I am an aid worker, the kind who rants about transparency, open governments and reforming the United Nations. But, I used to be a diplomat and I used to write secret cables, like the ones being released by WikiLeaks. And I said some very frank and nasty things in those cables.
Why? I was posted to Jakarta. My job was to find out as much as I could about the human rights abuses being committed by the Indonesian military, and to help apply whatever pressure we could to make them stop. I wrote cables back to Ottawa that would raise the hair on the back of your neck, describing abuses that still make me sick years later. These cables gave the Canadian government the ammunition it needed to lean heavily on the Indonesian leadership at the UN and at summits like APEC.
Allow me to illustrate with an example. Every few months, I would visit a little whitewashed school in the hills of Indonesian-occupied East Timor. The young teacher who ran the school would cheerfully bring me into her office, and we would chat about small things while her uniformed students would serve us homemade buns and strong coffee in chipped porcelain. Once the students left and the office door closed, the teacher would open her desk drawer and with a shaking hand give me horrifying photos of disinterred bodies. The Timorese resistance would dig up the fresh graves of torture victims, take photos for evidence, and pass them through their underground networks to this teacher, who would then get them out of the country through me and other diplomats. With that information we knew what the Indonesian military was doing in secret. We could better confront Jakarta, and we could assert more pressure on them to stop.
When we sent the reporting cables back to the Department of Foreign Affairs, they were secret for a reason. If they were published in The Globe and Mail instead, I would have been thrown out of the country in 24 hours and the Indonesian officials would not have permitted a replacement. The local politicians would have hired a rent-a-mob to stone the Canadian embassy. Their leaders would have told the Jakarta media I was a liar and would have blamed the Timorese for feeding me calumny. And the police would have arrested and killed the young teacher before the week was out.
The third most common topic in the WikiLeaks cables is human rights, with American diplomats doing the same thing we were trying to do in Indonesia: Make the world a little better.
That's hard to swallow for the cyber mob that is celebrating the embarrassment being inflicted on the U.S. government this week. But the damage done to Washington is nothing compared to the pain that is about to be inflicted on the confidential sources in Russia, China and Sudan.
It's not just the militant activist in Guelph, Ont., reading the cables. It's the military dictatorships and the secret police in capitals all around the world. In the days and weeks ahead, people who dared to share information with U.S. diplomats will be rounded up. And thousands more who may have been willing to pass on pictures of tortured bodies will keep them in the desk drawer instead.
Ironically, WikiLeaks is inflicting the same collateral damage it so loudly abhors. The "Cablegate" release is not a real victory for a more open world. It will lead to a more closed world, where repressive governments will be more free to commit atrocities against their own people and the people who try to stop them will have even less information to help prevent this. Thankfully, for the Timorese at least, WikiLeaks did not exist in the 1990s.
Scott Gilmore is a former Canadian diplomat and the founder of Peace Dividend Trust, a New York-based charity that finds, tests and implements new ideas for improving aid and peacekeeping.