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Accountability to whom? Inversing the Order


there is an issue of accountability and the GoSL and the state security forces are answerable and accountable to what happened. Nonetheless, the second question will naturally arise: accountability to whom? 
Sumanasiri Liyanage

The term ‘accountability’ is in vogue these days. Advice that comes as a ‘friendly pressure’ as Robert OBlake puts it is that Sri Lanka should be accountable to what happened in the last days of its war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Although it has not been expressed in explicit terms, the implication is that Sri Lanka and other poor countries should be held accountable to the Imperialist West usually disguised under some such coy pseudonym as ‘the international community’, ‘free world’, ‘democratic countries’, ‘liberal democracies’ etc. My Longman Dictionary defines ‘accountable’ as ‘responsible for the effects of your actions and willing to explain or be criticized for them’. In my opinion, ‘accountability’ in the current conflict discourse goes beyond this simple and uncomplicated meaning. The imperialist countries and civil society organizations funded by them have demanded that an international mechanism be set up in order to investigate ‘war crimes’ allegedly committed by the security forces of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) in the last phase of the armed conflict.

The Darusman Report made public on 25 April 2011 recommended, inter alia, the establishment of an independent international mechanism with concurrent functions to monitor the domestic accountability process, conduct independent investigations and collect and safeguard information provided to it. A group of international INGOs are calling for a ‘non-politicized’ discussion on the issue at the UN Human Rights Council. This demonstrates the shallowness of the analytical framework within which these organizations operate, treating the so-called human rights as a non-politicized issue. Does it really mean non-political? No, it means that the discussion should be conducted within the dominant framework described by a Sri Lankan NGO leader using the following binary. “On the one side of the divide, there is the Sri Lankan government and its allies, which include governments mainly from the developing and non-Western world. On the other, is a section of the international community which takes a stand of commitment to the cause of human rights.”

Accountability issue invariably poses a second question, namely, accountability to whom? The answer given is that the GoSL should be accountable to so-called international community. Instead of blindly accepting this accountability regime as a legitimate one, it is interesting to discuss its nature and constituent elements. The international accountability regime has three constituent elements, namely, (1) United Nations and its affiliates and international financial institutions; (2) Governments of the Western imperialist countries and (3) Non-governmental organizations. Is this mechanism non-political? Some time ago, the German philosopher, Jürgen Habermas posed an important question: “Does the claim to universality that we connect with human rights merely conceal a particularly subtle and deceitful instrument of western domination?” Commenting on this statement, Tariq Ali suggests that the word “subtle” could be deleted. How does this instrument operate in the current world context? Tariq Ali opined: ‘War – jus belli – is now a legitimate instrument as long as it is used with the US approval or preferably by the US itself. These days it is presented as a ‘humanitarian’ necessity: one side is busy engaged in committing crimes, the self-styled morally superior side is simply administering necessary punishment and the state to be defeated is denied its sovereignty. Its replacement is carefully policed both with military bases and money. This 21st-century colonization or dominance is aided by the global media networks, an essential pillar to conduct political and military operations’. The so-called accountability regime is not legitimate but is powerful. Moreover, lack of transparency of the present accountability regime has been clearly demonstrated by the recent action of the UN Secretary General to submit the Darusman Report to the UNHCR agenda without informing the relevant member country, Sri Lanka. As small Third World countries have to operate within this global power configuration; they are compelled to take some pragmatic measures for their survival. When dealing with power, diplomacy, magic, illusions, misinformation, blatant lies and similar tactics are warranted.

Does this mean that there is no legitimate issue of accountability? Put it in a simpler language we may pose the question: Are the GoSL and its state security forces accountable for what happened in the last phase of the war or its aftermath? My unequivocal answer is that there is an issue of accountability and the GoSL and the state security forces are answerable and accountable to what happened. Nonetheless, the second question will naturally arise: accountability to whom? The legitimate issue of accountability cannot be and should not be dealt with diplomacy, magic, misinformation or lies as it is a moral issue, an issue of popular sovereignty and social justice. When we pose the issue of accountability as a justice issue (justice issue are inter alia moral), the answer to the second question is that the GoSL and the state security forces are accountable and answerable to its people in general and to the people who were directly affected by the war during its last phase. On this issue the GoSL and the security forces should maintain their integrity and honesty by telling the truth and accepting the responsibility.

We need an independent commission that could look into all the aspects of war in its last phase and investigate that there was a conscious and deliberate killing or harming of civilians? Did the security forces attack places where civilians were? Although the GoSL claims that it adopted zero-civilian casualty policy, it was natural that the civilians would have been affected because of the nature of the armed conflict that deployed a mixture of conventional and unconventional methods. All the conflict data around the world show that in armed conflicts it was civilians who were killed and victimized more. In such a situation, the GoSL is responsible even if such incidents happened due to the nature of the armed confrontation. So an independent impartial commission may be appointed to investigate the civilian situation during the last 30 days of the conflict. A person like Prof. N Balakrishnan, former Jaffna University don, may be appointed as chair of that commission.

Secondly, popular sovereignty means that people should be given power to involve in the decision-making process. As Immanuel Wallerstein observed that ‘the demands of subordinate groups for a real degree of participation in the decision-making processes of the world has come to be directed not only at ‘capitalists’ but also at the ‘left’ governments that are promoting national ‘development’. Identity groups need not only food and shelter but also security, recognition of identity and participatory rights in decision-making. War came to an end more than two years ago. What are the steps taken so far to address these issues? Is the GoSL purposely delaying taking such measures, even the measures that can be taken within the given constitutional framework? Has the GoSL put forward any concrete suggestions to address these issues in the medium term through constitutional amendments? These are the justifiable and legitimate issues of accountability and dealing with these issues should be done with honesty and integrity. The GoSL and Sinhala political parties can play whatever pragmatically justified game with the so-called international community but not with the Tamil people who are part of the population in Sri Lanka.

The writer teaches political economy at the University of Peradeniya.

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