the September 11th attacks demonstrated the consequences. The author, a former officer in the coastguard who served as an advisor to both the Bush senior and Clinton administrations, argues that the War on Terror has been worse than useless. Money and precious lives have been spent on giving America a false impression of security.

He blames this on the defence establishment. It wants to fight in the same way that it has always done, never mind the fact that the threat to America changed significantly with the end of the Cold War.

The American government made its first error in conceptualising the task it faced as a War on Terror. It should have accepted that the problem of terrorism could not be permanently or totally solved. As the only superpower, hostility to America is inevitable, the author says, and this is only worsened by its actions. Motive will therefore persist for some time. What’s more, opportunities to take action are vastly increased in this globalised world, as people and goods move ever more freely across borders, while the means is easily available too.

Instead, efforts should have been directed towards reducing the chance of a strike and building capacity to respond when it happened. The September 11th attacks exploited known weaknesses in the transportation system and, as Osama bin Laden pointed out afterwards, their impact was greatly enhanced by the decisions taken by the authorities themselves.

The author sets out his proposals in detail, from enhancing controls on goods being shipped into the country and improving security at chemical plants and facilities with access to dangerous biological materials to providing the emergency services with the equipment and skills needed to respond effectively to a dirty bomb and establishing systems to contain interventions in the food chain. They are simple and practical measures that would have a real deterrent effect if implemented, yet none involve curtailing essential liberties. The author shows how many of the ideas have other benefits too.

One cautionary tale he tells in the process sticks in the mind. Describing attempts to clamp down on illegal entry from Mexico, the author explains that measures to enhance security have to be carefully thought out. America recruited hundreds of agents to boost its patrols of the border, invested in some of the latest technology and put more officials at crossings to carry out thorough inspections of people and vehicles. In the process, it created entirely new and more difficult problems for itself. First, a professional human smuggling industry emerged, meaning that people with money could get across the border even more easily than before. Secondly, freight companies found the increased delays at checkpoints so annoying that they started offloading their goods in the last town in America and hiring local agents to get them to Mexico to be picked up at the other side. This industry was far more prone to crime, with old trucks and underpaid and often temporary drivers.

The author says that the worst error made by the defence establishment was in resisting genuinely effective steps to protect the country from terrorism in order to ensure full support for its preferred approach of pursuing the ringleaders. For the last century and more, America has fought its enemies overseas and it was convenient for its leaders to believe that this was still possible. It allowed them to pursue other goals under the banner of the War on Terror, and it reduced pressure to shift resources away from the defence establishment to the police, customs and other such agencies. They invaded Afghanistan. This was the high profile role that the defence establishment was used to playing.

It just wasn’t much help in stopping terrorists. America is as much at risk of an incident like or even much worse than the September 11th attacks as it has ever been, the author complains.

The problem of terrorism in America is obviously different to what Sri Lanka faces, but America the Vulnerable highlights some of the traps that leaders can fall into when dealing with issues of security. It is about thinking rationally and being ready to accept the fact that people in charge of protecting their citizens from terrorism don’t always know best.

Coming back to the IDPs, holding 260,000 people against their will for between four and nine months is a huge thing. The Government should not be allowed to dismiss criticism of this decision without proper argument.

The demining excuse is completely irrelevant. I wouldn’t argue that the Government had to resettle everybody in Menik Farm immediately or even the bulk within six months as has been promised. There are many people in this country who have been forced to leave their homes during the war and for other reasons, and they all need help to get back to their normal lives. Those who have spent decades in camps must not be overlooked in the hurry to meet targets set under pressure from other countries in the immediate aftermath of the war victory. We know that reconstruction doesn’t happen overnight, even when there aren’t mines to be uprooted. Five years after the tsunami, work to restore infrastructure is still going on in some areas. The Government must look at the entire task it is faced with and set a timetable for people to inspect and judge for themselves.

I do believe that screening to identify the many cadres who came down from the Vanni amidst the civilians is a good idea, but the Security Forces cannot be given an unlimited amount of time to do this. The suffering such a policy causes innocent people caught up in the process eventually outweighs the benefits of catching the guilty. I think we have reached that point now.

The fact is that there are plenty of terrorists outside the camps. These include the apparently large number who have escaped from Menik Farm and those who have been living in all parts of the country for years. They have weapons and the enthusiasm and money of their diaspora backers to help. The support of a few more cadres really can’t be that important.

The Government should already have a strategy in place to deal with this problem in any case, and if it doesn’t it should be well into the process of working it out. This must recognise that things are different now that terrorism has no base or organisational structure and leadership in the country.

It is in its own interests to rethink the approach. Although resting up in camps after the horrors of Mullaitivu in the last days of the war may not have been so bad for a while, given that most of the IDPs would simply have been relieved to be alive, this period is over. The longer people spend there against their will, the more disgruntled they will become and the harder reconciliation will prove. Their voting for the Government and its allies will be even less likely, too.

Security matters, but we are not faced with a straight choice between perpetuating the serious denial of rights and throwing ourselves on top of a claymore mine. Those who try to tell us otherwise are either foolish or lying.
-Sri Lanka Guardian