Accountability and transparency

Accountability and transparency are today part of America’s international mantra. We want war criminals and human rights abusers in Syria, Iraq and North Korea held accountable. We want open government that allows for public participation and collaboration.

There are two problems with this stance.

Those at the receiving end of our preaching are not necessarily keen on changing their governing system so that things can be done openly and collaboratively. This is obvious for Bashar al Assad, who wouldn’t survive a week in the Syria we would like to create. Kim Jong Un might not survive a day in North Korea.

But it is also true for some of our friends. Egypt’s President Sisi is no more keen on transparency and accountability than Assad, except when it comes to his predecessor and the Muslim Brotherhood. Ditto Prime Minister Netanyahu, who blocks serious efforts to look into the conduct of the latest Gaza war and continues to surprise us with settlement initiatives in Jerusalem and the West Bank. The Burmese government we are now finding amiable has done little for transparency and nothing for accountability of the prior military regime, never mind for its own repression against the Rohingya and others.

The more profound problem is us. Whatever you think about the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques or police shootings of unarmed citizens, it is clear we are having a hard time with the idea that anyone should be held accountable if wrong was done, or even with the idea that the proceedings in which such things are decided should be transparent. We decide whether charges should be brought against the police in secret grand jury proceedings. It took years of effort and thousands of excised words to enable the release of the executive summary of the Senate Democrats’ report on a CIA program that clearly made serious errors, even if you believe it also did a lot of good.

Hesitation about accountability and transparency abroad and at home comes from the same source: we and our friends abroad know full well that it will be difficult to get people to do things we might want them to do in the future if we hold them strictly accountable in a transparent way for what their confreres did in the past. President Obama has not made it clear that what many of us regard as torture will never be used again. America’s police don’t want to be told that they have to ask questions first and shoot only when attacked with deadly force. Police unions have actually objected to training intended to teach their members how to de-escalate conflict.

The same is true abroad. Even when dictators are overthrown, their successors may not want strict accountability or even transparency. Iraq’s Prime Minister Maliki did not restore the Saddam Hussein dictatorship, but he was no less keen on security forces that were loyal to him personally. He removed dozens of military and intelligence commanders, replacing them with less professional but intensely loyal officers who proved useless when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria seized Mosul in June. Brazil has only recently investigated abuses by the military regime that preceded the restoration of democracy there almost thirty years ago. It is not clear that anyone will be held accountable for the abuses.

Most governments treasure stability and order. They need loyal security forces. One of the good reasons for writing strict rules for them is to ensure that they don’t do things we will be hesitant to have see the light of day or hold them accountable for. In the US, it is time for a law prohibiting torture, and a national standard for how to deal with unarmed citizens. If we are going to expect better behavior of others, we need to up our own game.


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