September 20, 2002
The High Commissioners of Canada and the UK and the US Ambassador were the first to issue a ‘statement’ on the situation in Guyana last July, a few days after a mob had stormed the Office of the President compound.
The three diplomats made specific reference to their endorsement of “the principle that the will of the Guyanese people, expressed through regular, free and fair elections, must be the sole basis of the authority and legitimacy of the Government”. They went on to say that “the use of violence as a means to an end is contrary to all democratic principles and civilized behaviour and must cease if Guyana is not to degenerate into a state of lawlessness.”
There could be no disagreement with the correctness of this statement although, coming from at least two states - the USA and UK - which were the prime agents in the destructive air war that led to the regime change in the former Yugoslavia and are planning a violent regime change in Iraq, it may have been regarded as a bit odd by some Guyanese.
In addition, the diplomats would be aware that some Guyanese did mount a successful legal challenge to the results of the 1997 general elections which, eventually, were formally vitiated by the country’s High Court. The current unrest and the July assault on the President’s Office constitute serious crimes, rather than post-elections protests, and offenders should be duly punished.
The High Commissioner of India then took the opportunity last month to make some fresh remarks about the internal local situation, expressing his Government’s concern at the ‘recent heinous crimes’ committed in Guyana and noting that many of the victims have been ‘members of the Indian community’. Again, an astonishing intervention from the representative of a country where, only recently, the heinous massacre of Muslims in Gujarat shocked the civilised world.
The big issue arising out of the four diplomats’ remarks on Guyana’s internal situation is not whether they are timely or even correct. Indeed, they may be both. The issue is one of diplomatic convention, protocol and propriety which, when abused, lead to confusion in international relations. A situation in which diplomats of all countries feel that they have licence to make public statements on the internal political processes of the countries in which they were resident could quickly degenerate into unfriendliness and discord.
It is to avoid such chaos that an international convention has arisen prohibiting diplomats from engaging in certain types of actions in the countries to which they are accredited, even as they legitimately attempt to influence the policies of those foreign governments in their own country’s favour. This convention - non-interference in the internal affairs of host countries - is an important element in relations among sovereign states.
Diplomats are expected to direct their official statements to Government Officials, principally (though not exclusively) through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Although they are free to address private groups and NGOs - Rotary luncheons, Red Cross dinners, Lions’ conventions and the like - to promote their own Government’s policies, they ought not to make appeals or provide funds and other forms of support to various factions or parties whether or not they are legitimate. They should also abstain from making public appeals on behalf of particular ethnic, social, and political groups or classes which they favour.
The current crime wave in Guyana is extremely complex, and to attribute its origins to one or two causes such as electoral protests or ethnic victimisation, would be simplistic and unhelpful. Similarly, to refrain from commenting on causes and focusing only on consequences would evince either a lack of understanding or an unbearable pomposity and propensity for interference.
Given Guyana’s volatile and turbulent internal politics, foreign diplomats could contribute most by abiding by the time-honoured convention of non-intervention in the internal affairs of their host country and reserving their advice, assistance and good offices for the Government of the day.