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International Law

6 things to know about the UN General Assembly

MD Staff

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Every year, in September, global leaders and change-makers gather at United Nations Headquarters in New York for two weeks, to discuss the burning issues of our time and set the global agenda for the year ahead. The 73rd session of the UN General Assembly opened this week and the body’s annual high-level segment – formally known as the ‘general debate’ – begins on Tuesday, 25 September, where every country’s leader gets to address the world.

The busy agenda covers the full spectrum of international issues, including sustainable development, climate change, peace and security, human rights, public health concerns and gender equality.

Here are six things you might not know about the General Assembly (or “the GA” as it’s referred to around the UN’s many hallways) and this year’s high-level week:

1. The UN General Assembly: one country, one vote

Today, the UN is made up of 193 Member States (there were only 51 back when it was created in 1945), 40 per cent of which are lower, or lower-middle income countries. Each Member State has an equal voice, and a single vote. To name only a few of its critical functions, the GA discusses and votes (as necessary if there is no consensus) on a vast array of international policy matters; decides on the UN’s budget, and elects the non-permanent members of the Security Council, together with formally choosing whoever occupies the top job of Secretary-General.

2. This is only the fourth time that the General Assembly is being presided over by a woman

Ahead of each session of the GA, a new President is elected. The President of the 73rd General Assembly is María Fernanda Espinosa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Ecuador. Out of 73 Presidents, she’s only the fourth woman and the first Latin American woman ever to hold the office.

3. The general debate this year will focus on global leadership and shared responsibilities

Every year, the President elect, in consultation with Member States and the Secretary-General, chooses a theme for the week of the general debate where Heads of State and Government make statements. The official theme for 2018 is Making the United Nations relevant to all people: global leadership and shared responsibilities for peaceful, equitable and sustainable societies.

In her letter explaining this year’s choice, Assembly President Espinosa invited world leaders to comment on the “continuing relevance” of the UN and “the importance of a shared vision”. The debate will start on 25 September and run for six days.

4. During the general debate, Brazil speaks first, the United States speaks second and then…

The general debate, is not actually a debate. Member States take turns delivering speeches and are given a right of reply when required. Since 1947, the first country to speak has been Brazil because, according to the UN Protocol and Liaison Services, during the Organization’s early years, no one ever wanted to be the first to speak, and Brazil always ended up volunteering to go first. This has now become a tradition.

The second spot goes to the host country (the US), and then the order of speakers follows a complex algorithm reflecting level of representation, geographical balance, the order in which the request to speak was recorded, and other considerations.

Though speakers are kindly asked to keep their statements to under 15 minutes, world leaders often go well beyond that. The longest speech made during the General Assembly, to date, was made by Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who spoke for four and half hours in 1960 (although that wasn’t during the General Debate).

5. A Political Declaration for peace is expected to be adopted in honor of Nelson Mandela

In December 2017, the General Assembly voted to hold a high-level plenary meeting on global peace in honor of the centenary of the birth of South Africa’s first democratically-elected President and world icon, Nelson Mandela. On 24 September, the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit will be taking place, and Member States are expected to adopt a Political Declaration which was drafted throughout the year.

The text declares 2019-2028 the “Nelson Mandela Decade of Peace,” and calls on all world leaders to “make the impossible possible” and “redouble efforts to pursue international peace and security, development and human rights”.

6. The General Assembly will address dozens of other critical global issues and bring them to the forefront of the global geopolitical scene

In addition to the General Debate and other plenary sessions, the weeks of General Assembly include a long list of meetings and side events.

The 73rd session will include a high-level meeting on Financing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development on 24 September; an event to renew international commitment and Action for Peacekeeping on the 25th; a high-level side event on Violence Against LGBTI Individuals, also on 25 September; a high-level event on Ending Tuberculosis on the 26th, a series of humanitarian-themed events including the Yemen and South Sudan responses, and many more.

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International Law

Schweitzer’s ‘Reverence for Life’ In the Age of Trump and Modi

Dr. Arshad M. Khan

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Forever known by his phrase ‘reverence for life’, Albert Schweitzer was a theologian, moral philosopher, physician and missionary.  He was born in Alsace when it was German, and became a French citizen when it reverted back to France after the First World War.

To him this reverence implied regard for and a duty to all human beings, not “confined to blood relations or tribe” (The Teaching of Reverence for Life, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1965, p. 9).  It is an inspiring thought for it leads naturally to peace and the end of wars.  He did not claim originality for the idea, noting that Lao-Tse and Confucius among others had already preceded him in espousing it (pp. 9-10).  He merely promoted it.

In this he was also of like mind with the 18th century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, who reminded us of conscience and the ability to distinguish between good and evil.  We are strings, he said, “that vibrate in sympathy with others”, endowed with a natural good that propels us to help our neighbors or the distressed (p. 20).  I am reminded of my father who always said, “You don’t treat a disease; you treat a patient.”

And then one wonders if these instincts have been consciously suppressed in some human beings.  One can think of two current leaders in particular:  Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.  Trump’s assertion, “he died like a dog” grates even if one violently disagrees with al-Baghdadi’s methods, wrenched as he was from the normal course of his life by a US invasion predicated on false charges.

Then there is Modi and his drumbeat of upper caste Hindu supremacy.  As US Representative Ro Khanna noted forcefully in a tweet, “It is the duty of every American politician of Hindu faith to stand for pluralism, reject Hindutva, and speak for equal rights for Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians.”

It was only a few days ago in India that a 27-year old Dalit man was beaten mercilessly and tossed in the river to die.  He had been fishing.  His crime:  a refusal to give his catch to a nearby Brahmin who wanted an equal share.  If it needs reminding, a Brahmin belongs to the highest caste, a Dalit or Untouchable to the lowest — someone who is frequently not allowed to use the village well.  The Dalit man killed was the sole support of his family.

For the people of Kashmir there is little respite.  A beautiful valley that could attract tourist dollars, instead is invaded by Indian troops.  When the Kashmiris protest their humiliation through demonstrations, even children are blinded by pellet guns.  Photos show decaying towns where empty streets are patrolled by sullen soldiers.

Then there are Palestinians, frequent casualties of the Israeli military, living the daily humiliations and frustrations of life between checkpoints — a life in prison in the case of Gaza where the soccer team is denied travel permits to play in a local tournament against a West Bank team.  I 

Gaza’s native son Dr. Ramzy Baroud shines a frequent light on the dark horror of three-quarters of a century of occupation.  Frequent articles and four books including the latest “These Chains Will be Broken” published this year– keep the world informed.

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is a peace activist.  His moving memoir I Shall not Hate followed a tragedy.  During the 2008 – 2009 Gaza invasion, a tank stationed itself outside his home (well known to the Israelis) and fired a shell killing three of his daughters aged 13, 15 and 21, and seriously injuring another who was 17.   In that war one of his nieces also died and another niece was grievously injured.

Who was it who said, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  The good doctor’s book is subtitled, “A Gaza Doctor’s Journey on the Road to Peace and Dignity.”  It is a common quest across the world.

In Chile, protesters show no let-up and the country is unable to host the COP 25 climate change meeting.  Spain has offered to step in, despite its own Catalan independence movement problems. 

The Chile protests have so far resulted in 20 deaths and thousands injured.  Starting with a student protest on October 18 over a rise in Metro fares, they have ballooned to a million at one demonstration, the largest in the country’s history.  Vandalism, looting, bus burning are often a consequence and clashes with security forces follow.  President Sebastian Pinera has been obliged to reverse the fare increase, and is also promising higher taxes on the wealthy as well as an increase in the minimum wage. 

Examples of human strife do not end here.  Yet in the present era there is a common goal for humanity when it faces the existential threat of climate change.  Surely then we can form a common bond, extend Schweitzer’s reverence to include all life, and strive to save our one and only home.  As Schweitzer observes (p. 31), “Reverence for life, arising when intelligence operates upon the will to live, contains within itself affirmation of the universe and of life.”

Author’s note: This article appeared first on Counterpunch.org 

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International Law

Salvaging international law: The best of bad options

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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These are uncertain times with trade wars, regional conflicts and increased abuse of human and minority rights pockmarking the transition from a unipolar to a multipolar world. What may be potentially the most dangerous casualty of the transition is the abandonment of even a pretence to the adherence to international law.

Violations of international law and abuse of human and minority rights dominate news cycles in a world in which leaders, that think in exclusive civilizational rather than inclusive national terms, rule supreme.

Examples are too many to comprehensively recount.

They include semi-permanent paralysis of the United Nations Security Council as a result of big power rivalry; last month’s Turkish military incursion into northern Syria in a bid to change the region’s demography; ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya in Myanmar; disenfranchisement of millions, predominantly Muslims, in India; and a Chinese effort to fundamentally alter the belief system of Turkic Muslims in the troubled north-western province of Xinjiang.

It’s not that international law was adhered to prior to the rise of presidents like Donald J. Trump, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Victor Orban of Hungary, and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey or Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It wasn’t. Witness, as just one instance, widespread condemnation of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq as a violation of international law.

The silver lining at the time was the fact that international law was at least a reference point for norms and standards by which leaders and governments were judged. It still is, at least theoretically, but it no longer is the standard to which leaders and governments necessarily pay lip service. Today, they do so only when opportunistically convenient.

Instead, violations of territorial sovereignty, as well as human and minority rights, has become the norm.

It also is the de facto justification for the creation of a new world order, in which a critical mass of world leaders often defines the borders and national security of their countries in civilizational and/or ethnic, cultural or religious terms.

The abandonment of principles enshrined in international law, with no immediate alternative standard setter in place, raises the spectre of an era in which instability, conflict, mass migration, radicalization, outbursts of popular frustration and anger, and political violence becomes the new normal.

Last month’s killing of Kamlesh Tiwari, a Hindu nationalist politician in Uttar Pradesh, because of a defamatory comment about the Prophet Mohammed that he allegedly made four years ago, reflects the deterioration of Muslim-Hindu relations in Mr. Modi’s increasingly Hindu nationalist India.

Perhaps more alarming is the recent declaration by Oren Hazan, a Knesset member for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, that China’s incarceration of at least a million Muslims in re-education camps, or what Beijing calls vocational education facilities, was a model for Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians.

Equally worrisome is last month’s revocation by Mr. Putin of an additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions related to the protection of victims of international armed conflicts. Mr. Putin justified the revocation on the grounds that an international commission, set up in order to investigate war crimes against civilians, risks abuse of the commission’s power “by the states, which are acting in bad faith.”

Russia alongside Iran and the government of President Bashar al-Assad have been accused of multiple war crimes in war-ravaged Syria. So have anti-Assad rebels, irrespective of their political or religious stripe.

Russia’s withdrawal from the Geneva protocol, Mr. Hazan’s endorsement of Chinese policy and Turkey’s intervention in Syria in an environment that legitimizes abandonment of any pretext of adherence to international law as well as ultra-nationalist and supremacist worldviews are indicators of what a world would look like in which laws, rules and regulations governing war and peace and human and minority rights are no longer the standards against which countries and governments are measured.

The fact that Mr. Al-Assad, a ruthless autocrat accused of uncountable war crimes, is increasingly being perceived as Syria’s best hope after more than eight years of brutal civil war aggravated by foreign intervention, drives the point home.

“As depressing as it is to write this sentence, the best course of action today is for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to regain control over northern Syria. Assad is a war criminal whose forces killed more than half a million of his compatriots and produced several million refugees. In a perfect world, he would be on trial at The Hague instead of ruling in Damascus. But we do not live in a perfect world, and the question we face today is how to make the best of a horrible situation,” said prominent US political scientist Stephen M. Walt.

The problem is that stabilizing Syria by restoring legitimacy to an alleged war criminal may provide temporary relief, but also sets a precedent for a world order, in which transparency and accountability fall by the wayside. It almost by definition opens the door to solutions that plant the seeds for renewed conflict and bloodshed.

International law was and is no panacea. To paraphrase Mr. Walt’s argument, it is the best of bad options.

Abandoning the standards and norms embedded in international law will only perpetuate flawed policies by various states that were destined to aggravate and escalate deep-seated grievances, discord and conflict rather than fairly and responsibly address social, cultural and political issues that would contribute to enhanced societal cohesion.

Identifying the problem is obviously easy. Solving it is not, given that the players who would need to redress the issue are the violators themselves.

Ensuring that nations and leaders respect international law in much the same way that citizens are expected to honour their country’s laws would have to entail strengthening international law itself as well as its adjudication. That would have to involve a reconceptualization of the United Nations Security Council as well as the International Court of Justice.

That may not be as delusionary as it sounds. But leaders would have to be willing to recognize that criticisms of the application of international law, like Mr. Putin’s objections to the way the Geneva protocol is implemented, have a degree of merit.

In other words, like national laws, international law will only be effective if it is universally applied. Western legal principles insist that no one is exempt from the law. The same should apply to states, governments and leaders.

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International Law

Rise of civilisationalists forces rethink of sovereign nation state

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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Shaping a new world order is proving to be about a lot more than power.

The rise of the civilizational state and of civilizational rather than national leaders is calling into question the concept of sovereign nation states.

That is evident in the consequences of the civilizationalist assault on minorities ranging from the Kurds in Syria and Turkey to Muslims in China, India and Myanmar to Islamophobia and mounting anti-Semitism in the United States, France and Hungary as well as sectarianism in the Middle East.

Democracies legally enshrined yardsticks of non-discrimination and equality irrespective of creed, ethnicity, colour, gender and religion but never succeeded in truly enforcing those principles.

As a result, civilisationalism’s assault spotlights the long-standing failure of the nation state, evident from the moment it was conceptualized by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, to give true meaning to guaranteeing the security, safety and rights of all its inhabitants irrespective of creed, colour, race, ethnicity, faith or gender.

The rise of a critical mass of civilizational leaders, including China’s Xi Jinping, Myanmar’s Win Myint, India’s Narendra Modi, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Hungary’s Victor Orban and US president Donald J. Trump makes a rethink inevitable not only of the functioning of democracy but also of the concepts of the nation state and sovereignty that have structured world orders for close to 500 years.

Many of these leaders conceive of their societies and/or states as defined by civilization and its reach into akin Diaspora communities rather than by legally recognized borders, population within those borders, and language.

Civilisationalism has allowed China to extend its reach in the South China Sea beyond internationally recognized borders at the expense of other littoral states as well as to Diaspora communities across the globe.

It also provided the basis on which China has so far successfully imposed its views on others whether its acceptance of its one-China policy or silence, if not acquiescence, in repression in Xinjiang.

Civilisationalism has further enabled Russia to recognize breakaway states in Georgia, annex Crimea, and spark violent conflict in eastern Ukraine.

In some ways, the nation state, designed to put an end to religious wars in Europe, paved the way for a revival of civilisationalism by godfathering exclusionary politics that were based on a determination of who belonged and who did not belong to a nation, a question which civilisationalism answers by legitimizing supremacism, racism and prejudice.

From the outset, newly conceived European nation states sought to build nations by not fully embracing those it believed were not truly part of their nation.

The nation state’s exclusivity, rather than as a result of the Westphalia treaty pulling the curtain on an era of European wars, sparked another round of armed conflict intended to fortify newly found national identities.

Today, reconceptualization of the nation state and the notion of sovereignty has become an imperative with civilisationalism adopting exclusivity as its battle cry and the nation state’s centuries-long inability and unwillingness to negotiate mutually workable arrangements that take account of aspirations and identities of societal groups that feel excluded.

Reconceptualization would need to be geared towards guaranteeing individual and minority rights based on an international legal framework that is enforceable.

Failure to do so would likely usher in an era of disruptive societal tension, marginalization and disenfranchisement of minorities, flows of mass migration, radicalization and increased political violence.

A recent International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) report concluded that China was advising countries confronting political and economic instability, sometimes sparked in part by Chinese project-related corruption, to adopt its model of brutally cracking down on any expression of dissent like in Xinjiang.

China, according to the report, is also advocating implementation of its system of social control, involving the use of invasive Chinese artificial intelligence-based surveillance technology, reducing media to parrots of government policy, and firewalling the Internet. China is further training governments in ways of disrupting opposition activity.

China’s view of economic development as a way of countering what it sees as cultural drivers of extremism underlies its effort to Sinicize Turkic Muslim Islam in Xinjiang and is implicit in Chinese aid to countries in the Middle East.

Mr. Xi announced in July of last year US$20billion in loans to Middle Eastern nations as well as US$106 million in financial aid for Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen on the back of Chinese assertions that finance would help resolve the region’s political, religious and cultural tensions.

“China is increasingly proactive in its response to instability in developing countries. It is now more forthright in its advice to partner countries and is proactive in promoting Chinese solutions to other countries’ problems,” said Nicholas Crawford, the IISS report’s author.

China’s policy prescriptions, elements of which are being adopted across the globe, is likely to perpetuate problems inherent to exclusivism propagated by both civilisationalists and nation states that are more concerned about perceived threats to their territorial integrity or constructed collective identities than aspirations of groups that are part of their societal fabric.

The rise of civilisationalists, autocrats, authoritarians and illiberals, including Mr. Xi, does not bode well for Eurasia, a region pockmarked by groups whose rights have been repeatedly violated by various civilizationalist leaders as well as exclusionary nation states concerned about challenges to their territorial integrity or constructed collective identities.

“Geopolitics is no longer simply about the economy or security… The non-Western world, led by Beijing and Moscow, is pushing back against the Western claim to embody universal values… The rejection of Western universalism by the elites in Russia and China challenges the idea of the nation state as the international norm for political organisation… The new pivot of geopolitics is civilisation,” said political scientist Adrian Pabst.

A tour of the world’s flashpoints proves the point.

The flashpoints include predominantly Kurdish south-eastern Turkey, what is left of the Kurdish enclave in northern Syria, Rohingya rotting away in Bangladeshi refugee camps after fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar; the plight of Turkic Muslims in Xinjiang and Catalan efforts to democratically decide whether they want to remain part of Spain.

They illustrate the fact that the failure of the nation state to build truly inclusive and cohesive societies coupled with the rise of the civilizational state and civilizationalist leaders portends a new world order that is likely to be characterized by individual and collective rights abuse that heightens societal tensions and aggravates disputes and conflicts.

“The global order provides more mechanisms for states to deal diplomatically with each other than with the people inside them,” noted scholar and author Malka Older.

The civilizationalist threat to individual and minority rights is enhanced by its insistence on collective adherence to an overriding ideology whether that is the Chinese communist party’s concept of absolute control of anything and everything cloaked in ultra-nationalism and concepts of unique Chinese characteristics; Russian Orthodoxy cemented in the alliance between church and state; or Victor Orban’s conceptualization of a Hungarian nation that is homogenously white and Christian.

In a recent study of religion and tolerance in the Middle East, widely viewed as perhaps the religiously most intolerant part of the world, political scientist Michael Hoffman concluded that it is not religion that in and of itself breeds intolerance and prejudice.

Instead, Mr. Hoffman suggested that Muslim attitudes towards the other differ sharply between believers who pray collectively in a mosque and those who worship in private.

Private prayer “does not contain the same sectarian content as communal prayer,” Mr. Hoffman noted, implicitly pointing a finger at autocratic authorities who in the Middle East often exercise tight control of what is said in the mosque.

“The group identification mechanism is not present for private prayer; since private prayer is fundamentally an personal phenomenon, it does not cause believers to distinguish more sharply between their own sect and others and therefore does not produce the intolerant outcomes associated with communal worship,” Mr. Hoffman went on to say.

Mr. Hoffman’s research, despite its focus on the Middle East, spotlighted in an era of rising civilisationalism the risks to universal basic human dignity as well as individual and minorities rights in directly or indirectly imposing collectivist beliefs that drown out the political, ethnic or religious other.

The silver lining in what are bleak prospects may be Mr. Pabst’s conclusion that “neither the Western cult of private freedom without social solidarity nor the totalitarian tendencies among China’s and Russia’s elites can nurture resilient societies against the disruptive forces of technology and implacable economic globalisation… (Yet) across different civilisations there is an inchoate sense that the purpose of politics is the free association of people around common interests and shared social virtues of generosity, loyalty, courage, sacrifice and gratitude. The practice of such virtues can bind us together as citizens, nations and cultures beyond colour, class or creed.”

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