Amnesty International and the ‘Legitimacy Crisis’

by Kalana Senaratne

(January 24, Hong Kong, Sri Lanka Guardian) This is not another critique of Amnesty International (AI) or any of the international human rights organizations. But reference needs to be made to the interesting press release issued by AI (dated 19 Jan, 2011), and some issues arising from it. The press release asks the US to investigate President Rajapaksa, who is on a ‘private’ visit to that great land of freedom, hope and justice, the US.

One such issue concerns the interesting and rather curious nature of contemporary Sri Lanka-US diplomatic relations. That relationship is becoming more curious and interesting due to the reference made by AI, in its press release, to the US Ambassador in Sri Lanka. The press release, to substantiate AI’s argument that an investigation is imperative, states the following: "In December Wikileaks exposed a secret United States Embassy cable sent by Ambassador Patricia Butenis from Colombo in which she noted the difficulty of bringing perpetrators of alleged crimes of justice when ‘responsibility for many of the alleged crimes rests with the country’s senior civilian and military leadership, including President Rajapaksa and his brothers …"

What is interesting to note here is that the Wikileaks cables, and the observations made by the kind US Ambassador, are being used by human rights groups to press their case for an international investigation. It is considered as ‘evidence’, worthy of quotation. It is selective quotation, no doubt, and the observation made by the Ambassador is only a personal observation. Nevertheless, viewed from the perspective of human rights groups, it is useful ammunition. A process has begun; a process in which the above words of the US Ambassador will be repeatedly referred to, and it will be referred to in various international fora too, such as the Human Rights Council in Geneva. How will both Sri Lanka and the US cope with this?

Both parties may have well realized, by now, that nothing can be done about it. One option available to diplomatic officials of Sri Lanka and those in the US Embassy is to grin as best as one could in front of the camera during public engagements. Something called persona non grata may have crossed the minds of some nationalist elements within government, but a little more thinking would have made them realize that while this was a personal observation of an ambassador, this observation would be made by any US Ambassador. Wikileaks has not revealed something unimaginable or something unknown to many. Therefore, taking drastic action that further hampers diplomatic relations is futile. And certainly, Sri Lankan officials may have made the same observation concerning the leaders of the US in their diplomatic cables. In any case, leaders of both States know that they are being accused, and that none, especially those in the Western camp, have any reason to be too overly concerned about it given the lack of moral legitimacy they wield.

‘Damage control’ is another option. Ever since the cable was released by Wikileaks, one noticed a lot of kind words coming from the US Embassy. For instance, the US, we learn, is very pleased about the resettlement efforts carried out by the Sri Lankan government. "The Sri Lankan government has every right to be proud of its progress in resettlement and we are also proud to have contributed to this massive effort", said Ambassador Butenis when announcing a new USAID donation of $5.5 million of food aid to support the displaced in the North of Sri Lanka. Suave, smooth diplomacy.

Another issue that arises from the AI press release concerns the issue of investigations, and the crisis of legitimacy that envelopes the world today.

In AI’s press release, reference is made to Sami Zarifi, AI’s Asia Pacific Director, who had stated the following: "The United States has an obligation under international law to investigate and prosecute people who have perpetrated war crimes and grave human rights violations such as extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances." The press release points out the following too: "The United States should further investigate these allegations and support calls for an international investigation into Sri Lanka’s role in war crimes."

Firstly, it is time that AI and other groups make similar appeals as regards the US, referring as AI has done here, to the cables leaked by Wikileaks concerning the atrocities committed by the US forces elsewhere in the world.

Secondly, AI’s observation is to be viewed with a great degree of sympathy, since AI had, in fact, made the same kind of appeal, asking the US to investigate the conduct of former President George W. Bush. On 10 November, 2010, AI called for a criminal investigation into the role of Bush and other US officials in the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ against detainees held in secret US custody. This was after Bush admitted, during an interview (NBC), his personal involvement in authorizing ‘water-boarding’ and other techniques against ‘high value detainees’.

Interestingly, Claudio Cordone, Senior Director of AI, stated, "[u]nder international law, anyone involved in torture must be brought to justice, and that does not exclude former President George W. Bush" and that "in the absence of US investigation, other states must step in and carry out such an investigation themselves."

When one reads the above, would s/he not feel sorry for the plight of AI and other similar organizations? President Rajapaksa travels to the US and AI asks the US to investigate President Rajapaksa. But then, we quickly realize that AI is asking the very administration that is, most certainly, unable and unwilling to investigate its own former leaders! That’s how pathetic, even hilarious, the situation today is; for there is a legitimacy crisis, an absence of legitimate state actors in the world, which can initiate investigations on its own volition.

The crisis is further aggravated due to the absence of any international organization which could initiate investigations. For instance, there is the UNSG Ban Ki-moon and his Panel, and some observers wonder (seriously?) whether its members will come. To put it politely, neither the UNSG, nor his Panel, knows whether they are coming or going, and it is rather naïve to imagine that the Panel is meant to address the problem of ‘accountability’ in Sri Lanka. The UNSG, it should be known by now, is an officer who has clearly shown that there is no great difference between a local politician and a top international bureaucrat. The local politician would build a road or repair a culvert just before the local elections to gain votes and get re-elected. The top international bureaucrat, somewhat similarly, engages in a hitherto unknown practice of appointing a panel of experts to advice him on ‘accountability’ issues (and that too concerning one State only) with the hope of garnering support by an influential vote-base within the UN to help him get re-elected.

The legitimacy crisis is not local, or strictly confined to the domestic sphere and domestic investigations. It is a global one. Such is the magnitude of this state of affairs, or rather, the state of crisis. In such a context, what can be done, in the least, is to expose the hypocrisy of all actors concerned (international and domestic), and the violence carried out by State actors and other groups against the people (international and domestic).

Tell a Friend