Part of my duties as an Ambassador of Sri Lanka take me to Spain and I am acutely aware that the parliamentary party, which was the preeminent representative of militant Basque nationalism, Herri Batasuna, was banned by Spain, which I admire as a liberal society.
The equivalent would be the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) in Sri Lanka, which quite correctly is not proscribed. Not only is it not proscribed, but it has also participated in elections and those elections were held fairly swiftly after the end of the war. There were two rounds of elections – national parliamentary elections and municipal or local authority elections – and they have gone very well. In fact, the ruling coalition lost despite a heavy military presence in those areas. So you have the reopening of democratic space and the re-enfranchisement of the Tamil people in those areas. And they have, perhaps perfectly naturally, opted for the TNA which is really the main representative of Tamil nationalism in Sri Lanka. There is also a process of dialogue with the Government of Sri Lanka. However, that process has proved to be fretful and fraught. One of the reasons could be that the TNA, perhaps under the gun, was perceived as a fellow traveller of the Tigers and has so far chosen not to make any kind of self-criticism or an opened criticism of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTTE). So just two years after the war, there is a hangover of memory and the atmosphere is really problematic. But there is at least an effort at dialogue, although it has not produced any kind of speedy progress. But the TNA is in Parliament and that is important. Elections have been held.
I ask you to bear in mind that we have many voices from Asian friends, gently urging and nudging us in the direction of ethnic reconciliation through reform, and I do not see this as a negative factor. However, on the issue of sovereignty and on the related issue of an international inquiry into the conduct of the war there are no pressures at all from any part of Asia. So I think Dr. Henry Kissinger was correct when, in his last book on China, he makes the point that though Westphalian sovereignty is no longer a touchstone in Europe, you have an almost classically Westphalian notion of sovereignty in Asia including Eurasia, from Russia onwards, and among Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS), as well as in the global South as a whole.
I look at the issue of accountability primarily as a political scientist and from a comparative politics point of view. I am struck by the fact that what I consider to be an exemplary progressive democracy, Brazil, headed by Dilma Rousseff – who was herself a guerrilla and a political prisoner, tortured by the military junta – has only recently instituted a commission of inquiry into the conduct of the military junta from 1964 to 1988. In Argentina, we have known for a long time of the notorious torturer and executioner, the so-called Angel of Death and naval captain Astiz. And Astiz has been sentenced only now for the crimes that he has committed from 1976 to 1979. I could go on. When I look at Bangladesh, there is a commission of inquiry into the atrocities committed in 1971, four decades ago. And there are many societies which have moved from conflict to post-conflict society, and from authoritarian regimes to democracies, who have deliberately chosen not to open up the issue of accountability until a new generation and a new mentality has been formed.
In Sri Lanka you have a widely popular army, popular because it put an end to 30 years of suicide bombers. I really do not think that any democratically elected government is going to risk being the first in the world to open up the military to an international inquiry on the successful conclusion which is considered, by most of the citizenry, to be a liberation from terrorism. So I do believe that accountability is important. But I also do believe that universality works through the particular. And the particular which I refer to in South Asia is the stage of political development and the need to ensure that stability and democracy is not jeopardised, because democracy is always fragile. So I do believe that every society, as part of its sovereign right, decides on when it will confront certain issues of collective trauma and how. And I believe Sri Lanka is no different from these other societies.
Does Sri Lanka subscribe to universality of values? Yes but I will be honest enough to say that there is a problem. There are some of us who really adhere to belief in universality. Formally, the Sri Lankan state did, because it had signed up to so many conventions and was an active part of the UN system. But there is an ideological struggle going on as in every society. Societies in economic crisis have always this tendency to turn inwards, outwards and so on. So there are those who would say that universal values are just a disguise for the West and that societies need their own values.
The most important thing is that we are human beings; therefore, on deriving from the universality of the human condition, there are universal values which are the highest values. But we must be realistic enough to understand that there is unevenness. In the theoretical sense, we have to be aware of two major errors. One error is to deny universality and regard instead regional or local parochial cultural values as higher. This is an ongoing battle in my society. And another error is the lack of understanding that universality itself develops unevenly.
Ideally, one day, if the United Nations itself were made more democratic and representative, with more power to the General Assembly and more representation at the Security Council, then perhaps this would be easier to resolve. The debate usually polarizes between those who say no to national sovereignty and no to individual rights and those who say yes to national sovereignty and that individual rights are obsolete. But we return to the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, Article 3 states that “all sovereignty flows from the nation.” So there you have almost a perfect synthesis and equilibrium of the rights of the citizens and the sovereignty of the nation. And we have lost that, theoretically and in practice. Can a citizenry exist without its constitution as a nation?
Photo Credits: AFP
Reclaim Your Stage:
The Platform is a groundbreaking blog that provides current affairs and cultural commentary. Our pieces offer challenging opinions from a range of spectrums; that’s why we love hosting a platform for them.