Western countries demand Russia follows international law – so why don’t they?

The West isn’t exactly diligent about following international rules of law. It conveniently ignores or sidesteps global rules-based order when it’s convenient

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during the International Migration Review Forum on May 19, 2022, at United Nations headquarters in New York. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

With a passion that recalls the aftermath of the Second World War, politicians and commentators are demanding a global order that takes seriously the rules of the United Nations Charter — notably on respect for sovereignty and fundamental human rights.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the immediate spur, China’s conduct in the Indo-Pacific region has prompted similar calls.

It’s more than a fight between autocracies and democracies, Fareed Zakaria recently argued in the Washington Post. This moment requires a rules-based international order that has inclusive global appeal beyond western interests.

Zakaria is joined by Edward Luce in the Financial Times in arguing these appeals for a global rules-based order clearly require the West to take those rules seriously too, pointing to both the war on terror and the International Criminal Court as evidence it’s not truly serious.

The United States, for example, has refrained from joining the court, even as it advocates for war crimes trials for Russian soldiers and politicians.

Railing against China’s encroachment on the marine sovereignty of its neighbours in the South and East China Sea — in violation of the Convention on the Law of the Sea — also isn’t helped by the U.S. failure to ratify that treaty or participate in its tribunal (which ruled against China in a landmark 2016 case brought by the Philippines).

According to international affairs experts Robin Niblett and Leslie Vinjamuri, there is a similar penchant for arbitrariness when it comes trade rules and the World Trade Organization, health rules and the World Health Organization and attitudes about development financing in sub-Saharan Africa. They argue that the Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on the fortunes of populist and authoritarian politicians may further erode liberalism.

This only scratches the surface. The essential issue is not merely inconsistency in following rules that have uncontested legitimacy. Rather, it’s whether those rules have withstood the assaults on their legitimacy by their western architects.

Global order hypocrisies

Russia’s Ukraine invasion has resulted in a massive exodus of people, exceeding 6.4 million at this point. Their reception in neighbouring Poland and Hungary has contrasted starkly with the treatment of equally desperate refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, among others. The conduct of supposedly liberal nations — from Great Britain and France to Nordic states, Canada and the United States — in terms of how they’ve received Ukrainian refugees compared to those from other nations isn’t any better.

The principle of nonrefoulement — a guarantee that no one will be returned to a country where they face torture, degrading treatment or other irreparable harm — is hardwired in international law, as is the right to seek asylum. Neither enjoy much respect in the face of populist attitudes, which have gone increasingly mainstream among politicians and citizens alike.

What has been called the “ethical spasm” in welcoming Ukrainian refugees (support for resettling refugees has been as high as 76 per cent in Britain) stands out precisely because asylum has otherwise been discarded as a pillar of international humanitarian law, and is replaced by what philosopher Serena Parekh calls “structural injustice” that’s comparable to Jim Crow segregation laws.

This conspicuous lack of regard for the letter and substance of rules is tied to resistance against scrutiny of domestic compliance with international human rights law. When it comes to Indigenous Peoples, for example, settler states like Australia, Canada and the United States have dragged their feet on any binding agreement, especially one that honours collective human rights.

‘Free speech’ folly

Incitement to hatred of vulnerable minorities, in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is also now justified via a loose interpretation of “free speech” — a phenomenon we see in white supremacist and Islamophobic activism, especially on social media.

In Canada, the “trucker convoy” protest that openly espoused white supremacy received support from the official Opposition within and outside Parliament. It’s hard to imagine such accommodation of a non-white protest paralyzing cities and borders for weeks on end.

Finally, there is an outcry about “occupation,” which Crimea has endured since 2014 and the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine appears fated for in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion.

Foreign occupation is at the heart of the narrative of Ukraine’s plight as David confronting the Russian Goliath. The occupation has placed Taiwan on high alert, nervous China might be inspired by Russia.

But what about Palestine, where over a half century’s occupation by Israel is actively funded, militarily supported and legally shielded by western liberal democracies? Gershon Shafir, an American sociologist and human rights scholar, has explored why this is the case in the face of clear international legal and political norms to the contrary — from the UN Charter and the 1949 Geneva Conventions to explicit judicial rulings and UN resolutions, in addition to essential ethical and humanitarian principles.

The International Court of Justice found in 2004 that Israel’s “separation wall,” built in the name of security against Palestinian attacks, was outright illegal in its intrusion on occupied territories. It amounted to extending colonial capture by conquest, a practice explicitly outlawed since the 1960 Declaration on Colonial Peoples and Territories, which not a single UN member opposed.

The UN Security Council’s unanimous Resolution 242 of 1967 on the Palestine question affirmed the “inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.” Israel nonetheless ignored the International Court’s finding.

Precedents set

A major precedent for dismissing judicial findings on a salient issue of global order was set by the U.S. in response to the 1986 International Court of Justice ruling on “military and paramilitary activities against Nicaragua.” The U.S. simply rejected the decision of a court that it had helped establish.

An Ipsos poll on public attitudes toward the Russia-Ukraine conflict reveals, unsurprisingly, a stark divide between the Global North and South. While 82 per cent of people agreed that the conflict poses great global risk, only 39 per cent (entirely in the north) disagreed with the proposition that Ukraine’s problems “are none of our business, and we should not interfere.”

This is not just about the north-south divide at the UN in condemning the invasion; it’s about the alienation of civil society and ordinary folk from the global order. Which begs the question as to whether the very adoption of the rules of global order has been systematically snuffed out.

Amyn Sajoo
Scholar-in-Residence & Lecturer, Simon Fraser University


Mauritius Times ePaper Friday 24 June 2022

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