Political Comments as “Interference in Internal Affairs”: The Farmers' Protest
Article by Vishwajeet Deshmukh,
Under international law, interference in the internal affairs of another state is prohibited by the United Charter Article 2(7). However, what constitutes ‘interference’ is the subject of much debate. As more disruptive technologies enable interference through social media platforms in the form of political comments or tweets, for example, the concept of interference warrants new scrutiny. India’s response to Canadian solidarity with farmers illustrates what different parties might identify as interference.
The Recent Farm Laws
In late September, 2020, the Indian government passed three laws that have had a serious impact on farmers. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act provides for mechanisms that allow farmers to sell their farm produce outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Any license-holding trader can buy the produce from the farmers at mutually agreed prices in an exchange free of state taxes. The Agreement of Price Assurance and Farm Services Act allows farmers to do contract farming and market their produce freely. The Essential Commodities Act now frees items such as foodgrains, pulses, edible oils and onion for trade except in extraordinary circumstances.
Farmers are apprehensive of allowing outside-APMC trade of farm, anticipating that the change would drive government agencies to buy less in approved agricultural markets, or mandis. Under these laws, the government enforced minimum price known as the Minimum Support Price system may become irrelevant. As a result, farmers are protesting the new laws that destabilize their income security.
The Tension Between International Support and State Interests
On November 27, 2020, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his support for farmers’ protest in India against the three farm laws, and emphasized his concern about police brutality against the peaceful protestors. In response, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a summons to the Canadian High Commissioner, stating that the comments by the Canadian Prime Minister, cabinet Ministers, and members of Parliament on issues relating to Indian farmers unacceptably interfere with India’s internal affairs. Notably, other famous figures, including the Swedish activist Greta Thunberg and American singer Rihanna, have joined Prime Minister Trudeau in publicly commenting on the farmers’ protest on their respective social media platforms.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs’ response calling the comments “interference” begs the question: do comments or criticism in support of protests against state-issued legislation constitute interference in internal affairs–and are the societal role and notoriety of that supporter relevant?
Under traditional international law, states can not intervene either directly or indirectly in the internal affairs of another state. This rule, known as the non-intervention principle, is laid out in Article 2(7) of the UN Charter, which provides:
“Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to
intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any
state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under
the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of
enforcement measures under Chapter VII.”
In order for interference to rise to the level of intervention, it “must be forcible or dictatorial, or otherwise coercive; in effect depriving the state intervened against control over the matter in question.”
In modern democracies, the importance of identifying and curbing interference remains; however, the gray areas in what constitutes “interference” have grown in scope and opacity. For example, is interference possible only when faced with the threat of military force, or would economic sanctions, cyber warfare, or other kinds of non-military intervention suffice?
The view of the international community on “non-intervention” is based on the principle of territorial sovereignty. Intervention is typically defined to be forcible or dictatorial, or otherwise coercive, effectively depriving the state intervened against of control over the matter in question. Interventions may occur through military, subversive, economic, or even diplomatic means. Here, the Indian government is accusing Prime Minister Trudeau of using subversive tactics in an attempted intervention. However, such comments do not establish “subversive intervention.”
In a 1960 article published in the American Journal of International Law, Professor Philip Quincy Wright presented a comprehensive explanation of “subversive intervention” and its methods. These include the spread of propaganda and other activities by one state with the intention of influencing the situation in another state. Typical examples are conducted through radio or television shows. Such intervention is prohibited if it aims to foment revolution or civil strife in another state, or are designed to assist illegal and violent activities. In general, it is difficult to track these actions back to a state because they are usually carried out by private individuals.
In the case of the farmers’ protest, the Canadian authorities’ statements neither incited or promoted any violence that threatened the sovereignty of the Indian government, nor were they intended to have such effects. Rather, the comments expressed support for Indian farmers’ right to peaceful protest and did not directly comment on the farm laws passed by the Indian government. Prime Minister Trudeau asserted that Canada stood for peaceful protests and conveyed to the Indian government the need to engage in a dialogue. A series of tweets by Canadian authorities in solidarity with a pre-existing non-violent protest do not meet the definition of “subversive intervention.”
Indian authorities may argue that the comments constituted a “subversive intervention” because they were intended to spread propaganda and lead to civil unrest in the state. However, as noted in the Max Planck Encyclopedia of International Law, criticism of the internal affairs of another state is outside of the purview of the principle of non-intervention. J.S. Mill’s essay, “A Few Words on Non-Intervention,” highlights a historical example, where the criticism of French and English imperialism in Algeria and India, respectively, did not come under the principle of non-intervention. Trudeau’s statements fall squarely within the exception.
Furthermore, several international instruments identify the right to protest as a “human right,” including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) 1976, which guarantees the right to peaceful assembly. In a democratic society, the right to protest serves as a check for the state. The Canadian authorities’ comments pertained to a human rights issue, a matter which states are entitled to criticize regardless of jurisdiction.
By India’s logic in the case of the farmers’ protest, India has, itself, violated the rule of non-interference through comments on multiple occasions. In January 2021, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the protests in the U.S. Capitol “unlawful.” Regardless of the validity of his claims, they dealt with a political situation in another state, not unlike Prime Minister Trudeau’s comments. Moreover, major leaders from many other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada, also expressed their dissenting views on the Capitol protest, to which no state responded with claims of unlawful interference. On a separate occasion, in February 2018, President Abdulla Yameen of Maldives extended the emergency in the state by a period of 30 days leading to protests in the Maldives. The Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a public statement criticizing the move and calling the events a “matter of concern.”
Canada’s expressed support for the right to peaceful protest as a human right does not qualify as illegal interference with the sovereignty of the Indian government. The comments do not incite violence or seek to overthrow the state; in fact, they advocate against violent suppression and for farmers’ human right to protest, a right enshrined in several international instruments. Such support does not meet the bar for intervention established under the principle of non-intervention.
Vishwajeet Deshmukh is a law student at Government Law College, Mumbai, India. His research interests include legal history, constitutional law, and censorship.