By Izeth Hussain –
I am adding this fourth and concluding part of this article because I want mainly to clarify one point, and establish it firmly, as otherwise my article – though it contains material of public importance – might seem to amount to a nullity. From the feedback I have been getting it appears that the public mind is fixated on the idea that President JR really had no alternative to caving in to the Indian demand that military operations be stopped after Vadamarachchi, as otherwise India would have invaded this country with very horrible consequences. He therefore did what any responsible leader would have done in his position. Behind that fixation is the realpolitik notion of international relations, according to which what counts ultimately in international relations is power and nothing else. It is a naïve, and indeed ill-informed, notion that fails to take count of the complex realities behind international relations in the modern era.
The main point that I want to establish – that India would not have invaded Sri Lanka if President JR had stood his ground – can be dealt with at great length and much detail. Here I will have to content myself with a few paragraphs in which I will bring out the essentials, which could however suffice to revolutionize our thinking about what was done to Sri Lanka in 1987. My argument depends on just one point: power of course counts in international relations but other factors also count, the most important being morality which can place serious constraints on the exercise of power. The most striking example that I can think of is the Vietnam War. The US had the power to bomb Vietnam back into the Stone Age. Neither China nor the Soviet Union would have risked nuclear war in defense of Vietnam. But the US had to suffer an ignominious defeat when that Vietcong tank burst through the iron gates of the American Embassy not long after the Ambassador and his staff had hooked it by helicopter. Today the US has the power to blow up the globe several times over, it is the sole super power, but its power to influence and dominate other countries has been in steep decline. Power counts; morality could count for more.
In the period after the Second World War, every case of a foreign invasion has had a moral justification behind it, or at the very least the pretence of a moral justification. This really has been the case right through history, except that in the past the pretence of a moral justification to cover up what really was naked aggression was far more frequent. The two Iraq wars are instructive. Saddam Hussein claimed that he had a moral justification in taking over Kuwait because little Kuwait yearned for unity with the motherland. The rest of the world saw it, quite correctly, as aggression and annexation and therefore supported international counter-action in the Gulf War. In the second Iraq war Bush and Blair claimed a moral justification on the ground that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. It turned out that both had engaged in bare-faced lying, and Blair in particular is regarded as an international pariah with whom Desmond Tutu won’t even shake hands. Such are the norms established after the Second World War, showing that today morality counts in international relations far more than it ever did in the past. I cannot see India acting in cavalier disregard of those norms.
In regard to the problem of foreign invasions I would put powerful countries and their weaker neighbors in a special category. Both have security preoccupations which – at least for the most part – don’t apply to their relations with the rest of the world. The weak feels vulnerable to the strong neighbor while the latter feels vulnerable over the prospect that the weak neighbor might get together with some powerful country and work against it. Consequently the moral constraint on the exercise of power is more likely to break down in relations between neighbors. I must emphasize however that that does not mean that the moral factor ceases to apply in relations between neighbors. It is important to bear both those facts in mind in our relations with India.
Russia provides an interesting case study on the complexities of relations between a powerful country and its weak neighbors. It annexed the Crimea in an act of aggression that apparently showed no moral compunction at all. Actually the Crimea, which has had an overwhelming Russian population, should never have been gifted to the Ukraine – something that was done at a time when the Soviet Union was conceived of as a single unit. It was not therefore a straightforward case of naked aggression and annexation. Certainly Russia has been tough in dealing with Georgia, the Ukraine and others, but I view that in the perspective that I formed while serving as Ambassador in Moscow from 1995 to 1998. Russia saw itself – I think quite correctly – as having done something extraordinarily noble in relinquishing its hold on East Europe and dismantling the Soviet Union. It was therefore deeply disappointed that the US regarded it as the potential enemy and several of its neighbors showed resentment and hostility towards it. Many wanted close relations with the West at the expense of Russia and some clearly yearned for NATO membership. In other words, Russia’s toughness with neighbors should be seen in the perspective of threat perceptions and what Russia sees as its legitimate security interests. It is not that it has abandoned the moral factor in its dealings with neighbors.
I come now to two cases that are of particular interest to Sri Lanka, the first of which was Bangladesh. In an earlier part of this article I have already disposed of the notion that the break-up of Pakistan was an exercise of realpolitik by India. The truth is that Indira Gandhi spent around eleven months in establishing the moral justification for Indian intervention in East Pakistan. The other case, that of Cyprus, was much more complicated, and certainly the factor of realpolitik weighed heavily in the intervention of Turkey. In 1974 a Greek junta took power in Athens, proceeded to drive out the Cyprus leader Makarios, and installed in his place Sampson, preparatory to establishing Enosis, the union of Greece and Cyprus. But prior to the grant of independence to Cyprus there had been a tripartite Treaty of Guarantees between Britain, Greece, and Turkey, according to which they would take action to prevent that unity and also a division of Cyprus. Turkey acted in terms of that Treaty by invading Cyprus, but it put itself in the wrong by failing to act in concurrence with the other two parties to the Treaty. Thereafter there was a second invasion of Cyprus in which Turkish troops took over much more territory than the Cypriot Muslims could legitimately claim. Later in the 1980s Turkey established an independent Cypriot Muslim state.
Certainly the factor of realpolitik – the assertion of the will of the powerful over the weak – weighed heavily in all that. But I want to show that the factor of morality did count, and has continued to count to a crucial degree. Firstly Turkey did have a strong moral justification for its intervention because Sampson was a thoroughly unsavory character, known to have been in league with terrorists for decades, and was just the kind of person who in a leadership position would have carried out a genocidal massacre of the Cypriot Muslims. Turkey had a strong moral justification – ignoring the legal technicalities – for its intervention in terms of the principles of today’s R2P (Responsibility to Protect). The moral factor has counted with the international community to the extent that up to now not a single country, apart from Turkey, has recognized the Cypriot Muslim state, not even Turkey’s closest Muslim allies such as Pakistan. At the present moment the Cyprus problem seems closer to a solution than ever before.
I can conclude this article very briefly because the essential points have already been made. The moral factor counts in international relations far more than it ever did in human history, and it is difficult to believe that in 1987 India would have invaded Sri Lanka in cavalier disregard of established international norms and earned international opprobrium in the process. On what grounds would India have invaded Sri Lanka if President JR had insisted on extending the Vadamarachchi operations? 1) There were food shortages in the North but nothing like famine conditions, and certainly there was no imminent danger of death by hunger. Furthermore those food shortages were easily corrigible. If India had invaded Sri Lanka, it would have been the first time in history that a powerful country invaded a small neighbor because of food shortages that were easily corrigible. 2) Sri Lanka had not just the right but the primordial duty of putting down an armed rebellion by military means. If we had insisted on that, I am sure that the international community would have backed us. 3) It was widely believed that India was being very tough with us because of the special relations that President JR had built up with the US, which were seen by India as inimical to its interests. But I have shown above that in 1987 the US was actually colluding with India.
However, the kind of questions and arguments I have raised above could not have been raised in 1987. We were living under a virtual dictatorship, and President JR was engaged in a tripartite conspiracy the outcome of which were the Peace Accords and the coming of the IPKF troops to Sri Lanka. The further outcome was twenty two more years of war and a hundred thousand deaths. I suppose that President JR, having the mentality of an old fox, preferred a conspiracy to a straightforward military victory. The problem was that he was a mad old fox.