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Trading Liberty for Security

by NILANTHA ILANGAMUWA

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, wrote Martin Luther King, Jr., in his infamous letter from Birmingham jail in April 1963. His words were aimed at the Jim Crow system and the unjust practices which prevented access to basic rights for some American People. It was the period during which African- Americans raised their voices against injustice. While they did not win their struggle, it is fair to say they were able to reach a turning point from where recognition was attained that they also had the right to think and express themselves.

“[We’re] going to change the world. One day they’ll write about us. You’ll see,” noted Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr., and a remarkable human rights activist, murdered by the Ku Klux Klan after the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march in Alabama.

Decades later, in 2009, the sentiment was reproduced, by the leader of the ‘free-word’ as the ‘struggle for freedom’. However, the political tamasha we the people saw during that time gave us a different taste of reality which has extended to the present situation of prevailing and spreading political anxiety among the people. We are therefore realizing again through experience that there are demons in disguise.

Cartoon_Avantha

(Cartoon by Avantha Artigala)

Time has value if one explores one’s experiences, for one’s mind decides mostly by experience. We have spent centuries to understand humanity and the capacity of the human mind to preserve its sovereignty.

Thereafter, we have spent more years to give form to our discoveries of morality and dignity resulting in sovereignty being confirmed through equal status until known otherwise. But, in reality neither the equality nor dignity of ordinary people are being preserved, deserved, or enjoyed, due to politics which engages stigmatic operations against real freedom. By and large, the unimaginable price of inequality has to be paid for, unconditionally, by each of us with or without our knowledge. It has directed society as a whole into its current state of anxiety.

Under these circumstances none can refuse the basic notion raised by Alain de Botton in his book Status Anxiety that “Life seems to be a process of replacing one anxiety with another and substituting one desire for another–which is not to say that we should never strive to overcome any of our anxieties or fulfill any of our desires, but rather to suggest that we should perhaps build into our strivings an awareness of the way our goals promise us a respite and a resolution that they cannot, by definition, deliver.”

Where are we heading? What would be the end of all these anxieties we are currently experiencing? How could we, each one of us, as ‘people of this generation’, contribute to the form of the next step of our evolution as people?

Attack on Syria

The geopolitical situation in the world has entered another turning point in the wake of planned military strikes on Syria where over hundreds of thousands of civilians have already perished in the war between government forces and rebels. In other words, it seems that global politics has closed in on the edge of the precipice over contradictions on “military interventions”, which are the most unsuccessful strategies of reconciliation and restoration of the rule of law in certain jurisdictions. However, it is healthy news, though it can be temporary, that the United States and Russia have reached a landmark agreement on the withdrawal of or destruction of chemical arsenals controlled by the Government of Syria, headed by its long term President, Bashar Hafez al-Assad.

‘Both parties reached a deal on a framework that will see the destruction or removal of Syria’s chemical weapons by mid- 2014’, states a report by Moscow based media. The truth is out there, as the saying goes. The use of chemical weapons by someone against their enemies is no doubt the most heinous crime against humanity and mankind. It was not only in Syria, where recently over 1,400 people, including infants, children, and women, were killed in chemical attacks. World War II, Vietnam War, Kosovo, Libya, and infamous Fallujah, Iraq, have all taught us bitter lessons on the use of chemical weapons, though only a small number of rights groups urged for accountability on those crimes at that time. While teaching how to destroy or remove the chemical weapons preserved by the “bad guys”, it’s good to learn who made them first and who used them first against whom.

Duplicity has always created room for criminals and it has opened tremendous opportunities for those who want to hide the truth. It has directly attacked the system of human justice and it has evaporated the hope of freedom.

What we have been deliberately ignoring here is our own tendency to consecrate someone, when the facts that we or our allies collected has led to the victimization of the innocent. This method has played a bad role in many places in the world. Here is where Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry’s, argument, “providing this framework is fully implemented it can end the threat these weapons pose not only to the Syrian people but also their neighbors,” is not only debatable but laughable. It is enough to understand the real bitterness of this kind of political gameplay, if you are able to read at least one narrative of those victims, who were detained, in the Guantánamo bay prison on suspicion of engagement in terrorism.

Ahmad Zubair, who was former prisoner and hunger striker at Gitmo, released in 2009, noted, in a sworn statement submitted to a US court by Ramzi Kassem, “During each force-feeding, my nose bleeds. The pain from each force-feeding is so excruciating that I am unable to sleep at night because of the pain in my throat.” He also explained that, at one point, the authorities arranged for his mother to call the prison, who “urged him to drop the hunger strike.” Zuhair said, “My family did not know what I was going through at Guantánamo — the humiliation, the torture, the solitary confinement.” How can the Secretary of State genuinely declare, that the removal or destroying of chemical weapons and arsenals would end the threat to the people, when his own room is the stage for playing the notorious game of mistreating political prisoners.

When it comes to chemical weapons, history is much clearer on the facts and the use of them against civilians since the first use of chemical weapons in 1915-17 by Germans.

Reports indicate that, the U.S. still holds approximately 5,500 tons of chemical weapons while Russia has much more, about 21,500, inherited from Soviet arsenals.

At the same time, it is important to know who refused to sign the agreement on the Chemical Weapons Convention which came onto force in 1997. Signing or refusing the agreement is not important. But, the core issue is ratified by those laws. The best example is the nuclear capability that the government of Israel developed, under the pretext of threat from neighboring Arab nations. While quoting the well-known defence magazine, Jane’s, one analyst says, “It [Israel] has the ability to develop an offensive chemical weapons program within several months.” The major reason for many Arab countries refusing to sign the Chemical Weapon Convention is the nuclear capability that Israel has.

The crisis in Syria prevailing in this framework is not just a simple articulated formula that can be used against “bad guys”, to establish one’s dominant ideology among the people, but political complicity of power played against truth and justice. If one doesn’t have an enemy one must first give birth to the enemy before one prepares a systematic attack on him. The theory which played out in ‘Kissingerian’ diplomacy has reduced its own space of play in modern political culture.

That is why the attack on Syria is not an easy game to play. What none can refuse is, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, ‘darkness cannot drive out darkness.’ In other words, ‘badness cannot drive out badness.’

Pillay in Sri Lanka

In these circumstances, it was remarkable that Dr. Navanethem Pillay made an official visit to Sri Lanka, which was noted to be the longest visit she has made to a single country, after assuming her current office. She concluded the visit with a comprehensive, comparative, and in-depth remark on the present political structure and its motivation in the island nation.

“Despite the opportunity provided by the end of the war to construct a new vibrant, all-embracing state, [the leadership] is showing signs of heading in an increasingly authoritarian direction…,” noted Dr. Pillay. In her statement made in Colombo, she has given a drop of water to the people thirsting for justice and freedom. It is just a silver lining around a very dark cloud; a tiny hope for the hopeless.

Her observations constantly focused on the root causes of the problem in Sri Lanka, and its institutional collapse. The President of the country later gave a feverish answer by saying that it is laughable to say that the country which is conducting elections in time and asking for power of the people is heading towards authoritarianism.

Similar comments came from the former President of Sri Lanka, J. R. Jayawardhana, a few years after he created the most notorious constitution for the Island nation, in 1978, while introducing an Executive Presidency above the law. It was neither a module of

Charles de Gaulle’s politics nor the module of the United State’s presidential system but a political curse which destroyed the last milestone of personal liberty in this country. However, in his speech J.R.J said, “I think the UNP way was truly democratic, for they listened to the voice of the people, for ‘Vox Papuli, Vox Dei’, [the voice of the people is the Voice of God].” But at that time only few local people were able to recognize the true face of this untruth and almost no one from the international community opposed it. The result: over 30,000 forced disappearances in the southern part of the country, with the entire Island left to burn in the bloodiest civil war.

Now, years later, for the first time, a key player in opinion-making in global politics, Navi Pillay, has come on track of the real problem faced by Sri Lanka, and she was able to articulate the crisis through ground realities rather than long distance predictions based on political gossip.

The present political situation is leading us to understand and appreciate the importance of personal liberty. Quoting Benjamin Franklin, American political scientist, James Otteson, noted recently,  ‘Liberty is also the thing that gives us dignity. We have human, moral dignity because we have liberty. So if we are giving our liberty away in exchange for security, we’re not only losing the liberty, but we’re also losing to that same extent some of our dignity. That’s a very high price to pay and once we give up that liberty it may be very difficult to ever get it back.’

Nilantha Ilangamuwa, editor of the ‘Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives’, a bi-monthly magazine   published by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), based in Hong Kong and the Danish Institute Against Torture (DIGNITY) based in Denmark, where this piece will be appeared as the editorial of its forthcoming issue. He also edits the Sri Lanka Guardian, an online newspaper based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

 

Nilantha Ilangamuwa is Editor of Torture: Asian and Global Perspectives. He also edits the Sri Lanka Guardian, an online daily newspaper. He is the author of the recently released non-fiction books, “Nagna Balaya” (The Naked Power), published in Sinhalese, and “The Conflation”, published in English. 

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