It is not time to give the impression of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds

Dear Editor,


Stabroek News report of April 17, 2014 that the United States Embassy had made a direct, and public, approach to the Government of Guyana to join with the United States in imposing targeted sanctions on the Russian leadership on the matter of Ukraine prompts this comment which should have been made immediately after the vote in the UN General Assembly on March 27. The delay afforded a clear definition of the implications and their far-reaching consequences.

At that vote, Guyana abstained on a draft resolution which, inter alia, called on all states to desist and refrain from actions aimed at disrupting the “national unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including any attempts to modify Ukraine’s borders through the threat or use of force or other unlawful means.” The draft also “underscores” the referendum held in the “Autonomous Republic of Crimea” on March 16 as having no “validity” and forming no basis for altering the status of Crimea or the city of Sevastopol. One hundred states approved the draft which did not identify Russia.

Fifty-seven other states also abstained. Among them were states which have been in the vanguard in respecting the principles of the UN Charter and in contributing immensely towards the maintenance of regional and international peace and security. From Caricom – Jamaica; Unasur – Brazil; the heyday of Non-alignment – Algeria Angola, Botswana, Ethiopia, India, Mozambique, Tanzania, Zambia. And, of course, Guyana, which served two terms of office on the Security Council during the administration of Forbes Burnham.

Why did this occur particularly since Russia was reported as exerting enormous pressure on states that could not vote against the draft to abstain? First, like the United States and the European Union, the size of the abstentions suggests varying levels of unpreparedness for the Russian-organised occupation of Crimea and the rapidity of the evolution of events so soon after the Sochi games; second, states may still have been dissecting the history of the Soviet Union with Ukraine and Crimea and particularly the sensitive and strategic ties to Sevastopol; third, their existing economic and trade relations with Russia which could easily be disrupted; fourth, were mindful of past US and UK advocacy for intervention in Iraq based upon their claims about the existence of weapons of mass destruction; and fifth, current allegations about US and EU intelligence involvement in Ukrainian affairs.

Faced with the ever present dilemma of contending interests in the conduct of foreign policy, states may anchor their deliberations on some axiom or philosophical theory that best secures the national interest. I believe that this is the conversation that Aubrey Norton sought to develop recently.

To explain further, over the centuries impelled by geo-strategic considerations the major states, and later new ones, made and unmade alliances, ententes, associations to secure, or enlarge, their independence and territorial integrity to maintain their civilization and way of life. The United Kingdom is the classic example. An island state off-shore the European mainland, it was axiomatic of British policy to prevent the control of the Low Countries by a hostile power. Thus, German violation of Belgian neutrality in August 1914, guaranteed by the treaty of London of 1829, led to the British declaration of war. Guyana is a good example of the new state, in earlier times and possibly current. Urged by history and geography, and in accordance with the UN Charter, it framed through diplomacy a series of concentric circles of association to maintain and secure its territorial integrity and independence further anchored by the prohibition of the threat or use of force in the settlement of disputes.

In the elaboration of any axiom in their deliberations, states may be guided by the law, political/economic/trade interests, or, for the zealous, morality. The Donald Ramotar administration may have approached the Crimea/Ukraine matter along these lines. The expanding political and economic ties with Russia would be foremost: Rusal’s critical engagement in bauxite and its controversial relations with Guyanese labour, pertinently being reviewed by Lincoln Lewis; Jamaica is having a similar experience. Further, the administration should have been in no doubt about the law, vide Article 2(3) and (4) of the UN Charter prohibiting the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of states.

The administration seems to have been persuaded by the cordiality and the economic relations with Russia at the expense of the legal aspects, notwithstanding our reliance on international law to protect an internationally determined and recognized frontier that is still being challenged by the claimant. Did the administration know beforehand that Venezuela would be among the eleven to reject the draft?

A presumption that in this instance the legal issue would pre-empt the others is not unreasonable. That this did not occur is signalled in domestic affairs where the administration is disposed to give weightier attention to political and economic interests and to interpret, or reinterpret, the law/constitution to bolster a position, say, in the use of the Contingencies Fund.

The idea of the location of interests in policy has long demanded attention: from Thucydides to Salisbury, the British Prime Minister (and simultaneously Foreign Secretary), when the boundary between British Guiana and Venezuela brought the Anglo-American powers closest to war, advanced the idea of interests being unaffected by the circumstances of time and place. It was Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, however, in his inimitable and succinct refinement, who observed that there can be neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests. This matter of Ukraine sought a clear appreciation of this location of interests.

We have seen Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea and threats against Ukraine before. In Hitler’s re-occupation of the Rhineland, the invasion of German-speaking Austria, the Anschluss (the connection) as he called it, the seizure of the Sudetenland – the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia, the invasion of Poland, and then war. Using Putin’s linguistic theory, is it absurd to fear that Switzerland with its French, German, Italian and Romanish speakers cannot survive as a unitary state? Or, a claim from Suriname to all of Berbice? Or, fomenting irredentist aspirations reminiscent of the Rupununi uprising of 1969?

Putin is heir to the grandest deception of all history. A revolution that promised so much to a “backward” Russia, and to the working classes elsewhere, conceived as authoritarian and finely nurtured by the genius of Lenin and Trotsky, disintegrated into an ocean of falsehoods, incurring   incalculable human loss and suffering during the long Stalin years, and collapsed to the wonderment of external Soviet-watchers and Kremlin bosses. Mercifully, the Russian experiment lasted only one lifetime devaluing in the process some genuine achievements.

Putin now seeks to reconstruct the form, spirit and perceived prestige of the Soviet Union, really an empire, and its associated bloc into a twenty-first century sphere of influence to counter the realities of the eastward EU and Nato’s expansion of territory and influence. In this adventure he is pleased to tilt at the edifice of centuries of painstaking diplomacy: of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the independence of states, the prohibition of the threat and use of force, the Budapest memorandum of 1994 on security assurances and territorial integrity of Ukraine; having also ignored the independence of Georgia. Old conventions about self-determination and new ones about the “Responsibility to Protect,” he bends to his pleasure as pretext for intervention and expansion, despite earlier warnings by Kofi Annan that the responsibility was not a licence to make war in the name of peace.

The outcome is a gathering disruption of the prevailing international order forewarning of some fundamental change in regional and international security and anxieties for many states including those with territorial claims against them.

That is what the vote to abstain identifies with, or supports. Small wonder that twenty-four states, including Belize with a huge threat to its territory, were “absent”. Being absent means that the Representatives had retired to the lounge, the bar, the corridors or had returned at their respective permanent missions, though monitoring closely the developments. In the circumstance of this particular vote, it would seem that Guyana’s stronger option was to be absent, as unheroic as this may appear. The censures would have certainly followed, but Guyana would have concealed its stance on the law and the principles for a limited time only.

The Barack Obama administration is engaging diplomacy and the UN system to its fullest, as has not been seen recently. The administration has achieved the support of the entire EU including former states of the Soviet bloc; in the Security Council it has persuaded the People’s Republic of China away from the veto to abstain on the draft urging non-recognition of the referendum, isolating Russia. It is now reaching out publicly to Guyana who abstained and, I suspect, the entire global community to build support for a programme of sanctions against Russia, the recent Geneva understanding notwithstanding.

The response of the two regional associations, Caricom and Unasur, closest to our foreign policy, is anything but definitive. Their votes fell into all categories, with Bolivia and Venezuela supporting Russia and voting against the draft. Surely, a subject for careful analysis. So too, is the continuing collapse of a coordinated Caricom foreign policy, if it ever existed, and the piercing influence of Venezuela in the region. There was a time when Caricom support for our territorial integrity was gilt-edged; now the annual recitation of satisfaction for the existing cordiality between Guyana and Venezuela may appear ritualistic to the sceptic.

The UN will remain seized of the matter and member states will be obliged to formulate other positions. The time will not be appropriate for mere tepid enunciations of principles and apprehensions, but to be wary and not to panic. Costa Rica, a sponsor of the draft resolution, made the case in a most poignant statement when it said that small states have only the power of international law “to defend our sovereignty.” In fine, it is not the time to give the dangerous impression of running with the hare and hunting with the hounds; it is the time for unequivocal support, without artfulness, of the rule of law.


Yours faithfully,

Cedric L Joseph  

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