International Relations Is Organized Hypocrisy!
By Prof. Indra de Soysa Warden, STC Mt. Lavinia
Much ink has by now been spilt over the question of human rights violations by the Sri Lankan government during the end of the war against the LTTE.
There is some confusion among many about what all this means. The knee-jerk reaction among some is that the resolution brought by the UNHRC is an international conspiracy instigated and organized by the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Others simply think that the West, led by the US wants ultimately to dominate the affairs of a small country.
Both these and other broad propositions hold certain truths within them but they are not critical to explaining and predicting eventual outcomes. What is happening rather is the confluence of certain factors that are far less based on conspiracy and organization than people believe. In an international system governed by the principle of organized hypocrisy (OH) which I will outline in detail below, empirical truths and proof about who was right and wrong don’t matter at all, neither does international public opinion which is a very fickle, even often a wrong-headed thing. I Consider that much international opinion was on our side on the war on terror, and destroying a terrorist organization should have been applauded.
International relations don’t work according to the principles of law and public opinion there is no international parliament that legislates in favour of right and wrong. In a world of OH—our diplomatic and other reactions should be strategic and pragmatic, indeed flexible and sensitive to certain empirical realities that do matter, but diplomatic strategies based on proving iron-clad cases is likely to be pointless and dangerous. So how does organized hypocrisy work? Standard international relations theory is a battle between two broad worldviews about how international relations work—the realists and liberals (institutionalists).
Realism sees international relations as high politics, where a policy maker decides policy based on maximizing an interest, usually related to maximizing a state’s power and position vis-à-vis other states. There is little room in realist thinking for ideational factors such as human rights and other high-minded principles we take for granted in domestic law.
What matters is the maximization of security where countries act as if they were unitary actors, dealing with each other on a high plateau of diplomacy. In a realist world, the destruction of the LTTE would be welcome given that war against terror was already a recognized interest and active cooperation to destroy the LTTE was a fact of life. Indeed, India, one of the biggest powerbrokers in this entire scenario played a critical role in the ultimate defeat of the LTTE.
Much of the reason for human rights rhetoric and action are driven by other imperatives that are in fact badly explained by standard realist thinking because the issue of human rights at least seems to be a critical factor post bellum, leading even to the alienation of the anti bellum coalition of states that came together to destroy terrorism. Idealists would explain this issue on the basis of international institutions. Unlike realists, idealists believe that states do not simply act to maximize power in isolation given that security is a public good that is shared. Idealists believe that
For a theoretical argument about international relations as organized hypocrsy, see Krasner, Stephen D. 1999. Sovereignty: Organized Hypocrisy Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. international cooperation around providing for collective goods is possible and occurs around the building and maintenance of international institutions, such as the UN system and affiliated institutions.
Given that there are UN institutions for safeguarding and monitoring such things as human rights, genocide, war crimes etc, these institutions work because they are self enforcing and autonomous. Indeed, these liberal institutionalists, much like the realists, generally see states as unitary actors that create and maintain institutions because they see the point of empowering institutions for solving collective dilemmas such as security, including human security—a tribe of men usually cooperate in the stag huntbecause if one breaks ranks, no one eats. In the same way, institutions take a self-enforcing life of their own. From a liberal institutionalists point of view, anyone who breaks ranks has to be punished because free-riding on the system by anyone will lead to the end of an international regime, such as human rights. In other words, a liberal would suggest that the action against Sri Lanka was necessary to prevent Sri Lanka from making a mockery of the human rights regime. There are, however, violations of human rights too numerous to mention here that the rich and powerful get away with; i.e. the powerful and strategically important states break ranks all the time.
According to OH, however, realists and liberals are perhaps only partially right. Institutions, such as sovereignty and human rights laws are generally flouted by powerful states all the time, even if they keenly build institutions around these things. What OH does is relaxes the assumptions of states acting as if they were unitary actors in the realm of high politics, and that states seek always to maximize power. Policymakers are very sensitive to domestic politics and public opinion and international relations has ceased to be just high politics, particularly as the world has become ever more transparent through media, tourism, travel, immigration, education etc. Indeed, those factors that motivate domestic opinion around issues do matter in the decisions of policymakers who would like to do well at home. Policymakers make decisions based on two main logics—the logic of appropriateness and the logic of consequence. Whenconfronted by choices, they will generally balance these two; i.e. doing what is appropriate if the consequence of acting inappropriately does not trump being appropriate. In other words, foreign policymakers act according to the rules of the international institutions conditionally—the rules should only apply conditionally to the powerful. Indeed, many international institutions allow the powerful multiple loop holes to wriggle out of but maintaining a veneer of legality.
Indeed, many of these institutions would never have come into being in the first place if they bound the hands of the truly powerful. Even when hands are tied, lying becomes an option as in the case where the US deliberately misled the UN about Saddam´s WMD program. The logic of consequence in this case clearly trumped the logic of appropriateness because Bush had to act for domestic consumption. Consider that the US, supported by the EU, refuses to sign an arms trade treaty that would limit the export of arms, particularly small arms, to dangerous places.
So, what does OH tell us about the Sri Lankan case? First, the entire issue about human rights is driven by two concerns—the logic of appropriateness clearly trumps the logic of consequence given that domestic forces in the powerful countries are calling for the sanctioning of Sri Lanka. Thus, self-interest of domestic policymakers and doing good abroad in terms of strengthening the human rights regime converge. Moreover, and it is appropriate from the point of view of institutional interests—you cannot have a weak country thumbing its nose at established human rights practices when there is little consequence stemming from a destroyed LTTE in terms of international terrorism.Sanctioning Israel on the other hand carries consequences, particularly for US policymakers.
The point is that who is right and who holds the moral ground is immaterial and simply clutters up the space that should be devoted to seeing things for what they are and developing effective counter strategy. Indeed, if we had played our cards right, we would not have faced sanction because we actually did the job well—there is no threat from renewed LTTE violence for the international community so token, even “insincere” action against a weak party can be taken. Thus, the proceedings in Geneva must be seen for what they were a mere effort at window dressing. Immediately after the vote, the US actuallyrelaxed arms exports to Sri Lanka.
In a system characterized by OH, two things have driven the UNHRC issue against Sri Lankadomestic pressure on policymakers to do something about Sri Lanka (consequence of not doing is greater than the consequence of doing)and the appropriateness of acting to safeguard the international human rights regime (loop holes for the powerful and all) because the consequence of doing so against weak Sri Lanka is small. In other words, the configuration of power in the system still matters but conditional on the incentives of policymakers, incentives shaped first by their domestic interests moderated by the consequences of these actions in the international arena.
Thus, the best long-term strategy for Sri Lanka to follow into the future is to win over the Tamil diaspora citizens of powerful countries because the incentives of foreign policymakers in those countries are going to be based on the consequences for them at home not abroad. Appealing to high morals and shared interests about defeating terrorism etc will only fall on deaf ears. Indeed, even if Sri Lanka fought the cleanest war in history, it is in reality largely immaterial. Our efforts must clearly target those interests fighting for a separate homeland by engaging the international community in good faith about the dangers of separatism in South Asia and win back the Tamil diaspora on the basis of real reforms that they can buy into.
As far as international powerbrokers are concerned, human rights matter little where domestic pressures do not exist for making them consequential. In other words, much greater openness and transparency in our actions is the only antidote to the pressures coming from the diaspora Tamils. In fact, the greater our openness to monitoring and implementation of the LLRC recommendations the smaller the space for the diaspora propagandists to do their work. Indeed, showing greater sensitivity to the domestic political pressures on foreign policymakers in the West, not attacking them, should be our strategy.
Hunkering down on the basis of standing up to large international conspiracies and western pressure is utterly unproductive, even dangerous in an international system that works on the basis of organized hypocrisy.