Written by Mladen Pupavac and Vanessa Pupavac.
Back in the late 1990s, we think it was 1997, we were asked by a Serbian policeman what we were doing when we were taking a photo of the newly opened Croatian embassy in Belgrade. The Serbian authorities were very nervous and concerned to protect the Croatian embassy from any incidents because of the recent war which might jeopardise the uneasy peace.
We recall this incident now because of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s call on British citizens to demonstrate outside the Russian embassy. It is one thing for us to demonstrate outside any embassy, it is another for a government minister to call on its citizens to demonstrate against another. We should expect our government to uphold our freedom to demonstrate. But we should also expect our government to uphold the diplomatic international relations between states and the protection of embassies as the representatives of other nation states – just as other governments should do towards our embassies and other foreign embassies. It is a system based on mutual recognition that whatever our current disputes or conflicts, we ultimately recognise each other as fellow nations with mutual interests in peaceful relations.
It was bad in the 1999 Kosovo War when NATO bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists and injuring two dozen people. And it was bad in 2008 when the Serbian authorities subsequently failed to protect the US embassy and various European embassies from attack by rioters in which one of the attackers died. Fortunately there were no other deaths, and no embassy staff were hurt. The US government has not forgiven the Serbian government which had organised the protest rally against Kosovo’s declaration of independence. The attack on the US embassy continues to sour the warming of relations between the US and Serbia, even though their diplomatic relationship has noticeably improved in recent years.
Johnson is confusing the diplomatic responsibilities he has as the senior government representative to foreign representatives and protection of their peaceful presence in the United Kingdom. Here he is not just a backbench MP or a columnist writing funny satirical limericks. Johnson seems to be following a pattern of Foreign Secretaries in the last two decades beating the global humanitarian drum to war with little consideration of the longer term consequences for international peace. Johnson’s disregard for recognising diplomatic inter-national interests is striking given that he was the most prominent political face of the official Leave campaign in the June referendum on Britain’s EU membership. If Brexit was about re-asserting the primacy of nation-states over supra-national governance, of national democracy over global technocracy, then logically we needs to reinvigorate diplomatic principles and the system of inter-national relations towards better bilateral diplomacy when we come into conflict.
Why should Johnson’s call breaching diplomatic protocol matter against the backdrop of the horrific suffering of civilians being bombed in Syria or Yemen? It seems such a trivial matter to raise against the scale of deaths and the reduction of whole cities to concrete wastelands. Nevertheless Johnson’s violation of diplomatic principles parallels the violation of international principles seeking to limit war by limiting external aggression and military intervention.
What is happening in Syria, Yemen and so many other recent wars is the erosion of the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of states, and the distinction between civilians and combats, and civilian spaces and battle zones. This distinction has been commonly been violated historically. Nevertheless there were efforts, especially in the aftermath of world war and its total war, to encourage limits to warfare and humanitarian spaces. Since the 1990s, though, belief in these neutral civil spaces has become eroded because of how humanitarianism became politicised. International humanitarianism had been organised around the principles of neutrality and impartiality whereby aid should be given to those in need without discrimination of race, ethnicity or creed. However there were concerns that on the one hand humanitarian aid was not addressing the conflict creating the humanitarian crisis, and on the other that humanitarian aid might be feeding the killers.
Demands were made for humanitarian intervention, that is, military intervention to stop conflicts or human rights abuses, and that humanitarian aid should become more selective. However the oxymoronic concept of humanitarian intervention has been highly problematic in practise, tragically legitimising ill-thought out foreign invasions in the name of humanity. Claiming to be a war for humanity thereby de-humanises the humanity of the enemy, and implicitly legitimises total war against them. To understand the horrors of Syria and Yemen, we need to understand how humanitarian claims, and civilizational claims, politically dismantled the international limits to war.
Vanessa Pupavac is an Associate Professor at the School of Politics and International Relations, Mladen Pupavac is a Research Associate. Image credit: CC by Foreign Office/Flickr.