Ethical foreign policy and a forgotten genocide

21 Jan 2014

In 2003, the Right Honourable Robin Cook resigned from his position as Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons in protest against the Invasion of Iraq. A staunch supporter of ethical foreign policy, Robin Cook propagated the need to emphasize human rights in the foreign policy of a nation. This view mirrored the December 2001 Report of the ‘International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty’ titled ‘Responsibility to Protect’. The topic of ethics in foreign policy decisions has further come to fore in recent times, especially with the Syrian crisis, and is now a major consideration when contemplating foreign intervention.


Indeed, with the UN establishing the ‘Responsibility To Protect’ initiative at the 2005 World Summit, and most states reaching on a consensus regarding the doctrine to intervene in internal conflicts when the host State fails in its ‘duty’ to protect its citizens, it seems that (at least in theory), the international community has finally embraced Robin Cook’s vision of an ethical foreign policy. 

But the world has forgotten a certain ‘genocide’ that took place in South Asia around four decades ago; a genocide that killed around 200,000 people and displaced many more – a genocide which brings serious doubts on whether ethical foreign policy is actually probable or just a utopian fantasy for the naïve.

In his book, ‘The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger and a Forgotten Genocide’, Gary J. Bass talks about how the United States (under Nixon and Kissinger) supported the military dictatorship in Pakistan carrying out a ‘genocide’ against its own people in East Pakistan. Bass highlights the stark difference between the slaughter of Bengalis in 1971 by Pakistan from the genocides in Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda when he mentions: “Here the United States was allied with the killers. The White House was actively and knowingly supporting a murderous regime at many of the most crucial movements. There was no question about whether the United States should intervene; it was already intervening on behalf of a military dictatorship decimating its own people.”

The independence of India and Pakistan took place at a time when the world was being broken up into two blocs – one siding the United States, and the other siding the Soviet Union. Early leaders of India, such as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, disseminated the notion of non-alignment; Jawaharlal Nehru having been one of the founding figures of the Non-Aligned Movement of 1961. The notion was simple – India (along with its NAM partners) wouldn’t side with either of the two blocs during the Cold War. In spite of this stance, India was largely seen by the West to be pro-communist and an ally of the Soviet Union. 

Pakistan, however, took a more conventional anti-communist stance. It decided to side with the United States; much to the pleasure of Presidents like Truman and Eisenhower, and later Nixon. Nixon, for example, saw Pakistan as an instrument that would enhance United States’ anti-communist agenda – and in the early 70s, made deals with Pakistan, which led to America’s historic opening with China. This resulted in the United States supporting Pakistan by giving it colossal amounts of military aid. 

The opening to China was supposed to change (and did change) the political landscape of the era completely. The United States, until then, didn’t recognize the communist People’s Republic of China; recognizing the anti-communist Republic of China in Taiwan as the legitimate government of China instead. 

This secret opening to China was considered indispensible by the American leadership to thwart Soviet dominance in Asia, and Nixon felt it stupid to criticize the very people responsible for facilitating it. The Nixon administration, therefore, blatantly ignored the inhumane treatment meted out by Pakistan to its own people in its Eastern wing. 

On April 6, 1971, Archer Blood, the then American Consul General to Dacca (now, Dhaka), East Pakistan, sent a cable to the US State Department. This telegram was popularly termed as ‘The Blood Telegram’ (from which Bass’ novel gets its name) and is, to this day, one of the most strongly worded dissent messages to have been sent by an American Foreign Service Officer to the State Department. In his cable, Blood claimed the atrocities in East Pakistan were ghastly enough to be labelled as a ‘genocide’ and also went so far as to say: “Our government has evidenced what many will consider moral bankruptcy, (...) But we have chosen not to intervene, even morally, on the grounds that the Awami conflict, (…) is purely an internal matter of a sovereign state.”

Blood went on to admonish US foreign policy for supporting West Pakistan’s government and for trying to “lessen any deservedly negative international public relations impact against them”, and as a result was recalled by the Nixon administration.

In the dying days of 1971, Pakistan launched pre-emptive strikes on India, which resulted in India entering the war on the side of Bengali nationalist forces. India, until then, had been preparing for the war, having been on the receiving end of millions of refugees from East Pakistan. Not only did India have a strategic advantage, it had also been training the Bengali soldiers against West Pakistani army.  The Indo-Pak war lasted just 13 days and culminated with Pakistan’s loss at the hands of a stronger India. A few months later, the famous Simla Agreement on Bilateral Relations was signed between India and Pakistan, which sought to better the worsening relations between the two countries and aimed towards “establishment of durable peace and normalization of relations”. 

India’s importance in the war can’t be underestimated. Nor can the fact that India did try to prevent the war. According to K. N. Bakshi, the then Assistant High Commissioner of India to Karachi (West Pakistan), Indira Gandhi did ask Pakistan’s allies to advise Pakistan to stop the war and to reach a political compromise (before India’s intervention in the conflict). 

India’s intervention in the war, despite meagre or no international support, is an early example of humanitarian intervention. As Bass stresses: “India’s democratic response to the plight of the Bengalis marks not just a pivotal moment for the history of the subcontinent, but for how the world’s biggest democracy makes its foreign policy – and what weight it gives to human rights.”

In the end, this grim episode in the history of world politics leaves scope for a variety of questions – Was the secret passage to China (via Pakistan) worth the lives of 200,000 Bengali people? Couldn’t Nixon and Kissinger find an alternative route to China? And, is world politics still dominated by Realpolitikor is there some scope for ethical foreign policy?

By Nishad Sanzagiri

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