Dictators’ Delight

Murari Sharma

 Syria is in a deep crisis. More than 100,000 people, over 1,400 of them from chemical weapons, have already lost their lives and more are losing. The West has failed to stop the carnage. It has serious implications for the rest of the world, including Nepal.

 Started in January 2011 at the tail end of the Arab Spring that toppled several Arab dictators, the crisis manifests the quest of the suppressed and angry majority for equality and justice. The Assad family, from the Alawite Shia minority, has ruled Syria since 1971. The Alawites constitute only 11 percent of the population, while Sunnis make up 74 percent. The majority had hoped that, when Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, he would introduce democratic reforms. But he continued his father’s despotic rule.

 To suppress his opponents, the young Assad unleashed a reign of terror. He has murdered people indiscriminately, in cold blood, from land and from air. On 21 August 2013, his forces used chemical weapons, killing innocent people, including children and old. Though the Assad regime has blamed that the rebels used the poison gas to prompt Western intervention, the UN inspectors found otherwise.

 The conflict is truly sectarian and complex. Within the region, the Shias – Iran, militant Hezbollah, and others — have supported Assad. Al-Qaida, other Sunni militant groups and Sunni states, including Saudi Arabia, have sided with the rebels. From outside, Western countries have provided arms and humanitarian assistance to the opposition, while Russia has backed Assad with arms and China with a soft corner. The conflict reminds of Cold War.

 It has generated a staggering humanitarian disaster. Apart from the colossal loss of life, more than 6.5 million people have fled Syria or been internally displaced. What is more, this spark could put the volatile Middle East on fire, stifle oil supply, and hurt the global economy that is still in a fragile recovery.    

 Western countries have imposed sanctions on Damascus. US President Barak Obama has repeatedly asked Assad to quit. He had declared a year ago that the use of chemical weapons by Assad would be the red line triggering US military action. By using poison gas against his people, Assad has crossed the red line.   

 This has put the US and other Western countries in a quandary. If they attack Assad from air or put boots on the ground, they would be fighting alongside Al-Qaida, their archenemy, and other jihadists. If they do not, Assad would continue killing Sunnis and Christians. Yet hawks at home and allies abroad put pressure on Obama to keep his word. Consequently, Obama settled for limited air strikes to avoid long entanglement in yet another sticky situation in a difficult region.

 Among the allies, David Cameron, the Conservative British prime minister, pushed Obama hardest for the strikes. He is facing an incipient challenge to his leadership in his party and robust competition from French President Francois Hollande for close friendship with Obama. He wanted action against Damascus as much to preserve his standing as to end the humanitarian disaster. But he lost the parliamentary vote for Britain’s participation in the Syrian operation.  

Under the UN Charter, no country can be attacked without Security Council authorization. Russia and China were opposed to such mandate against Syria to protect their strategic interests in the Middle East and humiliate the USA, the hegemon in the region. The British vote ruled out the possibility to form a coalition of the willing to bypass the Council, as in Iraq. It also deprived America of the chance to support Britain and France from behind, the template used to remove Col. M. Gaddafi of Libya.

His back against the wall, Obama sought Congress’s approval for military action. It was a smart move. If Congress approved, Obama could attack Syria without earning the moniker of a Nobel-Peace-Prize-winner warmonger, without Security Council mandate, and without facing a funding problem at a time when the Republicans have refused to pass a budget and increase the debt ceiling, threatening a government shutdown. Besides, Obama could share with the Republicans any negative fallout from the attack.   

 Congress wavered. Eager to prove Obama, an African-American Democrat, a failure to capture the White House next time, the Republicans have not only denied him a full budget for the last four years. They have also voted 40 times to repeal his signature health care law, insisted on deep cuts in spending to hurt the middle class, and resisted any tax increase. The Democrats have made jobs and economic recovery their priority. As surveys show, tired of prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American people do not support US involvement in Syria.

 As Obama’s ship was sinking in Congress, Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly threw a lifeboat for him. He proposed to bring Syrian chemical weapons under international control so Assad could not use them. Obama in his speech on 10 September 2013 repositioned himself. He nearly ruled out the goal of regime change, and concentrated on increasing humanitarian assistance to Assad’s victims and on putting chemical weapons under international control.

 To make his case directly to the American people, Putin published an article on 12 September 2013 in The New York Times. He argued that any attack on Syria needed Security Council mandate; that rebels, not Assad, used chemical weapons; and that Syrian chemical weapons should be brought under international control to prevent Islamic terrorists getting hold of them. Subsequently, America and Russia have agreed in Geneva to strip Syria of these UN-banned weapons. But the agreement does not guarantee peace.

 Ironically, now Washington will have to negotiate peace with Assad, a man Obama has asked to go, with uncertain outcomes. The Assad regime has claimed victory. In contrast, majority Syrians whose blood and sweat might have been shed in vein and their sympathizers have expressed a profound disappointment.  

 All this has sent a clear message to the rest of the world: American appetite and capacity to punish its foes and reward its friends has declined. It has made the friends unhappy and the foes happy. Particularly, the existing and aspiring dictators have become the happiest. They are delighted that they now have a carte blanche to smash and kill their opponents mercilessly without any external fear.  

Essentially, the classic dilemma between sovereignty and morality has raised its head again. The UN Charter not only stipulates Security Council authorization for attacking a member state. The world body also recognizes the global community’s responsibility to protect peoples from brutal rulers and ruthless non-state actors. This dilemma has acute relevance to Nepal as well.  

 Although the Nepali people would like to believe that their country is democratic and will remain so in the future, the evidence offers no room for confidence. Democracy is yet to be part of habit and culture of the ruling elites. It could be easily hijacked, notably by the extreme left or right. The extreme leftists have not abandoned their dictatorial ambitions and the extreme rightists their monarchical goal. The Syrian episode has emboldened them both to pursue their pet aims.

 People in the middle who believe in democracy, civil liberties and human rights and reject dictatorships of any sort are terribly frightened. As the Western foreign policy priority shifts, they will have to unite to protect and expand the middle ground on their own.

 But the international community has this moral question to answer: Do you protect the right of ordinary people to life and liberty or the freedom of dictators to take that right away?


Cry for Justice


Belgicia Howell says, “Never explain yourself. Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it.” Here is a case in point. My foes have launched a sponsored (as leaked Foreign Ministry documents suggest) and false (sans evidence) media persecution against me.

 My friends have not asked for any explanation. They know how Prachanda and Upendra Yadav wronged and humiliated me breaking internal rules and international diplomatic norms. How they allegedly sold the post to someone when I refused to sell the London embassy building, join their parties and contribute money. How their henchmen threatened me. How clean I have always been. My friends understand that if I chose exile at this stage in life, there must be an overarching reason and overwhelming evidence for it. 

My enemies would not believe a thing I say to defend me because they are the ones planting falsity and half-truths in the media. They do it in revenge.They did it when I fought Yadav’s injustice and when someone complained about their involvement in human trafficking and financial irregularities to the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority. My foes are doing it now because two former local staff reportedly filed a similar complaint again. (Disclaimer: I am not behind the complaint). 

Spectacular is my foes’ stretch of imagination. For instance, they published that the British government gives me 5,000 pounds a month. If it were true, everyone in Nepal would want to take refuge in the UK. A 5,000-pound spending on carpets, which can be checked with the ministry, becomes 50,000-pound scandal for my foes; add zeros for exaggeration. Only fools would believe such absurdity. My friends don’t believe it. For others, this ludicrous mud-slinging is a passing entertainment. 

I hate to engage with my persecutors in this filthy war of words. As poet Mohan Koirala once reportedly said, “You cannot cower in a corner or howl back if a pack of jackals howls at night by the Dhobi Khola.”

Such persecution is age-old. Despots and extremists have rewarded some and persecuted others. They have used falsity, threats, violence and incarceration to silence and suppress their opponents. Victims have often fled their countries for safety: Krishna Koirala, BP Koirala, and Pushpalal Shrestha (Nepal); Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif (Pakistan); Karl Marx and Albert Einstein (Germany); M Reja Pahlavi (Iran); Thaksin Sinawatra (Thailand); MF Hussain (India); Norodom Sinhanouk (Cambodia); and the Dalai Lama (Tibet) are some examples.

The perpetrators continue to vilify the victims with false propaganda in exile and humiliate or kill when they return home. Saddam Hussein taunted his sons-in-law to return from Jordan and killed them in cold blood. Pervez Musharraf castigated Bhutto and Sharif while they were living abroad, and allegedly murdered her when she went home. In Nepal, Shah Kings portrayed BP Koirala as anti-national in exile and charged him with treason on return. The Maoists and their collaborators have gone one step further: They have persecuted and killed ordinary people too. 

In ‘normal’ countries, threats, humiliations, and circumstances are personal. That Prachanda has challenged the state to arrest him for war crimes, blamed the victims and threatened with another conflict if justice for war crimes is pursued suggests that Nepal is not normal. It is lawless. No wonder, since 1996 nearly 200,000 Nepalis have taken refuge in the West. And 17,000 have been killed; if they had fled the country, most would have been alive today. 

Nanda Prasad and Ganga Maya Adhikari of Gorkha, now fasting-onto-death for justice, would have preferred their son, Krishna Adhikari, 17, living in exile to being killed at home. Ditto the families of Ujjan Shrestha, Arjun Lama, Dekendra Thapa, Maina Sunuwar, the victims of the Bandermudhe bus explosion and other atrocities mounted by the Maoists and security forces.Some did not have the means; others did not realize the potency of threat.

The families of victims have been crying for justice for years. Friends of justice—victimized population, human rights community, and other conscientious people—need no explanation. For them, justice is essential to heal the wounds of war, deter people from committing crimes, protect society by putting criminals away, and give culprits the time to reflect, repent and reform. 

However, Maoist leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai don’t seem to believe in justice. They have been blaming the victims and threatening to start another conflict if justice were done. They want the ongoing investigations into war crimes stopped and new ones prevented, and a blanket amnesty for the alleged Maoist perpetrators secured. In a desperate attempt, Bhattarai, as prime minister, sent a draft ordinance containing a blanket amnesty to the President who has rightly put it on hold. Prachanda’s recent challenge to arrest him for war crimes also goes too far.

We may not convert Prachanda and Bhattarai into supporters of justice. Yet we must try to persuade the people of good conscience—including among the Maoists and security personnel—to fight for justice and tip the scale in its favor. 

To start, the 12-point agreement has no provision for amnesty. It only provides for resolving war crimes and constituting a truth and reconciliation commission (TRC). The UN guidelines for TRC, the Geneva Conventions and South African experience demonstrate that TRC should resolve only minor conflict-era crimes. Major war crimes—murder and maiming of civilians, destruction of civilian property—must come under the national criminal justice system or international tribunals. 

Early and proportionate justice for war crimes is in Maoist interest as suggested by three recent developments. One, the arrest of Col Kumar Lama of the Nepal Army in Britain for conflict-era atrocities in Nepal indicates that the sword of Damocles would hang over the heads of Maoist leaders as long as Western countries do not see the evidence of adequate justice in Nepal. Besides Britain, many Western countries have laws with extraterritorial jurisdiction against serious human rights violations. 

Two, the victims of conflict-era atrocities have ratcheted pressure on government for justice. The Adhikari couple’s hunger strike, and the growing support for them, has compelled the Khil Raj Regmi government to investigate their son’s murder seriously. Similarly, the victims of the Bandermudhe bus explosion have rejected financial compensation and demanded punishment for the perpetrators. Others will follow suit forcing the government to bring all war criminals to justice. 

Three, despite repeated protests from their leaders, the alleged Maoist killers of Dekendra Thana, a journalist, have surrendered in a great show of penance and moral conscience. Others will follow if government and human rights organizations replicate India’s ‘dacoits rehabilitation package’ to assist the families whose breadwinners surrender before the law. 

All this, together with the law of nature that works in a weak-strong-weak cycle, may grant Prachanda his ill-advised wish. The law of man will catch when he is weak. Already, the Maoists are on a decline. Since 2008, they have not accomplished much more than integrating their combatants into the army. They are largely blamed for failing to write the constitution. They proved to be as corrupt as other parties. Their party has split. If other victims follow the Adhikari couple’s example, people may punish the Maoists in upcoming CA II polls. 

Famous detective Allan Pinkerton warns, “Crime might flaunt its victories in the face of honest toilers, but the law will follow the wrongdoer to a bitter fate, and dishonor and punishment in the end.” Examples abound. The former presidents of Egypt, Pakistan and Liberia—Mubarak, Musharraf, and Taylor, respectively—are facing trials. Eventually, the long hand of law reached the Nazi, Khmer Rouge, and military leaders. The Maoist leaders had better choose a different path before it is too late. 

Belgicia Howell should perhaps approve of some explanation if it helped remove the gap between friends and enemies on issues like freedom to choose and justice for war crimes.


Published in Republica: http://www.myrepublica.com/portal/index.php?action=news_details&news_id=61010&show_comments=true

Published on 2013-09-08 01:15:28