Monday, December 06, 2010

Here's a plausible problem with the wikileaks publications. Have a read of it before continuing here.

In this case, a Canadian diplomat stationed in Indonesia passes information and photographs of atrocities committed by the Indonesian government against the Timorese back to Canada, which allows the Canadian government to pressurize the Indonesian government for greater human rights. In the short term, if communication secrecy is violated, the witnesses risk being killed. And the diplomat expelled. In the longer term, witnesses are unlikely to come forward and Canadian diplomats cannot get involved in helping locals.

So what do I think of this?

At first glance, it is a real problem. And I'm not sure I have an answer to it. This does count against wikileaks.

But let's, for the sake of playing devil's advocate for a moment, have a go at challenging it.

Why exactly do we need diplomats in the loop here?

Those of us who are pro-wikileaks are also pro the general democratization of communication and publishing technologies. We are not against personal privacy tools (such as encryption). In a world where both transparency technologies and personal privacy are becoming widespread, the obvious way for the Timorese to draw attention to the abuses is by leaking or publishing them directly. (To wikileaks or equivalent channels.)

Hence, in our imagined "better future", there would be a trade-off. The teacher would lose the support of the Canadian diplomat in getting the message out, but would gain the possibility of a global network.

But might not the Canadian government be less likely to pay attention to her plight if it was not alerted via its own staff? An argument could be made that Canada would be indifferent if the information was just circulating freely on teh interwebs rather than directly brought to it by its own diplomats.

This raises a rather awkward question of what Canada actually did do in East Timor as a result of the diplomat's reports.

Frankly, I have no idea, but a quick grep for "Canada" at Wikipedia doesn't exactly ... well, here's what it says :

Britain, Canada, Japan, and other nations supported Indonesia during the occupation of East Timor. Britain abstained from all of the UN General Assembly resolutions relating to East Timor, and sold arms throughout the occupation. In 1978 Indonesia purchased eight BAE Hawk jet trainers, which were used during the "encirclement and annihilation" campaign. Britain sold dozens of additional jets to Indonesia in the 1990s.[195] Canada abstained from early General Assembly resolutions about East Timor, and opposed three. The Canadian government regularly sold weapons to Indonesia during the occupation, and in the 1990s approved over CDN$400 million in exports for spare weapons parts.[196]

In other words, while our undoubtedly well-meaning and brave hero was diligently collecting and documenting evidence of torture and murder to be sent back home, the Canadian government didn't give a fuck about human rights abuses and allowed its policy to be driven by the needs of its arms manufacturers.

This, I think, is what we should keep in mind during the coming days of chatter over how diplomats will no longer be able to defend human rights like they used to. It's pretty unclear that they ever did much for human rights in the first place. And the next oppressed and tortured minority might be better off uploading evidence directly to Twitterpics rather than going via such channels.

Like I say, though. I really know nothing about what Canada did to promote human rights in Indonesia as a result of its diplomats. Please correct me in the comments if I'm wrong.

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