Leaving it in neutral - the enigma of Malta's foreign policy

As Libya slides towards civil war – a conflict in which Malta may have unwittingly already taken sides – has the time finally come to revise our country’s Constitutional neutrality?

Malta’s status as a neutral, non-aligned country seems to come up for public discussion every so often, only to promptly subside into oblivion.

In December 2009, a throwaway comment by US ambassador Douglas Kmiec – who casually asked whether Malta was also neutral to ‘peace’, following President Obama’s request for assistance in Afghanistan – prompted an avalanche of indignant responses.

Just over a year later, the US ambassador’s question appears to be still relevant.  What does Malta’s Constitutional neutrality actually mean in practice? And how can it be applied in the present scenario?

A tale of ‘two superpowers’

Much of the confusion surrounding the issue can be put down to a simple sleight of linguistics. As Stephen Calleya, professor of international relations at the University of Malta, said in 2009, the immediate question prompted by Malta’s neutrality clause is: ‘neutral to what?’

“As the Maltese Constitution clearly defines its neutrality from ‘the superpowers’, this relates to the scenario in 1979 when the world was split between two major political blocs,” Calleya told MaltaToday.

But while one of these two superpowers – the Soviet Union - has since spontaneously combusted, and other superpowers such as China are now a factor to be reckoned with, the wording of the Constitutional clause has survived.

This has long been cited to justify the use of Malta’s naval facilities by foreign military vessels for non-military purposes: much to chagrin of anti-war political groupings such as Moviment Graffitti, whose activists have grown hoarse protesting against the constant presence warships in the Grand Harbour.

And while approaching the same issue from a vastly different direction, observers such as Calleya concur that this wording ought to be revised. But any such revision will by definition force us to reconsider the full extent of the implications of neutrality.

“Issues of high security, humanitarian assistance, peace keeping missions and election observers, should all be issues to be taken into consideration and put into context of the modern days we are all living in,” Calleya suggested in 2009.

Is neutrality a Mirage?

On Monday 22 February, two Libyan Mirages (fighter jets) unexpectedly touched down on the Luqa runway: posing a unique and quite possibly unprecedented dilemma for the government of Malta.

The pilots had deserted, claiming to have been ordered to bomb civilians by the Libyan authorities. Malta was then placed in the awkward position of having to deny an official request for the return of ‘stolen’ Libyan government property.

In itself, the incident may have no direct bearing on neutrality. But the wider implications include the possibility (admittedly very remote) of some from of retaliatory action by Libya, on the basis that Malta had ‘taken sides’ in the conflict.

Even without the extreme eventuality of military aggression, the ongoing Libyan conflict poses a particular challenge to Malta’s neutrality for other reasons, too. Along with Italy, Libya happens to be one of the main guarantors of Malta’s neutrality: a fact which can only raises questions regarding the practical applicability (or even desirability) of retaining the same clause in its present form.

Theoretically, by guaranteeing Malta’s neutrality both countries have undertaken to protect Malta’s territorial integrity from military aggression. But with Libya’s ability (not to mention willingness) to honour this commitment now manifestly in doubt, one might justifiably question the legal validity of the guarantee… and with it, the legal value of the Constitutional clause as a whole.

Add to this the fact that international military forces (namely, Britain and the USA) are currently amassing in the central Mediterranean for a possible military intervention in libya – and more cogently, that Malta may already have been used as a platform to launch low-level military actions, as evidenced by the Dutch helicopter incident this week – and the overwhelming impression is that, when push comes to shove, our previously reliable neutrality clause suddenly appears ephemeral, to say the least.  

Moral matters

But long before delving into such matters, the concept of neutrality itself has often come under fire for entirely unrelated reasons. Generally, the criticism takes two distinct forms: neutrality is often described as ‘toothless’ and unworkable in practice; and sometimes, it is also deemed immoral.

In practical terms, neutrality did nothing to protect Belgium from German invasion and occupation in World War I. As for Europe’s best-known example of neutrality, the criticism is altogether more sinister in nature.

Switzerland’s reputation as a neutral state took a battering in the 1990s, when it was revealed that descendants of holocaust victims who had deposited their savings in Swiss banks before 1942 – when the country closed its borders to refugees - found they could not access the ‘dormants’ accounts, rumoured to be worth billions of dollars. It was revealed also that stolen Jewish property had been ‘laundered’ by Nazi officials through the Swiss banking system.

At this point, an altogether different picture of neutrality began to emerge. It came to be seen almost as a Satanic ‘pact’: whereby German non-aggression had been ‘bought’ in exchange for the money-laundering services of Swiss banks.

Separate criticism has also been levelled at neutral Sweden: this time for allowing the Nazis use of the Swedish railway infrastructure, in order to invade and occupy non-neutral Norway. And Malta can attest to the ‘neutrality’ of Spain in World War II: it was after all Spanish maritime authorities that informed Berlin when Operation Pedestal entered the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar in August 1942.

Even without these examples, it has long been argued that neutrality is little more than glorified fence-sitting. Kenneth Wain, Professor of Ethics of the University of Malta, is among those who regard neutrality as “plainly often wrong”.

“This is why I am against its presence as a general principle in the Constitution. Let me give you a practical example: I am looking out from my window and I see a man mugging an elderly woman in the street. I decide to do nothing, to stay neutral, in order not to create problems for myself, since I may put myself in danger if I intervene directly, or am called up as a witness. You would be right to regard my action as morally repugnant. Besides, my inaction doesn't really render me neutral. In actual fact it is helping and abetting the aggressor and contributing to the aggression against the innocent victim. For to be neutral is not to takeno position; it is to decide to do nothing, and that is taking a position which aids the aggressor.”

Transposing this example to the Libyan situation, Prof Wain adds that wherever clear acts of aggression are committed against innocent civilians, inaction is not a morally justifiably option.

“To do nothing is tantamount to presenting the aggressor with a blank cheque to continue his aggression. It cannot be a morally sustainable position.”

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@Antoine - Neutrality is not for cowards - its for people who have the interest of their country at heart. Military alignment - however is for FOOLS. Take a bus ride around the spit of rock you live on before getting on your high horse. Oh and btw - it was not cowardly to support Gaddafi for the last 40 years - now you develop a principles? - now that he is down and possible not useful anymore - and you talk about cowards!.
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Freedom, helping the Libyan patriots is not getting "embroiled in wars with other nations". Gaddafi is not a nation - he is a despot who must be forced to to go (sorry Mr EU commissioner). . Instead of pondering on googled quotations you should ponder on reports and video clips coming out of the embattled Libyan cities. . Do try to live up to your moniker; unless you chose it in self sarcasm, that is.
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Antoine Vella neutarlity is not for cowards, but for those who do not want to be embroiled in wars with other nations to serve the interests of other foreign nations. If you feel that you want to intervene just leave us alone and go join the interfering counties forces because we neither want to join ourselves nor to involve our country. Here are a few quotes by Thomas Jefferson for you to ponder. Commerce with all nations, alliance with none, should be our motto. Dependence begets subservience and venality, suffocates the germ of virtue, and prepares fit tools for the designs of ambition. Friendship is but another name for an alliance with the follies and the misfortunes of others. Our own share of miseries is sufficient: why enter then as volunteers into those of another? I have seen enough of one war never to wish to see another. The most successful war seldom pays for its losses. Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations; entangling alliances with none. These perfectly apply to the USA and those wanting to steal other countries oil and who are lubricating their leaders machinery. Merchants have no country. The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains. Money, not morality, is the principle commerce of civilized nations.
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Citizen X, your attitude is wrong in principle and practice. . In principle it is wrong because it is based on cowardice. We have to stand by our convictions even if it means that the consequences may be unpleasant. . If your remember the 1970s and 1980s you will doubtless know that we managed to overcome the moral and physical intimidation of the Mintoff regime - and ultimately achieve victory - because we stood up for what we believed in, in spite of all kinds of violence, including murder. . Your attitude is also wrong in practice because, in the present scenario, Malta would not be alone but part of a wider alliance of democratic western powers. . Finally, you have missed Wain's point: by remaining 'neutral' we are actually helping Gaddafi. There can be no neutrality when there is an oppressed people struggling to gain its freedom. . Neutrality is for cowards.
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Prof Wain uses a simplistic example that does not apply to Malta. Malta is a toddler weighing 10kg. There are two thugs outside slugging it out. Toddler intervenes and gets squashed. The thugs then burn down his family as well. Want to have moral values - great - i recommend it. Then don't spend 40+year smuggling everything to Geddafi, laundering his money and getting into bed with him. Neutrality was put there to protect this country from turning into a whore invested military base to fight proxy wars for the benefit of other countries. In the meantime we went on to turn this country into a private fiefdom run for the benefit of the business interests of the political class and in the process earning the title of the 'Prostitute of the Mediterranean' in the words on Tom Clancy (known for his intensive research for his books)
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duncan abela
Let me pose another ethical situation Imagine you were a young ten year old boy seeing a person being robbed by a fully armed thug from your window. Would you as a prudent parent advice such a child to leave the safety of his room and face the impossible task of protecting the victim. Or would it make more sense to teach him not to be reckless and harm himself. Would it not be better lf he phoned the police who are the better equipped to deal with such a situation. Malta is currently that little boy watching this tragedy unfold in front of it. Let the big powers deal with the situation and let us not initiate token action which can only harm our tiny defenceless island. Thank God for those politicians who had the foresight of our neutrality clause in particular of the far sighted Dom Mintoff. Thank God also that our current foreign minister Tonio Borg also has the same measure of political savvy and a sense of realpolitik.
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Pauline Moran
Robin Huud isma minni habib, biddel dak l-isem fint li ghandek u ghamel Neruni...jkun aktar jixraqlek. Jahasra int u siehbek Afar3 jew 4 qeghdin tparlaw fil vojt ghax ma tafhux ezatt x'inhu jigri fil Libya. U kif tistaw inthom tippontifikaw jekk in newtralita f'Malta ghandix relavanza jew le? Kien hawn xi Gwerra vicin taghna sa issa f;dawn l-ahhar 24 sena? LE. Mela ma tistawx tparlaw. Dan il Professur li jiprretendi li hu xi Profeta ta l-etika anqas jaf x'inhu jghid. Il paragun li gab ma jreggix. L-ewwelnett ahna m'ghandnix tieqa cara ghal gol Libya u tieni m'ahniex nitkellmu fuq glieda bejn tnejn min nies izda fuq gwerra civili. Malta ma tistax ticcaqlaq min fejn qeghda fil Mediterran. il pajjizi l-ohra kif jispicca kollox (jekk jispicca) jitilqu lejn dahrhom u lilna jhalluna sleeping with the enemy for a long long long time. For this reason Malta must remain neutral... Not from condemning the acts of bloodshed in Libya...but for preventing bloodshed on our own soil!
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Neutral or non Neutral we need to bolster our defence not so much with highly expensive fighter jets or warships but with a system tailor made to our economic means. In such a plan we would need help from our allies and curtail expenditure in other areas to spend on defence. Having a small army and a few patrol boats is not enough for sure to prevent surprise attacks from a hostile neighbour. One can be neutral as much as you like but if some dictator wants to cause damage to our country no piece of paper would prevent this.
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Guess what Mr Vassallo? I agree completely with your take on the matter. It is about time that some people really understood the moral and ethical implications of neutrality. How can anyone remain neutral when faced with abhorrent and appalling crimes against other human beings? Andy Farrugia alias
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No use trying to remove our neutrality clause. It is there to stay.
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