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Accountability, reconciliation, democracy

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Accountability, reconciliation, democracy
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At a recent seminar at the Acadamie Diplomatique Internationale in Paris, a team from the National University of Singapore’s Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS), on a Paris-London visit, presented on ‘Developments in the Arab World and the Impact on Asia: an Asian Perspective’. I attended eagerly, not only because of the subject’s salience but because these were my recent colleagues and friends.

The team’s presentation differentiated the domestically driven developments, most importantly but not exclusively in Tunisia and Egypt, from external military intervention in Libya’s armed civil conflict or civil war. Prof Tan Tai Yong, the Vice Provost of the National University of Singapore (with which Yale has just signed a deal to establish a liberal arts college) and Executive Director of the Institute pointed out that while Asian opinion agreed that the intentional killing of unarmed civilian protestors de-legitimized any regime and constituted a new ‘red line’ for the international community which if crossed would trigger R2P, Asia with its organically evolved societies and states of long historicity  (contrasting with many an Arab state such as Libya carved out as a patchwork of tribes, clans and ethnicities mere decades ago by colonial fiat, with Egypt a monumental exception), its functioning political parties and use of universal suffrage, its familiarity with and history of street protests, and its better shared prosperity in an era of economic upswing, has states of an entirely different formation and type from those of the Arab world, and does not suffer the same structural vulnerabilities of legitimacy.


By contrast, the dramatic external dimension of the developments in Libya and the resultant deflection/distortion of domestic struggles of democratization and reform were seen by the delegation to have a marked impact on Asia.

The team pointed to the role played by the most dogmatic adherents of the doctrine of ‘liberal humanitarian interventionism’ and their distortion of the Responsibility to Protect endorsed by the UN Security Council. I had discovered on a recent visit to the USA to present a paper by invitation at a Workshop on Global Leadership at Yale (at which the keynote speaker was Marwan Muasher, Jordan’s former deputy Prime Minister), that these were the same trinity of personalities who had been pushing the case of Sri Lanka’s ‘accountability’ for the closing stages of the war.

With regard to Sri Lanka, the argument is put forward that without accountability there will be no reconciliation. Opinion divides between those who advocate or support an ‘independent international inquiry’ and an independent domestic inquiry.

The question is therefore raised as to what the international standards and best practices of accountability are. What does the overwhelming evidence show? What are the best practices with regards to post-war accountability?

It is further argued that greater democratization and fuller accountability regarding the war are indispensable complementarities. Therefore it has also become necessary to re-scrutinize the emphatic assertion that post-war accountability, democracy, good governance and post-conflict reconciliation are integral parts of a single package or located on a continuum.

In the first place, let us examine the evidence with regard to democratization. Even if one were to adhere to the notion of a worldwide trend towards democracy, I would remind the reader that there is no single worldwide or universal trend, there are universal trends (plural), some of which tend to cancel the other out, or combine in a fashion that modifies the outcome. Thus the ‘End of History’ meets ‘the Clash of Civilizations’, with unforeseeable results.  Authentic adherence to pluralism has not only a domestic but also a global dimension; recognizing that there is a plurality of global trends, such as democratization as well as multi-polarity propelled by newly emerging powers, and the Asian resurgence.

This being said, I think the late Prof Huntington was onto something when he wrote of the Third Wave. He was referring to the great waves of democratization, the first being in Southern Europe in the 1970s, when the long lasting dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and the ‘younger’ ones in Greece and Turkey collapsed. The second wave swept Latin America. The Third wave (or was it the fourth?) took down the Soviet bloc. I would say the fourth (or was it the third?) wave was in East Asia: the Philippines, South Korea and Indonesia. My slight confusion is because the Philippines restored democracy in 1986 and Indonesia in 1998, with the events of 1989 in Eastern Europe and Russia ’91 falling in-between. The Arab world is experiencing the fifth wave.

Now it must be emphasized that in the overwhelming number of these democratic transitions (with the GDR case being a short-lived exception), openings or re-openings, there were no accountability hearings with regard to the conduct of the militaries of those countries. More: an amnesty, or the pledge not to rake up accountability issues, was part of a compact which underpinned democratization and guaranteed stability and forestalled further polarization.

So accountability probes were not part of the great waves of democratization, and were perceived to be counterproductive to the grand bargain that underpinned the project.  More starkly, democracy and accountability did not go together. It was, more often than not, a question of democracy OR accountability.

The picture is no different with regard to post conflict reconciliation. From the Spanish civil war to the Philippines and Indonesia, the post conflict reconciliation process did not involve accountability probes. These were regarded as dangerously lacerating and polarizing. Here again, accountability was not understood as a precondition for reconciliation but as a potential threat, and it was often a choice of reconciliation OR accountability.

In some cases, accountability issues have been allowed to surface only after decades have passed. Chile is about to probe the death of President Salvador Allende not only almost forty years after the event but a few decades after the restoration of democracy. Bangladesh is opening an inquiry into atrocities committed by militia during its war of independence in 1971, forty years ago.

Most societies settle accounts with their violent pasts by classically cathartic means such as artistic expression and public debate. Thus, some accounts are better balanced by History and left to what the French called la longue durée, the long term — and to future generations.

Reconciliation is more readily achieved and more rooted through a negotiated compact between all democratic stakeholders. Such a process has already been initiated in Sri Lanka.

The most incisive comments at the Paris dialogue were by the former Foreign Minister of Bangladesh, Dr Ifthikar Ahmed Chowdhury, who had been among those in the Security Council who negotiated the consensus on R2P. Quipping that R2P should not be used  in a manner that made for its interpretation not as the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ but the ‘Rush to Plunder’ he cautioned that the most important impact of the intervention in Libya was that it would halt progress in efforts at nuclear non-proliferation. States would note that Libya had given up its nuclear programme and was being bombed, while that would not have been the case had it still possessed a nuclear capacity. Thus, those states that had ongoing nuclear programmes would be even more reluctant than before to give them up, while others would seek to embark on such programmes. On this point, Dr Chowdhury was supported by Emeritus Professor SD Muni of the JNU.


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