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The meaning of neutrality

It is fashionable to patronise Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici, the former Labour Prime Minister. In an age of self reinvention, the insistence by Mifsud Bonnici on not changing his mind appears to be quaint and a sepia-tinted image of the way we were.

If we’re going to be neutral, then it’s going to be neutrality between what, exactly?

But his refusal to accept the common consensus, whether on EU membership or on Libya’s recent revolution, enables him to raise fundamental questions about our constitutional neutrality, as he did on Monday.

Just as the advocates for ditching neutrality altogether raise withering questions about whether neutrality can mean anything at all, Mifsud Bonnici forces those of us who want to keep neutrality, while recognising a new context, to spell out what that context might be. Not just waffle about a post-Cold War context but the outline of a framework in which neutrality makes sense and serves the national interest.

It’s easy to lose sight of that basic challenge since there’s a lot in what the former Prime Minister said on Monday that can be easily dismissed.

The Libya crisis of 2011 raised no constitutional issue, since Malta’s cooperation in the imposition of a no-fly zone was sanctioned by the provision that makes exceptions for actions authorised by a UN Security Council resolution. And when he says (as reported) that one good reason for staying neutral is to avoid terrorist reprisals, he needs to tell us since when have we been neutral about terrorism. Our neutrality covers only States.

On other occasions, he’s emphasised, correctly, that our neutrality comes with a proactive commitment to peace. So he needs to decide whether he wants us to be neutral by keeping our heads down or by sticking our necks out. Commitment to peace annoys the warlords, who thrive on their reins on the means of destruction. The bombs often go off when a peace agreement is close to being signed.

It’s something we all need to decide. Is neutrality meant to define us as drop-outs from the regional system of alliances? Or is it meant to define our special way of participating in it? No sensible update can take place if we duck the question. We’ll just have an updated fudge. And while, in either case, it means that we do not participate militarily in war, we do need to be clear about the nature of modern warfare.

Cooperating with the setting up of a no-fly zone – even though Constitutional – did mean, without any trace of doubt, cooperating in an operation that escalated the number of deaths in Libya. That’s what no-fly zones do: by reducing the imbalance between the regime’s forces and the rebels, they necessarily prolong the fighting.

Moreover, the nature of modern warfare has meant that the differences between military and non-military actions have been blurred. Media are embedded within armed forces and the cooperation with medical, legal and other personnel isn’t always easy to define.

Some might see this as reason for rewriting the Constitutional provision while keeping its contractual spirit: spelling out in detail what may or may not be done. I think that would be a recipe for seeing the updated version become a dead letter almost as quickly as the one we have, which, within a few years of being approved, had its Cold War language render it outdated.

Spelling out what a new context is, therefore, requires our politicians to address three questions.

The first has to do with the Maltese context. The old provision was written in conditions of deep mutual distrust between the political parties of government. That’s why it leaves nothing to judgement and discretion. But the downside of that was that it was too tied to specific circumstances.

So, are the politicians ready to spell out only general principles, trusting the judgements and good faith of successive future Maltese governments?

The second and third questions have to do with the international system. If we’re going to be neutral, then it’s going to be neutrality between what, exactly? Or, neutrality for what? And, in spelling out the context in which we operate, we could do worse than look at the Libyan crisis. It brought out some salient features of the current international system.

The role of the media in transmitting privately taken images out of Libya, and having them relayed around the world, highlighted the extent in which we are becoming a society of global witnesses.

The role of the UN showed the extent to which the principle of the right to protect populations has spread. Critics of Western intervention might say the role of the UK and France was to expose Libyans to greater harm.

That’s an important argument but, in its dissent, it affirms the principle by saying it was broken in the Libyan case.

Not included in the Libyan crisis, but a salient one in other humanitarian crises that do occur and relevant to any proactive commitment to peace, is climate change and its impact on security and conflict.

If there is to be an update of the neutrality provisions, and if we genuinely wish its commitment to define us and inspire schoolchildren, all these elements of the new context need, somehow, to be reflected.

ranierfsadni@europe.com

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