Non-interference or the responsibility to protect?

The idea of noninterference appears to be making a comeback, writes Sholto Byrnes

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine explicitly overrode the notion of absolute state sovereignty that underlies the principle of non-interference. Ameer Alhabi / AFP
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On Friday, representatives of 85 political parties from 36 countries will gather in Kuala Lumpur for the ninth General Assembly of the International Conference of Asian Political Parties. Quite apart from curiosity about a gathering with which I had not hitherto been familiar, one thought struck me: what could possibly unite such an inevitably diverse collection of people?

A brief look through the organisation’s charter turned up a reference to a principle both familiar yet redolent of another era, of the glory days of the Non-Aligned Movement (Nam), and conjuring pictures of their leaders, towering post-war figures such as India’s prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, the Indonesian president Sukarno, Egypt’s Col Nasser, Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah, and Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito.

The principle, outlined in the charter’s second paragraph? “Mutual non-interference in each others’ internal affairs.” That concept, frequently accompanied by two others also in the charter – “mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty” and “mutual non-aggression”, does on the face of it seem to hark to another era.

When Nehru outlined in 1954 the five principles that were later to serve as the basis for the Nam (the three above, plus “peaceful coexistence” and “equality and mutual benefit”), the need to stress “non-interference” was pressing. Much of the world had found outside powers all too ready to interfere in their affairs, from the bloody, and ultimately doomed, struggle of the Dutch to regain their East Indies empire and the French to reclaim Indochina, to the spheres of influence and client regimes often forcibly installed by both sides in the Cold War.

Although the NAM continues to represent more than 50 per cent of the world’s population, it is decades since it was considered a body with either clout or relevance. And “non-interference” appeared to be overwhelmed by the tide of universalist triumphalism that swept the globe after the dismantling of the Eastern Bloc.

In more recent years, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2005 explicitly overrode the notion of absolute state sovereignty that underlies the principle of non-interference. And while R2P imposed strict conditions for approving outside intervention – only in cases of genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity – it nevertheless fuelled the ardour of those liberal interventionists and neoconservatives who champed at the bit to impose their views on countries that did not share them, regardless of whether those states had, strictly speaking, contravened the four conditions or not.

After the chaos and devastation intervention has brought to countries in the Middle East, however – and how lightly David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy walked away from the collapse of Libya, as though they had smashed a plate and hoped no one would notice if they crept away quietly – R2P is increasingly discredited.

Non-interference, on the other hand, appears to be making a comeback. In fact, it never truly went away. It’s one of the principles of a number of other organisations, including the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the Southern African Development Community.

The leaders of many developing countries have never forgotten it. Successive anti-Thaksin governments in Thailand have made that clear, as did Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines with his recent profane comments rejecting what he regards as UN interference over his war on drugs. “Maybe we’ll just have to decide to separate from the United Nations,” he said in one of his politer remarks. “Why do you have to listen to this stupid?”

China and Russia are obvious advocates – at least when it comes to any interference in their own affairs. Given the shift in power to Asia and to the Global South more gradually in the long term, the widespread upholding of this principle in these regions has great significance both for international relations and for those still myopically believing they can establish western values as universal ones.

Its appeal now appears to be spreading in Europe and America, too. While not using the terms themselves, Viktor Orban of Hungary and Poland’s de facto leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, have both signalled that they regard the EU as interfering in their domestic affairs in ways they find an intolerable breach of national sovereignty.

Neither is Donald Trump formally recommending it, but his America First isolationism embraces the spirit if not the letter of the principle. "I don't think we have a right to lecture," he told The New York Times last month. Before trying to tell other countries how to behave, he said: "We have to fix our own mess."

If non-interference is back, there will be plenty who will portray it as a betrayal of values that are shared by all (whatever they are). But in fact it is about respecting the right of countries to decide their own paths and laws, to set their own codes and reaffirm their own cultures – sealed either by the ballot box or by more traditional means of conferring political legitimacy.

The former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby once offered a wonderful counter-example. “Suppose that in 1916, an Arab ‘peacekeeping force’, horrified by the slaughter in the trenches, landed in Europe to put an end to the First World War. Or that, in 1945, outraged by the Allied bombing of Dresden, armed Africans had assumed a ‘responsibility to protect’ Germans.”

If they were even feasible, such scenarios would have been “an unthinkable infringement of sovereignty,” argued Wilby. He was right. The question is: if such infringements of sovereignty would have been unacceptable for developed European nations then, why should they not be equally unacceptable for developing countries today?

Sholto Byrnes is a senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies, Malaysia