Foreign policy and human rights

Friends, foes & human rights

Print edition : May 02, 2014

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell during a meeting in Gandhinagar on February 13. The meeting was reportedly frosty. Incidentally, Nancy Powell has since resigned her job. Photo: PTI

Prabowo Subianto, the presidential candidate of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, addresses an election rally in Jakarta. Photo: ADEK BERRY/AFP

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. He has been indicted by the ICC on war crimes charges. Photo: ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP

Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta. He won the presidential election in 2013 despite being indicted by the ICC. Photo: Will Boase/AFP

Kenyan Vice-President William Ruto. He is on trial on similar charges at The Hague. Photo: REUTERS

Rwandan President Paul Kagame. An ally of the West, he has not been targeted despite serious charges. Photo: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

As the change in attitude towards India’s Modi, Indonesia’s Probawo and others shows, the U.S. and the E.U. are quite happy to deal with Asian and African leaders accused of human rights abuses as long as it suits their interests.

THERE IS AN ONGOING DEBATE in the United States and in some key European countries on the question of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the role of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, in the bloodletting. There are signs that Washington, London and Berlin are already mellowing in their attitude towards Modi but civil society is reluctant to give the Gujarat Chief Minister a clean chit, at least as of now. In the first week of April, a U.S. Congressional panel—the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC)—started hearings on religious freedom in India. Many witnesses from India testified before the commission. The Vice Chair of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, Katrina Lantos Swett, one of the panel’s leading witnesses, told the media that she, like many of her fellow citizens, were concerned over a Modi-led government coming to power in New Delhi. “Many religious minority communities fear religious freedom will be jeopardised if the BJP wins and the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, becomes the Prime Minister,” she told the media in Washington.

Modi, however, is not the only political personality on the world stage aspiring to lead his country and at the same time being accused of human rights violations. Prabowo Subianto, who is accused of serious human rights violations, is seeking to be the President of the world’s third biggest democracy and the most populous Muslim nation, Indonesia. While Muslims form 80 per cent of the population, there is a sizable Christian and Hindu minority in the Indonesian archipelago. Like on the Indian subcontinent, fundamentalist forces have been active in fostering sectarian strife in Indonesia. Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Suryadharma Ali has defended the attacks on minority Muslim sects by saying that he understands the anger of the majority Sunni community.

Prabowo is a former special forces commander and a son-in-law of former dictator General Suharto. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights had recommended in 2006 that Prabowo, a retired general, be prosecuted for the abductions of pro-democracy activists in the late 1990s as Suharto’s authoritarian rule was entering its last days. He has also been accused of presiding over the killings of activists in East Timor when it was under Indonesian occupation and the death of over a thousand civilians and the rape of 168 women in state-orchestrated riots in May 1998. The central government in Jakarta, which continues to be dominated by the military, with retired generals donning civilian clothes and becoming heads of state, has refused to order an inquiry into the charges against Prabowo. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has been in office since 2004, is also a former army general.

Western officials have so far refused to establish official contacts with Prabowo, citing his human rights record. The U.S. has denied him a visa. American officials, however, have not specified their reason for doing so. The U.S. and Indonesian militaries have been extremely close since the overthrow of President Sukarno in 1965 and the bloody purge of over a million Indonesians suspected of having leftist leanings or affiliations. An acclaimed documentary film, The Act of Killing, based on the 1965 genocide, released in 2012, has once again brought one of the worst genocides of the 20th century back into international focus (“The act of killing”, Frontline, April 18). But it has left Indonesian authorities unmoved. They have refused to open an inquiry into the mass murders that occurred in 1965 and 1966.

The military, which masterminded the killings, was advised at the time by the U.S. intelligence agencies. Indonesia in 1965 was a precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-supervised overthrow of democratic governments in Chile in 1973 and other countries where the Left was influential in government. The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) was the second biggest in Asia, after the Chinese Communist Party, before its physical decimation in the mid-1960s. The PKI remains banned in the country, which is paraded as a democratic success story in the West.

There are indications that U.S. officials are having second thoughts on Prabowo’s candidature. He, for one, will ensure continuity in the country’s foreign policy, including strong security linkages with Washington. Prabowo, coming from the military establishment, will also have a strong interest in ensuring that the inconvenient truths about 1965 and the massacres that occurred later on during the long reign of Suharto are never revealed. The year 2015 will mark the 50th anniversary of the 1965 killings. The country’s human rights commission had ruled in 2012 that the killings presided over by Suharto were a gross violation of human rights and had demanded a criminal inquiry. The government failed to respond.

New political realities

The Barack Obama administration will have a new envoy in place in India as soon a new government takes over in two months’ time in New Delhi. The current Ambassador, Nancy Powell, has chosen to retire. The veteran career diplomat has not given any reason for her decision although there was speculation in the media that the Obama administration wanted her out. She reportedly had a frosty meeting with Modi in February. Her precipitate departure is also related to the controversy over the deportation of the Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade. This is one of the rare issues on which the BJP is in total support of the United Progressive Alliance government.

Ever since the U.S. State Department revoked the Gujarat Chief Minister’s visa in 2005 for his alleged role in the 2002 communal riots, U.S. Ambassadors to India have declined to meet him. The European Union, too, citing human rights violations, had for long refused a visa to Modi. Now, seeing the straws in the wind, both Washington and Brussels seem to be mellowing towards him. And like Modi, Prabowo too is seen as very business-friendly and as an efficient administrator by the Indonesian elite and his Western admirers. He is the leader of the Great Indonesia Movement Party, which has 15 million members. The “new political realities”, as a Western diplomat put it, may force Washington to have a rethink on the issue of granting a visa to Prabowo, as it did in the case of Modi.

But unlike Modi, Prabowo is not a front runner at the moment in the presidential elections scheduled to be held in July. The odds-on favourite is Joko Widodo, or “Jokowi” as he is popularly called. Jokowi is cast more in the mould of the Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal. As Governor of Jakarta, he has made his reputation in tackling issues connected with the common man and is a strong anti-corruption crusader. Jokowi has the support of the main opposition party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P) led by Meghawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of Sukarno, the charismatic nationalist leader and the first President of the Republic. For Jokowi to be able to formally register for the presidency, he has to be nominated by a party that has more than 25 per cent of the popular vote or 20 per cent of the seats in parliament. (At the time of writing, the PDI-P was expected to get the required numbers in the April 9 legislative elections, with pollsters giving the party 37 per cent of the vote share. Prabowo’s party was expected to poll around 13 per cent and come third in the parliamentary elections.)

Suitable bogey

Washington anyway has only been playing up human rights and related issues when it suits its strategic goals. In recent years, the Obama administration has backed the military takeover in Egypt and turned a blind eye to the killings and large-scale arrests of civilians. President Barack Obama was in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in late March. This is his third official visit to a country where all political activity is banned. In its latest edict, the Saudi government has gone to the extent of classifying all atheists as “terrorists”. Earlier, following in the footsteps of the Egyptian government, it had classified the Muslim Brotherhood as a “terrorist organisation”. The Saudi government has been in the forefront of the moves to stem the democracy wave in the Arab world.

In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta won the presidential elections last year despite being indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague on charges of being complicit in the inter-ethnic bloodletting that followed after the 2007 general elections. Vice-President William Ruto is on trial on similar charges at The Hague. Like in Gujarat in 2002, more than a thousand people were killed in the violence surrounding the elections. The two politicians skilfully used the ethnic polarisation that resulted from the carnage to ride into power. Kenyatta, who belongs to the majority Kikuyu ethnic group, and Ruto, who is a Kalenjin, the second biggest ethnic group, were on opposite sides in the 2007 elections, but after they were indicted by the ICC, they joined hands politically and ran on the same ticket to power. With the electorate voting mainly on the basis of their ethnicity, their victory had become a foregone conclusion.

Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir has been indicted by the ICC on war crimes charges stemming from the strife in the Darfur region in the last decade. That charge, according to most African observers, was a politically motivated one as the West has been targeting the government in Sudan since the 1990s. In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame, who is a regional ally of the West, has not been targeted despite mounting evidence of human rights violations against him. African leaders have accused Western leaders of double standards and of adopting a colonial attitude towards the continent.

Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe had asked his fellow African leaders to boycott the recent E.U.-Africa summit in Brussels, citing the colonial attitude of their European counterparts. The E.U. has imposed travel bans on prominent Zimbabwean politicians belonging to the ruling party. Mugabe and his wife are on the list. The President was given a waiver for a one-time visit but a visa was denied to his wife. Mugabe has also been critical of the ICC, saying that it was unfairly targeting African leaders and that it should be George W. Bush and Tony Blair who should be facing an international war crimes tribunal for the war in Iraq. South African President Jacob Zuma was one leader who did not bother to attend the summit in Brussels. He had commented that “African rulers are looked on as subjects” by their European counterparts.

Kenya’s President, however, chose to be present at the E.U. summit. He has been granted a temporary waiver from appearing before the ICC. Kenya is also a strong ally of the West and, in all probability, Kenyatta will not have to face the tribunal while in office despite the ICC stating that his trial will resume in October. The trial has already been postponed thrice. Witnesses are either giving false evidence or being stopped from testifying. The Kenyan President and Vice-President have said that the charges against them are “politically motivated”. The African Union wants all the cases against the continent’s leaders to be dropped. Kenya’s Foreign Minister Amina Mohammed told the media that the ICC should wait until the President and the Vice-President complete their terms. “In advanced countries, sitting Presidents are not hauled before the courts,” she said. Being elected to a high office, in Africa or Asia, has many benefits these days, including becoming not answerable for human rights violations and other atrocities.