Execution of Akmal Shaikh- IR Theory

Akmal Shaikh, 53, from North London was executed in China for drug smuggling on the 30th of December, 2009. The UK government and Reprieve, a legal charity had remonstrated with the Chinese government against an execution due to the mental illness suffered by Mr Shaikh, a personality disorder, which made him amenable to criminals who convinced him to transport 4.030g of heroine into the country.

Now, while there are legitimate questions to be asked about the use of capital punishment and about the its use on someone who is “not himself” (I know this is pejorative, but I think it best captures the illogic of executing someone who by virtue of his being ill can be duped into doing something that anyone in their right mind wouldn’t), I do not want to focus on this now; I will instead look at what it says about international relations (IR) especially from his cousins’ comments on the response of the UK government.

In their letter, Amina and Ridwan Shaikh:

• Accuse most of the media of ignoring Akmal’s case until it was too late. "We were shocked that apart from Sky News, his case received only sporadic media attention during his two years in prison. Only when news was released of his imminent execution did it get the coverage it deserved. Wouldn’t more media attention at an earlier stage have applied more pressure to the Chinese authorities? Wasn’t this lack of coverage an injustice in itself?"

This doesn’t have much to do with IR, however, it shows how the short-term focus of the media can, does, and in this case did lead to a loss of focus on longer term issues in favour of what sells in the short term. Example; before Copenhagen Climate Change Conference 2009, there wasn’t (and this is anecdotal from my perspective of the news) as much focus on Climate Change until an explosion after emails of climate scientists were hacked and released into the public domain. Afterwards, there were complaints about it’s weakness and then all sign of it disappeared. You also rarely hear about the EU until there is a “scary EU or wasteful EU” story or whenever elections come around. The public then doesn’t get the information about these issues that it needs to understand them fully and have to rely on provocative sound-bites (which are ubiquitous when the issue is current).

• Say that while they are "indebted to Reprieve and others for efforts they made on our cousin’s behalf … we were not comfortable with the strategy pursued". They say: "We didn’t say anything as we respected the wishes of those concerned. We understand the strategy was based on expert advice that, as the Chinese regime is a brutal one, the best approach is to not criticise it as this may make things worse." They cite the high-profile campaign by Moazzam Begg’s family to secure his release from Guantánamo Bay.

I think this can be best understood using Liberal IR Theory and especially the Democratic Peace Theory which points out that no two democracies (and definitions of differ thus weakening the theory) have gone to war with each other and posits that relations between and among liberal democracies will always be peaceful. There may be disagreements, but since in domestic politics, statesmen are used to disagreement, discussion and compromise in decision making, it is assumed or expected that they will use these skills in the international arena and thus forestall war. Other things which constrain democratic war include public opinion- seen as always or generally peaceful except when war is undertaken in self defence- which is needed for politicians to remain in power, and the effects of checks and balances created by separation of powers which (should) make it virtually impossible for a government to go to war at the whim of any specific group. Also it claims that when dealing with other democracies, states know of these constraints and the likely actions that will result thus giving them the peace of mind to bargain instead of looking for the zero-sum win.

Arguments against the theory include problems with defining a democracy; was Germany under Hitler a democracy since the Nazi party won elections. “For example, one study (Oren 1995) reports that Germany was considered a democratic state by Western opinion leaders at the end of the 19th century; yet in the years preceding World War I, when its relations with the United States, France and Britain started deteriorating, Germany was gradually reinterpreted as an autocratic state, in absence of any actual regime change.” There have also been post-hoc reclassification of states as non-democracies or conflicts as non-wars (no true Scotsman fallacy) to “fix” the history of democratic peace. Other arguments include the effects of political similarity (there has also been an autocratic peace with no wars between autocrats), effects of economic interdependence as liberal democracies also tend to have liberal economies which are involved in free international trade; as two states trade together, they become linked and begin to share cultures, understand each other and just generally get along. Also, for economic growth to be sustained and in line with its long run average, the absence of shocks to production that wars bring is necessary.

With this we can explain the quote by saying in dealings with the US, the Begg family was able to run a vocal campaign because they knew that, even though Guantanamo Bay was illegal, a democratic US state would/ could be brought to see reason and to release the man while an autocratic (“brutal”) China would not be brought to discussion (according to the experts) as there are routine human rights violations and this one would just be the next.

• Accuse the government of hypocrisy in its dealings with China. "One of the justifications we are told for invading countries like Afghanistan is ‘human rights violations’. If it is accepted by all that there are gross violations taking place in China, why aren’t they too invaded? This is purely to do with the fact that China is a powerful country economically. Britain’s economic dependence far outweighs these ‘individual cases’."

Ah, the bane of liberal/ humanitarian intervention. Why there and not there. The answer is simple, “It’s POWER stupid!” You do not intervene, liberally or illiberally, in an area or state where you will get beaten and leave yourself open to attack. Power is the most important concept in Realist and Neorealist IR theory is defined as the summation of all the capabilities of a state; size of army, state of military technology, tactical acumen and advantages, size and strength of the economy (to support build up of arms and troops), effectiveness of diplomatic service, possession of vetoes at international organisations especially the UN Security Council, population and demographic trends (ageing=bad because of increased dependence on the labour force) among others.

Comparing Afghanistan and China on these criteria; troops: 240,000 to 7 million; nominal GDP per capita: $400 to $3000; it’s ridiculous (and impossible, for me anyway) to compare the state of military technology and the list goes on. The figures place China at the level of the UK (except GDP per capita, but then they do have a population of 1.3 billion) and suggest that while we were falsely gung-ho about going into Afghanistan and liberating them “quick as a flash” that expectation was a realistic one at the time given the weak capabilities of the Afghanistan state, the Taliban and al-Qaeda compared to the combined force of the western nations and our inability to see the future (shame).

It would be foolish to go to war against China, they have the largest army, nuclear weapons, a strong economy (rebounding quicker than anyone else from the recession), state of technology not too far from the rest of the world if not close to the front, 20% of the world’s population and most importantly a seat at the UN Security Council with a veto meaning that no resolution can be passed calling for military against China (why would it agree to be liberally intervened in when it can just say no).

Also as the article notes, the UK strategic interest is in keeping relations “sweet”, so that UK businesses can still operate in China and wealthy Chinese tourists continue to flock into our overpriced shops and their students continue to study here benefitting our economy.

• Condemn the government’s approach to the Chinese. "Did the British government pull out its diplomats in protest? Did it have a hard-hitting strategy to persuade the Chinese authorities to change their decision?"

The British government has made clear there will be no formal diplomatic retaliation beyond criticism. The cousins say in the letter: "This is an example of Britain’s powerlessness in the world. Their strategy of being shoulder to shoulder with the US in the ‘war on terror’ has not given them the status they so desperately desire.

Since the end of the WW1, the UK’s status has been falling, from being the only superpower and a super-empire in the 19th Century, to a middling power, along with the other European old powers, in a hegemonic world (US) with rapidly rising powers (BRICs). With this in mind, it is difficult to see what the UK could do that would make the Chinese take note and change their stance. Right now, it seems that UK needs China more than they need us.

Realism and Neorealism; Who you know counts for nothing in the international system. The international system is a self-help arena. If you do not improve on your capabilities there will be no international “Good Samaritan” state or world government to help further your interests. If the UK government thought (and I doubt they did) that joining the ‘war on terror’ would bolster their status in the world then they would be mistaken (they might be thanked for going along but nothing more). There is no such thing as a Special Relationship. It is only a special relationship if special means friends-when-it-is-in-my-interest-to-be-friends, though that doesn’t roll off the tongue quite well, but I’m sure it will catch on.

"We are not mourning simply for our cousin as a lot of other people, including Muslims in China, have experienced and will continue to experience the same fate, without any real justification; our hearts pour out to them too."

The Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis has said that as well as official representations, ministers made 27 separate appeals on Shaikh’s behalf in the two years after his arrest. Brown, Lewis and David Miliband, the foreign secretary, all delivered critical statements yesterday. Brown said he condemned the execution "in the strongest terms" and was "appalled and disappointed that our persistent requests for clemency have not been granted".

The realist “catch-phrase” comes to mind: The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must. As long as China remains a strong nation, and no one can see this changing, there will be no outside intervention to bring about respect for human rights or democracy in China, no matter how much western citizens and their governments claim to want it (Realpolitik rules). Everything will continue to be said “in the strongest terms” and people will continue to be “appalled and disappointed” but it will all come to nothing unless Chinese citizens themselves rise up.

Lewis said: "Engagement with China is non-negotiable and any alternative strategy is simply not credible. But by being so clear in our public criticism of China’s handling of this case we are demonstrating that it is not business as usual."

Engagement is compulsory, but I believe it is futile in the area of human rights. I think the only other mechanism through which public criticism can have an effect is in the Chinese leadership’s reaction to Global opinion and I think they have really thick skins. I mean to become a leader in the Chinese Communist Party, you must be hard as nails (I’m guessing, I’m not a member). Also their reported behaviour at the Copenhagen Summit suggests they take no heed to the rest of the world and focus only on what will keep their citizens content.

The issue also shows the failure of international law to regulate the international system as long as long as states can act with impunity because courts act in an advisory capacity and do not have the power to coerce states into acting in accordance with international law.

It also brings up the issue of state sovereignty. Should the UK be interfering in the affairs of another sovereign state’s judicial system? (link and link). I think in this case they were well within their rights to remonstrate on behalf of their citizen in a foreign country as long as they were not asking for a pardon (he did commit a crime).

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