A Diminished Force for Good

March 21, 2012

president obama sri lanka speech
Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

On Tuesday the United States sponsored a resolution at United Nations Human Rights Council calling on Sri Lanka to investigate alleged human rights abuses that occurred in the final days of the country’s struggle with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

A United Nations Panel of Experts has estimated that as many as 40,000 civilians may have been killed in the final stages of the conflict as the Sri Lankan Army overran the last few pockets of LTTE opposition.

As Amnesty’s recent report Locked Away: Sri Lanka’s security detainees makes clear, there are good reasons to believe that human rights abuses still continue to this day. Instances of arbitrary and illegal detention have been widely reported, as have acts of torture and extrajudicial execution.

I know from my own personal experience of working with Sri Lankan human rights defenders that the climate of fear in which opponents of the Rajapaksa regime operate is all-pervasive. The situation in Sri Lanka is grave and the intervention of the United Nations is much needed.

However, welcome though the US-sponsored resolution is, it is greatly undermined by the embarrassing gap that exists between US rhetoric and US behavior. Critics have not been slow in pointing this out.

Without any apparent trace of irony, the US resolution calls on Sri Lanka to:

“Address serious allegations of violations of international law by initiating credible and independent investigations and prosecutions of those responsible for such violations.”

This from the country whose President’s mantra has been that he intends to “turn the page” on the abuses that occurred during the Bush administration and to “look forwards not backwards.” And from an administration that has actively blocked attempts by victims of torture and extraordinary rendition to seek remedy in US courts.

You can’t have it both ways.

Hypocrisy acts like kryptonite on moral authority. The complete failure of the United States to address the deliberate use of torture as an integral part of the War on Terror hugely diminishes its ability to put pressure on other states to adhere to human rights standards that it itself has ignored.

And we are all the poorer for it.

The alacrity with which the US Army has responded to the tragic deaths of sixteen Afghan villagers in Zangabad, Afghanistan, earlier this month demonstrates that accountability is nothing to be afraid of. Indeed it can be a powerful force for good.

The US Army actually has a fairly impressive track record of holding its troops to account for their actions in combat. The Army prosecuted forty-four soldiers for murder or manslaughter of civilians in Iraq or Afghanistan from 2001 to 2011; Thirty soldiers have been convicted of some form of homicide.  Six have been convicted of lesser offenses. Only eight have been acquitted.

We should also not forget that it was a Special Agent in the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Command (CID) that initiated the investigation into the abuses that occurred in Abu Ghraib.

The US military’s reputation has not been significantly tarnished by abuses that have occurred in Afghanistan and Iraq precisely because there has been a genuine measure of accountability. The Obama administration should learn from the military’s example.

Historically, the US has been an important voice for human rights in world affairs. But this week we have seen the US seek to shine a light on the reprehensible activities of the Sri Lankan government only to see it respond by accusing the US of promoting ‘regime change’. Ouch.

There are not many governments out there that actively promote human rights. The US is one of them but its influence has been greatly diminished over the past decade because of its reluctance to meaningfully address its own, very public, failings in this regard.

We need a strong US voice speaking out for human rights in the world, but that can’t happen without real accountability at home.