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Volume 2

November 2007

Number 3

Abroad Thoughts from Home

with Ian Townsend-Gault
Director of the Centre for Asian Legal Studies
Faculty of Law, UBC
Vancouver, Canada

Pundits Ten a Penny
When Can We Trust International Commentators?

The month of September 2007 was no less vexed and clamorous in the areas of foreign policy and international law than the eight, or possibly eighteen, or maybe twenty-eight that preceded it. From the purely Canadian perspective, what should be a growing sense of relief, if not gratitude, that the country has been spared involvement in the mess in Iraq has been tempered by a growing feeling, especially in non-governmental circles, that we may have compensated for this by marching with our eyes tightly shut into an equally intractable problem in Afghanistan. September itself was also marked by extraordinary scenes in Burmese cities which saw monks and lay people marching by the tens of thousands to express their displeasure with the country's appalling regime, a group of governmental bandits who have no legitimacy whatsoever. One also senses a certain weariness on the subject of Darfur, and the inability of national, regional, or international actors to come to grips with the human security challenges which are all too evident there. On the subject of Burma, the airwaves and print media have been buzzing with calls for something to be done, although there does not appear to be any clear idea as to what that something might be except that the regimes client states and near neighbours - China, India, Thailand - should be doing it. There is also the involvement of Japan, a significant aid donor to the country, which is considering how to react to the shooting - murder? - of one of its journalists, shot in the back at point-blank range by a soldier.

It need hardly be said that all of the above has prompted a tidal wave of punditry - so called - with no shortage of what appears to be sage advice or considered views. But this may be precisely the point. How much of the information we have been getting is of the slightest help in trying to form at least a tentative view on issues such as these? For surely the basic requirements of responsible citizenship require us to do nothing less. It is not inconceivable that the Canadian electorate is going to be asked, in effect, for its views on the continued involvement in Afghanistan. Similarly, their British counterparts may soon find themselves having to contend with rival views of how the UK should formulate policy in Iraq. Such questions sometimes appear overwhelming for many, and there is a disturbing tendency for there to be a sort of default "if it's from a respected media outlet, we should at least pay heed. And anyway, what choice have we?" With all due respect to the dilemma faced by those wishing to engage with the affairs of the day, especially as they have to do with foreign policy and international law, this really isn't good enough, and we should all surely know it by now.

So am I saying that we have no choice but to leave it all to the experts in their respective fields? The more I've considered this matter, the more I think that that is precisely what we need to do.

In the first of my contributions to International Zietschrift, I attempted to sort through some of the confusion that had been triggered by the avowed intention of Russia to solidify a claim to non-living resource jurisdiction in the Arctic beyond two hundred nautical miles. I did not say so at the time in so many words, but a lot of that confusion was caused by the well meaning efforts of the media to explain matters to listeners, viewers and readers. It is invidious to identify one commentator over another, but at one point in the debate, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation aired a series of interviews with individuals who certainly could claim to be experts on the Arctic, but not - as their comments proved - international law. I listened with a sort of horrified fascination, and did my best to catalogue the errors and inaccuracies. We are not dealing here with minor shades of interpretive opinions. We are dealing with all too obvious errors or facts, and then followed by assertions for which there was no basis whatsoever. In my view, some of these individuals would have been better to keep silent and urge the interviewers to find those competent to address the legal issues. They would have done no worse to bear in mind Lincoln's adage "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

I referred above to "so-called" punditry: the Concise Oxford Dictionary defines a pundit as a "learned teacher or scholar". The truly wise do not need to be told to keep to the appropriate side of the street. It is flattering to have one's opinions asked, but media interviews should not be exercises in mere self-gratification.

This may sound like parochial territoriality on my part, but it is nothing of the sort. For example, some may dismiss the distinction international lawyers insist on between signing treaty and ratifying it as a mere detail, but it is far from that. The distinction is crucial. Or worse still, looking at the wording of a provision, say an article of a treaty, determining that it does not quite mean what you want it to mean, but ascribing that interpretation to it anyway because it seemed convenient to do so. No one with a modicum of legal training would dream of doing such a thing.

So am I saying that we have no choice but to leave it all to the experts in their respective fields? The more I've considered this matter, the more I think that that is precisely what we need to do. I am a reasonably seasoned international lawyer with working experience in more than thirty countries. I would never dream of expressing an opinion as to whether or not Canada, or any other foreign power, should withdraw from Afghanistan for the simple reason that I have absolutely no expertise in this field. But more worrying for me is that, to put it simply, I do not know who to trust. It seemed to me important, therefore, to try to sort out a principled approach to dealing with this dilemma which many, many others must face. I have shared some of what follows with my students over the years, but the impetus to crystallize them in writing here came from an interview I heard recently with Rory Stewart, a Scot who, while still in his early thirties, has managed to cram an extraordinary amount of remarkable activity into his life to date. Stewart has written two books about his experiences. The first, The Spaces in Between, recounts a two-year walking trip from Iran to Afghanistan, and the second The King of the Marshes - My Year Governing in Iraq is a memoir of his time as deputy governor of one of the provinces in southern Iraq, working for the coalition (the word "governing" was probably meant ironically, or alternatively, between inverted commas).

Stewart is the latest in a long line of hardy Britains who have defied the odds and set forth into the unknown, usually supported by a few loyal locals, for no other reason than it's what they wanted to do. I am thinking here of Lady Hester Stanhope, Dame Freya Stark, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Sir Fitzroy MacLean, and others. Products of the establishment (Eton and Oxford in Stewart's case), they ventured into the inhospitable places of the world and lived to tell the tale. Stewart is currently running an NGO in the centre of Kabul dedicated to reviving traditional arts and crafts and the restoration of heritage buildings. All in all, he is lucky to have survived thus far.

Stewart was being questioned about Afghanistan - he leaves Kabul now and then to speak on that subject and Iraq - and aspects of his message on both countries are bleakly similar, and, one imagines, entirely unwelcome to certain governments. This is to the effect that the main problem with the foreign intervention in these two countries is that, despite the good works, the protestations, the "this is for your own good" attitude, the inhabitants of these countries really do not want foreigners on their soil. That attitude is expressed with greater force and hostility in some areas rather than others, but its presence can be detected virtually everywhere. But why should we believe this? It is because people like Stewart know whereof they speak. They have put in the time - not as much as others it is true - and they are also keen, open-minded observers of what they are seeing. Not for them the messianic drive to convert and civilize that, probably more than any other factor, made the British Empire. But even here too it is not difficult to find echoes of today's problems. Shortly before the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, there were those warning that the arrogant, dismissive attitude of the British to the colonial subjects was causing massive resentment which was likely to result in trouble, which it duly did. These problems were evident even into the 1920s, as evidenced by the scene in Forster's A Passage to India where Doctor Aziz finds Mrs. Moore in his mosque and asks her politely to remove her shoes, not realizing that she has already done so. In other words, other memsahibs would either not have known, or wouldn't have bothered if they had.

In This Issue

Report on Somalia: Part II
Mr. Aweis Issa reports on his recent 2007 trip to his home country and highlights the desperate need for change.

Michael Vick and the Jena Six: Race and Punishment in the United States

Literary Contributions
Contributions from an International Selection of Writers

One of the governments that will not want to hear Stewart's message is that of Stephen Harper, the present Prime Minister of Canada. It is right and proper that a government should do everything it can to support its troops in the field (and off it, something that those responsible for the appalling conditions in which some coalition injured should have been treated in Britain and the United States should be held to account for). But it is the government's job to know the difference between calculation and foolhardiness, especially when it decides to make a particular mission the cornerstone of its foreign policy. This means diverting significant resources away from traditional Canadian spheres of involvement, such as the Asia Pacific, and to what end? There is no doubting the complete defensibility of NATO's goals in Afghanistan. It is simply ridiculous to suggest, as some have done, that it is somehow "all right" for the Taliban to resume government. It would be insane to allow the country to revert to being a base for oppression and terrorism. The question for Canada, and indeed every other country participating in operations in that country, concerns the viability of current operation. If, for example, it can be shown that the current commitment of troops, cash, and other resources simply cannot do the job, it has to be asked whether it is defensible to leave our women and men in uniform at risk: what precisely are they fighting and dying for? Unachievable goals set by political leaders?

The question of who knows what was illustrated with a truly horrible vividness in the run up to and immediate aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Broadly speaking, we heard from two constituencies of opinion. I do not mean those who supported the invasion and those who opposed it, but more importantly, perhaps, those who knew Iraq and those who did not. Unfortunately, those in the latter category drowned out members of the former, but they also happened to either have the ear of decision makers, or were themselves part of the governing elites that took the fateful decisions. Let us formulate the matter this way. In considering questions such as whether Iraq did or did not possess weapons of mass destruction, or whether Dr. Blix and his colleagues were correct or merely the victims of Iraqi duplicity, wouldn't one be inclined to place value on those who have made Iraq a lifetime's study? So why did we not hear more from them, as opposed to the instant "experts", most of whom had no expertise or even experience of Iraq? I think to ask this question is to answer it, but all too often, we find ourselves relying on such individuals. After half a dozen years of working off and on in Vietnam, I was in the company of a distinguished Canadian political journalist, visiting the country for the first time on a one week trip. On his return to Canada, he published a series of articles some analytical and some highly prescriptive, something I certainly would not have felt qualified to do on the basis of my knowledge of the country, which was certainly a very great deal more profound than his.

I am fortunate to work closely with colleagues who have every right to call themselves Asianists. They speak the language of the countries they work in, they know its culture, its history, and they also know what they do not know. These are the sorts of people who were telling anyone willing to listen that weapons of mass destruction would not be found in Iraq because the country, having been through the traumas of the first Gulf War and then subsequent sanctions, was in no position to pose a threat to anyone. These are the people who would have read or listened to the local media, who would have wandered through the bazaars, sat in the coffee shops, and to whom the locals would talk to if not openly, then certainly with greater freedom than members of the international press corps.

Many writers seem unable to grasp one of the basic truisms of dealing with the international other: the fact that it is the other. "They" are not "us". Or, even if this is understood, the consequences flowing inexorably from it are not. It is extremely difficult to put yourself in the place of other people, particularly those from cultures which are so very different from one's own. This is not to say that an attempt should not be made to do so, and the best way to start is to accept the fact that many of the familiar signs and guides which would help us come to grips with an issue in our own culture may be absent, or simply obscured. If, on the other hand, one adopts the world-view that the rest of humanity is more or less like us, and if it isn't it should be, then it's not too surprising that miscalculations of the scale seen in Iraq are the result. In this connection, it might be noted that there are already signs that critics of the Gulf intervention are going to be, or already are, accused of having perfect hindsight. We heard from a sufficient number of Middle East and Gulf experts who warned about the consequences of what the United States and the United Kingdom were planning to do in advance of it happening. They warned that there would be no "dancing in the streets". They were right, and we should not be surprised for one moment that they were.

Having said all this, it is surely incumbent on editors and producers to set standards for the selection of commentators and analysts so that members of the public can have some degree of confidence in the accuracy and dependability of what they are hearing or reading. To say that so and so is an associate - or senior associate - of this institution or that think-tank is not enough. During September 2007, one of Canada's national newspapers published a column by a senior associate of a Washington think-tank on the subject of the European Union, where readers were treated to a meditation on the meaning of the Union's search for "legal personality". Was the next step a search for membership to the United Nations? he wondered, clearly ignorant of the fact that corporations like MacDonald's have legal personality, but are probably not going to look for a seat in the General Assembly in the near future. The article contained other comments which showed that the writer clearly had not grasped the difference between a political agreement made by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy, and a treaty entered into by and binding members of the EU. As with the difference between signing and ratifying a treaty referred to earlier, these are not complicated concepts. They are basic ideas, and those who presume to write on such matters at a certain level of discourse have an obligation not merely to try and get them right, but to succeed in this endeavour.

It may be argued that all of this introduces an unwelcome degree of technicalities into the discussions such that all but a few experts are able to follow. I do not agree. In my experience, members of the public who could be bothered to read a column on, say, the European Union, would like to be taken seriously and given accurate information, not rough accommodations that the author thinks will do. Thoughtful members of the general public are starved for information and often very badly served by the mass media. In their quest to assume the full responsibilities of participatory citizenship, they deserve better.

Ian's September 2007 article on Kosovo

Ian's August 2007 article on Arctic sovereignty

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