The Cancer of Democracy

March 3, 2010

The take-no-prisoners approach to counterinsurgency adopted by the Sri Lankan government in 2009 was hailed in many corners as evidence that letting the military off the leash was more effective than a nuanced strategy of political engagement.

As disturbing stories emerged of Sri Lankan military and paramilitary units executing prisoners, silencing civil society critics and displaying a cavalier disregard for civilian casualties these were dismissed by government apologists as a price worth paying to secure democratic rule on the island.

In October last year the Obama administration even went so far as to brief the Sri Lankan Attorney General on the Military Commission system operating at Guantanamo. Sri Lanka is considering the Commissions as a possible model for Special Tribunals to try 12,000 potential LTTE suspects.

Then last month the Sri Lankan government arrested General Sarath Fonseka – military architect of the aggressive military strategy that led to the defeat of the LTTE and the death of Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran.

General Fonseka had been the main challenger of President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the January 2010 general election and it seems pretty apparent that the Sri Lankan regime is determined to send a strong message to future challengers that serious political opposition will not be tolerated.

The arrest of General Fonseka, the internment of Tamil civilians in poorly run camps, and the disappearance of human rights activists and journalists from the streets of Colombo are all part of the same pattern and spell disaster for the future of one of the oldest democracies in Asia.

One aspect of torture and human rights abuse often ignored in the counterterrorism debate is the impact that draconian and even illegal tactics have on the fabric of the society using them.

In the 1960s the French journalist Pierre Vidal-Naquet famously described torture as “the cancer of democracy” and chartered how counter terror and the use of water boarding and electric shock treatment on terrorist suspects in Algeria eroded the democratic values of the French military.

As French forces got sucked deeper and deeper into the conflict elite frontline units were called upon to break more and more of the taboos of civilized society. Democratic control began to break down as soldiers began to see themselves as being above the law.

Ultimately, as the civilian government moved towards a withdrawal from Algeria, French generals mounted a coup in Algiers and established their own terrorist movement, the Organisation de l’Armée Secrète (OAS), that declared war on the French government and came close to assassinating French President and national hero Charles de Gaulle.

Illegal tactics like torture and indefinite detention are not consequence free for those who use them. They erode values, discipline and ultimately even relatively stable democracies. The truth is that in the real world you can’t destroy the village to save it. That approach just leaves you with a pile of rubble.