Justice vs impunity

'Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves'

Justice vs impunity
We watch and wait for the mayoral elections in Bangladesh to play out, to see if the BNP can compete in these elections safely and competitively, and if that, whether it wins or loses, would presage a return to stability. Despite the recent hiatus in the government’s campaign to eliminate the BNP as a competitive political force, I see no evidence that the AL leadership has given up on that objective. In the context of zero-sum-game politics, it would be unlikely for a Bangladesh political party of any stripe to give up on eliminating the opposition when it has that opposition on the run.

Secondly, since I have become an adherent to Mushtaq Khan’s thesis that stability in Bangladesh is dependent on both parties having access to power and to the trough of economic rents that accrue to governance, I remain skeptical that the BNP will just give up on its drive to restore some form of assurance that elections will give both parties a fair shot at the spoils. Not do I see the AL government ever agreeing to do that.

In Pakistan, with the drama over whether to rush to the aid of the Saudi alliance against Iran (for that is what it is despite all the talk about the Houthis in Yemen) now concluded, at least on the surface, we watch and wait for the end to the military campaign against the Taliban to see what is next. Will the anti-militancy strategy take the Army to South Punjab? When will the corollaries to this strategy be unveiled, ie the broad reform to improve governance which must underlie any such strategy? How does the Court decision to stay the executions that several terrorists have received from the newly established terrorist military courts affect that strategy and the Army’s will to carry out the next phase—if there is one?

These questions all occurred to me as possible subjects of this week’s article, but I could write no more than a couple of paragraphs on any of them. And anyway, it strikes me that the most interesting questions of the week from the region are related to the execution of the alleged war criminal in Bangladesh. Are Pakistanis interested in this issue? They should be because, in a sense, this man was alleged to be one of Pakistan’s proxies in the 1971 Bangladesh war of separation. That war was not the first war in which Pakistan has used proxies. But perhaps it is the first war that Pakistan has fought in which the proxies it used ended up many years later being hung for war crimes. That thought might give pause to some.
250,000 innocent civilians died in the Liberian civil war, yet the warlords live freely and occupy political office

There are some who question whether the man executed received a fair trial. The International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) in Bangladesh has been criticized in the past that its procedures do not accord with international standards. I am not a lawyer and do not have any expertise or information to comment on this. I thought that, instead of writing about this case in particular, I would instead discuss the issues it raises—in fact, that all such trials in all such situations raise—that is the issues of justice versus impunity in post conflict situations as I know them through a country still dealing with the aftermath of a much more recent civil war—Liberia.

As readers may know, I spent 3 years in Liberia during the 13-year civil war that raged off and on there from 1990 to 2003. The war had started in 1990 when a ragtag band of insurgents under Charles Taylor, who had trained in Qaddafi’s Libya, invaded the country. (Ironically, Taylor was tried for war crimes in the Hague under the aegis of the UN-backed Special [Criminal] Court of Sierra Leone, in which, after a 5-year trial, he was convicted in 2012 on 11 counts of war crimes and sentenced to 50 years in prison). After an initial period of success, Taylor’s forces bogged down and could not take the capital city of Monrovia. In the stalemate that resulted, a number of other factions were formed to take advantage of the fact that control of territory meant control of resources.

By 1995, when I arrived, there were at least four factions which occasionally fought among themselves for territory, but for long periods spent their time looting the resources of the territory they controlled. Taylor, who hungered to run the entire country was preparing for a renewed attack on his opponents, having lost the chance in 1990 and failed in an attack on the capital in 1992. His arch enemy was a faction under the command of Roosevelt Johnson. The Johnson faction were the best fighters, particularly good in small-unit tactics, mostly former US trained Liberian Army personnel, and they were usually allied with fighters of a faction ironically named The Liberian Peace Council, led by a US PhD named George Boley (who was deported from the US in 2012 because of his war crimes).

Monrovia, defended by Nigerian Peace Keepers as well as the anti-Taylor factions, survived the 1996 attack. And we in the international community put together a peace process that led to an election in 1997 in which most of the faction leaders ran, and Taylor won by large majority. The war resumed after he became President (in fact he was not more than just another faction leader), and in 2003, Taylor was deposed and exiled to Nigeria. Peace, kept by a UN peacekeeping force of almost 15,000 troops, came that year—a force that had at its center large units of fighting troops from Bangladesh and Pakistan. These units won much respect and kept the peace in a volatile nation with former insurgents, warlords, and trouble makers wandering around.

And there lies the rub. About 250,000 innocent civilians died in the Liberian civil war. They and their families are the victims of ruthless and cynical former warlords and their followers; yet these warlords live freely, occupy political office, despite their crimes, with seeming impunity. Many of the politicians, including the President herself, have been named by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Liberia as being involved with forces that brought Liberia to its knees and killed many people. Most egregiously, some of the worst warlords, those responsible for thousands of deaths, walk with impunity through its streets.

So here is the contrast: in Liberia there is no closure as those who committed the crimes remain unpunished and unremorseful, and no justice for the victims of a war that ended a decade ago and remains fresh in their memories; Bangladesh, on the other hand, is hanging those accused of committing war crimes 44 years ago (Taylor who was responsible for many thousands of deaths got only 50 years), so to call it justice seems hyperbolic, and if even if there was closure still needed by those in whose faded memories these crimes still burn, the penalty resembles pure vengeance. Confucius is alleged to have written, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.”

The author is a Senior Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC and a former US diplomat who was Ambassador to Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Chief of Mission in Liberia

The writer is a former career diplomat who, among other positions, was ambassador to Bangladesh and to Pakistan.