← Return to search results
Back to Prindle Institute

The Poland-Belarus Border Crisis: The Ethics of Blackmail

photograph of barbed wire fence at border

“A company of men in dark uniforms and balaclavas, all carrying clubs. They are battering a group of people, repeatedly clubbing them on their arms, legs and backs. They push them into a river that marks the boundary of the European Union. ‘Go,’ they yell. ‘Go.’”

So begins Kenan Malik’s report, published on Sunday, of the ongoing crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border. Let me briefly explain how we got here.

Last year, the president (or dictator, depending on who you ask) of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, jailed his political opposition and tens of thousands of protestors against the controversial and contested Presidential election. More recently, Roman Protasevich, an exiled critic of Lukashenko, was detained after his flight was “hijacked” and forced to land in Minsk. The European Union has responded to such provocations with sanctions on Lukashenko’s regime.

Now, thousands of migrants are attempting to cross from Belarus into Poland and thereby into the EU. In his latest bid for revenge on the EU for its sanctions, Belarus’s Lukashenko has reportedly sold “tourist visas” and scheduled sold-out flights from Turkey, Dubai, and other Middle Eastern countries to Belarus. The U.S. and EU delegations to the U.N. Security Council claim the crisis has been “orchestrated for political purposes.” France has condemned these actions as “migrant trafficking.” Meanwhile, Belarusian border guards have started to force migrants across the border.

With the Belarusian authorities refusing to let the migrants leave a forest on the border, nighttime temperatures dropping below freezing, and the first death being reported, there is a clear humanitarian case for letting the migrants through. But to do so would be to hand Lukashenko a victory, to reward the strategy of using human lives as political pawns, and to further politically destabilize the EU (which is still widely seen as having lost control over migration flows). The tension is, at heart, a moral one: To achieve a morally important humanitarian end, should you ever give in to blackmail?

The immoral actions and threats of others can sometimes force us to make extremely difficult moral choices. The philosopher Bernard Williams presents the following case. You’re a botanist who has ended up in a small South American town in a politically unstable region. Tied up against the trees are twenty locals. An army captain in charge tells you these locals were protesting against the government, and he wants to execute them as a warning to others in the town. Since you are an honored citizen from a foreign land, the captain gives you an offer. You can shoot one of the locals yourself, in which case the others will be set free. Or you can refuse, keep your hands clean, and the captain will kill all twenty. What do you do?

Moral blackmail of this kind is not merely a theoretical problem. In 2014, four Europeans, Edwin Dyer, Gabriella Braco Greiner, Werner Greiner, and Mariane Petzold were all seized by members of al-Qaeda in North Africa. Ransom demands were made for each of the four. The Greiners, who are Swiss, survived, as did Petzold, who is German. Dyer, a British citizen, was killed. The Swiss government paid $3.2m for the lives of their two citizens. The German government has never revealed if they paid Petzold’s ransom, though security experts believe they did. Only the U.K. government refused to pay, costing Dyer his life and his family their loved one.

Most European countries pay terrorist ransoms, though few admit it publicly and most find an indirect method to pay to keep the practice theoretically deniable. Between 2008 and 2014, it was estimated that (primarily) European governments paid $125m in ransoms to terrorist groups. The U.S. and U.K., by contrast, have a strict policy of non-cooperation regarding ransoms. The British government fact sheet on the topic states that “The UK’s position on payment of terrorist ransoms is very clear: we do not pay. Payment of terrorist ransoms is illegal under the Terrorism Act.” The U.S. journalist James Foley is perhaps the most famous victim of this uncompromising policy.

Most European countries clearly think saving the lives of their citizens is worth the moral cost of rewarding terrorists. Many of us would think the same way if it were one of our own family who was kidnapped and we had the financial resources to pay for their release. Some principles seem worth bending if the stakes are high enough.

The U.K. government, on the other hand, justifies its opposing stance “on the basis that providing money or property to a terrorist group fuels terrorist activity; and encourages further kidnaps.” There are two interesting features of this argument worth mentioning. The first is that the argument is consequentialist; it is an argument based on what actions will produce better outcomes. The argument implies that greater harm will result from paying (in the long term) than from refusing, and that it follows we ought not to pay. The second interesting point about this argument is that it relies on an empirical premise: that paying ransoms encourages further kidnaps.

It certainly seems logical that paying ransoms would encourage more kidnapping and terrorist activity. Certainly, some have argued this is the case. David S. Cohen, former Treasury Department under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, claims that “Kidnapping for ransom has become today’s most significant source of terrorist financing. Each transaction encourages another transaction.” Of course, reality is messier than this. Do terrorists know the policies of Western governments before they kidnap? Do they know the citizenship of those they are kidnapping before they kidnap them? At least in some cases, it’s plausible they won’t. Perhaps the U.S. and U.K. are morally posturing at the cost of their citizens’ lives. (Interestingly, however, a Wikileaks cable revealed that at least one hostage broker, Abdousalam Ag Assalat, had “specified that the group was not interested in American hostages, presumably because USG [U.S. government] does not make ransom payments.”)

Applying this kind of consequentialist argument to the current border crisis, the relevant empirical question seems to be: would giving into Lukashenko’s blackmail (and allowing the migrants across the border for obvious humanitarian reasons) encourage future “orchestrated” humanitarian crises, resulting in more total human suffering? If the answer to this question is “yes” then Poland could be morally justified in refusing to give into Lukashenko’s moral blackmail. The answer to this complex empirical question is far from obvious. As such, as well as facing a complex political problem, Poland’s leaders face a difficult moral dilemma.

Moral Lessons from the Meng Wanzhou Affair?

airplane boarding on Xi'an airport runway

Now that Meng Wanzhou has finally returned home to China and Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have been released from Chinese custody, a situation has been brought to a close which incited a great deal of moral controversy. The two Canadians were believed to be taken into detention in retribution for the arrest and detention of Meng, and given the state of relations between the U.S. and Canada, many wondered whether simply releasing Meng in exchange for the release of the two Michaels would simply be a better alternative. Last year, I covered some of the ethical concerns involved with this situation. But in light of the fact that the affair has now been settled, what is the status of these ethical issues in hindsight?

To briefly recap the situation, Meng was arrested by the RCMP in December 2018 at the request of the United States who charged her with conspiracy to commit fraud. After the U.S. requested extradition, the matter was placed before Canadian courts. That same month China detained two Canadians named Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig who were later charged with espionage. The move by China has been taken to be retaliation for the arrest of Wanzhou after they threatened “grave consequences” for Canada and despite the fact that China insists that the arrest of the Michaels is unrelated. And, while Meng was placed on house arrest and forced to wear an ankle monitor while living in a Vancouver mansion, the two Michaels were subjected to hours of interrogation every day, were not permitted to go outside, and were limited in their ability to talk to their families.

As this situation stretched from weeks into years, many Canadians took the position that Canada should have resisted American calls for the arrest and extradition of Meng, or should have released her in exchange for the release of the Canadians. This proposal created a great deal of moral debate about the rule of law, arbitrary detention, and the potential precedents such a move might set in the world of “hostage politics.”

But, now the situation has been resolved. On September 24th, the Department of Justice announced that a deferred prosecution agreement had been reached with Meng which led to the withdrawal of its extradition request against her. That day, Meng boarded a plane and arrived in China after spending more than 1000 days under house arrest. On the same day, in an apparently unrelated sequence of events, China released the two Michaels “for medical reasons” who were then flown home to Canada.

It is worth noting that many believe that this situation was sparked by the United States as a politically motivated tool in their trade war with China. This is supported by remarks made by then President Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who suggested that they could intervene in the case for the sake of securing trade and by the fact that the arrest was unprecedented. China’s position, in response, is that this was politically motivated and that Canada conspired with the United States. Legal experts on extradition have called the case against Meng a “silly” “political type of enterprise.” Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien claimed that the “United States played a trick on Canada by forcing Ottawa to arrest Ms. Meng,” and many more prominent Canadians called on Meng to be released and a prisoner exchange arranged or who shared the view that this was a political matter and not a legal one. Thus, Canadians were faced with the dilemma of either releasing Meng and angering the United States or holding Meng and endangering its own citizens.

As I noted in my previous article on the subject, the Government of Canada’s position has always been that this is a legal matter falling under an independent judiciary, even accusing China of failing to understand such a concept. Meng, so the claim goes, had been charged with a crime and the extradition and trial process must be followed to preserve “the rule of law.” Thus, it would be a violation of such principles to offer to release Meng arbitrarily in order to secure a “hostage exchange.” A second argument was made that agreeing to release Meng in exchange for the two Michaels would set a bad precedent. Justin Trudeau argued that such an exchange would send a message to China that all they or anyone else had to do was arrest Canadians in order to pressure the Canadian Government and that this would put millions at risk.

So, how did this situation resolve itself? After several months of court proceedings the Justice Department offered Meng a deferred prosecution deal on the condition that she admit guilt in misrepresenting efforts of Huawei to circumvent sanctions against Iran. According to the Americans, there was “no link” between the deferral agreement and the desire to secure the release of the Michaels. After which, she was released in Canada and sent back to China. Simultaneously, after securing the “guilt” of the two Michaels for espionage weeks prior, China decided to release the two Michaels on bail for “health reasons” and they were subsequently sent back to Canada. Canada, the U.S. and China have all insisted that there was no deal despite the entire affair seeming “highly choreographed.”

Indeed, many see the entire affair as nothing but a prisoner exchange or “hostage swap.” Of course, we may not know for sure what exactly happened. The U.S. claims that the decision was reached by the Department of Justice free from political tampering. China claims that they too were following the rule of law in finding the two Michaels guilty after their confession and later releasing them. But if this just was a prisoner swap in the end, what does this mean for those who wished to stand on principle or prevent the establishment of a precedent?

First, let’s consider that each side is being truthful: the resolution to this case was purely a legal matter, and that this was, as some believe, a triumph for the rule of law. It is difficult to see how. There is no legal consensus that the case against Meng wasn’t politically motivated to begin with. So, the fact that the issue was settled in a manner consistent with legal procedure doesn’t support the idea that this was a victory for the rule of law. If anything, we are still left with questions about whether the law is being used in an arbitrary way for political ends. But, there is also the public perception of the affair to consider as well. Given the seemingly suspicious nature of the exchange, one wonders whether the public will see this as a success for the rule of law?

On the other hand, if there was some sort of coordination; if, in the end, this situation was only settled by an exchange, then what is the point of standing on principle for the rule of law or because you are worried about setting a bad precedent? To what ends did it serve to insist on such principles just to engage in an exchange anyways? Could a great deal of suffering have been avoided to achieve a similar result? Did, at the end of the day, the detention of Meng and the two Michaels actually achieve anything as morally important as it ultimately cost in moral terms? As my previous article covered, it was always a murky argument that the rule of law would not permit the Canadian Government to facilitate Meng’s release, so the notion that because Canada stuck it out until legal proceedings could conclude that this was thereby a victory of the rule of law is not certain either.

Either way, this doesn’t seem like a great principled victory for the rule of law. Perhaps if there is a moral lesson to be learned for Canada it is that principles can be great ideals, but that their application must factor in the situation they are applied to. This is particularly true if, as in this case, it seems that following the rule of law in the way the Canadian government chose to conceive of such a principle only served to deny Canadians their rights for years.

Transactionalism in U.S. Foreign Policy

image of world map with flags indiciating national boundaries

Since House Speaker Pelosi announced the start of the formal impeachment inquiry in the light of the new allegations against President Trump, the news cycle has seen abundant questions about the likelihood of impeachment, details of the process, and questioning whether there is a basis for the impeachment. The reasons for the start of the proceeding was a controversial call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky during which the president conditioned U.S. aid to Ukraine upon information about presidential candidate Biden and his son. As a result, Trump has been accused of engaging in a quid pro quo agreement, as he asked a foreign government to investigate a political rival. Yet, what goes easily unnoticed is the shift from humanitarianism to transactionalism in U.S. foreign policy that appears as a consequence of President Trump’s actions. Making U.S. foreign aid straightforwardly contingent upon political gains represents a sharp shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine. What are the consequences of this transactional approach?

Transactionalism is defined by Nikolas Gvosdev as “an effort to shift the basis of U.S. engagement and to define a series of quid pro quos for U.S. involvement.” This approach is meant to put tangible benefits above abstract values, and thus represents a transformation in the way the U.S. approaches assistance and aid. Until now, the U.S. has most commonly used humanitarian pretext to justify aid, but the current administration has indicated that it is not willing to continue the practice as it sees aid and financial assistance as a political tool instead.

There are several ethical questions raised by the U.S.’s new transactional approach:

First, is it morally permissible to prioritize aid to allies rather than to those who truly need it? If humans are suffering and we need to react instantly, is it morally acceptable to turn our backs on countries who do not share our values and ideologies? What obligation do we have to donate funds to causes which might frustrate our interests? Consider President Trump’s justification for constraining aid when Hurricane Dorian threatened Puerto Rico. Trump’s claim that “Puerto Rico is one of the most corrupt places on earth” was meant to justify a lack of willingness to approve further funding needed to rebuild. Is the potential misuse of federal funds, as the president has claimed, a morally justifiable reason to deny further assistance?

Second, the transactional approach has the potential of leading to crises across the globe, bringing us back to the pre-UN world order. U.S. foreign policy appears to be putting aside its long-held belief that, alongside military action, it ought to promote its values across the world and cherish alliances based on a common vision of the world. But if diplomacy turns transactional, we risk the well-established world order by prioritizing relationships of benefit.  Just recently, the U.S. changed its approach toward Syria, as President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. troops and abandon Kurdish allies. In doing so, President Trump articulated a new vision for policy based on national interest and likelihood of victory, rather than the protection of hard-won allegiances. This shift led many of the President’s supporters to openly criticize the fact that he abandoned Kurdish people who have been paramount for U.S. efforts in Syria.

Third, does the U.S. have a responsibility to the global community as its leader? This question continues to trouble academics and policymakers alike as they try to decipher what role the U.S. should play on the world stage, especially in light of the rise of other great powers. If the leader of the free world is seen as conducting foreign affairs on a quid pro quo basis, what message does this send to the rest of the world?

The ongoing conversation regarding the president’s request that a foreign power intervene in domestic politics needs to center on more than just talk about the breaking of norms and statues. Democratic interference is a real worry with its own moral concerns and weight, but just as pressing is the question about the U.S.’s foreign policy transformation and the U.S.’s shifting role in global politics. The Trump-Ukraine scandal merely marks the most recent, noteworthy event in the movement of U.S. policy from participatory to more self-interested. We should not overlook this shift in the U.S. foreign policy doctrine towards transactionalism, a shift that might have grave consequences for the U.S. as well as the larger political world.

A Call for the Reform of Diplomatic Immunity

Embassies in Washington, DC

Codified through international law at the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1961, diplomatic immunity grants foreign diplomats legal immunity to ensure safe passage and prevent lawsuit or prosecution based on the host country’s laws. The tradition behind diplomatic immunity dates back thousands of years, traced through Indian epics and accounts by Roman and Greek officials. Despite this, the invocation of diplomatic immunity has not been constrained by many governments and has allowed cases of rape, sexual exploitation, human trafficking, driving while under the influence, and many other crimes to go without prosecution.  This calls into question whether or not the international community should consider constraints on when diplomatic immunity—or diplomatic protection as an extent—can be invoked in certain crimes.

Continue reading “A Call for the Reform of Diplomatic Immunity”

In the Iran Nuclear Deal, Decoupling Human Rights and International Security

Two gloved hands holding a circular plate of uranium.

Following a January 2 tweet by the President of the United States, the world has turned its attention once again to Iran. Recent weeks have been marked by increasing anti-government and pro-government protests clashing on the streets of Tehran. The celebration of the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration and European allies now seems like a distant past. Seemingly, these two events are not strongly intertwined, but when we dig deeper, one might be surprised by the influence of the protests on the outcomes and success of the nuclear deal. This raises the question: is it possible to isolate the current protests from the security benefits that the nuclear deal provides to the international community, and would this mean giving in to the Iran regime’s treatment of its own people?

Continue reading “In the Iran Nuclear Deal, Decoupling Human Rights and International Security”

Syria’s “Devil’s Gambit”

With no clear end in sight, the Syrian Civil War continues to ravage the country, sparking a refugee crisis that has displayed large divisions within the member states of the European Union. The outcome of this conflict is unforseeable, as there are several factions vying for power, each representing different view and interests (for a run through of the conflict click on this link). In his article for The Atlantic, Dominic Tierney outlines a scenario which he calls “the devil’s gambit”: a pragmatic approach by the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad, to create a binary conflict by empowering ISIS to remove both of their opponents.

Continue reading “Syria’s “Devil’s Gambit””