Politicians in Bangladesh, especially those of the ruling variety, appear to be anguishing over Washington's overt and sometimes covert interference with Bangladesh's internal affairs. Its call for transparency in elections, greater freedoms for the opposition, and prevention of human rights abuses by law enforcement agencies have caused significant distress, both on late-night TV and in public statements. They all agree such interferences cannot be tolerated.
This alleged nosey behavior, Washington argues, is not intended to interfere with Bangladesh's internal affairs. Instead, it represents the US government's stated foreign policy ideals: the promotion of democratic principles and the rule of law globally. In December 2021, President Biden at the first Democracy Summit he had convened called renewing democracy across the globe the 'defining challenge of our time,'.
Therefore, one may infer, the US will continue to meddle in the internal affairs of other countries, whether we like it or not. But are they really interferences, or just a fact of life in an interconnected world? Things that used to be exclusively internal are no longer so. As an example, consider the Covid pandemic. It began in China and soon spread throughout the world. Therefore, it is not out of the ordinary for the rest of the world to ask China to come clean about what happened and how it will prevent a similar global menace in the future. China angrily rejects such interferences.
Undocumented Muslims in India are subjected to deportation under the country's controversial Citizenship Amendment Law that requires them to take 'religion tests'. Where would these allegedly illegal Muslims go if they fail in the test? This law thus has the potential to create a transboundary headache for India's Muslim neighbors who have strongly criticized the move. Thus, a domestic issue has become a global one.
The issue of Rohingya Muslims is no different. No country appears to agree with the Burmese military's claims that its brutal military operation against the Rohingyas was aimed at preventing terrorism. The UN has condemned the action, and the country's top leadership has been brought before the International Criminal Court to defend its conduct.
A new world order
The overlap between national and international issues has become more apparent over time as the world has become more interconnected. Since the Second World War, nations are expected to adhere to certain basic norms, such as respect for human rights and political freedom. The core of this new world order is the United Nations which has given the world a new global compact built on a set of agreed norms and standards codified by international treaties. Nations, big and small, can be probed and censured for violations when they occur.
Consider the following examples
The conventions on children's rights and discrimination against women prohibit child labor and forced marriage regardless of prevailing national practices. When violations of treaty obligations are reported, you are required to explain why your country shouldn't be held in contempt.
The erasure of national and international boundaries is even more pronounced in today's technology-driven media landscape. No borders, and no privacy declarations, are respected in the new ICT order. As a result, a foreign TV station can bypass any requirement to get consent from a government before airing an exposé on its security forces' excesses (think of Al-Jazeera). Or consider the predicament of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who had issued a stern warning against the screening of a BBC television documentary on his role in the 2002 Gujrat massacre. It had the exact opposite effect. Student groups and political parties across India organized festive screenings that drew far more attention than Mr. Modi would have liked.
Another example is the penal colonies that China has set up for its Uyghur Muslims. Beijing angrily denies all such allegations and restricts most foreign inspections. But the cat was out of the bag when a few years ago the New York Times published a 400-page official dossier smuggled out of China, providing a detailed examination of the treatment of the Uyghurs.
In short, in today's world, cover-ups don't work, and the claim of sovereignty is no longer a valid defense against interference. A far more urgent question is why a country deems it necessary to claim such a defense if it has nothing to hide. When there are non-judicial killings or abductions, there will be no need for Al Jazeera to surreptitiously produce an unauthorized documentary. If Modi wasn't the brain behind the Gujrat massacre, BBC would have no footage to smear the esteemed Prime Minister. And of course, the Burmese leadership wouldn't be summoned to The Hague to defend itself against allegations of atrocities against the Rohingyas had there been no Rohingya genocide.
National sovereignty and its limits
I am not trying to pooh-pooh the sanctimoniousness of national sovereignty. In fact, the establishment of the modern state begins with the formal recognition of sovereignty as inviolable, an idea codified in the 1648 Westphalian peace treaty that ended the thirty-year war in Europe. Two hundred years later, German philosopher, Immanuel Kant came up with the idea of a 'peaceful league of democracies that would be bound by a set of principles including peace, non-aggression, and trading cooperation. He even suggested collective action against those who would violate the agreement. Therein lay the idea of the United Nations, which came to reality only after millions had perished in the Second World War. The UN, in its founding Charter - under Articles 55 and 56 - proclaimed the 'collective responsibility' of its members for observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. Chapter Seven of the same Charter even empowers Member States to intervene - even militarily - to enforce compliance with the Organization's declared principles and objectives. In effect, by signing the Charter and joining the UN, countries of the world voluntarily agree to allow outside interference in the event of suspected violations.
Unfortunately, our world remains unequal, and the hope for a world governed by norms and principles is mostly a mirage. Yet, our best hope for peace and justice lies in the rule of law, the blueprint of which can be found in the UN's work. Much depends, however, on the behavior of the major powers who helped establish such an order. They must prove that what they pledged in 1945 was not merely a smokescreen. Renewing that pledge, proclaimed so eloquently by President Biden, is indeed the defining challenge of our time.
31 January 2022, New York
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