Columns - From The Sidelines

Clinton in Asia - shifting the goal posts in international law?
By Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

Hillary Clinton on a three-day visit to India has reiterated the United States' message that India should 'do more' to comply with US strategy of putting pressure on Iran by reducing crude oil imports from that state. This is with a view to squeezing Iran's oil revenues to a point that Iran is forced to 'give up irrevocably' what the US claims is a nuclear weapons program.

US Secretary of State Clinton with India's External Affairs Minister Krishna in New Delhi. AFP

Clinton, ending a week-long tour of Asia, referred to the Iran oil sanctions at a joint news conference with India's External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna, and at a Q & A session at a town hall event in Kolkota, broadcast on NDTV. It is interesting that these comments were couched in terms that suggest the US Secretary of State was making these demands on behalf of the wider international community ("We did what the international community wanted").

By implication this suggests consonance between what is in the US's national interest, and the interests of the 'rest of the world.' Clearly this is not the case, as the controversy over Iranian oil itself demonstrates. India for example has taken the position that it will abide by the UN Security Council resolutions on Iran but not necessarily the US conditions (which, if not complied with, will result in sanctions that come into effect from next month).

Krishna stated that from the point of view of India's energy security Iranian oil was important. Explaining the decline in Indian imports he diplomatically said: "Ultimately, it reflects the decision that refineries make based on commercial, financial, and technical considerations." Even as the two leaders spoke, an Iranian trade delegation was in India to explore deals whereby India could pay for some 45 percent of its Iranian oil imports in Indian rupees, thereby bypassing the US sanctions. India's stance on Iran (along with other members of the BRICS coalition of emerging economic powers) is that there is a need to engage with that state and arrive at a peaceful negotiated settlement to issues relating to its nuclear programme. It is not a position that is consonant with the US-projected view of Iran as a 'global terrorist.'
The Iran oil issue would seem to illustrate an evolving US strategy of applying its domestic laws to arm-twist other states into complying with its foreign policy requirements. This trend may be seen also in the Obama administration's stepping up of US drone attacks launched from Pakistan, targeting the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the border areas. The drone war may serve US interests by targeting US enemies, but it is deeply resented in Pakistan where it has killed hundreds of civilians.

US counter terrorism advisor John Brennan had in recent remarks referred to whom the US may target in such attacks. A comment in the UK 'Guardian' said "Under the hugely expansive definition he described on Monday, the US can kill individuals across the globe." It noted that the trouble with this definition is "not just its breadth, but its distance from any conventional interpretation of the laws of war."

It would be relevant to mention here an analysis of the recent US-led resolution against Sri Lanka at the UNHRC. It discusses the resolution in the context of this apparent US thrust to push the boundaries of international law in a manner that serves its own long term interests. The article by Dharshan Weerasekera, a law student, appears in 'Foreign Policy Journal' online, datelined 18.04.12.
There is still some bewilderment as to exactly why the US moved its full heft as a superpower, and strained every diplomatic muscle, to have this resolution adopted on Sri Lanka. Given the US's own historical record, it is difficult to believe it was motivated by a concern for 'human rights.' Weerasekera addresses this question of "why." By a process of elimination he argues that out of four possible explanations of the resolution that have emerged, only one withstands close scrutiny. That is, the explanation that relates to a particular version of R2P ('Responsibility to Protect'). Sections of the article that give the gist of his argument are quoted below:

"In my view, the significance of the resolution (and there's really no other way to put it) is that it allows the US to continue its assault on, and undermining of, some of the core concepts and foundational pillars of international law. This assault is part of a new direction or focus in US foreign policy, though of course not in an explicit or overt way. There is very little public discussion of this matter.

"R2P, or Responsibility to Protect, is based on the general sentiment that if there are atrocities taking place in a country, the community of nations can't stand by and let it continue, but must intervene in some way to prevent it. It got international recognition at a 2005 UN Summit where the UN General Assembly endorsed, in broad terms, some of the principles and ideas behind the doctrine. Here, however, things get a little complicated. The distinguished American scholar and critic Noam Chomsky explains the matter as follows:

"'The version of R2P adopted by the 2005 UN Summit affirms what had already been accepted, at most with a shift in emphasis, which was why it was so easily adopted. There is, however, a radically different version of R2P presented by the 2001 Evans Commission, which adds a provision allowing 'regional' organizations to act without Security Council authorization in their 'areas of jurisdiction'…. In practice, the Evans extension refers solely to NATO, which claims an extremely broad 'area of jurisdiction'. The Evans version of R2P simply reinstates the so-called right of humanitarian intervention, which has always been vigorously apposed by the non-aligned countries, the traditional victims.[15]'

"So, the version of R2P that the US is trying to push is the "Evans version", i.e., the version that would allow the US, if it can gather together a cabal of nations to support it, to intervene anywhere in the world at any time, and do so under cover of "international law," or at any rate the pretense that it is carrying out the "will" of the community of nations as a whole."

After elaborating on this theme, Weerasekera submits that what the US is trying to do is 'build a record:'
"They are compiling precedents where core international law concepts are reinterpreted, and where they can show that the international community itself-including the "traditional victims"-by acts of omission or commission, endorsed the new interpretations. It is all part of that steady effort to sap the life blood out of core international law concepts: to carve out their marrow and substance, until in the end nothing is left but the brittle, empty, and hollow shells."

"Sri Lanka allows the US to take these "reinterpretations" to hitherto unexplored areas, namely, to give them the option of intervention in countries where there are no ONGOING crisis, under the pretense of seeking "accountability" for alleged crimes committed in the PAST. After this, there is really nothing more to accomplish: the theoretical and legal framework for intervention is complete. So that, in short, is the real significance of the US's fixation on Sri Lanka."

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