Of Ban Ki-moon and capital punishment

Syed Badrul AhsanSyed Badrul Ahsan
Published : 29 Nov 2015, 04:04 PM
Updated : 29 Nov 2015, 04:04 PM

A few weeks ago, a spokesperson of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, while cautioning Bangladesh against the impending execution of two war criminals, had this to say about the UN chief's view of capital punishment:

'I think it's clear that the Secretary General opposes the death penalty in all circumstances and has called on those countries that continue to use it to at least initiate a moratorium on the use of the death penalty.'

Obviously, it was a patent sign of the UN's displeasure over the trial and execution of war criminals here in Bangladesh. Within days of Ban Ki-moon's expression of opinion through his spokesperson, Ravina Shamdasani, the spokesperson of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, came forth with a statement that was without ambiguity of any sort. The UN HCHR was calling, she noted, for a moratorium and indeed a halt to the executions in Bangladesh. She noted that the United Nations opposed the death penalty 'even for the most serious international crimes'.

That last bit is significant. Not even the most serious international crimes merit, in the view of the global body, punishment by death. What is therefore happening here is that the transgressions committed by such individuals as war criminals are effectively overlooked and so are the pains of those who have been victims of such criminal acts. That Bangladesh's war criminals were guilty of some of the most horrific violations of human rights in modern times received no mention, not in the UN HCHR spokesperson's statement, not in that of the spokesperson of the UN Secretary General.

Let us move on, for the UN is often an interesting, not to say intriguing, study of human behaviour. The world body, or specifically Kofi Annan, Under Secretary General of the UN in the mid-1990s before he replaced Boutros Boutros-Ghali as Secretary General, saw little reason to heed the warnings coming out of Rwanda in 1994 about a likely pogrom to be set off by the country's Hutus against its Tutsis. When the massacres began, the UN was left looking sheepish. No fewer than 800,000 Tutsis were murdered in the space of a few days. The UN was unable to bring the conflict to an end. It was not until Paul Kagame's forces marched into Kigali that order was restored. Contrast Annan's failure to act with the tenacity which defined Dag Hammarskjoeld's efforts to bring peace to a fractious Congo in the early 1960s. Hammarskjoeld died even as he was engaged in the search for peace.

The UN's indifference to Bangladesh's history or its ground realities goes back a long way, to the times when the country was engaged in a war of liberation against Pakistan. It has never occurred to the organisation to take cognisance of the genocide committed by the Pakistan army in the country between March and December 1971 and neither has it demonstrated any inclination to inquire into the atrocities perpetrated by Pakistan against the Bengalis.

In all its recent statements questioning the fairness of the war crimes trials or asking for a halt to executions, the United Nations has not once referred to the crimes against humanity committed by the collaborators of the Pakistan army in 1971. Its sympathy for the war criminals, in a good number of instances, is quite at a remove from what Ban Ki-moon has had to say about trials and executions elsewhere.

A few days after Iraq's deposed ruler Saddam Hussein was hanged in questionable circumstances in Baghdad, his jailors and executioners hurling insults at him moments before the trapdoor is released, Ban Ki-moon did not seem unduly worried about the tragedy. Capital punishment, he said — and he had only recently taken over as UN Secretary General — was 'for each and every member state to decide'.

The meaning was not lost on observers. Saddam Hussein's end, for Ban Ki-moon, was not something over which he was ready to lose his sleep. It was an internal affair of Iraq. At a later stage, when the Iraqi government installed by the West after the invasion of the country sentenced two of Saddam's aides to death, the UN chief asked Baghdad to postpone their execution. He did not ask that the death sentences passed on the men, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad al-Bandar, be commuted altogether. The men went to the gallows anyway. No statement came from the UN to condemn the execution.

Soon after Osama bin Laden was killed by American forces in Pakistan and his body was cast into the sea, the United Nations Security Council applauded the murder. Not for a single moment did the UNSC think of asking the Americans to explain the circumstances in which Laden had been killed or why his corpse had been so swiftly disposed of or why he was not or could not be taken alive.

As for Ban Ki-moon, he is on record as having expressed the view that he was 'very much relieved' by Laden's killing. Step back a little and consider this: the UN Secretary General was clearly convinced in May 2011 that it was all right to dispatch Laden because the man was guilty of having committed gross crimes, that he did not deserve to be brought to trial.

Now consider this: in November 2015, the UN chief is reluctant to look into the sinister record of Bangladesh's war criminals but is very serious about ensuring that they not be led to the gallows. You call that irony or double standards?

Ban Ki-moon demonstrated no concern at the grisly manner of Muammar Gaddafi's death at the hands of a mob in Sirte. There was of course no way of saving the fallen Libyan leader from the clutches of his captors, but there could have been a polite statement from the UN chief condemning the tragedy. Nothing of the kind came from his office, though. What did come was a sense of joy, of rejoicing, at the news that Gaddafi had been lynched. Here is what Ban Ki-moon said about the long-time Libyan leader's end:

'This day marks a historic transition for Libya. In the coming days, we will witness scenes of celebration as well as grief for those who lost so much.'

Ban Ki-moon has been to Hiroshima, the first UN Secretary General to visit the place and remember those who perished in August 1945. He paid tribute to the tens of thousands of innocent Japanese killed by the atomic bomb. He was careful not to castigate those who had dropped the bomb, in Hiroshima and then in Nagasaki.