Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Modi, the U.S., and visa power

The Hindu : Opinion / Leader Page Articles : By Siddharth Varadarajan: "If the BJP believes it is a victim of U.S. double standards, it has also benefited from the same duplicity in the past.

THE DENIAL of a U.S. visa to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has evoked a predictably strong reaction from the Bharatiya Janata Party, less strident objections from the Congress party and a formal, diplomatically correct protest from the government of India, whose note verbale requesting a visa went unheeded.

For Mr. Modi, who identified closely with many of the policies of the Bush administration, the visa denial is a particularly cruel blow. After all, the United States was perhaps the only major (or minor) country in the `West' not to express its concerns about the Gujarat violence while it was going on. Even tiny Finland saw fit to raise its voice, inviting a stinging rebuke from the External Affairs Ministry, but not Washington.

The BJP says the visa rejection has hurt India's national pride but this does not appear to be a perception that is shared widely by Indians, who see the saffron party's appeals to swabhimaan (self-respect) and constitutionalism as largely self-serving. There is no Constitution in the world that requires a country to grant foreign nationals a visa to enter its territory; on the other hand, every Constitution, India's included, obliges governments to investigate and punish individuals involved in large-scale violence against its citizens.

Ever since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has started rejecting visas on the grounds of involvement in corruption, torture and human rights abuses, and violations of religious freedom. These restrictions have developed in tandem with the growing tendency to consider gross violations of human rights as transgressions of international law and international humanitarian law. However, unlike the attempt to prosecute offenders in jurisdictions other than that of their own countries — for example the well-known case against former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in a Spanish court — the denial of visas per se does not represent the extra-territoriality of law enforcement.

Prominent U.S. visa rejects in recent years include Lt. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, the son-in-law of former Indonesian President Suharto, who was denied a visa in 2000 on the grounds of being suspected of involvement in torture, former Philippine President Joseph Estrada, who was denied a U.S. visa for medical treatment ostensibly because Washington said it could not "guarantee his security," and two senior Yugoslav parliamentary officials — Srdja Bozovic, who was president of the Chamber of Republics, and Ljubisa Ristic, president of parliament's foreign policy committee — because their names figured on a list of "regime associates" of Slobodan Milosevic.

For many years, the U.S. has informally used the existence of corruption charges against public officials as a reason to deny a visa. Last year, for example, Gregory Surkis, a Ukrainian MP and close ally of then Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, was denied a U.S. visa for allegedly interfering with his country's electoral process. The then Ukrainian Interior Minister Mykola Bilokon was put on a visa watch list with the presumption of denial in case he ever applied. In 1996, Ernesto Samper's U.S. visa was revoked when he was Colombia's President.

When the human rights of Muslim Gujaratis were being violated on a large-scale in 2002, for example, the U.S. preferred to keep its counsel. Had 2,000 Bahais been killed in Iran or Christians in Indonesia or Malaysia, there would have been howls of protest from Washington.

But those were the days of great bonhomie between the BJP leadership and the Bush administration and Washington perhaps did not want to bring up an issue that might come in the way of the strategic realignment it was trying to engineer in Indian foreign policy. L.K. Advani, who travelled to the U.S. as Deputy Prime Minister in June 2003 and promised Indian soldiers as cannon fodder for the U.S. occupation of Iraq, had no trouble getting a visa despite being formally charge-sheeted in a major case involving religious discrimination — the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

Today, BJP leaders are referring to the Iraq invasion and Abu Ghraib. If they are serious, let them declare that senior U.S. officials whose memos created the legal cover under which Iraqi prisoners were tortured (including the Attorney-General and Defence Secretary) should not be given visas to visit India. I don't think any right-thinking Indian would oppose such a demand.

It is a well-established principle in international law that sovereignty does not provide an inviolable shield behind which gross violations of human rights can be committed. Countries that are powerful (such as Israel or indeed the U.S. itself) can get away with murder, but others cannot. Smaller states can buy impunity by aligning themselves with the U.S. but as and when contradictions emerge, that impunity can rapidly melt away. For India, a fitting answer to the insult Mr. Modi has brought upon the country in having his U.S. visa revoked is to put in place legal systems that deliver quick and impartial justice in all instances of mass violence like Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002. That is the only way to guarantee we never again find ourselves in the embarrassing position of having high officials and functionaries accused of abetting mass murder."

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