As the world remains shocked at the atrocities committed against civilians in the northern Rakhine state, Myanmar government has once again blocked all aid agencies from delivering vital supplies of food, water, and medicine to thousands of civilians trapped in military campaign zone.
The Guardian quoted the Office of the UN Resident Coordinator in Myanmar that “because the security situation and government field-visit restrictions rendered us unable to distribute assistance,” suggesting authorities were not providing permission to operate. Further to this United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Food Programme (WFP) and sixteen major non-government aid organisations – including Oxfam and Save the Children – have also complained that the government has restricted access to the conflict area.
It is not the first time that humanitarian actors face the challenge of providing humanitarian aid to the victims. Governments, especially those who fight rebels in their territories, keep humanitarian agencies at bay doubting their independence, impartiality, and neutrality. The states also use control over humanitarian aid access as a strategy to weaken the rebel controlled territories. These restrictive measures may consist of regulation of movement, blockades, penalization, and arrests of relief staff, and various bureaucratic strategies for restricting access, like preventing aid workers from entering the country. Restrictions on access can take any dimension like denials or delays in processing travel permits, limitations on the number of staff, and arbitrary bureaucratic limitations on the passage of relief supplies. In the present case of Myanmar also, its leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s office accused aid workers of helping “terrorists,” a claim that prompted fears for the safety of aid workers. Myanmar authorities have also denied international staff access by holding up visa approvals.
Not only the States, various rebel and militia groups have also been responsible for obstructing relief efforts. Their tactics range from harassing checkpoints to outright denials of access. In some cases, aid organizations themselves have been targeted for killing, attacks on relief convoys, looting of supplies, and even the killing of relief personnel. Irrespective of from where restrictions on access have occurred, it leads to thousands of deaths from malnutrition and disease, and as these numbers increase world over, it is a serious concern for the humanitarian world.
These challenges have increased manifold, as most of the present day conflicts like one in Myanmar are not traditional international armed conflicts, where international law provisions offer access as a matter of right for humanitarian agencies. If international law does not give a cogent answer on the right of access to aid agencies in Rakhine State, is Myanmar Government justified in its action?
Sanctity of Humanitarian Aid under International Law
International humanitarian law (IHL) provides legal sanctity to the work of humanitarian agencies in supporting governments for fulfilling their obligations to protect civilians when states are unable to do it. The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 through its articles 55 and 81, and article 70 of the Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions have given the states a duty to provide humanitarian aid to the civilian population under their control. This includes non-nationals, whether free or detained and the people of occupied territories of the adverse party. Further, if states are unable to do so, they are bound to accept the offer of third parties like impartial aid agencies to provide the required support.
At the same time in cases of internal conflicts (non-international armed conflicts as well as in other internal disturbances, like in the present Myanmar’s case) International law, does not give aid agencies any unfettered rights to reach out to the civilians. Right to access in such situations are subjected to the consent of state parties and scrutiny by them under Article 70 of Additional Protocol I, Article 18 of Additional Protocol II, and Articles 23 & 59 of Geneva Convention IV. Such a liberty of states to control the movements of aid agencies inside their boundaries is primarily because in cases of conflicts of non-international nature States doesn’t want unnecessary international attention unless they decide so.
However, these restriction based upon the sovereign authority of the state is not absolute. As per the ICRC Commentaries to the Geneva Conventions, this consent requirement does not give unfettered discretion to allow or not to allow relief action. According to the Commentaries, if the humanitarian organization is impartial and neutral, then denial of relief action would amount to a violation of the rule prohibiting starvation of civilians as a method of combat. Further states have the primary responsibility to protect and ensure their basic need for survival of the civilians under Articles 55-56 of Geneva Convention IV. States are required to permit and facilitate the free passage of relief supplies and personnel and to guarantee their protection under Articles 23, 30 & 59 of Geneva Convention IV and Articles 70-71 of Additional Protocol I, and Art.18 of Additional Protocol II. There are also other international human rights documents, which provides for the right to freedom for movement for all, including for humanitarian personnel under Article 13 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 12 of International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Further, individual’s rights to survival and development including the right to food, medical treatment, and shelter are given under Article 25 of UDHR.
Further, if the restrictions on humanitarian access results in the deprivation of basic necessities, the attacks on relief organizations, and the destruction of sources for survival contribute to violations of various international norms especially it may constitute Grave Breaches under IHL and crimes under the International Criminal Law especially the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute. Following are the provisions of IHL and Rome Statute, which penalize the restriction of humanitarian aid.
Grave Breaches Under IHL
Under Articles 50, 51, 130,147 respectively of the four Geneva Conventions provides for willfully causing great suffering torture or inhuman treatment as grave breaches for which the perpetrator can be prosecuted. Denial of aid to a starving civilian population during a conflict situation may amount to same.
Crimes under International Criminal Law
Genocide is an act of ‘killing members of the group with a Intend to destroy in part or as a whole’. It is also committed by causing death by withholding aid. Denial of aid may also cause ‘serious bodily or mental harm.’ The same can also be characterized as deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about death through deprivation of food and medical supplies. [The Rome Statute Art. 6 and the interpretation of Art.6(a) in Elements of Crime]
- b) Crime Against Humanity
- Murder can be interchangeable with caused death due to the deprivation of access to food and medicines as per the interpretation of Elements of Crime. (The Rome Statute Art. 7 and interpretation of Art.7(1)(b) of Elements of Crime]
- Extermination can include ‘mass killing by inflicting conditions of life calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population, both direct and indirect including one caused by the deprivation of access to food and medicines [The Rome Statute Art. 7 and interpretation of Art.7(1)(b) of Elements of Crime]
- Torture- intentional infliction of severe pain and suffering, whether physical or mental, in custody or under the control of the accused. This can be applied in situations where the aid and support are denied to a group who is under the party’s control. [The Rome Statute Art. 7 (2)(e)].
- Persecution – is defined as ‘intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights which includes deprivation of access to food, water, medicine and other elements of survival [The Rome Statute Art. 7 (2)(g) and Art. 23 GC IV, Arts. 5-6 ICCPR]
- Other Inhuman Acts- ‘intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to the mental health. This can be applied in situations where the aid and support is denied to a group who is under the party’s control. [The Rome Statute Art. 7 (1)(k)].
- C) War Crimes-
During international armed conflicts
Intentionally starving of civilians during international armed conflict (IAC) as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including willfully impeding relief supplies. [The Rome Statute Art. 8 (2)(b)(xxv)].
- During IAC Willful killing [The Rome Statute and Elements of Crime Art. 8 (2)(a)(i)] and Torture and inhuman treatment (IAC)- [The Rome Statute and Elements of Crime Art. 8 (2)(a)(ii)-1(i)] and
During non- international armed conflicts
- Violence to life and person – [The Rome Statute and Elements of Crime Art. 8 (2)(c)(i)]
- Intentionally directing attacks – against buildings, materials, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems. [The Rome Statute and Elements of Crime Art. 8 (2)(e)(i)]
- Intentionally directing attacks – against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peace keeping missions under UN Charter. [The Rome Statute and Art. 8 (2)(e)(ii)-(iii)]
- Pillaging a town or place – destroying or seizing the property of an adversary unless such destruction or seizure is demanded by military necessity, which includes food sources and supplies. [The Rome Statute and Art. 8 (2)(e)(xii)]
Hence actions including the present Myanmar governments decision to block aid in the conflict affected areas in Myanmar could amount to violations which would attract penal action under the International law. Given the nature of attack and atrocities happening against an ethnic group, the chances of the commission of a crime of genocide weigh more in the present case, with individual counts of murder, extermination, and persecution. It is high time that other major nations to intervene and re-establish humanitarian aid in the affected area and further limit such atrocities being committed.
Reforming the UN: Possibility and Necessity
All major wars of the second half of the 20th century ended without the participation of this organisation and its permanent bureaucratic structures. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, the UN had no objection to the increasingly active usurpation of its functions by the military-political blocs of the West. Now this organisation is not a body of the international community, but a relatively open platform for communication between representatives of different countries.
The recent High-Level Week within the framework of the 78th UN General Assembly was accompanied by growing discussions about the need to reform this organisation. First of all, we are talking about the future of its highest body — the Security Council (UNSC), whose five permanent members (Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States) have exclusive rights in the field of international security.
While this discussion has not yet reached its conclusion, all the main participants are exercising caution and test each other’s positions. For the great powers, participants in the “Areopagus” of the Security Council, it is difficult to take decisive related action. We can never exclude the possibility that between them, despite the bitter conflict in Europe, there remains a generally restrained attitude towards a real revision of their status. This is precisely what could be the consequence of the expansion of the permanent members of the Security Council and the beginning of the destruction of the entire system created after the Second World War.
The United Nations is the institutional embodiment of the West’s desire to preserve the international order in which it has played a leading role for more than 500 years. That is why it is fundamentally important for the United States and Europe to maintain their majority in the Security Council. This is what ultimately makes it possible to effectively control the working bodies of the UN. First of all, the secretariat of this most important international organisation. Now the UN remains the last “pillar” of a relatively stable world order and, at the same time, ensures the formal participation of almost all countries of the world in the discussion of the global agenda. In other words, the UN as we know it is the product of a compromise in which the West maintains its dominance and everyone else does not feel a complete injustice is being done to their basic interests.
Conceptually, the UN, of course, arose from the understanding that a relatively stable international order must take into account the interests of those who could destroy it through revolutionary behaviour. This was the most important lesson of the Second World War, which arose as a result of injustice towards a number of major powers. Germany, Japan and Italy suffered a catastrophic defeat in this war and actually lost their sovereignty with respect to issues of foreign and defence policy. Their fate was the inevitable result of the situation in which they found themselves at the beginning of the last century. However, after the rebellion was suppressed, the victors were still able to create an order that kept potential new rebels from repeating the same destructive actions.
The military and political power of the USSR and later China was immersed in a system where their strategic opponents continued to play the leading role. For Moscow, the creation of the UN became a forced compromise between its colossal capabilities and status as the main winner in the war against Nazi Germany, on the one hand, and the inability to challenge the entire West, on the other. China was only able to restore its participation in the Security Council in the early 1970s, when its reconciliation with the United States and its allies was already looming on the horizon. Thus, from the very beginning, the UN became a means of civilized containment of the leading opponents of the West, whose formal high status limited the likelihood of their rebellion against the general dominance of the United States and Europe in world affairs.
During its existence, the UN has not been able to prevent a single relatively serious military conflict between states. It would also be naive to think that thanks to the UN and its decisions, any conflict was truly resolved. All major wars of the second half of the 20th century ended without the participation of this organisation and its permanent bureaucratic structures. Moreover, after the end of the Cold War, the UN had no objection to the increasingly active usurpation of its functions by the military-political blocs of the West. Now this organisation is not a body of the international community, but a relatively open platform for communication between representatives of different countries. Although even this function may turn out to be increasingly limited due to the fact that the United States, where the UN headquarters is located, is using the right of access to the territory in its own political interests.
Now we can truly say that the UN system is in crisis. The main reason for this is the general loss of the West’s ability to bolster its institutional capabilities with the resources needed for unchallenged global leadership. The general democratisation of the international system is reflected in increasing freedom of expression not only by large, but also by medium-sized and even small countries. More and more, the United States and Europe need to directly intimidate individual states in order to obtain their desired voting results in the Security Council or General Assembly. Russia and especially China are feeling increasingly confident and are actually rejecting the UN-centred common order as an instrument of Western dominance. The Western countries themselves are trying to counterattack in response, and are raising the issue of reforming the Security Council, including new permanent members. The most common candidate countries are Brazil, Germany, India and Japan.
However, discussions about real reform of the main body of the international community are still quite cautious. Everyone understands that a decisive restructuring of the UN could lead to the complete destruction of this organisation and the loss of even the minimum opportunity for a broad discussion of global and regional problems. Most countries in the world quite rightly think that if the United States and Europe are faced with the prospect of losing their unique capabilities within the UN, they will simply destroy this institution. But sooner or later we will still have to address this issue seriously. Therefore, the debates at the level of expert discussion cannot become the subject of long-term delays.
First of all, it would make sense to address several questions. First, the relationship between the institutional embodiment of the international order and the actual balance of power in the world needs to be discussed. The UN includes dozens of countries around the world that have emerged in recent decades. However, it was created in the colonial era and, at a conceptual level, it is tied to the Second World War, which has become distant history for most countries throughout the world. In this regard, the UN, of course, has long been morally outdated and does not reflect the spirit of our times. In some ways it is a copy and continuation of the Westphalian order, created by Europeans for themselves and then imposed on the rest of the world. Whether such an intellectual basis can be sufficiently reliable now needs, at the very least, a serious debate.
Second, the location of the secretariat, headquarters and site of the main UN events reflects the realities of 80 years ago, but not today. The same can be said about the principles and practice of forming the apparatus of the main UN bodies, primarily its secretariat. It is no coincidence that Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently drew attention to this, emphasising that “The criteria that have been in place for many years do not reflect the actual influence of states in global affairs and artificially ensure the excessive dominance of citizens of NATO and EU countries.” Despite its technical nature, this issue is central. It is the working bodies that ultimately determine the agenda and modality of the UN’s activities and create the main ways for individual states to influence this.
Finally, there is a need for a conceptual discussion of the functions and tasks of the Security Council, including the group of its permanent member countries. This issue is now the most popular, but its solution depends on an understanding of the goals, and not on the agreement of the countries regarding the mechanical expansion of the Security Council. It is quite possible that, as a result of the discussion, we will generally come to the conclusion that the Security Council, in modern conditions, can no longer play the unique role that belongs to it in the ideal model of international governance. Then all the talk about who really deserves to take part in the Security Council meetings will turn out to be completely unnecessary.
From our partner RIAC
The Impact of Cultural and Religious Differences on Ethnic Conflict: A Case Study of Alawites in Syria
Alawites are the ethnic and religious minority in Syria which comprise 12-15 percent about 2 million of the Syrian population. As far as the twentieth century, Alawites consisted of four main tribes in relative confinement mostly. They lived in the mountainous region of Hama, Latakia, and Homs while the Sunni majority lived mostly in the densely populated areas of Damascus and Aleppo. The Alawite community faced subjugation and marginalization based on geographic separation and economic disparities and this extended until the French came into power. Before the French control of Syria in 1920, the Alawaites were known as “Nusayris”. After the French control, they started to be known as Alawite which means the followers of Ali. It was under the French that the Alawites emerged from the rural highlands and enjoyed a certain type of autonomy. The French set up a separate state for the Alawites known as the Latakia state in July 1922. The French also recruited the Alawites into the Troupes Speciales du levant, which later evolved into the Lebanese and Syrian Defense Forces in 1921. Sunnis who were in the majority were against the French as they wanted to create an autonomous Greater Syria which was a term mostly used by the pan-arab nationalists. This further led to a distinct Alawite identity fostering the rifts between the Sunni community and Alawites in Syria.
The Alawites gained prominence in Syria and were provided with the chance of upward mobility during the rule of the Assad family who belongs to the Alawite community. In 1970, Hafiz- Al Assad by a military coup came into power establishing a regime that favored the Alawite community in Syria. From 1966 to 1970 more than 65 percent of the entire military of Syria constituted Alawites and even today Alawites hold key positions in the army. Since that moment, the conflicts within Syria have been dominated by religious, cultural, and sectarian divisions. Moreover, the Alawite community fatalities have sparked over the years, either fighting to shield the Assad regime or because they are indicted of supporting or assisting his regime. In the 1970s, A Sunni Organization named Muslim Brotherhood targeted the Alawite community for violence but the regime suppressed the group in a genocide in 1982.
Religious practices and beliefs:
In the modern Syrian context, the Alawites are classified as Muslims but their practices often tend to deviate from Muslim orthodoxy in various arenas. The Alawites are an ethnoreligious group that follows a branch of Shia Islam. They claim that “there is no deity but Ali, no viel but Muhammad, and no Bab but Salman”. The Islam of the Sunni sect under the scholar Ibn Taymiyaa issued several fatwas against Alawites claiming that they are greater disbelievers than Jews and Christians and authorized jihad against them. and The Alawites believe in the idea of the Divine Trinity constituting Muhammad, Ali, and Salman, which is revealed in the seven derivations of the Godhead, each incorporated into three persons. The Alawites believe in reincarnation but the Muslims of other sects oppose this belief saying that it is contrary to Islam.
In addition, other elements such as the acceptability of alcohol, Christmas celebrations, and the new year of Zoroastrians make them highly suspicious in front of the orthodox Muslims. The distinct beliefs and practices of Alawites have played a crucial role in shaping the ethnic conflicts within Syria. Historically, the Alawite community has faced discrimination and marginalization within Syria which has led to the creation of a sense of otherness among them due to their own unique set of rituals, practices, and beliefs that differ from those of the Sunni majority of Syria.
Cultural and Religious Differences as contributing factors of Conflict:
The ethnic conflict in Syria is entrenched in cultural and religious differences between the Sunnis and Alawites. Throughout the 20th century, religion has been rendered as a main source of conflict between the Alawites and Sunni ethnic groups in Syria. It is because Alawites and Sunnis adhere to different branches of Islam having distinct religious practices and beliefs. This further leads to religious tensions and ideological differences between the two groups fueling sectarian violence and discrimination. The cultural and religious differences between the Sunnis and Alawites also develop a sense of different identities. Alawites being a minority feel a threat to their identity from the majority of Sunnis whereas on the other hand, Sunni groups view the dominance of minority Alawites as a threat to their own cultural and religious identity and they seek to resist it. Moreover, stereotyping one another based on hate speech, religious intolerance, and demonization has been instrumental in deepening divisions and fueling conflicts between the different ethnic groups.
If we analyze the impacts of religious and cultural differences throughout the recorded history of Syria, we see that during colonial rule, the manipulation of various sects to entrench French rule through discrimination in the structure of the emerging military and the partition of the state into different sects have resulted in long-standing ethnic conflicts. Moreover from 1961 to 1970 religion was further used to strengthen the Alawite influence in the armed forces. The decades-long repression of the majority population of the Sunni community of Syria by the Alawites-led government based on religious and cultural differences and the elevation of Alawites in the private and government sectors led to the creation of sectarian strife among them. All of this was carried out to solidify the Assad regime based on sectarian bonds of the Alawite minority seizing control of the state and pursuing discriminatory policies towards the Sunni majority.
The struggles between the two groups over the years have fed a civil war in Syria that can transform the map of the Middle East. The Syrian war is considered to be a sectarian conflict between the minority Shite with the support of Alawites and the majority Sunni population on the other. The resistance action of the opposition at the start involved many ethnic and religious groups of Syria against the authoritarian regime of Assad turned into another sectarian war between Shi’ites and Sunnis. This Syrian insurgency started for the same reasons as that of revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt but now it has turned into a sectarian civil war which has no resemblance to what happened in those countries.
Assad Regime Utilization of Sectarianism
During the forty years, the authoritarian Assad regime in Syria has created the conditions for the conflict and its sectarian components. Assad regime highlighted the use of the sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict and by doing that it was somehow successful in motivating the shite Alawite minority to support it. Over the years, the Assad regime has portrayed the opposition forces and in particular the Sunni Muslims as a threat to the very existence of the Alawite community in Syria. The regime has intensified the sectarian nature of the conflict between the Alawites and the Sunni majority as this conflict adopted the shape of the struggle for life for the Alawites in Syria. The Alawites had been a major support base for both Hafiz and Bashar al-Assad. Over the years Assad regime has used the sectarian identity of Alawites for their political objectives to consolidate their power by ensuring the support of primary institutions such as military and security forces.
Moreover, it is also said that the regime has used various sectarian militias dominated by the Alawite community. These militias include the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Shabiha which have been empowered and supported by the Assad regime against the opposition groups such as the rebel fighters comprised of Sunni Muslims. The main strategic objective of such militias was to increase sectarianism in Syria and stop the Alawite community from joining the opposition forces. The regime has portrayed the conflict as a sectarian conflict where the survival of Alawites is at stake while demonizing other ethnic groups, particularly the Sunnis. The result of such utilization of sectarianism that we witness today is that the minority Alawites are entangled in this conflict with the Sunnis due to their historical association with the Assad rule in Syria.
Role of external actors in exacerbating sectarian strife:
The Syrian conflict is a complex one and multiple actors are involved in it with various vested interests. The conflict is often characterized by a multitude of ethnic, ideological, and sectarian divisions with the minority Alawite community in Syria being one of them. Several external actors such as Hizbollah, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), and Shite fighters from Syria have bolstered their financial and political support to the Assad regime backed by Iran and Russia. Over the years, Iran has remained the steadfast supporter of the Alawite community in Syria, which includes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Iran has provided relentless aid to the Assad regime and has declared the resistance forces in Syria as extremists or terrorists which are supported by Gulf Arab states, the United States, and Israel. The supreme leader of Iran Ayatullah Khomeini once said that Syria is Iran’s thirty-fifth province, and if we fail Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran as well. This statement highlights the strategic significance of Syria for Iran as it is critical for providing the geographical thoroughfare to the Lebanese Shia militia group Hizbollah. Another reason for Iran supporting the Assad regime is that Iran is fearful of Syria’s Sunni majority and the fact that it may rule Syria supported by Saudi Arabia and the United States and then it would be hostile towards Shite Iran. Moreover, the use of foreign Shia militias in Syria against Sunni majority groups further exacerbates the sectarian divisions. So, here in this scenario, religion is playing a key role which further classifies into different sects supporting each other fueling ethnic conflict.
Moreover, various other external actors support different factions within the Syrian conflict involving the Alawites based on their vested interests. The opposition to the Syrian regime comprised of Alawites by the Sunni majority groups has gained support over the years from various external actors including the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. However, not all these actors have been supporting the Sunni majority, particularly against the Alawites.
The Gulf countries particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar have long supported the Sunni rebels in Syria both financially and militarily. The main purpose behind this support is to weaken the influence of their regional rival Iran in Syria and support Sunni rebel groups fighting against the Alawite-led Assad regime. Turkey has been a long-standing supporter of the Sunni rebel groups in the Syrian conflict as it assists the Sunni majority groups both militarily and logistically. The purpose of Turkish support is to prevent the emergence of Kurdish forces along its border. In addition, the United States and the Western allies are supporting the Sunni majority groups to weaken the Assad-led Alawite regime and to counter the extremist threats from ISIS in Syria. It is significant to note that all the external actors involved in the Syrian conflict have their agendas and interest in Syria and their involvement has further complicated the dynamics of the ethnic conflict between the minority Alawites and the majority Sunni groups in Syria.
Efforts needed to address the conflict:
The efforts to address the conflict between the Alawites and Sunnis majority will require an inclusive approach that takes into account all the factors such as historical, cultural, religious, social, political, and economic that are contributing to the long-lasting tensions between the two groups. Healing the sectarian divisions of a diverse nation like Syria is not only necessary, but it has become a significant point for a more secure and stable Syria. To address the long-standing conflict in Syria it is essential to foster dialogue and negotiations between the Alawites and other ethnic groups in Syria. It is also necessary to promote inclusive governance and power-sharing structures within Syria that would provide participation and representation for all other ethnic groups as it would help in addressing the deep-rooted tensions between these groups in Syria. Moreover, engaging neighboring states and regional actors to address the concerns and aspirations of all communities including the Alawites and international support for mediation in the conflict is vital for ensuring the peaceful resolution of this conflict between the Alawites and the predominantly Sunni Muslim community in Syria.
To conclude, we can say that the Alawite-Sunni conflict in Syria is a complex and multi-faceted one. This conflict is a vicious cycle of violence with both sides committing violence against each other. The conflict involves ethnic dimensions with the Alawite minority supporting the Assad regime, while Sunnis oppose it as they see Alawites as an illegitimate ruling class. The Assad regime portrays itself as the protector of the Alawite community against Sunni extremism. Moreover, the conflict has attracted fighters from both sides who are motivated by religious and sectarian considerations. This further polarizes the conflict along the cultural and religious lines making it more difficult to find a peaceful solution. In addition, the external actors’ involvement based on their vested interests has further fueled the conflict along the cultural and religious lines making it more difficult to find a peaceful solution deepening the divisions and prolonging the conflict. However, by addressing the root causes of conflict and engaging in peacebuilding initiatives there is still hope for a more peaceful, inclusive, and prosperous Syria.
Democracy at Risk: The Global Challenge of Rising Populism and Nationalism
Authors: Meherab Hossain and Md. Obaidullah*
Populism and nationalism represent two discrete political ideologies; however, they may pose potential threats to democracy. Populism is a political ideology and approach characterized by the emphasis on the interests and concerns of ordinary people against established elites or perceived sources of power and privilege. Populist leaders often portray themselves as champions of the “common people” and claim to represent their grievances and desires. It is a political stance that emphasizes the idea of “the people” and often contrasts this group against “the elite”.
Nationalism, on the other hand, is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. It represents a political principal positing that there should be congruence between the political entity and the nation-state. While populism emphasizes the idea of “the people,” nationalism emphasizes the idea of the nation-state.
In what ways can populism pose a threat to democracy?
While some argue that populism is not a threat to democracy per se, others contend that it poses a serious risk to democratic institutions. Populism can become a threat to democracy by undermining formal institutions and functions, discrediting the media, and targeting specific social groups, such as immigrants or minorities. This threat arises from its potential to confer a moral legitimacy upon the state that it might otherwise lack. Consequently, it can jeopardize the defense mechanisms established to safeguard against tyranny, including freedoms, checks and balances, the rule of law, tolerance, autonomous social institutions, individual and group rights, as well as pluralism. Populism imposes an assumption of uniformity onto the diverse fabric of reality, distorting not only factual representations but also elevating the attributes of certain social groups above those of others.
In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s populist rhetoric and policies have led to the erosion of democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the media. Populism in Turkey can be traced back to the era of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s regime, during which Atatürk’s elites, who had limited commonality with the broader society, assumed the responsibility of educating and guiding the masses. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘regime elitism,’ has rendered Turkey susceptible to populism, which fundamentally revolves around the conflict between the elites and the general populace.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s populist government has been accused of undermining the rule of law, limiting press freedom, and targeting civil society groups. He has established a repressive and progressively authoritarian state that operates under the guise of democracy.
In media discourse, he has been designated as a populist leader. Empirical analysis reveals that Hungary is currently governed by a form of political populism, characterized as conservative right-wing populism. The salient features of Hungarian political dynamics encompass the government’s claim of challenging established elites, a lack of a clearly defined political agenda, the utilization of propaganda as a prominent tool in its political communications, advocacy for the preservation of a Christian Hungary, intervention in areas traditionally considered independent from state interference such as education and jurisdiction, the implementation of mass clientelism to reward its supporters while exerting pressure on critics, and overt criticism of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Consequently, this trajectory underscores the ascendance of authoritarianism within Hungary.
How Nationalism can be threat to Democracy?
Nationalism can pose a potential threat to both democracy and international relations when it manifests in forms of discrimination, violence, and the exclusion of specific groups. The ascension of nationalism may jeopardize the established efficacy of multilateralism, which has historically been instrumental in preserving lives and averting conflicts. This can result in unilateral actions by certain nations, thereby undermining the collaborative approach to the peaceful resolution of disputes.
Nationalism can serve as a catalyst for conflict and division, fostering tendencies toward exclusivity and competition that impede the resolution of common global challenges. The ascent of economic nationalism has the potential to undermine global collaboration and policy alignment, resulting in a resurgence of nationalist economic strategies in many regions worldwide. Such strategies often prioritize individual national objectives over the collective global interest. Unrestrained nationalism can pose a threat to stability by inflaming ethnic tensions, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence and conflict.
In Europe, nationalism has historically been a significant catalyst for conflict and division, spanning from the emergence of Nazi Germany in the 1930s to more recent upsurges of nationalist movements in various countries. Nationalism tends to foster exclusivity and competition, thereby complicating efforts to address common global challenges. Under nationalist ideology, exemplified by Hitler, instances of extreme cruelty and inhumanity have been documented.
Another instance of nationalism, which presents a significant challenge to democracy, is the ascendance of Hindu extremism and nationalism in India, resulting in communal tensions. Since the Hindu nationalist BJP came into power, there has been a heightened sense of insecurity among Muslims in India, with the situation reaching unprecedented levels of concern. The government has actively employed media, television, and the film industry to propagate Islamophobia among the Hindu majority. In 2018, the Indian High Court rendered a judgment advocating for India to be declared a Hindu state, citing the country’s historical religious divisions. Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasize that, in accordance with its constitution, India is mandated to maintain a secular state. Needless to say, the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of fueling sectarian tensions and undermining the country’s secular democracy.
Indeed, while populism and nationalism are distinct concepts, their simultaneous global rise poses a considerable threat to democracy. These ideologies frequently favor specific groups over the broader population and can corrode democratic principles. They tend to exacerbate polarization and undermine vital democratic institutions. Hence, many countries are grappling with substantial challenges to their democratic systems, which puts their stability and effectiveness at risk.
*Md. Obaidullah holds both a BSS and an MSS degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal. He is currently employed as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His writing expertise spans various subjects, including Public Policy, Politics, Governance, Climate Change, and Diplomacy, on which he frequently contributes
Economy4 days ago
The IMEC vs BRI: Taking the cue
Diplomacy4 days ago
Soft Power Projection of the U.S. vs China
Russia4 days ago
How Putin’s Coup-Proofing Measures Have Undermined Russia’s War Effort in Ukraine
Africa4 days ago
Russia and South Sudan: Exploring Opportunities for Bilateral Cooperation
Economy3 days ago
Marrakech IMF/World Bank meetings, a barometer of Moroccan development and resilience
Europe3 days ago
Austerity, corruption, and neglect: How the Greek railway became Europe’s deadliest
Southeast Asia3 days ago
Philippines stands up to Chinese “grey zone” bullying
New Social Compact4 days ago
Human Security Perspectives on Hate Speech