VACATIONING WITHOUT VACATING: an imperative for reflecting on the Blood Telegram

It is vacation time in Europe, where many of those working in the international(ized) tribunals and courts have taken off for the summer recess. One way of describing vacation is taking a leave of absence to do fun and enjoyable things such as visiting exciting places, laying on the beach, camping out, and so on. Another way to describe it is to vacate; to vacate from the grind at work, from the daily chores, from the pressures that come with being a responsible adult. More importantly, or should I say satisfying, vacationing is about vacating from thinking about matters that we, as members of our community, citizens of our states, and inhabitants of this planet, should care about.

One such example might be vacating from thinking about any of the ongoing conflicts and tragedies around the world, such as what is happening to the Rohingya in Myanmar. I mention the Rohingya because even if not in the headlines, and as it takes a backseat to the events in Syria and Iraq, their situation is a slow-burning tragedy with no good prospects in sight; a prospective genocide in-the-becoming.

Keeping track of the events against the Rohingya in the Rakhine State of Myanmar and seriously (or even semi-seriously) thinking about such unpleasantries as violent rapes, cruel treatment, senseless murders, and all the misery these acts inflict on the innocent and hapless victims, can be taxing (I blogged about it here, here, and here). Best to vacate the mind; absent it from being exposed to and having to think about events that might spoil the self-indulging pretense, the comforting illusion that matters that may not directly impact us but are of enormous concern to humanity can be shelved while vacationing.  Yes, I am my brother’s and sister’s keeper but not while vacationing.

Sounds harsh, pompous, unfair, and maybe inaccurate.  Some never vacate, even when vacationing, much to the displeasure of their long-suffering spouses, partners, children, and friends. In any event, the point is not to cast aspersions (no glass houses here), but to draw attention and perhaps encourage a daily moment of reflection as some are off for vacation now or in the future.

Acts of terror, armed conflict, and crimes against humanity do not go on vacation. Nor do the victims. This has been particularly true with the ongoing inhumane acts against many of the Rohingya. The atrocities have been ongoing for some time now.  They have been recurring and pervasive. So much so, that as we go about our lives trying to make sense of our own challenges, dreams, failures, and what have you, it no longer registers; we have become de-sensitized. The shocking no longer shocks; the appalling no longer appalls; the abnormal no longer is readily distinguishable from the normal.

One need not wonder whether more can be done about the events in northern Rakhine State by states and organizations that can do something. The evidence of the ongoing atrocities is sufficiently clear, even if ascribing culpability is not always so. One need not wonder why states are not doing enough to pressure the Myanmar government, and especially State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who is for all intents and purposes the de facto Head of State, to do much, much more; to put a stop to these senseless and inhumane acts of violence against the Rohingya.

And one almost must give up on the United Nations (UN). As structured, the UN has become an instrument of analysis-paralysis, inaction, prevarication, and in no small measure, obstruction. With all the restrictions imposed by international law, UN intervention in the affairs of another state – such as in the case with the Rohingya in Myanmar – is virtually non-existent, and certainly unpromising for the victims. As for the promise of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), it has yet to be fully realized; an aspiration, or chimera. (For those of you who may not be familiar with the doctrine of R2P, see my posts here, here, and here.)

Indulging in discussions and fact-finding missions has its place, but unless it is followed up by (hopefully) the right action, it is fruitless.  The operative word is right action; not any kind of action or, as in Syria, where too much discordant action by the “international community” created a mess – i.e., wishy-washy arming of so-called “moderate” rebel groups by the United States (US) vs. Iran’s and Russia’s arming of Hezbollah, Shia militias, etc. As for the UN, I’ve said enough.

Realpolitik aside, there is a need to press certain states, the US being one of them, to stop being so nearsighted and self-absorbed. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the European Union (EU) could also do more.

In any event, while getting ready to vacate and recharge the batteries, I am reminded of this impassioned telegram sent by Archer Blood, American Consul General to Dhaka, East Pakistan (known today as Bangladesh), to the US Department of State on 6 April 1971 when war was waging in East Pakistan. West Pakistan could not abide the wishes of the Bengalis to be liberated and for East Pakistan to be independent.  As the war raged, West Pakistani forces went on a rampage killing somewhere between hundreds of thousands to three million victims, raping some 200,000 women, and sending approximately 10 million refugees into India (accurate numbers are rarely possible, but by any account the number of victims is breathtaking). The US stood silent and indifferent. Realpolitik. The US was using West Pakistan to get to China, paving the way for President Nixon’s historic achievement of formalizing and normalizing US-China relations, orchestrated behind the scenes by then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.  For President Nixon and Kissinger to have tried to intervene in any way in stopping the onslaught in East Pakistan would have – so they thought – jeopardized their relations with West Pakistan, which, by many accounts, saw no need to abide by international norms in suppressing the East Pakistan independence movement. And so the slaughtering and raping went on until India intervened.

Of course, there are few comparisons to be made between the events in East Pakistan and what is happening in northern Rakhine State against the Rohingya, other than the deplorable human toll, and other than the profound failure of some states and some organizations to take whatever necessary action, with legality in mind, to bring this human tragedy to an end.

Parallels do not always fit neatly. Occasionally, however, there are instances when one can draw inspiration and fortitude by looking at some other event or some other act, even an individual act of moral courage, even if this act of moral courage yielded no result.

Frustrated by the US’s inaction and duplicity about what was happening in East Pakistan, Blood wrote words to his disinterested and calculating superiors that inspire, words that would be etched in history, that would come to be known as the Blood Telegram.  In part, Blood wrote:

Our government has failed to denounce the suppression of democracy. Our government has failed to denounce atrocities. Our government has failed to take forceful measures to protect its citizens while at the same time bending over backwards to placate the West Pak[istan] dominated government and to lessen likely and derservedly[sic] negative international public relations impact against them. 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, in which unfortunately the overworked term genocide is applicable, is purely an internal matter of a soverign[sic] state. Private Americans have expressed disgust. We, as professional public servants, express our dissent with current policy and fervently hope that our true and lasting interests here can be defined and our policies redirected[.]

Powerful words. Blood’s career was effectively sidelined after this. He was recalled to Washington, DC to a desk job, even though he had 18 months left in his tenure at the US embassy in Dhaka. Blood obviously knew what would happen by sending the telegram.  He could have “vacated” in a sense and said nothing that would provoke or evoke, going along to get along, putting his career first.  He could have taken a leave of absence of his moral responsibilities, having previously alerted his superiors in an earlier telegram to what had been going on in East Pakistan:

1. Here in Dacca we are mute and horrified witnesses to a reign of terror by the Pak[istani] Military. Evidence continues to mount that the MLA authorities have a list of AWAMI League supporters whom they are systematically eliminating by seeking them out in their homes and shooting them down.

2. Among those marked for extinction in addition to A.L. hierarchy, are student leaders and university faculty. In this second category we have reports that Fazlur Rahman, head of applied physics department, professor Dev, head of philosophy department and a Hindu, M. Abedin, head of department of history, have been killed. Razzak of political science department is rumored dead. Also on list are bulk of MNA’s elect and number of MPA‘s.

3. Moreover, with support of Pak[istani] Military, non-Bengali Muslims are systematically attacking poor people’s quarters and murdering Bengalis and Hindus.

Blood had the option, the professional choice, to vacate after sending his first cable; job done. Given his position, he could not but have understood the finer aspects of international relations, realism being one of them. Opening relations with China was monumental for the US, something that would not have escaped Blood.  But Blood must have felt that he had no moral choice other than to risk his career and to publicly bring attention to Nixon’s and Kissinger’s willingness to effectively encourage and succor West Pakistan in its mass atrocities in East Pakistan.

As we go off vacationing, we should not vacate entirely.  Contemplating the words and deeds of Archer Blood, we should reflect on finding creative, assertive, and enduring approaches to solving the Rohingya tragedy, as well as others.

Noteworthy:

When Archer Blood died in September 2004, it not only made headlines in Bangladesh, but a delegation of Bengalis attended his funeral service in the US. As for the Awami League, which was subjected to atrocities according to Blood’s cable, there are complaints that it currently uses many of the same tactics in suppressing democracy in Bangladesh that were used by West Pakistan – targeting and killing opposition party activists, forced disappearances, etc.

For more on the events in East Pakistan in 1971 as told by Archer Blood, see The Cruel Birth of Bangladesh – Memoirs of an American Diplomat. As for Henry Kissinger’s role and any responsibility to which he should account see Christopher Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger.

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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