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Regime Change in Pakistan

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Regime Change in Pakistan

The recent change of government in Pakistan has given birth to huge hullabaloo as the ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan and his supporters maintain that it was a US-sponsored regime change. Mr Khan told a group of foreign journalists that, “the move to oust me is [a] blatant interference in domestic politics by the United States.” Although the White House repeatedly denied any role in no-confidence movement Khan’s supporters are not buying this explanation. In the following write-up, we will analyze the matter in the light of international law:

International law, customary or otherwise, could not be clearer on the importance of respecting the sovereignty of any nation state — its internal political processes and foreign policy decisions being a fundamental element of its sovereign authority. The non-intervention rule is a principle of international law that restricts the ability of outside nations to interfere with the internal affairs of another nation. At its core, the principle is a corollary to the right of territorial sovereignty possessed by each nation. Famed Swiss legal philosopher Emmerich de Vattel was arguably the first jurist to articulate the non-intervention principle in his treatise The Law of Nations, published in 1758.

The UN Charter, the foundational treaty binding on all UN member states, enunciates in Article 2(4): “All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” In Article 2(7), it limits the authority of international organizations and member states to intervene in “matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”.

In contemporary times, the non-intervention principle received official United Nations recognition when the General Assembly adopted the Declaration on the Inadmissibility of Intervention and Interference in the Domestic Affairs of States in 1965. The International Court of Justice also weighed in on the interpretation of the non-intervention principle in the case brought by Nicaragua against the United States, which arose based on allegations of American support for contra rebels. In the early 1980s, the International Court of Justice was asked for its opinion on America’s involvement in regime change in Nicaragua. The ICJ, deciding the case against the US, seminally lay down the principle of non-intervention in state processes as critical to state sovereignty. Essentially, the court concluded that sovereign states shall not intervene in each other’s internal affairs, including the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and the formulation of foreign policy.

As explained in the summary of the 1986 judgement:
The principle of non-intervention involves the right of every sovereign State to conduct its affairs without outside interference . . . . As to the content of the principle in customary law, the Court defines the constitutive elements which appear relevant in this case: a prohibited intervention must be one bearing on matters in which each State is permitted, by the principle of State sovereignty, to decide freely (for example the choice of a political, economic, social and cultural system, and formulation of foreign policy). Intervention is wrongful when it uses, in regard to such choices, methods of coercion, particularly force, either in the direct form of military action or in the indirect form of support for subversive activities in another State.

More recently, in 2005, the International Court of Justice reiterated the principle of non-intervention in its judgement against Uganda for supporting rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This principle was explicitly recognized in the 1949 Corfu Channel case, and later reinforced in 2005 when the ICJ was called on to adjudicate on one of the most pernicious armed conflicts on the African continent. This was the Democratic Republic of Congo vs Uganda case, in which the court stated that the Nicaragua judgement had said clearly that the non-intervention principle prohibits a state “to intervene, directly or indirectly, with or without armed force, in support of the internal opposition within a state”. As the Court stated in paragraph 164 of its judgement, and quoting the Nicaragua case, “the principle of non-intervention prohibits a State ‘to intervene, directly or indirectly, with or without armed force, in support of an internal opposition in another State’.”

However, the willingness of states to abide by the non-intervention principle has waxed and waned, depending on the political agenda and national interests involved. Since this principle has many grey areas, including whether it includes only the threat of military force, or whether economic sanctions, cyber warfare or other kinds of non-military intervention would fall within the rule, Western powers have developed novel ways to justify intervention and bring about regime change.

In today’s globalised, technologically-advanced, diplomatically-nuanced and media-savvy age, outright violations of a nation’s sovereign rights by another state, as was seen in the Nicaragua case, are harder to establish. That said, issuing a warning to a sitting prime minister, through official diplomatic channels, that his independent foreign policy and internal political decisions will have negative consequences for his country appears to be a categorical violation of the provisions of the UN Charter and other customary international legal norms.

A similar sentiment was expressed by the US, when it accused Russia of committing an expansive list of cybercrimes aimed at manipulating its internal electoral processes — from espionage to internet trolling, and where the Office of the US Special Council prosecuted several Russian companies for having “a strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system, including the 2016 US presidential election.” It seems ironic now: the US considered this subversive Russian interference an attack on American democracy itself, but under similar circumstances, Pakistan is apparently expected to compromise on its own sovereign political process, and make these crucial internal decisions based on the health of its future relationship with Western powers.

An independent foreign policy has always been the hallmark of any sovereign political regime, and Pakistan is certainly wanting in the exercise of drafting a straightforward one. Pakistan presently operates in a complex geostrategic context: from seeking a critical strategic alliance with China to navigating the fallout from the West’s ‘war on terror’ in neighbouring Afghanistan; from seeking a more robust relationship with Iran — particularly in light of Pakistan’s growing energy needs — to the daunting task of managing a fraught relationship with India.

A historically subservient relationship with some Western powers has always been a thorn in Imran Khan’s side — one he has hastily sought to remove, but clearly not without facing dire consequences. The real tragedy, however, lies not in the fall of his government, but in the way that, yet again, Pakistan’s political process might have been allowed to be strong-armed by foreign intervention.

The writer is a lawyer by profession.

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