Academic journal article Global Governance

How Not to Be Seen: Highly Vulnerable States and the International Politics of Invisibility

Academic journal article Global Governance

How Not to Be Seen: Highly Vulnerable States and the International Politics of Invisibility

Article excerpt

How do we know when a state has been socialized to an international norm ? Through a case study of Sierra Leone's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, this article shows that not even voluntary compliance combined with material costs constitutes sufficient evidence of socialization. Highly vulnerable states, equally beholden to international donors and fractious domestic patronage networks, face restricted choice sets. They confront both compliance and overt noncompliance as equal existential threats, and their most important foreign policy goal becomes invisibility; that is, they must avoid attracting international attention. These states behave outwardly like they have accepted the norm's legitimacy, but their actions are rooted in a fundamentally different meaning that blocks socialization and has implications for the state system as a whole. Keywords: international norms, socialization, human rights.

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A CONVERSATION WITH A LONG-TIME OBSERVER OF SIERRA LEONEAN POLITICS has gone on a tangent. From time to time, he receives requests from North American students assigned to represent Sierra Leone in their school's Model United Nations. What, they ask, is the country's position on genetically modified organisms, space exploration, or stem cell research? He replies with a checklist by which one may determine the government of Sierra Leone's position on most issues. First, can it avoid committing to any position? If not, can it ally with as large an international organization (IO) as possible, preferably the United Nations or African Union? If these have not formed a consensus, can it align with the smaller Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) or, if necessary, settle for the tiny Mano River Union? (1) The one outcome that it must avoid is to be seen standing alone.

The most notable feature of this checklist is what it lacks: at no point does the content of the issue in question appear. Except where issues touch directly on regime survival, successive Sierra Leonean governments have made invisibility their primary international goal: they establish the country's position on a range of social and strategic issues based primarily on the need to remain unseen. The sum of Sierra Leone's policy decisions might look like acceptance of various international norms' legitimacy. After all, its representatives signed the same conventions as those who spearheaded their creation and publicly endorsed 10 positions on issues of global importance. But Sierra Leone's position in relation to these norms does not derive from beliefs about particular norms such as their rightness, utility, or whether they ought to be obeyed. Instead, this stance derives from the state's vulnerability and resultant strategy to seek security through avoiding attention. Because it is superficially indistinguishable from the behavior of a state responding to belief in a rule's legitimacy, this provides a means to examine the relationship between rules and actors that goes beyond the push and pull of regimes' material interests and the socialization pressures they face. It reveals fundamental structural impediments to adopting international rights-based norms. As a result, interpreting states' choices around such rules must reach beyond the conventional categories of instrumental choice, social learning, or internalization.

I offer a new framework for examining these issues by looking at the Sierra Leonean government's implementation of a postwar Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and propose that Sierra Leone's actions reveal a vulnerable state trying to survive under the radar. This TRC followed the country's eleven-year civil war with the Revolutionary United Front (RUF). Operating with the support and approval of UN agencies, the TRC seems to indicate the government's socialization to norms of truthtelling and reconciliation as a response to mass violence and, by extension, its acceptance of these norms' legitimacy. …

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