Neutrality in International Relations and Censorship.

I came across an interesting article published online about the security of domain names on the web. The issue for many publishers of online content (which could potentially be anyone) is where to publish content without the threat of having it taken down by state authorities should they consider it to be objectionable or a security risk. With the high profile case of Edward Snowden playing out on our TV screens at home, it’s an interesting topic. Essentially, it is a way for governments to censor politically sensitive information. We may instinctively believe that such tactics would not be used by our own liberal Western democracies, where freedom of speech and press constitute a cornerstone of the democratic process. After all, censorship of information occurs in countries such as Belarus or North Korea and not the US or Australia. We now know that this unfortunately not only a tool used by oppressive governments in faraway lands, but also in our own countries of residence (be it Australia or the US). Purchased domain names from companies within the US can quickly be shut down by the US authorities. US authorities have also shut down websites not only based on the content published  by the publisher or developer of the website, but also based on the user generated content (such as in the case of start up company JetForm).

Now I am not a programmer or an I.T. specialist, however, from this information I can see how this may impact not only freedom of speech and press, but also in developing new companies that may benefit us all like Google or YouTube. In the article I read by Rich Jones, he talks to Bill Woodcock, a director of a not for profit research organisation called Packet Clearing House, who advises readers what to look for when choosing domains from particular countries (or as I refer to them as states) in order to not only have user generated content protected, but also logistical setups  protected. This is where it became really interesting for me. Here is the list that they present for what to look for in states when purchasing a domain and what to avoid (besides their technical capabilities).

Avoid:

  • Small countries.
  • Countries with military mutual defense agreements (NATO, etc).
  • Countries with high levels of corruption.
  • Members of the ECHELON signals interception/monitoring pact (AUS/CAN/NZ/UK/US).
  • Countries with large amounts of debt.

Look for:

  • Countries without debt.
  • Countries of medium size.
  • Militarily neutral countries.
  • Liberal countries with a high freedom index.
  • Countries with high levels law and order.

I can see why they reached these conclusions (especially in regards to looking for states with low levels of outside influence). However, a distinction must be made between the neutrality of states within international law, international relations and those which have a high level of economic freedom and civil liberty. For example, Switzerland may seem like the most fitting state when it comes to these criteria. Switzerland is not easily influenced by the EU, they are militarily neutral, economically stable and they have a very high level of law abiding citizens.  However, if Snowden had been in Switzerland, he would be shipped back to the US rather quickly (thanks to the extradition treaty between the US and Switzerland). Militarily neutral countries embody quite different obligations in the international realm to those represented within the state in respect to civil liberties. 

Definitions of neutrality can change depending on the historical development of a state and depending on the dominant ideas present in international relations (especially in regards to war and security). The international system changes and develops constantly, and hence these definitions are always subject to criticisms (much like the almost fluid nature of customary international law). I quite like the definition put forward by Aguis and Devine (2011), which states that permanent or perpetual neutrality means that a state remains neutral in times of war and peace. Switzerland would be such a state and had this form of neutrality codified by the Congress of Vienna back in 1815. This would then shape  Switzerland’s international interests and agendas. However, this does not mean that this kind of state remains passive and does not play the game of international relations. Neutrality can play an active role in diminishing tensions and conflicts on the global stage. In a world where economies are tied together and world events stretch beyond borders (even in economically stable  and wealthy states) it would be difficult for a state to be completely inward looking.

Neutrality also implies impartiality, meaning that the state cannot favour one side of a conflict over another (for example, Switzerland would not allow military shipments to pass through its borders). Because this type of neutrality is usually codified, it is upheld by international law. Summarized, this type of neutrality is against conflict, not necessarily against all other issues in the international realm (hence the extradition treaty with the US).

There are also other types of neutrality. Sweden for example, embodies a traditional form of neutrality which is not codified like Swiss neutrality. Ad-hoc neutrality is when a state chooses to stay out of a war when one erupts (this type of neutrality is also not codified). Non-belligerency on the other hand, means that a state chooses to stay out of a war, but favours one side over another. (Aguis and Devine 2011) There are of course more definitions that we could go over, and exceptions to the rules as situational contexts are always changing.

I hope this post has brought to life some more points for consideration when we hear about neutrality in the media. I might go over a few more definitions of neutrality in later posts if it interests people. I will be following the Snowden case, as I’m sure many of you are. I am fascinated to know which state will be willing to grant him asylum.  I’m not that surprised that Ecuador is rethinking its acceptance of Snowden – having two high profile asylum seekers under its wings could become very costly (seeing as they are already housing Assange in their London embassy). If I had to pick a country to hide away in, I think I might pick Andorra or Cuba. Both states don’t currently have diplomatic relations with the US. The difficultly would lie in trying to get to one of these embassies (small states such as Andorra would not have diplomatic relations established with many other states and hence no embassies) or the country itself. A humorous view on this can be found here.

Let me know what you think and where you think Snowden might end up!

Until next time,

Miss S.

 

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