Britain-Russia spy saga: Amid London-Moscow diplomatic spat, we must question role of ethical behaviour of States

Britain is a sanctuary state. In a tradition dating back to the 18th century, when it gave refuge to the French dissident writer Voltaire, Britain has remained an attractive destination for those fleeing persecution. It gives refuge to the good the bad and the unwanted from across the world. While it opens its doors to many fleeing persecution in their home countries on moral grounds, a lot are given a safe haven with an eye on the future. These second group of individuals, usually belong to the profession of political dissidents, espionage agents and big time oligarchs.

Some of these figures, at times, run long distance political and economic affairs back home. Take the case of Altaf Hussain of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM). Operating from his base in London. Hussain controls MQM, which, in turn, controls Pakistan's largest city, Karachi.

Britain's tolerance of other countries' dissidents is couched in a clearly defined objective. It takes a high moral position while others hesitate. But not everyone is persuaded by this argument, however. Cynics call it "gesture politics."

File image of UK Prime Minister Theresa May. AP

File image of UK Prime Minister Theresa May. AP

In the world of realpolitik it makes sense for a state to give sanctuary to these assorted group of individuals who are despised in their original home country. If they are political dissidents then they serve as an effective wedge against a faraway wayward regime. They serve as bargaining chips when it comes to doing business with those states. Sometimes these dissidents are groomed and made to take over the reigns of power in their respective country at the opportune moment.

The same goes for the spies. Once offered sanctuary they spill out all the national secrets of the state that they previously belonged and served. In the world of diplomatic skullduggery how can a state not entertain the prospect of such prized information that a renegade promises to offer?

Britain like many other European ex-colonial powers has always been a magnate for those fleeing their ill-gotten coffers. In recent years one group, in particular, that has found this island mostly welcoming is the overnight billionaires from all sorts of places — from the ex-Soviet republics to many tin pot dictatorships. It makes good sense to have this lot on-board. They have contributed to the rejuvenation of an otherwise sluggish economy through their high-profile investments, in some sectors.

However, the problem is, there is no such thing as a free lunch. There is always a price to pay for one's actions, even in the life of States. There is always a blowback. There are unintended consequences.

Since last week, we are witnessing the unfolding of a fast-paced drama reminiscence of a Cold War novel. An ex-Russian (now British) double agent and his young daughter, who have been in coma after allegedly been poisoned by Russia. While Moscow has categorically denied its involvement in this episode, the British prime minister, has stressed that there is "no alternative conclusion other than that the Russian state was culpable" for the attack.

All gloves have come off in the ensuing confrontation between London and Moscow. The Downing Street has already ordered the expulsion of 24 Russian diplomats, which it has identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”. In its response, Moscow has made it amply clear that it would take “fitting… symmetrical measures that are completely appropriate for the situation.”

While the UK is busy creating a worldwide moral consensus against "the Russian aggression", Moscow remains unperturbed. The bigger question that has kicked into the long grass while this high decibel diplomatic rattle-tattle goes on is the role of ethical behaviour of States.

Should the states not behave more judiciously while offering sanctuaries to individuals who are already tarnished in their home country? Why some states have become attractive destinations for many criminals from the world of finance? Is a given state not exposing itself to accusations of criminality while it is drawn to the ill-gotten money of autocrats and oligarchs? Are they not contributing to the plundering of resources of some faraway state by offering safe haven to many of these unsavory characters? Since the enemy and friendly status is an ever-changing reality in the world of diplomacy how helpful it is to draw strict battle lines when states sit down to conduct their business?

These are difficult questions. How Britain and Russia conduct themselves in their current diplomatic spat and beyond would throw light on some of these questions.

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Updated Date: Mar 15, 2018 11:04:34 IST

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