Interference in affairs

A GREAT BRITISH VIEW - Asif Ahmad - The Philippine Star

In the history of diplomacy, it is not unknown for governments to cite interference in affairs when their policies and actions are subject to critical analysis and comment.

There are clear circumstances when sovereign rights of a country are unjustifiably infringed by another. Military aggression and encroachment for territorial gain are the most severe forms of interference any nation can face. The most strident reaction and forceful objection should be reserved for this fundamental threat to national security. The United Nations and its associated institutions have a critical role in coming to the aid of an aggrieved party and alliances between nations are a form of mutual protection from aggressors. We would be failing a friend if we did not speak out and act against rampant opponents of a rules based world system.

We recognise that terrorists have no respect for national borders. When a country is held hostage by bandits and extremists and is unable to contain the impact on its citizens and neighbours, action from responsible nations is essential.  Where there are porous security arrangements and ineffective measures against money laundering, intervention is needed. A failed state can only be rescued by a coalition of the willing. However, meddling to retain tyrannical regimes that practice mass killing of its own citizens and unleash illegal weapons of destruction cannot be regarded as saviours. Nor can we stand by and not act if a government wilfully blocks compelling humanitarian relief assistance when it does not have the will or resources to do so. This is why the UN Security Council has the authority to invoke the provision of Responsibility to Protect. 

Interference in the electoral process by a foreign government, whether through direct intervention or through electronic means, is indefensible and can seriously impact upon the legitimacy of democracy. It is, however, both proper and normal for diplomats to develop contacts with politicians so that their respective views on important policies are known. The content of such discussions need not be made public but the fact that the meetings take place should not be a secret. It is not the business of a foreign government to endorse any particular candidate. But where a leader seeks to consolidate power through repression and gerrymandering, international criticism and targeted measures have an important role. Providing asylum to persecuted political rivals is not unwarranted intrusion.

Governments accused of violating human rights resort most frequently to the flimsy argument of non-interference. The killing fields in Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, repression under martial law, the use of torture, rape and illegal detention have all been confronted by concerned international actors, often because the voice of ordinary citizens had been silenced by the state.

By signing up to international agreements and protocols and by joining multilateral institutions, every member state makes a pledge to uphold common norms and is subject to the scrutiny of its peers. One cannot just bask in the glory of a well organised summit without being willing to face the music when there is evidence of violation of agreed rules of conduct of the club.

Commerce and human rights are not separate issues. Objecting to a football made by a child labourer cannot be kicked away as easily as an offside decision. If a trade concession includes accountability for labour and other rights of citizens, then in their breach, the window of opportunity for critical examination is open. A fundamental question of trust emerges if a solemn and binding pledge by a country is simply overturned by a political whim. If a country can break a promise once, it is likely to do so again. 

Governments often seek the help of foreign counterparts in conflict resolution, economic and social reform and other domestic challenges. The spirit of cooperation and frank communication underlines such partnerships. For such engagements to be a success, there has to be room for constructive criticism, particularly if a participant abrogates agreements and become spoilers of progress.

 In countries where our citizens and commercial interests are affected, we cannot be prevented from raising matters of law and policy that can have an adverse impact. A foreign government has no case for meddling in the fair and lawful proceedings of courts. We can raise concerns if there are undue delays in delivering justice or if there are manifest signs of unlawful interventions to skew the verdict. If international arbitration is part of a deal, then the process must be respected. If a tax measure has a disproportionate impact on our interests, then voicing concern is a part of our role. The death penalty, lowering the age of criminal responsibility, harmful actions of law enforcement officials, impunity and corruption put our citizens at risk too.   

Sovereignty commands respect and the rules based systems of our world serve to protect vital interests of nations. In invoking the charge of interference in affairs, the accusation has to be judged on the basis of whether the intention is to uphold rights or to provide a fig leaf for abhorrent acts.

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(Asif Ahmad is the British Ambassador to the Philippines.)

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