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.
Shaping a 21st-century world order amounts to a patchwork
What do Moroccan arms sales to Ukraine, a transnational Russian Iranian transit corridor, and US assistance in developing a Saudi national strategy have in common?
Together with this week’s Russian-Iranian financial messaging agreement and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s December visit to Saudi Arabia, they are smaller and bigger fragments of a 21st-century world order in the making that is likely to be bi-polar and populated by multiple middle powers with significant agency and enhanced hedging capabilities.
So is the competition between rival US and Chinese technologies for which the jury is still out.
For the two likely dominant powers, the United States and China, the building blocks are efforts to line up their ducks in a bipolar world.
For Russia, they involve hanging on to its pre-Ukraine war status, in part by deploying its Wagner Group mercenaries to the Sahel; devising ways to circumvent sanctions; and hoping that time will work in its favour in what was supposed to be a blitzkrieg but has turned into a drawn-out slugging match.
For middle powers, the name of the game is carving out their own space, leveraging their enhanced influence, and seeking advantage where they can.
The result is that weaving the 21st century’s tapestry amounts to a patchwork in which some fragments will have long-term effects while others may not even register as a blip on the radar.
Take, for example, Morocco’s decision to give Ukraine some 20 refurbished Russian-made T-72B battle tanks. The deal made Morocco the first African, if not the first Global South nation, to militarily aid Ukraine.
The move, almost a year into the Ukraine war, is likely to have been motivated by short-term considerations, including Russia’s close ties to Morocco’s arch-rival Algeria and US recognition of Morocco’s claim to the formerly Spanish Western Sahara, rather than long-term 21st-century world order considerations.
Even so, Morocco’s breaking ranks with much of the Global South serves the US goal of sustaining the current world order in which it is the top dog, even if its power diminishes.
It doesn’t fundamentally affect China’s goal of rebalancing power in the existing order to ensure that it is bi- rather than unipolar.
The loser in the deal is Russia, which, like Iran, wants to see a new world order in which the United States is cut down to size.
The tank deal may not be a significant loss for Russia, but it does suggest that horse trading is a critical element in weaving the fabric of a new order.
So is mutual interest.
Like the arms sale, the agreement between Russia and Iran to create a financial messaging system that would allow their banks to transfer funds between one another and evade sanctions that block their access to the global SWIFT system is unlikely to have a major impact on the structure of the new world order.
Russian and Iranian efforts to link Europe with the Indian Ocean, centred on 3,000 kilometres of rail and sea and river shipping, are potentially far more significant.
The transport corridor would help reshape trade and supply networks in a world that seems set to divvy up into rival blocs. Moreover, it could shield Russia and Iran from US and European sanctions as they forge closer economic ties with fast-growing economies in Asia.
Russia and Iran are not just looking at India, which sits at one extreme of the corridor.
They also expect to capitalise on their links to China. All three are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and China and Iran are close to becoming members of the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) free trade zone.
Of a similar potential impact on a future world order is US assistance in Saudi Arabia’s development of a first-time-ever long-term vision for the kingdom’s national security, an essential building block in Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s effort to modernize his military.
Saudi Arabia expects to disclose its strategy later this year. It would codify “the kingdom’s strategic vision for national security and regional security,” according to Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, the top commander of US forces in the Middle East, who is advising his Saudi counterparts.
Shaping Saudi strategy as well as military modernization may be the United States’ best bet to imbue at least some of its values and complicate the establishment of similar defense ties with China or Russia. Moreover, it would enhance the kingdom’s ability to absorb and utilize US weapons systems.
“The Saudis, under MBS’s (Mohammed bin Salman’s) leadership, now recognize (their) deficiencies and seem, for the first time, determined to address them in partnership with the United States and to a degree with the United Kingdom,” said political-military analyst and former Pentagon official Bilal Y. Saab.
That will undoubtedly register on the geopolitical chessboard, even if small moves also count for something.
Undemocratic United Nations and Global Peace
War is not the solution to any problem rather war is a problem itself. Many countries believe in diplomacy and peaceful means of problem-solving and conflict resolution. But, unfortunately, many nations still seek solutions of problems and continuity of politics in wars.
If we look at any newspaper, we find too many armed conflicts going on around the globe. To name a few would include a catastrophic war between Russian Federation and Ukraine which has caused tens of thousands of casualties, with millions displaced. Decades-long civil wars and subsequent US-led NATO intervention and withdrawal has brought Afghanistan to the brink of famine and hunger. The whole Middle Eastern region is unstable and striving with civil wars for long. The Arab -Israel conflict and Kashmir Dispute have been there for more than seven decades.
Above-mentioned and many others examples of armed conflicts prove that there is no durable peace in the world. Here one thing that needs to be noted is that conflict is always inevitable among individuals, societies and nations, because the interests of individuals, societies and nations do not always converge. When there is divergence of interests, conflict arises.
What is needed to be done is the resolution of these conflicts. There are two ways to resolve conflicts: one is violent way (use of force) and the other is peaceful way (diplomacy and negotiations). More than seven decades ago, after World War 2, nations realized that war is not solution to any problem and they established United Nations Organization (UNO). Primary objective of UN was and is the maintenance of peace and security in the world.
But, if we look at history, it seems the UN has failed to achieve international peace and security. UN may have had role in preventing the outbreak of another world war, but it could not stop a series of conflicts from Korea, Vietnam to Afghanistan (during Cold War), and from Africa, Middle East to ongoing Russian-Ukraine conflict.
This is a question mark on the credibility of UN, that why the UN despite being guardian of international peace and security cannot stop wars.
UN has six principal organs and many Specialized Agencies and Funds for different tasks. Among them Security Council is the most powerful Organ and is mandated with enforcing international peace and security. UNSC uses two tools to enforce its decisions, one is applications of sanctions and the other is use of force (intervention).
However the concentration of power in the hands of five permanent states of Security Council, namely the United States, United Kingdom, France, China and Russia have been problematic. These five countries use veto power whenever they perceive any resolution to be against their national interest or against the interests of their allies. Throughout the Cold War, US and USSR had paralyzed UN by vetoing resolutions. Same happened with any other conflict including when US drafted a resolution to stop the war in Ukraine.
So, it is crystal clear that if UN (specifically Security Council) is not reformed, UN can not achieve its primary goal i.e. maintenance of peace and security. UN members and experts have talked about reform in Security Council. Experts have also given suggestions and proposals to make UN more democratic and representative. One of those proposals is abandoning veto and doubling the size of SC members. This can make UN more democratic and representative to some extent. But this is not an easy job. Firstly, because P5 are reluctant to abandon this privileged position (veto power). Secondly, countries hoping for permanent membership are opposed by other countries. For example, many European countries object Germany’s membership. Pakistan objects to India’s membership.
Experts believe the solutions could be the democratization of UN system (particularly UNSC). This is done by involving General Assembly in the decision making regarding international peace and security. General Assembly is a symbol of democracy, representing almost all the states on the globe. Simple or two-third majority must be mandatory to make any decision regarding international peace and security. This could stop any powerful state to use UN as a tool for its own vested national interest , and the decision of majority will prevail. All the states, big and small, powerful and weak will have equal say in the UN. Otherwise the possibility of wars, violence, genocide and injustice will further increase.
United States thinks it’s ‘the exception to the rules of war’
The architects of those Nuremberg trials—representatives of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France fully expected that the new United Nations would establish a permanent court where war criminals who couldn’t be tried in their home countries might be brought to justice. In the end, it took more than half a century to establish the International Criminal Court (ICC). Only in 1998 did 60 nations adopt the ICC’s founding document, the Rome Statute. Today, 123 countries have signed.
Guess what superpower has never signed the ICC? Here are a few hints? – writes Rebecca Gordon in an article at “The Nation”:
Its 2021 military budget dwarfed that of the next nine countries combined and was 1.5 times the size of what the world’s other 144 countries with such budgets spent on defense that year.
Its president has just signed a $1.7 trillion spending bill for 2023, more than half of which is devoted to “defense” (and that, in turn, is only part of that country’s full national security budget).
It operates roughly 750 publicly acknowledged military bases in at least 80 countries.
In 2003, it began an aggressive, unprovoked (and disastrous) war by invading a country 6,900 miles away.
Yes! The United States is that Great Exception to the rules of war.
While, in 2000, during the waning days of his presidency, Bill Clinton did sign the Rome Statute, the Senate never ratified it. Then, in 2002, as the Bush administration was ramping up its Global War on Terror, including its disastrous occupation of Afghanistan and an illegal CIA global torture program, the United States simply withdrew its signature entirely. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (photo) then explained why this way:
“The ICC provisions claim the authority to detain and try American citizens — U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, as well as current and future officials — even though the United States has not given its consent to be bound by the treaty. When the ICC treaty enters into force, U.S. citizens will be exposed to the risk of prosecution by a court that is unaccountable to the American people, and that has no obligation to respect the Constitutional rights of our citizens.”
The assumption built into Rumsfeld’s explanation was that there was something special — even exceptional — about US citizens. Unlike the rest of the world, we have “Constitutional rights,” which apparently include the right to commit war crimes with impunity.
Even if a citizen is convicted of such a crime in a US court, he or she has a good chance of receiving a presidential pardon. And were such a person to turn out to be one of the “current and future officials” Rumsfeld mentioned, his or her chance of being hauled into court would be about the same as mine of someday being appointed secretary of defense.
The United States is not a member of the ICC, but, as it happens, Afghanistan is. In 2018, the court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, formally requested that a case be opened for war crimes committed in that country. ‘The New York Times’ reported that Bensouda’s “inquiry would mostly focus on large-scale crimes against civilians attributed to the Taliban and Afghan government forces.” However, it would also examine “alleged C.I.A. and American military abuse in detention centers in Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, and at sites in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, putting the court directly at odds with the United States.”
Bensouda planned an evidence-gathering trip to the United States, but in April 2019, the Trump administration revoked her visa, preventing her from interviewing any witnesses here. It then followed up with financial sanctions on Bensouda and another ICC prosecutor, Phakiso Mochochoko.
So where do those potential Afghan cases stand today? A new prosecutor, Karim Khan, took over as 2021 ended. He announced that the investigation would indeed go forward, but that acts of the United States and allies like the United Kingdom would not be examined. He would instead focus on actions of the Taliban and the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State.
When it comes to potential war crimes, the United States remains the Great Exception. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we were just a little less exceptional?
If, for instance, in this new year, we were to transfer some of those hundreds of billions of dollars Congress and the Biden administration have just committed to enriching corporate weapons makers, while propping up an ultimately unsustainable military apparatus, to the actual needs of Americans?
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if just a little of that money were put into a new child tax credit? – asks Rebecca Gordon.
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