And the Mountains Echoed... - Sri Lanka Guardian


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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

And the Mountains Echoed...

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( July 17, 2013, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) What follows is not a political commentary. Nor is it an injunction on any State or Organization. Just some possibilities that made me not only think, but wonder.

I was struck by a novel I read recently by the acclaimed Khaled Hosseini entitled “And the Mountains Echoed”. The author starts with a story about an impoverished old man who lived in a remote and poor village, who had a wife and 5 children – three sons and two daughters. His youngest, a boy, was the most cherished if only because he brought light and life to the hard working man and his family. The boy was energetic and delightful. This was an ancient time when among humans ogres and giants existed and it was known that if one of them ever came into the village, it portended gloom and loss. The man did not worry about this prospect as his village was indeed remote and poor so as not to attract the hungry and unwelcome visitors. But one day it happened, and an ogre visited the village. His ominous pounding of footsteps as he approached the village petrified the man for he knew that if the ogre taps on his roof, he had to relinquish one of his children.

As the story goes, the ogre taps at the old man’s roof and he has to give away his most cherished boy, whose cries for rescue reverberated in the man’s ears for years to come. Several years go by, and the man’s sorrow at the loss of his child intensifies to an extent that he can bear it no longer. He decides to take a scythe and go in search of the ogre, whose castle is far away, to take revenge by killing him and to bring his boy back.

The man finally makes it to the ogre’s domain and after several days, climbs the mountain on which lies the ogre’s castle. He knocks on the door and shouts for the ogre to come out, saying he has come to kill the ogre. The ogre comes out and derides the old man saying that he could kill him instantly. However, almost as though to humour the old man, the ogre asks that he be granted a wish before the old man kills him. The wish is that the ogre be permitted to show the old man something. What the ogre eventually shows the man is a beautiful garden where happy children are playing and feasting on wonderful food. They looked well cared for, and the man sees his son among them - now a young man dressed in a beautiful shirt and fancy pants, playing happily with the other children. The ogre makes sure that the son does not see his father.

The man knows that he cannot give his son the luxury that he enjoys now and decides to leave his son. The ogre, recognizing the man’s courage, gives him an elixir to drink after he arrives home. This the man drinks, and it makes him forget his past the fact that he ever had his youngest son.

It just occurred to me, let’s say for the sake of pure argument, what would happen if such an elixir is given to the citizens of a country. Would they wake up, with total loss of memory of years of war, dictatorship and how their government eradicated civil war and terrorism? There would be no sense of gratitude to bind them anymore. All they would care would be about the following: Do we have enough to eat? Do we have good employment...good salaries...good clothing and housing? Are our children receiving a good education and are they assured of a future in the country? Would we have to send them overseas spending our last cent and mortgaging the only block of land we have? Could we use these wonderful airports, the expressways that connect them and the ports one day? Are we really on the path of development that would benefit all of us? Could we ever be rid of corruption? Are we all truly equal and would there be an end to sectarianism, racism and bigotry ...ever?

These issues would then be the real yardstick and not enduring gratitude.

Let us take the flip side to this equation. Suppose all those in the United Nations were given the same elixir. Would they wake up with a clean slate without any memory of the past? Would they consider the country on its current merits and answer the questions of its citizens in a manner favourable to the government? Would they keep insisting on human rights based on their assumed role of supreme arbiter and monitor of transnationalism? Above all, would they keep insisting on adherence to international conventions and treaties even if they happen to override local laws and the entitlements of local leadership? Would the practice of international courts - of targeting foreign officials for alleged transgression of international law - stop? Would they now reconsider the filing of war crimes by Belgian activists against former U.S President George H. W. Bush, General Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and retired General Norman Schwarzkopf, through which they alleged that the persons so named killed civilians in Baghdad during the Persian Gulf War by ordering missile attacks?

Would they stop lecturing sovereign countries on whether their conduct was appropriate and acceptable? Would a UN official, as happened in 2009, sit in judgment on the President of the United States on the ground that the latter’s actions in authorizing the use of drones in Afghanistan and Pakistan was “untenable” at international law?

Admittedly, it is nonsense to think that we should all forget the past by taking a magic elixir. What happened to the old man in Hosseini's book should never happen to us. We should not be made to forget what is precious to us, however painful.

However, if there be an elixir to put perspective into governance, make reparation for crimes actually committed, and to get on with life, that might be another matter.

The United Nations is there for a purpose, and that is to preserve world law and order and facilitate global governance. Global governance is the collective solving of problems at an international level. In doing so, it should ensure governance without governments. In other words it should not preach to sovereign States as a global bureaucracy. Nor should it remain silent. Its voice should be heard through the nations it represents.

A sovereign country is answerable to its people and not to an international organization. Elixir or not, it should be booted out if the people want it out. For that to be achieved there have to be two things: collective intelligence and collective action. The Arab Spring comes to mind.