The Art of International Negotiations

The methodology of engaging international relations seems to be breaking down. Two issues that come to mind are the US attitude to the International Criminal Court, and Brexit.

Regarding the ICC, on September 10, John Bolton, the US National Security Advisor, announced that Washington would “use any means necessary” to push back against the influence of the ICC. The ICC was established in 2002, and has succeeded in convicting a number of war criminals from Africa and former Yugoslavia, although one can question exactly the nature of the sovereignty of the broken laws. Thus a senior military man could be prosecuted for the actions actually carried out by more junior soldiers, even in the absence of clear evidence of such orders. Obviously, people carrying out, or even worse, ordering murder, torture, etc, need punishing, but there also needs to be some sort of sovereignty, the reason being that, in my mind anyway, justice needs to be blind to the origin or nature of the perpetrators. If it is only the losing side that gets prosecuted, it is essentially victor’s justice, which is usually little better than revenge. Given that the US, Israel, China and Saudi Arabia have refused to ratify the founding document, on the basis that it had unacceptable consequences to national sovereignty, the concept of “international” is clearly questionable.

Now, as far as I know, no US citizen has ever been indicted, probably because it would be futile, but apparently there has been agitation regarding US soldiers in Afghanistan, particularly regarding alleged torture of detainees. Now, the argument then is, if the crime took place in Afghanistan, the fact that the US has not ratified the court is irrelevant, and any perpetrator of a crime against a ratified member can be prosecuted, irrespective of the nationality, or at least that is the view of the ICC. Of course, arresting such a person is another matter. Here, however, there is a further issue. Some of what is alleged, e.g. waterboarding and indefinite detention without due process, apparently occurred with the permission of very senior US officials and politicians, and apparently the President. This raises the question, exactly how does such an organization decide whether the President of the United States has ordered or permitted something that is illegal? But if the United States is exempt, why are lesser countries susceptible to prosecution? Is it a case of might makes right?

In any case, Bolton’s statement that the US would ban any such members of the ICC from entering the US, and it would sanction their funds and prevent them from using the US financial system is certainly a shot across the bow. The question then is, is this the way of going about negotiations? Or does the US feel there is no alternative? It is certainly acting as if the rest of the world is some sort of unfortunate added extra. In terms of international relations, the United States, through President Trump’s recent speech at the UN, has effectively declared it feels it wishes to separate its interests from those of the rest of the world. America first! I for one agree that all is not right with the UN, but I do not believe that attitude helps.

The Brexit negotiations are more confusing. The EU rules meant that when Britain elected to leave, there was a two-year period to sort out all the consequences, but at least the last six months of that appeared to be required to put the agreement in place, which left 18 months to reach the agreement. That has almost expired. The EU has decided that the UK has been “dawdling”, and trying to present the EU with a deal that would have to be agreed at the last minute, or no deal. The problem with that approach is that “no deal” works both ways, and the assumption that the other side is desperate to have a deal may be misguided. However, there are issues on which the EU is quite obstinate. One is that if the UK wants access to the EU markets, Britain must accept the free movement of citizens, and stopping that is one of the reasons Britain elected to leave the EU. There are other demands by the EU: manufactured goods must be by the EU rulebook; the European Court of Justice will have overall jurisdiction; the UK must retain European labour and environmental laws. Now it is reasonable to require such things for goods that are shipped to the EU, but the EU should have no say on goods that do not touch the EU as it is none of their business.

Some seem to predict a total disaster for the UK if they leave with no deal, however we should note that the UK buys £318 billion from the EU, and exports £235.8 billion. So, if all trade stopped, the EU would suffer an extra £82 billion. But the situation is worse than that because Britain’s exports of manufactured goods to Europe include an extensive array of parts, etc. These days, large complicated objects are not made by one company, but rather they are assembled from parts supplied by a large number of different manufacturers. So trade will not stop, and it is in both sides’ interests to keep it going with as few hold-ups as possible.

The other major problem is the Northern Ireland border. Theresa May offered a tolerably straightforward solution, which would allow smooth crossing of the border provided certain “paperwork” (essentially electronic in this case) was properly completed. The EU have responded by saying Northern Ireland must remain fully within the customs union, which effectively means that Northern Ireland would become part of Eire in all but name. No UK prime minister could accept that. As a negotiating stance, President Macron of France has stated the British plan is unacceptable because “it does not respect the integrity of the single market.” Effectively that is saying, either be in the EU or do not trade with it. That is a fairly tough stance. President Macron went further and called some of the Brexiteers liars. Not exactly diplomatic.

There is fairly clear evidence the attitude towards the UK from Brussels has hardened, and they seem to be forcing Britain to opt for “no deal”. Mrs May, being pushed into a corner, has responded by saying that it was unacceptable for the EU to reject her plan and offer nothing in return except “no Brexit”. To succeed in negotiations, both sides need something, and in this case, both sides need trade to continue. Neither side does well out of a failure. But both sides also need reasonably good will, and a desire to reach an agreement. Not a lot of promise there. It is hard to get rid of entrenched pig-headedness.

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The Syrian quagmire ending?

Probably the most newsworthy item at present again involves Syria, with the collapse of the rebel forces in Aleppo, and the associated reduction of that part of the city to rubble. We are starting to get images from the region, and it is clear that an enormous amount of money will be required to rebuild that part of the city. An effort has been made to offer the insurgents transport to insurgent held villages elsewhere, and what we see is a lit of civilians are going as well. To my mind, this indicates that the reason the rebels held Eastern Aleppo is because the civilians were sympathetic. In turn, that strongly suggests the rebellion is now down to religion: Sunnis attempting to get rid of the Shias. With Hezbollah and Iran involved, that is not going to happen.

One of the biggest disasters there is undoubtedly the high number of civilian casualties, and a number of commentators in the West have called for war crimes trials on certain Russians. At the same time, the West has been strangely quiet relating to casualties in Mosul, where the US is bombing, and, strangely enough, the attack is being managed by the Shias. This bombing and the inevitable casualties has raised the issue of justice and international law, and I am afraid from my point of view, many of those in the West are merely arm-waving and arguing that “they are war criminals”. Nobody denies that killing of civilians is bad, but what could Assad and the Russians do? The objective is to remove the rebels, and to be quite clear, the rebels included factions that wished to impose the strictest form of Islamic law. Women should be kept at home and do nothing but housework and breed. As for nobility amongst the rebels, I saw a TV clip from an observer who had been in eastern Aleppo, and saw a family “home invaded” by rebels looking for food. They took everything, and when the mother complained about feeding the children, they shot her through the jaw to stop her complaints. So much for the noble rebels. There is no way those involved in something like the al Nusra front can be expected to change their ways and be persuaded to become peaceful citizens, so Assad either has to defeat them, or let Syria be run by them and ISIS in full Wahabbi extremism.

Let us look at “International Law”. Who is the sovereign entity? Who imposes the law? As far as I can make out, it is at a very similar state to that of ancient Rome, except that there is no clear law-making entity. In ancient Rome, prosecutions were made by citizens, and the results tended to be resolved by the eloquence of the lawyer, or the standing of the participants. Thus during the late Republic, Clodius could organize a gang to beat up a politician he did not like, or even burn down someone’s house. Nothing would stop him. So-called international justice is a bit like that now: victor’s justice.

At the end of WW II, a lot of Nazis were tried for war crimes, not that there were such recognized crimes, although many were guilty of crimes under the German criminal code. Most people are not particularly concerned about the doubtful legality of the process because those found guilty were mainly really very bad people. But there were double standards. Any German who could be of any further use to one of the occupying powers was immediately granted immunity.

Then, if we consider killing innocent civilians to be a war crime, was the fire bombing of Hamburg a war crime? Of Tokyo? Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki war crimes? If not, why not? For me, the fire bombing of Dresden had to be a crime, because the war was clearly essentially over, Dresden had no military value then, and 35,000 civilians were killed for no good purpose. Why is that not a war crime? Hopefully, not because it was us that did it, not them. In more recent times, the invasion of Iraq has led to some unknown number of deaths, but certainly in the hundred thousand range.

My view is Syria will be better off with the Wahabbi extremists defeated. If so, and given a somewhat lacking of alternatives, I believe that the Russian bombing of Aleppo was a valid means of pursuing the war. Yes, innocent people were killed, but at least we now see the possibility of an end to the carnage. The question we must ask is, what was the alternative? Just leaving the rebels alone to rearm and reorganize? Prolong the misery indefinitely?

So what happens now? If there is going to be peace, how do you arrange that? Negotiate with ISIS and the al Qaeda derivatives? Separate the country and give them their Caliphate? Or have a secular government, and force the citizens to behave? That would be essentially a return to what Syria was before all this started. If you think you could do this without Assad, then nominate who will be the new government, and outline why will it work. How do you impose order? And most importantly, how do you get the economy of a country bombed to bits back running again? It took Germany many years after WW II, and the US put a lot of money in to get restoration going. Further, there was a well-established industry in Germany. Syria seems to have none of those advantages.

This will be my last post for 2016, but I shall be back mid January. In the meantime, I wish you all a Merry Christmas, and all the best for a successful and healthy 2017.

From whence international law?

One of the more curious aspects of the recent Syrian issue is the question of whether Syria broke international law. The curious part arises from the issue, what is international law?

As far as I can make out, prior to 1940 there was no international law. The reason is simple. One of the fundamental principles of law (e.g., read the Magna Carta) is that a sovereign authority can write law that informs those subject to it what they are not permitted to do. That implies that there is a sovereign authority, and prior to 1940, each nation was its own sovereign authority. However, by 1945, the sight of the German concentration camps was so horrifying that it seems everyone thought that something had to be done. The Russians would probably have simply taken away the leading Germans and killed them, but the Americans decided to put them on trial. The problem was, the Germans had technically not broken any law, because the Reich was not technically subject to any law. Never mind! The Nazis were tried for what should have been law, and duly executed, and because what they were accused of was so vile, nobody objected (and nor do I object. I think one of their own concentration camps would be just about right). But let us take a deeper look at what followed.

First, for some reason the Japanese got off more lightly, and ex-Nazis that were useful got a sort of immunity. Subsequently, in the Balkans, the West has complained about ethnic cleansing, but at the end of WWII, millions of Germans were ethnically cleansed. The German army of von Paulus surrendered, and the great majority of those soldiers died in captivity, but that, apparently, was not a crime. At a somewhat lower level, the family of my son-in-law were Poles, and the Russians simply took their land and sent the family to Siberia. They eventually managed to get to New Zealand, but there was never recompense for their lands. Justice at this level is hardly blind!

This brings me to the current US complaint that Russia is vetoing action against Syria in the UN. Accordingly, the US wants to let fly with cruise missiles to “teach Assad a lesson”. The first thing we can say about that is that previous such lessons have never ended well, and nobody, least of all the US government, seems to have learned anything. The second thing is that Iraq went ahead without UN authorization, so in many ways that was unlawful, unless international law is reduced to, he who has the most sophisticated forces is right. Then there is the argument, what has Syria done that is illegal in international law? Here the problem is, there is no international law, but even by treaty, as far as I know, Syria has not signed any treaty that bans the use of chemical weapons. Killing its subjects cannot be good, but by some estimate there have been about 100,000 deaths so far, and nobody got too worked up about that. Of course the US claims that its cruise missiles will be surgical and will not kill anybody. Yeah, right!

The question now is, do you believe two wrongs do not make a right? If you do, why is sending cruise missiles into another country and blowing stuff up right? Why is it even legal, apart from the fact there is no real international law? I think there should be international law, but I also think it has to be put in place by an entity that is given the right to enforce such law. In my ebook trilogy “First Contact” I wrote in a federation of nations with Federation armed forces, even though most countries also had their own, and generally did their own policing. I shall enlarge on this federation is subsequent posts.

All of which leads to the question, what should be done in the near future about Syria? As far as I can see, the only way that is likely to end the killing is to partition Syria and permit and assist significant ethnic movement. It is not a great solution, but can anyone think of anything better that has a realistic chance of success?