Arguing about accountability

The cover of an Amnesty International letter 30 May 1999 shows two child soldiers of Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger guerrilla movement (LTTE) sent as part of a campaign in Colombo against the LTTE's recruitment of children. The London-based human rights organisation condemned the use of child soldiers by the Tamil Tiger rebels and urged people to express their concern to the guerrillas who are fighting for an independent homeland in the island.
by Dayan Jayatilleka

(April 12, Paris, Sri Lanka Guardian) One must re-scrutinise the emphatic assertion that post-war accountability, democracy, good governance and post-conflict reconciliation are integral parts of a single package or located on a continuum. It is argued that greater democratisation and fuller accountability regarding the war are indispensable complementarities.

The argument is put forward that without accountability there will be no reconciliation, and the question is therefore raised as to what the international standards and best practices of accountability are. Opinion divides between those who advocate or support an ‘independent international inquiry’ and an independent domestic inquiry.

What if the wrong question is being asked, to wit, what are the best practices with regards to post-war accountability?

The discussion today takes place against dual frameworks, those of democracy and post conflict reconciliation. What does the overwhelming evidence show, in both these realms?

In the first place, let us examine the evidence with regard to democratisation. Even if one were to adhere to the notion of a worldwide trend towards democracy, I would remind the reader that there is no single worldwide or universal trend, there are universal trends (plural), some of which tend to cancel the other out, or combine in a fashion that modifies the outcome. Thus the ‘End of History’ meets ‘the Clash of Civilisations’, with unforeseeable results. Authentic adherence to pluralism has not only a domestic but also a global dimension; recognising that there is a plurality of global trends, such as democratisation as well as multi-polarity propelled by newly emerging powers, and the Asian resurgence.

This being said, I think the late Prof Huntington was onto something when he wrote of the Third Wave. He was referring to the great waves of democratisation, the first being in Southern Europe in the 1970s, when the long lasting dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and the ‘younger’ ones in Greece and Turkey collapsed. The second wave swept Latin America. The Third wave (or was it the fourth?) took down the Soviet bloc. I would say the fourth (or was it the third?) wave was in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia. My slight confusion is because the Philippines restored democracy in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998, with the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe and Russia ’91 falling in-between. The Arab world is experiencing the fifth wave.

Now it must be emphasised that in the overwhelming number of these democratic transitions (with the GDR case being a short-lived exception), openings or re-openings, there were no accountability hearings with regard to the conduct of the militaries of those countries. More: an amnesty, or the pledge not to rake up accountability issues, was part of a compact which underpinned democratisation and guaranteed stability and forestalled further polarisation.

So accountability probes were not part of the great waves of democratisation, and were perceived to be counterproductive to the grand bargain that underpinned the project. More starkly, democracy and accountability did not go together. It was, more often than not, a question of democracy OR accountability.

The picture is no different with regard to post conflict reconciliation. From the Spanish civil war to the Philippines and Indonesia, the post conflict reconciliation process did not involve accountability probes. These were regarded as dangerously lacerating and polarising. Here again, accountability was not understood as a precondition for reconciliation but as a potential threat, and it was often a choice of reconciliation OR accountability.

In some cases, accountability issues have been allowed to surface only after decades have passed. Chile is about to probe the death of President Salvador Allende not only almost forty years after the event but a few decades after the restoration of democracy. Bangladesh is opening an inquiry into atrocities committed by militia during its war of independence in 1971, forty years ago.

Most societies settle accounts with their violent pasts by classically cathartic means such as artistic expression and public debate. Thus, some accounts are better balanced by History and left to what the French called la longue durée, the long term -- and to future generations.

Reconciliation is more readily achieved and more rooted through a negotiated compact between all democratic stakeholders. Such a process has already been initiated in Sri Lanka.

No external claim of accountability is more important than the accountability of a government to its own citizens; its own people. That is the corollary and concomitant of popular sovereignty.

(An expanded version of remarks made at the discussion that followed a paper presented by invitation by the author, at the Workshop on Global Leadership, Yale University, USA)

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