Will December 2019 represent the nadir of multilateralism and Human Rights?

Human Rights Day is observed by the international community every year on 10 December. It commemorates the day in 1948 the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The formal inception of Human Rights Day dates from 1950, after the Assembly passed resolution 423 (V) inviting all States and interested organizations to adopt 10 December of each year as Human Rights Day. When the General Assembly adopted the Declaration, with 48 states in favor and eight abstentions, it was proclaimed as a “common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations.” That “common standard” lies in tatters today. The US President Donald Trump’s decision in July 2018 to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is a major challenge for the post World War II international order. The US Permanent Representative to the UN in New York at that time Ms Nikki Haley described the Human Rights Council as a “hypocritical and self-serving organisation” that displayed “unending hostility towards Israel“. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the Council as “a protector of human rights abusers.”

In the past few weeks, the withering away of the promise of human rights protections along with other multilateral mechanisms has played out in multiple ways.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 which was passed by the US Congress on 15 November 2019 addresses Hong Kong’s status under U.S. law and imposes sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong. The Department of State shall certify annually to Congress as to whether Hong Kong warrants its unique treatment under various treaties, agreements, and U.S. law. The analysis shall evaluate whether Hong Kong is upholding the rule of law and protecting rights enumerated in various documents, including (1) the agreement between the United Kingdom and China regarding Hong Kong’s return to China, and (2) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Predictably the reaction from the Chinese Government was strong with the spokesperson of their Foreign Ministry warning that they were ready to “retaliate with determination” and with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi describing the US legislation as “madness” that will damage the bilateral relationship.

Just as Venezuela started dropping off the radar of the human rights watchers, the situation in Chile and Bolivia deteriorated. The Amnesty International’s recent report on Chile observes that security forces have engaged in widespread and indiscriminate attacks against protesters over the last month. The eye injuries to protesters have been of particular concern. In Bolivia, former President Evo Morales has made allegations of genocide being perpetrated. There is a genuine fear that political interests are pushing human rights to the backburner and worse still being used as a tool to promote political ends and undermine opponents. Iran has forcefully refuted reports about the death toll in the recent protests after a decision by authorities to ration gasoline and substantially increase the fuel price. It has accused US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s tweet in which he supported the protests and described the protesters as “the people of Iran.”

In the midst of this, the decision by The Gambia to take Myanmar to the International Court of Justice is being followed with deep interest. The Gambia took the matter to the ICJ even as the United Nations Independent Investigative Mechanism for Myanmar (the “Myanmar Mechanism”), led by the Head of the Myanmar Mechanism, Mr. Nicholas Koumjian, conducted the Mechanism’s first mission to the region by visiting Bangladesh from 9 to 14 November 2019. The world court will hold public hearings from 10 to 12 December 2019 on  the case concerning Application of  the  Convention  on  the  Prevention  and  Punishment  of  the  Crime  of  Genocide  (The  Gambia v. Myanmar). The Gambia argues, inter alia, that genocidal acts were committed by the Myanmar military during operations from around October 2016 with the intention to destroy the Rohingya as a group, in whole or in part. The news that Myanmar State Counsellor and Nobel Peace Prize Awardee for non-violent struggle for democracy and Human Rights, Aung San Suu Kyi will personally lead a team to The Hague to “defend the national interest of Myanmar” has fuelled interest in the case world-wide. Whether these developments are a thumbs-up for the ICJ or a thumbs down for the UN human rights architecture is something on which the jury is still out.

The fact that the UN Security Council is divided especially on human rights related issues is evident in the recent positions of the members on the US change in stance regarding the status of Israeli settlements. Before a meeting of the Security Council on 20 November 2019, five European allies of the United States — Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland — reiterated in a joint statement that “all settlement activity is illegal under international law” and also reiterated concern “about the calls for a possible annexation of areas in the West Bank.” In this regard, the sharp divisions on Syria also came to a head in September this year when Russia cast its thirteenth of U.N. Security Council action on the Syrian conflict, blocking a demand for a truce in northwest Syria because it does not include an exemption for military offensives against U.N. blacklisted militant groups.

And now, some more un-encouraging news. The crisis on the global trade front is equally, if not more, disconcerting. The issue at hand is the end of the WTO’s dispute settlement body mechanism.

The South China Morning Post observed, “The world will not end on December 10, yet for many who have spent their careers within the global trading oversight system, the date has apocalyptic consequences. That is when the World Trade Organisation’s (WTO) highest dispute-resolution body will cease to function after the administration of US President Donald Trump blocked reappointments to its panel.” Without a working appeals system, international trade disputes may never see resolution and could quickly evolve into tit-for-tat tariff wars that spiral out of control.” Additionally as Bloomberg reported the Trump administration has also ratcheted up its pressure on the World Trade Organization by raising the possibility of blocking the approval of the institution’s biennial budget and effectively halting its work starting 2020.

This is indeed quite a big fall for a mechanism which was described as the “most active in the dispute settlement system since the establishment of the organization” with a total of 488 disputes having been brought to the WTO by 2014. In terms of immediate impact of the impending winding down of the DSB, a Reuters report notes, “WTO adjudicators are facing weighty decisions on the U.S.-China tariff tussle, on metal duties imposed by Trump since 2018 and on conflicts between Japan and South Korea and between Qatar and its neighbors. However, those decisions may carry no legal weight because of U.S. steps to disable the appeals process. In a future with no functioning Appellate Body, any party unhappy with an initial ruling could simply file an appeal into a void.”

This development occurs immediately after the refusal of India to join the RCEP [Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership]. Spelling out the Government of India’s reasons, Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal in a written reply to the House said that during the third RCEP Leaders Summit on November 4 in Bangkok, India stated that the current structure did not reflect its guiding principles or address the outstanding issues and concerns of India, in the light of which India did not join the agreement. He said that RCEP had provisions on trade remedies which also cover anti-dumping rules. “Moreover, India was seeking an automatic trigger safeguard mechanism (ATSM) for tackling import surges,” he added. Only time can pronounce on the impact of this development, especially given the fact that India is today a large consumer market with a total GDP of more than US $ 2.6 trillion. The recent NITI Aayog Report on Indian experience with FTAs is essential reading for an understanding of the Indian thinking. The NITI report emphatically stated, “Before getting into any multilateral trade deal India should firstly, review and assess its existing FTAs in terms of benefits to various stakeholders like industry and consumers, trade complementarities and changing trade patterns in the past decade…The over-arching conclusion of this report is that FTAs have to be signed keeping two things in mind, mutually reciprocal terms and focusing on products and services with maximum export potential.”

In essence however, the crisis in multilateralism is also a manifestation of the changing international situation. China’s determined push to occupy top positions in international organizations is a symptom. A Foreign Policy article of October 2019 notes that Chinese nationals now head four of the 15 specialized agencies of the United Nations, namely Food and Agriculture Organization, International Civil Aviation Organization, International Telecommunication Union and the UN Industrial Development Organization. So even as China pushes ahead with its international outreach through the Belt and Road Initiative and its attendant efforts, the USA is receding from the pole position in multilateral affairs.

Last but not the least, the outcome of the UK general election scheduled for 12 December could have a wide-ranging impact on the European Union. Brexit is at the core of these elections and the mandate that the winning combination receives will have a telling effect on the European project. This is compounded by the French position at the 17-18 October Summit where EU heads of state and government failed to reach a decision of opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. EU’s discomfiture with the migration challenge is another signal of the pressures on the liberal order that underpinned the integration journey.

With national interests running rough shod over international cooperation, credible solutions provided by leading powers and responsible states seem to be out of sight of the powers that created the liberal order. This December could well represent the nadir of multilateralism and human rights.

Dr. Sunod Jacob
Dr. Sunod Jacob
Dr. Sunod Jacob The Peninsula Foundation Former Legal Advisor, ICRC Former Associate Professor of Law, GD Goenka University The author can be reached at sunod.jacob[at]thepeninsula.org.in