WTF Friday, 7/3/2015

Hey, remember that time Sri Lanka shocked the world by booting Mahinda Rajapaksa out of office just as he was fixing to settle into the presidency for life? (I was there, it was pretty major.)

The new president, Maithripala Sirisena, was celebrated for his bravery in defecting from the regime, and for his principles in his campaign against the abuses of Rajapaksa rule. After the election, investigations of Rajapaksa and his family were announced on allegations of massive corruption, extrajudicial killings of journalists, and attempts to stage an election-night coup.

But six months later, things have gotten weird.

Sirisena’s coalition, the United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA) said today that Rajapaksa will run on their ticket in next month’s parliamentary polls. Rumor has it he may even be the pick for prime minister.

If that sounds like an unbelievably speedy rehabilitation of someone whose ousting was met with global cries of “Ding Dong, the Witch Is Dead”, remember that the January election was close. Rajapaksa remains very popular with the majority Sinhalese community and their representatives in Parliament. And, in the absence of clear evidence that he tried to overturn the election results, the fact that he gracefully exited office allowed him to preserve the option of a comeback.

At the moment, it’s not clear whether Sirisena actually signed off on Rajapaksa’s return. Over the last couple of days, he’d sounded adamantly opposed to the idea. If he changed his mind, it would indicate a major split in the (always tenuous) big tent movement that brought him to power. If he didn’t, he may have lost control of elements of the UPFA.

And either way, looks like the lead up to the August 17 election is going to be another bumpy ride for Sri Lanka.

WTF Friday, 6/12/2015

Somehow it’s Friday again. And:

A Sri Lankan MP has called for legal action against the country’s Foreign Minister for his unacceptably friendliness to gays. FM Samaraweera betrayed his country by voting against a resolution that called for the withdrawal of marriage benefits to UN employees in same-sex relationships. In previous fits of pique against the UN, the MP in question, Wimal Weerawansa, has attempted a hunger strike and threatened to stop using Gmail.

A large population of Ukrainian prisoners is stuck in the war zone “in legal limbo“. With no one to judge their cases, thousands of inmates remain in prisons in the east, facing water and electricity shut-downs as well as artillery attacks. The kicker? The court system has no centralized database, so no one actually knows how many people are affected. (h/t goes to Lev, thanks Lev!)

Barbie’s finally getting a pair of flats.

Come Hear Me Talk About Sri Lanka

PSA: I’ll be participating in a screening and discussion of “No Fire Zone“, a documentary about the Sri Lankan Civil War, along with the director, Callum Macrae. It’s next Monday (2/2), 12:30-2pm in room 1512 at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. I have it on good authority there will be snacks.

Check out the trailer below, and if you want to come, more details and RSVP info are up on the Pulitzer Center’s website.

WTF Friday, 1/16/2015: Sri Lankan Election Edition

Last week, President Mahinda Rajapaksa was unexpectedly unseated in an election in which nearly 82% of eligible Sri Lankans turned out to vote. I was there, and wrote about how exciting it was for the The Washington Post’s political science blog, Monkey Cage.

I left a few highlights out, though, so to supplement that post, I give you my top 5 WTF moments of the Sri Lankan presidential election:

1. In the last week of the campaign, Rajapaksa made a visit to Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, where he asked Tamils to vote for the “known devil” (himself, the commander-in-chief who presided over mass bloodshed in the region at the end of the civil war) over the “unknown angel” (Sirisena). Shades of Charles Taylor’s “he killed my ma, he killed my pa, I’ll vote for him“, anyone?

2. Campaigning ended on Monday, January 5 at 11:59pm and all campaign posters were supposed to come down at that time. They didn’t. A day or two later, someone got around to blacking out Rajapaksa’s face on billboards around town. This is what it looked like:

campaign poster

3. In the final hours of the campaign, state-aligned media paired coverage of the terror attacks in Paris with graphic footage of LTTE bombings, reminding voters that Rajapaksa had been responsible for the defeat of the insurgency.

4. On election day, Rajapaksa went to cast his vote accompanied by a doppelganger of his rival Maithripala Sirisena (now the president). The look-alike was one of several “joke candidates” fielded by both sides in an attempt to confuse voters. You can see him here.

5. In the days following Rajapaksa’s ouster, a number of things have emerged, not just coup attempt rumors and allegations of corruption, but secret helicopters (actually a persistent campaign issue symbolizing Rajapaksa extravagance) and illicit elephants.

Electoral Politics at Its Best

Former commander of the Sri Lankan Army Sarath Fonseka is on the campaign trail in Uva province, and he’s brought some unconventional props with him. Fonseka, who was badly wounded in a 2006 suicide bombing in Colombo, is traveling with the shrapnel-pierced Peugeot 406 he was riding in at the time, and a cardboard cutout of the woman who attacked him.

If this is successful in winning seats for his Democratic Party in the Uva provincial polls, I can’t wait to see what candidates decide to lug around in next year’s presidential election.

Screen shot 2014-09-16 at 9.56.41 AM

via The Republic Square, photo from the BBC Sinhala’s Facebook page.

WTF Friday, 7/25/2014

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted on Wednesday to establish an international commission of inquiry into possible war crimes committed by Israel during its current Gaza offensive. Of the 47 Council members, 29 voted in favor, 1 (the U.S.) against, and 17 abstained.

Gaza vote

UNHRC Gaza votes

Four months ago, I was in the Council chamber as another probe into possible war crimes was debated. Here is the outcome of voting on that resolution, which established an international investigation into alleged abuses at the end of Sri Lanka’s civil war in 2009:

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

UNHRC Sri Lanka votes

Notice anything?

With the exception of a handful of Latin American and sub-Saharan African countries, almost everyone has flipped their position.

This is interesting (or depressing, depending on how you look at it) because when countries explain their votes, they almost always speak in absolutes. In March, I heard numerous Western countries stress the legal obligation to provide justice for international crimes and the duty of the Council to stand with the victims of human rights abuses. I heard non-Western countries object categorically to “country-specific” resolutions (i.e. initiatives that single out a country for censure or investigation without its consent) and emphasize that the Council must respect sovereign governments and avoid an interventionist approach.

This week, it appeared that none of these positions were particularly deeply held.

*Photos of the vote board are courtesy of the United Nations office at Geneva.

WTF Friday, 3/7/2014

This week’s WTF comes to you from Sri Lanka, where I’ve been for the last couple of weeks.

The Daily Mirror reports that late on Wednesday night, police in a Colombo suburb picked up two high school girls who were (gasp) waiting at a bus stop and wearing t-shirts. According to the cops, the decision was made to bring the girls into the police station to “protect them from rapists who were in the vicinity”.

That’s some fine police work, sirs. We can only hope that law enforcement in all of our communities would respond to the news of rapists on the loose by rounding up any unattended young women with such alacrity.

(And for readers who lack the ability to detect absurdity and/or sexism, Groundviews helpfully gives us the story rewritten as if the kids were boys.)

Today in Political Phenomena I Don’t Really Get…

A couple of days ago my “Death, Destruction, and Unflattering Pants” google alert turned up the news that Sri Lanka has been holding “government-backed protests” against the draft UN Human Rights Council resolution calling for accountability for war crimes committed in the suppression of the Tamil insurgency.

My first thought was “wha…?” followed quickly by “‘government backed protests…’ what are those, exactly?” And then I learned that in addition to the thousands-strong turn out for the protests, Sri Lanka’s Banks Association has released a statement opposing the resolution.

This was all a bit confusing for me, because my understanding of the UN Human Rights Council’s process for consideration of draft resolutions suggests that it is not exactly responsive to protests (popular or bank-based) within violator states. So I put on my incipient-political-scientist hat (it’s green, thanks for asking) and thought, “Well, the Sri Lankan government must know that this isn’t likely to influence the policy of international actors, so they must have some other goal in mind.”

The most plausible explanation is that the protests are aimed at domestic, not international, audiences, but I don’t know enough about Sri Lankan politics to take this analysis any further. So, someone with more country expertise, help a girl out?

I see from the AP article reporting the protests that rising fuel prices have led to civil unrest and clashes between civilians and security forces. Is this an effort to diffuse that tension and convince the public to “rally ’round the flag” against an external threat? I also see that domestic opposition figures have criticized the government for failing to stand up to the US and the UN. The objections to international interference have all been framed in terms of sovereignty incursions. Given that Sri Lanka is a post-colonial state, is this an important enough issue to the electorate that the government feels it needs to bolster its sovereignty credentials through a public display?

Anyone know what gives?

Does "Responsibility to Protect" Mean "Duty to Retreat"?

James Traub, policy director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (“R2P”, for those without enough acronyms in their lives), has an interesting Op-Ed about Sri Lanka in yesterday’s Washington Post. In summary:

  1. The LTTE are super bad dudes who invented suicide bombing, killed Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and are currently holding thousands of civilians hostage in a desperate attempt to withstand the Sri Lankan government’s military assault against them.
  2. The Sri Lankan government is attempting to crush said bad dudes militarily, once and for all.
  3. This is endangering the lives of the civilians being held hostage. The government’s tactics (indiscriminate artillery fire, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detentions) are also totes uncool. They’re getting away with bad behavior by claiming that the LTTE are terrorists, and cloaking themselves in the mantle of the Global War on Terror. (Silly Sri Lankans! Only the US gets to do that.)
  4. Therefore, the “responsibility to protect” gives the Sri Lankan government a duty to retreat from the battle, even if the LTTE does not release the civilians it’s currently holding prisoner, and even if that means that the LTTE survives within Sri Lankan territory.

In other words, Traub believes that the responsibility to protect comes with a minimum competency requirement: if a state cannot achieve its military goals without going beyond a certain acceptable level of civilian casualties, then it should not be allowed to try.

That’s not a new theory: the principle of proportionality has long been a part of just war theory, (that would be “just” as in “justice”, not “just” as in “only”), and the jus in bello principles that govern how wars may be fought. Article 51(5) of the First Additional Protocol to the Geneva Conventions prohibits indiscriminate attacks on civilians, including those which may be expected to cause harm to civilians or their property “which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.” The same principle was enshrined in Art 8(2)(b)(iv) of the Rome Statute of the ICC, which extends the same protection to the environment as well as civilians, but requires that the harm be “greatly” excessive instead of just plain-vanilla excessive.

When you think about it, that “anticipated” is kind of amazing, because it refers to the likely outcome, rather than the goal. In other words, this rule weighs the likelihood of military success against the harm to civilians, not the importance of the military objective. It’s always good to base calculations in the real world, but that presumably means that there is a sliding scale: the less competent an army is, the less likely they are to achieve their goals; and so the fewer civilian casualties they can risk.

I’m all about avoiding civilian casualties, and think that doing so is militarily savvy as well as morally correct. But wars are messy, dangerous things, and there is always some risk to civilian lives and property. Does that mean that once an army falls below a certain level of competence, they’re not permitted to take any action at all? (Seriously, not being tendentious here. Wondering if that is the logical extension of that rule.)

Traub acknowledges that the LTTE might not release the civilians, even if the government agrees to a cease-fire, but insists that the army must cease hostilities anyway. Does he really mean that? Getting rid of violent insurgencies in one’s own territory is a pretty valid reason to use military force, so why is all army action is unacceptable? Is it because there’s no way it end the LTTE insurgency without a disproportionate impact on civilian lives and property? Or is Traub advocating for a sort of three-indiscriminate-airstrikes-and-you’re-out policy, so that the army’s past violations of the proportionality rule disqualify it from any further military action?

It seems to me that the logical next step would be to demand that the army cease its current unacceptable tactics, not that it cease all military action. Traub, however, steams straight past it into demands that the army stop fighting, and calls for Security Council action. Is that because he thinks there’s no hope of changed tactics?

(Or is he a victim of the Op-Ed form, in which there’s too little room to get into details, and apparently some sort of legally-required paragraph excoriating the U.S. for violating a treaty/rule of customary international law/U.N. Resolution/Pirate Code, and demanding expiation via Security Council?)


(If you want to learn more about proportionality, I recommend this and this)

(Hat tip: Enough’s Blog.)