How do the Liberals respond to the global war on ‘terror’?

Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP

by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha MP | Leader – Liberal Party of Sri Lanka

Let me first express my thanks to our hosts, the Civic Will Green Party of Mongolia, for having invited the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats to their country, and arranging this very timely seminar.

The Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, which has supported CALD so graciously over the years, was established to promote freedom, and it is this core value of Liberalism that we must see as the bedrock, not only of our own philosophy, but also of equitable and sustainable development all over the world.

Freedom does not, we should emphasize, mean the freedom of the wild ass. As the former head of the FNS, Count Otto von Lambsdorff said, while Liberalism demands a small state, it also requires a strong state. Thus I believe my colleague who will talk about environmental issues will stress the need for forceful regulation, to ensure protection for vulnerable people and places.

That is why true Liberalism, while being committed to a market economy, does not believe that market forces alone should dictate policy. The state must ensure that the vulnerable are protected, that a level playing field is promoted, that development is both balanced and enduring.

It is in this context that we must formulate our response as Liberals to what is described as the Global War on Terror. We are aware that terrorism is now a much greater threat than it was in the past. But we must also recognize that the world should not allow itself to be blinded into seeing terror as somehow connected primarily with Islam, following on the appalling events of September 11th 2001.

That was an event that had long been brewing, and I fear that tacit encouragement had been given to its perpetrators over the years, when other priorities suggested to the West that terrorists could be a useful tool against more dangerous enemies – just as the West had believed that fundamentalism could be a useful tool against godless Communism.

The consequence was the apotheosis of the Taleban, guided by Al Qaeda, into the government of Afghanistan, a government that promoted international terrorism. Many have now forgotten that, when the US government first reacted forcefully to Taleban excesses against its own, the bombs it dropped killed personnel being trained to attack the Indian government in Kashmir. But that meant nothing, for over the previous decade, such terrorism had seemed an acceptable offshoot of support for fundamentalist terrorist against the Soviet Union – and in those days the West had seen India as an ally of the Eastern Bloc.

The West has now grown up in that regard, and is now much tougher on what it sees as Islamic terrorism. This has even led to it forgetting several of the civil and political rights we had thought sacrosanct in now pursuing so avidly its War against Terror. The passion generated by September 11th has led even Liberals to accept the suspension of rights in several areas, though in general Liberals have at least expressed concern and tried to mitigate particular harshnesses with a greater commitment to principles than political philosophies to left and right of them that are less concerned with freedom.

I think we have to recognize that there will have to be some limitations on the freedoms we had thought sacrosanct given the global reach now of terrorism, its connections with organized crime, the ease with which funds are transferred internationally and identities changed. What saddens us in Sri Lanka, who have dealt more successfully with terrorism within our country than perhaps any other nation in the world, is the manner in which we are pilloried for our success, to some extent because of pressures exercised by those who encouraged and funded terrorism from the safety of their sanctuaries in the West.

The battles we had to have the LTTE banned seemed futile until 2001, which is emblematic of the double standards the West has so consistently used, with dangers to others not seeming worthy of concern until something similar also affected the West. And despite the recognition of the LTTE as a terrorist group, little effort was made to control its funding – since, as an aide to Commissioner Fratini told me when I complained about this, European countries had different norms and in any case, with limited funding, their concern was Islamic terrorism, not terrorism in general.

Selectivity now seems to have turned into persecution, with condign criticism that is not based on careful consideration of evidence. Instead we have blind acceptance of the allegations of terrorist inspired sources, which to those who had been victimized by terror seems encouragement for the revival of terrorism.

This lack of principle then adversely affects efforts to ensure that, while dealing with terrorism requires special measures, these should be within a legal framework and should not involve blanket authorization for heavy handed responses. Thus I believe we in Sri Lanka need to investigate certain incidents which involved abuses, but when the allegations are that these were part of national policy, it becomes more difficult to pursue justice given the natural desire to defend oneself against false propaganda.

And there is a second consequence of what seems partisan and hypocritical condemnation. It takes attention away from the need to look into the causes of terrorism. While I believe we should be tough on terrorism and ensure that it is eliminated, we must also look into why young people are drawn to terrorism, why they feel despair about their situation and believe that destructive violence is the only answer.

We in Sri Lanka must do that expeditiously, but an open approach to the problems that led to terrorism is affected adversely by worries that terrorism is on the rise again, fuelled by encouragement of its proponents in Western countries. Whether for geo-political reasons or through misplaced idealism, some Western politicians seem to encourage former terrorists with no effort to ensure that terrorism is abjured. This in turn fuels suspicions in Sri Lanka that concern with peace and security is of little moment to those pursuing their own agendas.

This suspicion is fuelled by clear evidence of double standards, most obviously with regard to Islamic terrorism, where the appalling behavior of Israel in recent years passes unquestioned. Thus we see the idealistic Samantha Power crushed in her efforts to ensure justice for the Palestinians, and perhaps salving her conscience therefore by picking on Sri Lanka, unable to address the real issues that threaten American security.

My argument then is that the Liberal response to terrorism must be both sensitive and principled. It must recognize that, given the importance of the right to life, and the obvious fact that terrorists on principle do not uphold this right for the citizens governments must protect, governments have an obligation to combat terrorism forcefully.

This can lead to special measures that might take away from the freedoms we enjoy, but such measures must be clearly enunciated, and enforced with accountability, justiciability and, where feasible, transparency. At the same time liberals must ensure attention to grievances and measures to address the root causes of emotions that could lead to terrorism.

There must also be universality about this, with no distinctions between terrorists, based on subjectivity that springs from perceived threats to special interests.

We need also to avoid characterization of individuals as terrorists, even while we are forthright in our condemnation of terrorism and terrorist action. To go back to an even more fundamental principle of liberalism, the individualism on which our concept of freedom is based, we must understand the importance of dignity and equity in dealings with all individuals. Refraining from collective condemnation of people, we must defend our freedoms forcefully but expand too the freedoms of all, and in particular those who are vulnerable and oppressed.

Text of a special address on ‘The Global War on Terror: How Do the Liberals Respond?’ presented at the Seminar on “Liberalism: It’s All About Freedom” Organized by the Civic Will Green Party of Mongolia Ulaanbaatar, May 24th 2012