From a time when it stood aside as minorities were persecuted the U.S. has moved towards a position of far less tolerance towards such acts. Does the evolution of its doctrine on post-pogrom justice have any implications for Narendra Modi?
After the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Business School thrust itself into unwanted limelight for inviting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to speak at its India Economic Forum event and then rescinding that invitation last weekend, the U.S.’ 2005 decision to deny Mr. Modi a visa has been commented upon again by his admirers and detractors alike.
While much has been said recently about whether the time is now ripe for the U.S.to review its decision on Mr. Modi’s visa – especially after ‘Vibrant Gujarat’-type events have tugged at the financial heartstrings of American businessmen and Congressmen – an important question that may have been missed in the ensuing brouhaha was this: What drives perceptions of minority persecution in the U.S.?
After all it was the alleged persecution of a community that is considered a religious minority that led to the State Department decision to revoke Mr. Modi’s B1-B2 visa eight years ago. At the time media quoted Department officials saying that Mr. Modi's visa had been “revoked under Section 212(a)(2)(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
A quick glance at the INA section quoted reveals that Washington does not take the infringement of religious freedom lightly at all, a perspective corroborated by the fact that the State Department also publishes an annual report to the U.S. Congress on International Religious Freedom, in which tome India finds consistent and critical mention.
What Section 212(a)(2)(g) of the INA says about foreign government officials who have committed “particularly severe violations of religious freedom,” is: “Any alien who, while serving as a foreign government official, was responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom, as defined in Section 3 of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (22 U.S.C. 6402), is inadmissible.” (linked to PDF)
The relevant part of Section 3 of the IRFA defines violations of religious freedom as any of the following acts if committed on account of an individual's religious belief or practice: detention, interrogation, imposition of an onerous financial penalty, forced labour, forced mass resettlement, imprisonment, forced religious conversion, beating, torture, mutilation, rape, enslavement, murder, and execution.
Obviously Mr. Modi’s presiding over Gujarat’s administration during the unfolding of the 2002 riots, in which somewhere between 1,000 to more than 2,000 people, many Muslim, were killed, is likely to have been uppermost in the mind of the erstwhile George W. Bush administration that decided to block his entry into the country.
Similarly the U.S. has been batting on the front foot when it comes to Sri Lanka and the post-war conditions faced by ethnic Tamils on the island.
Amidst media reports citing video and photographic evidence of human rights violations committed on a massive scale during the final months of the war in mid-2009, the State Department has steadily pushed the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a resolution calling for more effective implementation of the Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission. That resolution is due later this month.
Privately, discussions I’ve had in Washington with people who were familiar with the State Department’s assessment of the situation over the last few years have indicated sustained disenchantment with apparent lack of progress in implementing policies towards justice for the minorities whose lives became casualties in the ferocious fighting that took place in 2009.
Why is it worth making these observations? They gain salience in view of the commonly propounded theory that the U.S. has often propped up or at least tacitly supported some brutal dictatorial regimes world over, so long as it has gained strategically or materially – and such regimes are typically accompanied by the persecution of minorities.
This stereotype of American military and foreign policy engagement is not without merit. Even though recent U.S. administrations have not been shy to take a dim view of minority persecution of different hues this has not always been the case. The moment in history when the U.S. arguably failed to act on the most catastrophic threat of atrocities against minorities was April 1994.
In that month the death of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana sparked off a savage killing spree in which somewhere between 500,000 to 1 million-plus people – mostly from the minority Tutsi community – were slaughtered in the breathtakingly short span of 100 days.
While the details of that event and the worldwide sense of horror that it generated are well known, what is brought up less in conversations today is the fact that Western nations including the U.S. prevaricated when they needed to take a quick decision on a sensible form of intervention to prevent what was undoubtedly an unfolding genocide.
An infamous episode at the time embarrassed a top U.S. diplomat, Susan Rice – current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations – who reportedly wondered aloud whether to describe the massacres in Rwanda using the word “genocide” so close to a congressional election, especially as that would require the U.S. to not be “seen as doing nothing.”
Yet the U.S. would appear to have moved a long way down the road from such positions. Just last month a federal judge reportedly stripped Rwandan-origin Beatrice Munyenyezi of her U.S. citizenship after she was convicted on two counts of hiding her role in the genocide to gain refugee status and citizenship.
Although she was not thought to have directly participated in any violence she was believed to have checked identifications at a roadblock “designed to ferret out Tutsis for slaughter.” For her role in this Munyenyezi faces up to ten years in prison and could potentially be deported to Rwanda, which is now under Tutsi rule.
Given the U.S.’ patchy historical record in this realm and its steady shift towards coming down harder on minority persecution, it is scarcely surprising that Washington now refuses to yield ground to either Mr. Modi’s supporters petitioning for his visa or to a Rajapaksa government that is dragging its feet on post-war justice for Tamils.
In fact the U.S.’ willingness to challenge a sitting national government leader over minority persecution should give pause to those who hope that success for Mr. Modi in the 2014 elections, whatever the odds of that might be, could lead to his broader international rehabilitation.