Originally published on Blak and Black.
The Melian dialogue
Athenians: For ourselves, we shall not trouble you with specious pretences — either of how we have a right to our empire because we overthrew the Mede [Persians], or are now attacking you because of wrong that you have done us — and make a long speech which would not be believed; and in return we hope that you, instead of thinking to influence us by saying that you did not join the Lacedaemonians although their colonists, or that you have done us no wrong, will aim at what is feasible, holding in view the real sentiments of us both; since you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.
Melians: As we think, at any rate, it is expedient — we speak as we are obliged, since you enjoin us to let right alone and talk only of interest — that you should not destroy what is our common protection, the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right, and even to profit by arguments not strictly valid if they can be got to pass current. And you are as much interested in this as any, as your fall would be a signal for the heaviest vengeance and an example for the world to meditate upon.
The Melian dialogue, Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
I have been spending a great deal of my time recently perfecting, or more objectively in the words of my teacher Navid, improving my Farsi. Like all good teachers of language Navid has sought to improve my skills in Farsi while engaging me in conversation over a cup of tea or a game of chess. As to be expected from a man who engages with Sufism as a way of life, our conversations eventually turned to moral philosophy and the strong ethical tension between what one can do and what one should do.
While traversing the rocky ground of moral philosophy, we stopped by the Book of Job, Plato, the Surah’s and eventually made our way to Thucydides’ Melian dialogue. While discussing the Melian dialogue, I was taken by the more than passing similarities between the way that Athens at the height of her power treated the Melians, and the way a cynical and equally arrogant Indonesian President Sukarno treated the world over the West New Guinea (“WNG”) issue in 1961.
The bolded passages are perhaps the most famous quotes of the matter around. The Athenians arguing that Melos should submit because it is weaker and the Melians replying that they should not be forced to do so just because they are. They appealed to justice but also warned Athens that if it set an unjust precedent, then perhaps one day it will have to suffer the consequences when it is defeated in turn. In the end, the Melians refused the ultimatum, whereupon the Athenians stormed the city, destroyed it, murdered all men, and sold the women and children into slavery. As I said, the similarities between what happened to Melos in the 400s BCE and what is happening in Papua in the 21st Century CE are more than just passing. In a salutary lesson to all would be aggressors, the Melians proved right though: when Athens lost the war, Sparta dealt quite harshly with the city, ordering it to dismantle its walls (only protection), forbidding it from having a navy worth a dime, destroying its empire, and even overthrowing the democracy.
In both the Melian dialogue and the dialogue leading up to Indonesia’s annexing of WNG in 1969 via the travesty of the United Nations endorsed Vote of No Choice, a strong ethical tension characterizes what one can do and what one should do, and world politics is perhaps most controversial of all. Should we use ethical and legal principles to guide our behaviour, or should naked raw power determine what is permissible? Does might make right?
Many social scientists are extremely reluctant to engage in ethical discussions or make moral judgments. In fact, our educational system discourages such proclivities even in students. This sort of attitude usually passes as modern and multicultural with the latter’s emphasis on the fact that no single value system is dominant throughout the world, and therefore no ethical or moral precept would be shared across different cultures. The crucial next step in the reasoning is that all cultures are equally valid, and hence no one culture’s values have any more right to exist than any other’s. Everything is relative in this world; there are no absolute objective standards by which to judge.; therefore, one should not use one’s morality to do so. The result is moral paralysis. This is most lamentable because a refusal to engage these thorny, painful, and difficult questions does not make them go away. Instead, it is most likely that they will be covered up and policy will be morally blind or else completely shackled. We shall not pretend to have answers here but we shall not flinch from reasoning what in many ways will prove to be politically incorrect, to say the least.
The answer to the thorny question of morality on the international level has passed to the jurists. Yet international law (like any law) is a curious thing. It has no meaning unless there is something – or someone – to enforce it by punishing non-compliance. Domestically, law is enforced by the coercive power of the state. But internationally? Is there anything that can hold a powerful actor like the United States or its puppet master Israel to observe any such laws? More importantly, even strategically placed bit players such as Indonesia and Australia stand above the law. Clearly in the case of the United States, Israel and their dependencies, there is no stronger actor that could threaten to punish non-compliance with force. Realists argue that the powerful observe the laws when it suits them and abandon them with impunity when it is no longer in their interests to uphold them. There is much to this view, but it is short-sighted. Just look to ancient Athens or more recently to Germany for precedents.
The lie that is dialogue
In the words of Simon Goldhill, dialogue is a banner word of contemporary politics, religion and culture. It is the leitmotif of Western style democracies from politicians claiming they wish to enter into dialogue and to listen while demanding that opposed parties open dialogue, to religious leaders holding up interfaith dialogue as the answer to the racial and religious tensions that scar modern urban living and to artists who claim to be entering into dialogue (with society, with their audience, with artistic principles), the idea being that it is only after hearing both sides of the question and allowing different views to be expressed that one can form a valid opinion based upon fact.
Dialogue is central to democracy. Without dialogue democracy cannot exist. However this is far more than a blithely benign claim, for with dialogue comes recognition of the necessity of dissent, the influence of persuasion also known as spin and most importantly of all the consequence of the repression of minority views. The last is all important for the world’s indigenous people, for in the final analysis, we generally fail to uphold the minority view in societies where the people have been subjected, over time, to invasion, occupation, dispossession and the many subtle forms of genocide that pass for sound policy at the hands of the masters of persuasion and spin. In the final analysis, Western, democratic dialogue becomes nothing more than a monologue of spin masquerading as persuasion. The reality is that dialogue becomes dead.
The Soviet philosopher, literary critic and semiotician Mikhail Mikhailovich Bakhtin (1895-1975), argued that a monologic or one-voice discourse tends to recognize only itself and fails to recognize alternative points of view.
Partisanship is so deeply embedded within Western political discourse that meaningful understanding becomes rare.
At the federal level in Australia, the partisan voices that dominate the political sphere include a two and a bit party system devoid of any real choice or meaning, a self-interest mining industry devoid of morality and a security industry seemingly intent on stripping Australia’s citizenry of all semblance of freedom in the name of an ephemeral terrorist threat. For each of these voices, there is only one perspective, one ideology, one meaning.
While Bakhtin identifies the flaws in monologic discourse, he also suggests an alternative: dialogic discourse. This is the process through which one tests one’s own ideas and perspectives through the active engagement in dialogue with another. This is an ongoing process of understanding from which one’s perspective will never remain the same but rather is constantly transformed through communication, negotiation, and active attempt at understanding. I wonder if democracy could survive genuine discourse in which opinions are formed on the basis of real information and dialogue rather than through spin and threats?
The 1969 Papuan vote of no choice and the Melian Dialogue
West Papua Act of No Choice – the truth still relevant today
July of 1969 was a big month. Whilst the ‘civilized’ world was focused on the deployment of three men to the moon, Indonesia was finalizing steps to wrest control of the territory of West Papua from the United Nations, which had nominally taken over responsibility for the former Dutch protectorate in 1962. I do not say wrest lightly, for it was in the so-called Act of Free Choice more aptly known as the Act of No Choice that the people of West Papua were robbed of their expected independence when 1,025 of their tribal leaders voted under extreme duress to cede sovereignty to the Indonesian nation.
The province of West Papua was handed over to the United Nations in 1962 under the terms of the New York Agreement, which had provided interim governance of the Western portion of the island of New Guinea. The Dutch had ceased preparing the colony for independence when Britain, the United States and Australia (which governed the eastern portion of the same island, later to become the independent state of Papua New Guinea in 1972) indicated they would not support the establishment of the Papuan nation. Left with no substantial military or political support, the Dutch ceded control of West Papua to the United Nations, to be administered by Indonesia, with a view to preparing the colony for a vote to determine whether they should become a part of Indonesia permanently or gain their independence. The dialogue leading to the New York Agreement, in actions reminiscent of the Western propensity for paternalism, excluded the West Papuan people themselves. The subsequent vote in July-August of 1969 again subverted the so-called ‘free choice’ of the people and consigned the Universal Declaration on Human Rights to the circular file under the Secretary-General’s desk, to be carried out by the cleaner the next morning.
The Act of Free Choice was a vote by 1025 men selected by the Indonesian military. The event was noted by the United Nations in General Assembly resolution 2504 (XXIV) without qualification as to whether it complied with the authorizing New York Agreement and without qualification as to whether it was an act of “self-determination” as referred to, and described in United Nations General Assembly resolutions 1514 and 1541 (XV) respectively.
The current humanitarian crisis in West Papua, formally WNG, has at its roots Western colonial greed and paranoia over Soviet influence in the region. WNG was and remains culturally, ethnically and economically separate from the rest of the Javanese Empire which replaced the Dutch East Indies Empire in the area that is currently known as Indonesia. WNG’s links lay naturally with the Australian New Guinea and the rest of Melanesia.
From 1950 until October 1961 WNG had been on the United Nations General Assembly (“UNGA”) list of non self-governing territories, having been inscribed on that list by the Dutch. Beginning in 1959 the Dutch started a programme of democratization in WNG with the introduction of elected regional councils. The Dutch had planned to establish an independent WNG by 1970. At the same time Britain and Australia, the colonial masters of the eastern half of the island of New Guinea were working behind the scenes with the Dutch to create a political association between the two halves of Papua New Guinea. On 6 November 1957, Australia issued a joint statement with the Dutch concerning the future development of the entire island. Because neither side wanted to antagonize Jakarta the policy needed to be pursued on a confidential basis and presented as co-operation rather than co-ordination.
However, WNG’s seemingly inexorable march to independence and democratization hit a major stumbling block in the form of Indonesian President Sukarno. Sukarno, using language that could have come straight from the mouths of 5th Century BCE Athenian imperialists, argued that Indonesia had sovereignty over all of the territory of the former Dutch East Indies Empire. The Dutch countered by arguing that WNG was only administered as part of the Dutch East Indies because their minimal presence in WNG did not warrant a separate colonial administration. More importantly, the Dutch argued that the majority of the population of WNG were Melanesian and therefore of a different racial and cultural heritage from the rest of the Dutch East Indies.
In September 1961 as the Indonesians increased the pressure on the West, including the threat of war, the Dutch presented the “Luns” Plan to the UNGA in an effort to resolve the dispute. Pursuant to the terms of the Luns plan the Dutch proposed to hand the administration of WNG to the United Nations which would remain until it was deemed that the population of WNG was ready to exercise their right to self-determination. In the end only a little over 50% of the member states of the UNGA voted for the Luns plan. In failing to reach the required two-thirds majority, the Dutch plan failed.
The New York Agreement the modern world’s Melian dialogue
With the failure of the Luns plan in the UNGA and with the Sukarno regime in receipt of massive arms shipments from the Soviet Union making their threat of war over WNG, which by then had been renamed West Papua, a realistic possibility and in the face of the refusal of Britain, Australia and the United States to offer military support to the Dutch, the Netherlands were left with no option other than to sign on to the New York Agreement (“NYA”).
In his introduction to the Melian Dialogue, Thucydides sets out the hard, imperial backdrop against which the dialogue takes place. In Thucydides’ account, the dialogue over the fate of Melos is framed by significant military activity. Before the dialogue commences, Thucydides’ reminds his readers that the Athenian generals Cleomedes, son of Lycomedes, and Tisias, son of Tisimachus, have amassed forces on Melos – in the wings of the dialogue as it were. These forces comprised 38 ships, carrying 1,200 Athenian hoplites, 300 archers, 20 archers on horseback, and a further 1,500 hoplites from Athens’ allies and island subjects. These were overwhelming forces by the standards of the day. Similarly, the Sukarno regime flush with massive arms shipments from the Soviet Union making their threat of war over WNG a realistic possibility, the off-stage military forces undermine the spirit of the dialogue, which cannot be a dialogue on equal terms because of the unequal balance of power between the parties. In fact, throughout the Melian dialogue the Athenians confuse force with the force of their arguments.
The reality is that both the Melian dialogue and the international dialogue preceding the Vote of No Choice were more akin to antilogy (a contradiction either in terms or ideas. More generally, antilogy names the basic rhetorical theory (propounded by Protagoras) that two contrary arguments may be given about everything). Both took on the appearance of dialogue while being in reality dictates at the point of a hoplite’s spear or a Kalashnikov AK47, the favored weapon of the world’s terrorists.
Thus was the democratic dialogue that brought West Papuan under Indonesian rule. A dialogue championed by three democratic nations, that ultimately became a monologue because of fears of a turf battle that none of the Australian, the United States or Netherlands governments had the moral courage or withstand. This is the failure of the democratic notion. Dialogue, the most fundamental prerequisite for democratic discussion, was abandoned in 1969 and the international community turned a blind eye. Is it any wonder that such tensions exist in West Papua?