The doctrine of sovereign nation-state equality underpins international law. A corollary of this maxim is that thou shalt not interfere in the internal affairs of other nations.
National sovereignty means that we run our own show and do not stick our noses into the internal affairs of other sovereign nations. This maxim should only be deviated from in extreme circumstances, such as when a government is involved in genocide.
Interfering in the affairs of other nation-states can take very direct forms or subtler ones. The most direct form is military intervention in order to effect a change in the target country’s government or its policies. The Opium Wars were a classic example of the latter kind, while the NATO action against Serbia over Kosovo in 1999 provides a more recent instance. Tanzania’s military intervention in Uganda, and Vietnam’s in Cambodia in 1979, exemplify interventions aimed at regime change. (So was the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but that was under the pretext of Iraq presenting an imminent military threat, thereby invoking the right to pre-emptive self-defence.)
Where the regime or the policy being targeted is a thoroughly obnoxious one, the perpetrators tend to get away with it despite their actions having been illegal by the strict letter of international law, i.e. the attack was not provoked by any hostile act on the target nation’s side and there was no indication that it was planning acts of aggression against those carrying out the intervention. There was hardly a murmur of protest over the actions against Uganda and Cambodia on the international stage, and the International Court of Justice declined jurisdiction over the actions of NATO when Serbia tried to bring a case to the ICJ. The general attitude appears to be that, sometimes, two wrongs do make a right.
The Kosovo intervention engendered the doctrine of ‘R2P’ – ‘responsibility to protect [people from gross violations of human rights against them by their own government or by militias supporting the government]’. R2P was internationally endorsed in 2005. Unfortunately, this maxim provides a convenient smokescreen for interventions aimed at removing leaders and governments the perpetrators don’t like, as exemplified by the NATO action in Libya in 2011 which saw the downfall of Ghaddafi.
International law allows for a nation to become militarily involved in the internal affairs of another country where the legitimate government of that country asks its friends for assistance in putting down an insurrection, but it does not allow a nation to support an insurrection or to take sides in a civil war. Moscow’s military intervention in Syria has been wholly legitimate; that of the Western powers has not been. Indeed Damascus would be fully within its rights in international law to shoot down Western or Turkish warplanes violating its airspace, or attack US or Turkish army units that are illegally on Syrian soil.
Western support for insurrections against governments it doesn’t approve of likewise breaches international law. The ‘Contra’ affair of the 1980s is a textbook case. In a similar vein, active US support for anti-Assad militias in Syria brazenly breaks the rules.
With regard to the more subtle ways of interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, economic measures are the first to come to mind. Again, these may be intended to persuade another government to change its policies. Such measures may be in response to economic actions on the part of the target nation which have disadvantaged the aggrieved party and thereby be perfectly legitimate countermeasures, such as Donald Trump’s use of tariffs as a countermeasure aimed at Chinese meddling in the world economy. Or those measures may be clearly intended to dislodge a regime by putting the squeeze on its economy and thereby bleeding it dry, in which case their legitimacy becomes dubious. As one expert American commentator put it in an interview on BBC World News last month, “If they don’t get [Assad] militarily, they will get him economically.” Given that Syria will need literally trillions of dollars to rebuild and its principal allies (Russia and Iran) are facing severe economic constraints themselves, this is a potent threat.
That brings me to Venezuela. Now please do read my lips before we go any further: I am no fan of Nicolas Maduro or his poxy ‘socialist’ regime and I’ll be opening a bottle of my favourite Scotch to celebrate their demise when that comes. But I am far from comfortable about the ways in which this downfall is being orchestrated by the US and its fellow travellers.
The recognition of Juan Guaido as the ‘real’ head of the government of Venezuela is based on highly debatable presumptions and is heavily tinged with hypocrisy. Elections were held and Maduro was returned to power – indeed he still garners a lot of support among the people. There were some shenanigans involved in those elections but if we refused to accept the outcome of elections marred by irregularities we would, in order to be consistent, have to refuse to accept the outcome of most elections in developing countries. Are we going to slap sanctions on Thailand because there have been allegations of election rigging? I doubt it. Unless an election result is outrageously rigged, we should button our lips.
Pro-Maduro rally. There is no denying that the man remains a popular choice for a great many Venezuelans.
National sovereignty ranks highly on my ‘Hands Off’ list and I am, moreover, extremely wary of those claiming the high moral ground when blatantly interfering in another country’s affairs, especially when self-interest – given the massive oil reserves there and the ties between Venezuela and a newly emergent Russia – is so transparently guiding their actions.
As things stand, by backing Guaido, we are in effect declaring the outcomes of Venezuela’s electoral processes to be null and void, and are doing so with the express intent of unseating the Maduro government despite its being no threat to anyone else. To me, that’s an unacceptable violation of the principle of non-interference in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation.
Looking at it from a brutally pragmatic point of view, what matters is who is in charge of a country as those are the people we have to deal with. Enter the Estrada Doctrine, a product of the 1930s that was adopted by the UK Foreign Office in 1980: we should not formally recognise (in the sense of endorsing) any government at all, but merely acknowledge that it is in control. This may sound like a moral cop-out, but it does allow us to engage with governments whose politics are anathema to us – often the lesser of two evils given the possible consequences of not engaging at all – without giving them cause to claim that we regard them as legitimate.
The use of aid convoys stranded at the border to incite people into confronting the army and police (much to their detriment) was, I believe, immoral. The purpose of such strategies is to engineer a civil war with all the horrors that entails. Perhaps the endgame being aimed for is direct military intervention to install a Western-friendly government in Caracas under the pretext of R2P (or something very much like it) once things get really rough.
Inciting civil unrest and violence by orchestrating stand-offs between local people and the police and army over aid convoys is downright wicked. It is using those people as pawns in the geopolitical power game being played by the US and its mates – as anyone acquainted with chess knows, pawns are the most expendable of pieces.
To answer the question heading this article, my answer is “very, very rarely” unless the actions of a foreign government threaten us, be it militarily or economically, directly. I don’t go with the tacit axiom that two wrongs make a right. The rule of law at the international level demands that we observe the sovereignty of other nations over their own affairs, which includes their systems of governance. Where gross violations of international protocol or human rights are occurring, we can and should do plenty of table-thumping in international forums such as the UN. But as a matter of principle, active meddling in other nations’ internal affairs should not be engaged in. And whatever I think of Maduro and his merry men, I do not believe that Venezuela meets the criteria that warrant the kind of meddling that we have been seeing.