The chain of accountability in foreign policy

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Photograph: america.aljazeera.com

In a demoocracy, not only must domestic policies be subjected to the scrutiny of the people but also forays that involve actors and agents abroad, writes Nicholas Chan.

Photograph: america.aljazeera.com
Photograph: america.aljazeera.com

The world mourns as the recent Taliban attack on a school in Peshawar, Pakistan left at least 132 children dead. “They are only innocent children!” we exclaim in terror, disbelief and condemnation.

But preventing such an atrocity from recurring will require the inquisitive mind to reexamine the grievous message behind this – particularly, the premise of the sentiment regarding the innocent child.

To clarify, this is not in any way belittling this heart-sinking incident; any sane person would be saddened and outraged by it. But I can’t help but grapple with this sentiment that often arises when minors are caught in the crossfires of adult-led violence. It would appear that having children as victims often adds to the severity and anguish of the incident.

This is because whether the victims are innocent forms our moral judgment, especially for those of us who are only remotely related to the incident from a distance e.g. via a television or computer screen. Probing after we separate our innate affection towards the hopeful and untainted young, we are left with the ultimate question of accountability. Do the victims deserve their fate?

But how true is it that only children are innocent of the mischiefs of the world? What about the adults then? What about the teachers that were killed in the Peshawar attack? Perplexingly, we do tend to see the matter of accountability differently when it comes to adults being the subjects of violence, never mind if they do not have a hand at all in the conflicts that nurture these acts of violence.

For example, a lot of people misguidedly put the blame squarely on the victims of 9/11 for being citizens of the United States and as such, they had to pay for the mistakes the US government committed abroad. Sadly, this sentiment is not only confined to the terrorists but a lot of ordinary people who oppose America’s neo-imperialist policies. One can easily get a whiff of this antipathy in Malaysia especially among the Muslim conservatives.

Resolving this conundrum is important, for it not only has moral implications but practical ones. Understanding total global peace is almost impossible -especially when we are facing a world of multi-civilisational clashes: it is imperative for us to examine and make sense of this chain of accountability.

Furthermore, this question does not evade Malaysia, even if we are not a major player in global politics. Our intercession in the Bangsamoro Peace Process is widely believed to have served as the prelude to the Lahad Datu incursion. If we don’t truly understand the chain of accountability, we will make reckless decisions without taking into account the consequences.

The current configuration of the chain of accountability generally can be described as this: governments (or policy-making elites) are directly implicated and then the armed forces; both are perceived to be “legitimate” casualties of war for any conflict, and then you have the tricky question of civilians.

The application of this chain can be seen from the basic rules applied in distinguishing militants from terrorists. Militants only engage the former two categories, while terrorists aim to not just inflict damage to the armed forces, but also targeted ordinary citizens. No doubt, with groups like the Islamic State (ISIS) that is both insurgent and terrorist, such a simplistic definition might be problematic to begin with.

Indiscriminate targeting that often results in civilian casualties as a result of asymmetric warfare as seen in the Middle East is often rationalised by one logic, you supported your government and hence the doing of your government can be counted as your own doing. The same rules apply not just when a terrorist sets off a car bomb in the streets of Baghdad, but also when a US drone strike results in civilian deaths in the mountain villages of Afghanistan.

The chain of accountability that ties citizens to government action might not be true for autocratic governments (a fact often disregarded during militaristic interventions). But as perverse as it may sound, it might ring true for democratic governments, simply because such governments are supposed to be the collective embodiment of their people’s will. If the basis of democracy is that the government must be accountable for its people, then the people must also be held accountable for the actions of their government.

But we do know that the argument above is only a theoretical one because most people have little control over their government’s foreign policies. Votes cast in elections today are often based on identity politics, rhetoric and promises. In countries that have a more mature society, it is ideologies that mainly drive tangible domestic policies (e.g. health care, education and entrepreneurship).

It is therefore difficult for one to see the choice of government as consent towards the sort of foreign policy employed. For example, pro-Gaza demonstrations in the United Kingdom and United States are obviously not reflected in the respective governments’ favouritism towards Israel.

For democracy to live up to its name, not only must domestic policies be subjected to the scrutiny of the people but also forays that involve actors and agents abroad. When it comes to foreign policies, a lot of decision-making powers are concentrated in the hands of the Executive, which the people only have minor control over apart from via the electoral process.

Not only that, a lot of these dealings and negotiations are carried out in the dark without the people’s knowledge, and the material that records the truth is often classified. The legislative arm of government, which is supposed to serve as a check and balance on the executive’s powers and decisions, often serves as a rubber stamp or is even dysfunctional. In such a situation, it may no longer represent the majority’s interests, only the interests of the elites, who are in a minority.

The way the Malaysian government is handling the negotiations over its entry to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) is a notable example of the lack of democratic accountability in foreign policy making. While the internet and foreign media is full of information regarding the pact, Malaysia’s government thus far has not released much to the public; nor has it conveyed to the public a clear stand over what guides its decision-making processes. Parliament is not made privy to the details regarding the discussions and none of the opposition parliamentarians appear to have been consulted or invited to participate in the process.

While the US Congress will have the last say over the US government’s participation in the pact (ironically initiated by the US), in Malaysia there are no policy check points with regards to the TPPA that could affect the Executive’s decision. The government seems to have a full (and opaque) mandate in deciding something that will have great impact over the lives of residents of this country.

The patriarchal stance taken by the Malaysian government – its assertion that the government will take care of the people’s interest – is not enough. Not in this age of information and democratisation.

Without major reforms to ensure a government’s foreign policy is shaped by the will of the people, the chain of accountability could be a costly and even bloody one – for if a democratic government causes suffering and misery abroad, its civilians will be vulnerable to collateral damage. At the very least, the people must be made fully aware of this.

The democratic process must extend beyond the emblematic act of voting to involve substantial forms of public education and consultation. And the insularity of public debate must be broken. Foreign policies must be deliberated collectively because in this interconnected world, the chain of accountability follows one everywhere.

This thought exercise is not in any way advocating any sort of violence, be it preemptive or retaliatory, but to explore how democracy can be optimised to safeguard the interest and lives of its citizens in this violent world.

The prevention of violence does not only come from effective security strategies but also responsible decision-making by the governments. If not, if and when the repercussions hit, it would be too late to discuss who is innocent and who is not in this intricate chain of accountability because civilians are always worst hit.

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