More WikiLeaking, revealing the sausage-making of diplomacy -- which isn't always pretty.
Here's a cable showing the late Amb. Richard Holbrooke -- published on the day of his death after the news had broken (Tuesday 14 December 2010 18.24 GMT). That's yet another strange coincidence that has prompted me to ask whether WikiLeaks and Guardian aren't being terribly strategic (and agitproppish) at times to dole out and sync the leaks to various high-profile world events -- or not. (I asked why nothing negative about Tashkent came out at all until *after* Clinton's trip to Uzbekistan.)
We're told, however, that this cable on Holbrooke only surfaced because of a "crowdsourced" request to get something on Roman Polanski -- who is mentioned in this cable by the Kazakh foreign minister in a gaspingly awful act of moral equivalence, comparing him to jailed human rights leader Evgeny Zhovtis. Thus it appears a coincidence.
Cynical OSCE-watchers long ago concluded that first the U.S. gained their agreements from Astana for the Northern Distribution Network's right-of-way through Kazakhstan and the flights over the north pole, then agreed to Kazakhstan's bid to hold the OSCE summit (military vehicles but not weaponized is how they are described in this cable -- already ratcheted up from the "non-lethal materials" we hear about often). The West was loathe to give Kazakhstan the prize of the summit (see my poll below) -- their human rights record was too poor with suppression of civil society and there were too many other headaches with the Russian drive to re-make security architecture.
What I didn't realize -- and I didn't know Holbrooke had even gone there and I'm not sure the trip was publicized -- was that our special envoy on "AfPak" was charged with negotiating OSCE-related matters and that it was so directly tied to Afghanistan and the NDN.
Now comes the sausage part. Holbrooke used a kind of insider's "we're all in this together, we're the smart ones surrounded by idiots" bonding gimmick with the odious Kazakh foreign minister, as one worldly global leader to another, condescendingly explaining that making a martyr out of Zhovtis wasn't good for Astana's cause:
Holbrooke told Saudabayev that the imprisonment of human rights activist Yevgeniy Zhovtis is one of the pressing issues affecting Kazakhstan's bilateral relationship with the United States. He told Saudabayev that Zhovtis has become a symbol for the opposition in Kazakhstan, "a fact that he certainly understands and exploits." Holbrooke said that if Zhovtis could be released by presidential pardon, that would reduce his symbolic value, since "he is worth less to the opposition out of jail than in jail."
Actually, I think the opposition isn't as cynical as Holbrooke appeared to be here, and appreciates Zhenya's worth out of jail, but I get his point.
On Zhovtis, Saudabayev agreed that "neither you nor we need this problem." But he said that this is an issue of principle. "We must respect the independence of our judicial system," he said. "If we make an exception to the law for Zhovtis," he claimed, "then 200 others with similar sentences will demand to be released from prison as well. They are watching to see if the government of Kazakhstan will be pressured into releasing Zhovtis." He also said that as a human rights activist, "Zhovtis never came under any political pressure" to cease his activities. Saudabayev said that Zhovtis unfortunately killed a man, was tried and sentenced by a court of law, and now must serve his four-year sentence. According to Saudabayev, "the law worked exactly the way it was designed."
Here's an even more cunning cynic, expertly playing American liberal human rights sentiments and values like a violin.
The reality is that vehicular manslaughter in Kazakhstan, when the driver is not shown to have been driving under the influence of alcohol or having any other type of negligence, don't necessarily get four years imprisonment. They only seem to when they are the leading human rights activist of the country on the eve of that country's chairmanship of the OSCE. Regretably, U.S. officials seemed to prefer insider's tactics like this one that were ostensibly playing on Kazakh psychology, but they only get outplayed in a scene like this.
While Holbrooke might not have been expected to get down in the weeds of the case, others could have made the point that it's not "pressuring the judiciary" to call for universal standards of due process to be applied. They weren't in this case. The defendant didn't get to mount various defenses. We don't have an accurate report on how these "200 other cases" were handled -- I've been told of at least one such case where the driver didn't go to jail at all. Let's see them. And let's have a discussion about world practices; involuntary manslaughter is not going to lead to a sentence like that in a democratic country under the rule of law.
Then -- more sausage:
Saudabayev observed that the "unprecedented pressure" being placed on Kazakhstan as a result of the Zhovtis conviction is "not viewed positively in our society." He acknowledged that the "only legitimate way out" for Zhovtis would be via presidential pardon, but said, "that is the prerogative of our president." Attempting to draw a parallel, Saudabayev added that he admired the "persistence" of the U.S. judicial system in its persistent attempts to get film director Roman Polanski, "even though he was forgiven by the victim." Holbrooke took strong exception, noting that Polanski fled justice, escaped the law, and has been living free despite his conviction by a U.S. court.
Saudabayev of course misrepresents "our society" imagining he speaks for it -- when he does not. He then goes on to disgustingly compare Zhovtis, a man of honour and conviction who did not deliberately commit any crime but had the misfortune to strike a drunken pedestrian by accident while driving at night, to Polanski, who was charged with raping an underage girl and fleeing justice.
The meeting appeared to conclude happily -- and as we know Astana got their summit. As this cable shows, the U.S. is better than we know -- Holbrooke was tough in raising a controversial human rights case and not shirking from the task even though he had the more urgent issues of his AfPak mandate to secure, he persisted in making the arguments and tried to make them compelling, he did what he could. No one can expect the U.S. to set aside the supplying of troops in Afghanistan via Central Asia, and cease cooperating in OSCE after their renewed engagement in it, for the sake of one dissident; we should be glad they kept raising the case (and have to keep raising it now that the spotlight is off Astana and the chair is passed on to Lithuania).
I mourn the passing of Ambassador Holbrooke and my thoughts and prayers go out to his wife and family. I met with him a number of times when he was ambassador to the UN in New York in 1999-2000, post-Dayton, when a coalition of human rights continued to press him specifically on all the human rights issues that were not yet implemented. We had several really stormy meetings.
I recall one time when a group of us were discussing conditions for NGOs and journalists and various issues like implementing women's rights in aid work. Holbrooke, as usual, was brilliant but gruff, and I remember him snapping at a colleague who happened to be pregnant raising the issue of women's care on behalf of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children. That for many people was the Holbrooke they didn't like, and remembered in all kinds of awful settings - Korea, East Timor, for example, where human rights activists believed he had compromised (and I know one prominent human rights official who refused to sit on a platform with him at a dinner to honour Kim Dae Jung years ago.)
But in the next minute, Holbrooke was, as George Packer warmly recalls, "always reaching out". When I started in with litanies of protests about journalists' mistreatment and lack of access for human rights monitors, he suddenly asked me to pick up my cell phone. "Call the ops center!" he barked, rattling off a number. Startled, I pressed the numbers and handed the phone to him. He got on the line and asked the staff in Washington to patch them through to a guy -- I'm not sure of the name now. He told us dramatically that this man was in the field in Kosovo literally sleeping in a tent, and he was going to wake him up and get a report from him and raise these concerns. We all goggled at him. This was vintage Holbrooke. The man wasn't reached as it happened, but Holbrooke promised to follow up -- he was all action and all connection.
Three weeks ago at the dinner of the Committee to Protect Journalists, I happened to be chatting with Amb. Holbrooke's now widow, Kati Marton, active in CPJ affairs (where I used to work) about the OSCE summits and media freedom issues. Suddenly, there was Ambassador Holbrooke, bear-like and intense with his piercing eyes, smiling broadly and pumping my hand as I said he may remember me when we used to work on Kosovo.
Never one to leave well enough alone, I suddenly switched to Afghanistan. "A family friend has been killed in Afghanistan," I began. In our little circle, the husband of a friend of my old school mate stepped on an IED. Three boys out of five who had all trained together and went off to the war in fact had all been killed in recent weeks and Thanksgiving was a sad affair with three fresh war widows in that neighbourhood.
Holbrooke suddenly switched gears and glared at me at me as if to say, "Don't lobby me here now," curtly nodded and brusquely brushed past me. I was left standing, chagrined, my plea unfinished. But this was our Holbrooke -- very warm and effusive when you were on topic and needed -- very brusque when you were off topic and not. And I respect that even as I find it profoundly disturbing.
He was a great man serving a great country in an era pre WikiLeaks that both of us stood at the end of at that CPJ affair, honouring brave journalists who had faced jail and persecution to bring out their publications and classic human rights activists like Aryeh Neier -- not honouring anarchists and thugs like Assange and the 4chan.
I recognize that Holbrooke was also a complex figure serving a country that was entirely mixed in its moral reputation in wars. People used to joke that it was Holbrooke himself calling the wire services to spread the rumour that he was going to get the Nobel Peace Prize for Dayton. But he surely deserved it for Dayton more than Obama does for Afghanistan.
Staring at Holbrooke's receding back in the crowd after he ditched me, I didn't consider chasing him because I realized that he knew better than I did just how many American lives were being sacrificed and did what he could. He had seemed so hale and hearty that night I would never have imagined he would be dead shortly thereafter, as dead as the boys from the neighbourhood, as dead as the many, many more civilians of Afghanistan.