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The Grey Zone: Understanding a Nuclear Age strategy through the South China Sea Dispute

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The detonation at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico in mid-July of 1945 marked the beginning of the ‘nuclear age’. Three weeks later, the world saw what the “Little Boy” and “Fat Man” were capable of after they were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively and the Hibakusha[1] are still the proof of that. This has increased apprehension among countries towards engaging in traditional warfare, thus making it inevitable for revisionist powers to employ alternative tactics to challenge the existing world order without any major escalation. This is where one can observe an increase in the use of the grey zone strategy, which is not a novel tactic and has been present since centuries. However it has reemerged, as the need of the hour in the present political climate is unconventional stratagem. It is an identifying strategy in the nuclear age which is resistant of a full blown out war. This strategic campaign has taken a new form in the current age with the aid of cyber weapons, advanced information technology and civilian tools allowing the increase in importance of the tactic and applicability.

Understanding the Grey Zone Strategy

The new approach has been provided a fertile environment to flourish with an increase in revisionist intent, strategic gradualism and employability of unconventional tool. The revisionist intent stems from the fact that major powers may want to change the existing global order. Although there is a wide spectrum of revisionist states, the “measured revisionists” (Mazarr: 2015) are the rising powers with value for rule-based order and no intent of aggressive warfare but they do expect a transformation of the existing system and to do so they will take cautious and impactful steps to make a difference. The reason behind the tactful approach is that they want to tilt the power axis in their favour without disturbing the system altogether. The international system is being witness to the revisionist states which shall employ the grey zone strategy to cure their dilemmas of being dissatisfied of the system while being dependant on it.

These revisionist states find gradualist strategy appealing, considering their cautious approach towards dismantling the system to their favour. It is a defining aspect of the strategy. The approach achieves gradual gains instead of immediate results. This includes an elaborate set of interrelated measures deliberated to achieve gradual progress. One fundamental purpose behind such an approach is to avoid any foundational conflict that “characterises conclusive strategies” (Mazarr: 2015). Salami Slicing is a classic theory of a gradualist approach that Thomas Schelling discusses in his classic work, Arms and Influence. The ambiguity of commitment is the central theme of the tactic. The reason behind such static according to Schelling is to diminish the credibility of the defender’s deterrent threats. Mazarr (2015) points out Daniel Altman elaborated concept of fait accompli which is “to grab a limited gain before the other side can respond, acting suddenly and decisively in a manner that poses the defender with a dilemma of acquiescing or pursuing a dangerous escalation.” The approach of strategic gradualism makes the task of deterrence and balancing complicated and this is reflected in grey zone conflicts.

The approach of strategic gradualism of the revisionist power is implemented through the employment of unconventional measures of statecraft that allows it to avoid being a traditional conflict. Many tactics and tools which are employed in the grey zone strategy coincides with classic unconventional warfare. Grey zone conflict also reflects a form of political warfare and employs a range of mechanisms to achieve targeted political objectives. According to Mazarr (2015) mechanisms and tools such as economic sanctions, energy diplomacy, cyberattacks, information operations to “generate revisionist narratives”, use of militia, fifth columnists,[2] and nonmilitary forces such as coast guards are not new, however the impact of these tactics have become unprecedented in present times. The amalgamation of these three aforementioned components accounts for the emergence and character of the grey zone strategy.

Zarr (2015) defined “the gr(e)y zone (as) an operational space between peace and war, involving coercive actions to change the status quo below a threshold that, in most cases, would prompt a conventional military response, often by blurring the line between military and nonmilitary actions and the attributions for the events”. The Strategic Multi-Layer Assessment (SMA)  team conducted a study of the grey zone and they defined (2016) it as “a conceptual space between peace and war, occurring when actors purposefully use multiple elements of power to achieve political-security objectives with activities that are ambiguous or cloud attribution and exceed the threshold of ordinary competition, yet fall below the level of large-scale direct military conflict and threaten (…) by challenging, undermining or violating international customs, norms or laws.” While, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, grey zone can be defined as “activities by a state that are harmful to another state and are sometimes considered to be acts of war, but are not legally acts of war”[3]

The definitions of the term highlight few basic characteristics essential to its meaning. One of the basic element is that of remaining below the threshold of justifying an international military response. Salami slicing is another key feature of this strategy, where they gradually move forward with their strategy towards achieving their objectives which are ambiguous instead of a knee-jerk advance. The third one is the deceiving nature of the actors which allows them to deflect any direct responses by disguising their role in the strategic campaign. The fourth aspect is reliance on historical claims with extensive legal and political justifications. The fifth characteristic is to not challenge the vital or existential interests of the defender of the present order. The hint at the risk of escalation as a source of coercive leverage is another major feature of the strategy which allows then to complicate deterrent threats. The strategy also employs nonmilitary tools to avoid impression of military aggression. Exploitation of specific vulnerabilities in target nations are typical in the working of the grey zone strategy. The primary characteristic of the grey zone is the dexterous use of strategic ambiguity to achieve gradual gains.

The South China Sea Dispute: A Case Study

In recent times, the strategic importance of the ocean waters in East Asia has risen exponentially, thus boosting the relevance of the security environment of South and East China Sea. Some primary reasons amplifying the strategic advantage of the maritime region are the access it provides to the resources of ocean energy, the South and East China Sea territorial conflict and the expansion of the naval power by the countries of the region. The South China Sea (SCS) dispute is considered to be an important territorial and jurisdictional dispute in modern times. It is a resource-rich area which is claimed by China, four Southeast Asian countries namely, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and by Taiwan. Since mid-1970s, numerous incidents have been taking place in the SCS with some major ones being the Paracel Islands incidents in 1974, the Johnson Reef incidents in 1988, the Mischief Reef incidents in 1995 and the Scarborough Shoal incidents 2012; which involved China vis-à-vis other claimant states. The stability of this particular region is relying on actions and reactions of China.

China’s Claims on the South China Sea

Efforts are being undertaken to create a foundation for a confidence building measure, but it has not been able to address the fundamental issues of the maritime region such as, territorial issues, access to natural resources, fishing rights and naval buildup.

The territorial claims of China in the SCS is represented by the “nine-dash line” enveloping 80% of the sea’s area in a U-shape published in 1948 based on a historical claim argument and not a legal justification under United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It is considered the main actor steering the events of the dispute. However, the map of the region was not included in any ‘official’ Chinese government document until it a note verbale was submitted to the United Nations by China in 2009 and made its claim known, internationally. Another, diplomatic correspondence asserting the claim was made on 14 April 2011 through a note verbale as a response to Philippines’ protest. The 2012 incident of Scarborough Shoal, led to Philippines initiating arbitral proceedings against PRC to challenge its claims according to UNCLOS. China however argued that subject matter of territorial sovereignty is beyond the jurisdiction of UNCLOS, thus refused to accept and participate in the arbitration.

China, to be able to strengthen its presence and increase its ability enforce naval law with the U-shaped line, the People’s Liberation Army Navy is mobilised by China along with the paramilitary and civilian naval bodies to assert de facto control over the maritime region within the demarcated line.  The nine-dash line along with the historical claim is still too ambiguous and it fails to explain the rationale behind those line placed. It is still unclear whether the claim is territorial, historical or a national sea boundary. This specificity shall make all the difference in the framework of UNCLOS.

But, in brief one can understand the claim of China extended to all land features in SCS, traditionally divided into the Dongsha Islands, the Xisha Islands, the Zhongsha Islands, and the Nansha Islands. China also claims all the islands in the SCS along with its adjacent waters on the basis of the historic right that China claims to have.

Security Dilemma of Other South China Sea Claimant States

This section highlights the security dilemma bet China and the five other claimants: Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan. Their attitudes towards the claim of China is different because of many factor, with Brunei being the least vocal and the Philippines and Vietnam being the most vocal.

The dichotomy of China vis-à-vis other five claimants exists because of many reasons, such as, all the claimants share the same concern that China might use military power to resolve the dispute, while China feels its legitimacy over the claim is decreasing because of lack of physical presence. All the Southeast Asian claimant states are ASEAN member and the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (the 2002 DoC) was made between China and ASEAN, which is political consensus to ameliorate worries of both the sides. There is also more skirmishes and protests between Chia and the Southeast Asian claimant states: the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia, but there is no notorious incident recorded among the Southeast Asian claimant states themselves. In fact, there is record of cooperation among them, such as the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry issuing a statement of concern urging parties to practice restraint while invoking UNCLOS and 202 DoC to maintain peace and stability.[4] Malaysian PM also forwarded his support to the then Philippine Vice President in May 2012, proposing a peaceful resolution in term with the international law.[5]

The overall security dilemma is primarily stemming out of anxiety. Uncertainty is the key element that has been dominating the series of tension in the maritime region among the Southeast Asian states, especially because the tension that rose between the period of 2007 and 20099 was unexpected.

Security Dilemma of the United States of America

The rigid attitude of China towards the SCS in recent times, has provided United States with the opportunity to increase its presence in Asia again. The strategic approach of the United States towards the region and adjacent waters is based three elements, first being to emphasise and strengthen the American relation with the treaty allies in the region and simultaneously increase contribution to regional multilateral organisations. Maintaining a strong presence military wise, in the region to maintain access to the maritime resources along with freedom of actions, while adhering to the international law is the other key element. The third element is integral to the strategy as it focuses on positioning the American naval power as the main actor promoting and upholding the international rules-based order.

The “pivot to Asia” security strategy of then President Barack Obama puts forth the United States as an Asia Pacific country, aspiring for an international order while providing a foundation for peace and prosperity, with rights and responsibilities for countries of the region, along with free trade and free transit which are not infringed upon. The American policy towards the sovereignty of the South China Sea has been consistent since 1990s, although at the July 2010 ARF Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States will not involve itself in territorial disputes but it has maintained a clear position on the establishment of maritime border the claims of which must be on land, challenging the nine-dash line.

However, the issue has not been internationalised by the United States and is insisting on it being handled at regional level through bilateral negotiations. This is mostly because escalating uS military involvement is inconceivable, as tasing a role in strengthening the security in South China Sea will result in increased Sino-American discord.

Understanding the Grey Zone Campaign of China in South China Sea

The efforts of China to solidify its hegemony in the South China Sea, is suggested to be a case of grey zone strategy campaign. The actions involving series of disconnected incidents can be considered to be a the employment of two major tactics of the grey zone strategy, the salami slicing approach and fait accompli. The involvement of China, a revisionist power as the main actor with the approach of strategic gradualism through the employment of unconventional tools, fulfil the criteria to be categorised under the grey zone strategy. In the case of attempting to achieve one’s goal one can observe a series of disconnected steps by China, which add up to be a coherent grey zone strategy campaign towards the goal.

There are a number of actions of China which can be seen through the characteristics of the Grey Zone Strategy. Such as, the characteristic of pursuing political objectives through integrated campaigns can be seen in the action of China, outlining the political foundation to be able to claim the South China Sea area, through narratives, propagandas, and more. There are many components that seem like a coordinated coherent campaign involving: maritime, political, economic and military actions. They have also laid a groundwork for theoretical foundation to be able to incorporate an integrated non-military approach.

China has been observed to employ tools which are non-military or non-kinetic, which is also a characteristic of the strategy. They have instead employed economic tools, such as offering of aid, trade deals which are favourable, access agreements or threatening and imposing of economic sanctions on the other claimant states. The deployment of civilian fishing fleets and aircrafts to the disputed area to establish presence and reinforce claim is a paramilitary tool. They have also used energy as a tool by using oil rigs, energy agreements and aid as inducement. Diplomacy has also been employed through direct coercive diplomacy, by engaging in negotiation to establish a parallel rule-based order with the influence shift in the favour of Beijing. Informational tools such as statements, social media campaigns, spreading of narratives which is shaped by the information gathered through cyber capabilities and then threaten punitive actions are also employed extensively by China in the case of the South Can Sea dispute. These tools are unconventional and non-military, thus fulfilling a key component of the strategy.

China has also managed to stay below the escalatory threshold avoiding any outright aggressive military engagement or warfare. This can be observed through their use of unconventional tools which remain outside the UN Charter definition of “aggressive actions” that might trigger an escalation, leading to a war. They have also left enough space to manoeuvre and retreat to preserve that threshold and ease tension. China as also been taking long-term and incremental series of steps to achieve strategic objectives, showing their willingness to step back to be able to ease tension while preserving the progress they have made so far. This can be seen through the perspective of strategic gradualism by not seeking immediate decisive results in short period of time.

If one looks a all the disconnected steps as a whole, one can see a coherent picture of the strategy at play by the revisionist power. This places the Unites States in a difficult situation as the guardian of the present world order. Any sort of retaliation might seem as an overreaction or too soft to make any difference to the current situation in the maritime region of the South China Sea.

The Legality of Grey Zone Coercion in the South China Sea

The South China Sea law at this point in time is anything but clear. The older form of law governs the point of ‘historical claims’ to territory, while the newer form is defined by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), governing the maritime claim measurable by territorial claim. South China Sea dispute fall at the intersection of these two laws at play, colliding with each other unable to provide a clear understanding of the outcome. The principle of international maritime law is the land govern the sea and China has tried to reconcile with the law through its official SCS claim document, with China’s official position iterating it as the “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands in the SCS region, along with the adjacent waters, seabed and subsoil.

China lays historical claims on Paracel and Spratly Islands in the SCS dating back to the second century BC, Western Han Dynasty.[6] Although it is true that China has strong connection to them but the claim was not indisputable. According to international law, there are various ways of acquiring sovereignty over territories, however conquest and subjugation is dismissed by Article 2 of UN Charter. It can be analysed that actions of China in the SCS were inconsistent and not uninterrupted, thus its claim to be the country first to continuously exercise sovereign powers over them is contestable. The maritime claim in the South China Sea is also vague, as the rights of historical claim is ambiguous and not governed by UNCLOS. The application of it varies from one coastal state to another, with one having only fishing rights with the other exercising full sovereignty. The problem with China’s claim of historic right is that is does not specify the rights that the country claims in its capacity to be considered historic.

China had enacted a Law on the Territorial Sea and the Contiguous Zone, thus establishing a maritime zone extending 12 nautical miles from its shores. 1998, a Law on the EEZ and Continental Shelf was passed setting 200 nautical miles for EEZ and because the U-shaped demarcated tea predates UNCLOS, geographical designation of waters inside the demarcated line is unspecified.

The point of origin has not been claimed by China, yet. China has the right to dispute its right over its claim in the sovereignty of SCS, however its claim is not indisputable. But, China often employs legal narrative and diplomatic overtures to legitimise its stance while undermining the claims of the other states. China has also started funding research on alternative approaches to international law, with focus on law of the seat and international economic law favouring China’s position.[7]

When laws are created, set categories, actors and elements are established. The purpose of it is to have a predictable and principled manner in which a conflict can be dealt with, which also acts as a deterrent. But in recent times, when grey zone strategies has managed to remain under the threshold of what can be understood as a violent act, thus making it difficult to apply the basic legal concepts related to war and the use force. Grey zone actors intentionally exploits these gaps present in the legal framework which predates this new normalcy of advanced tactics and strategies that are beyond violent and aggressive disruption of world peace.

The actions of China in the matter SCS has contributed to the weakening of the international law of the sea hurting all the countries, including itself because by defying the law, one might instigate to topple down a rule based order, allowing competitions to go beyond the purview of law. This has the ability to diminish the stability of the international order, gradually.  A strong way to respond to the maritime grey zone campaign is bringing a clarity in understanding the international law involved at the epitome of it in this regard.

Conclusion

The grey zone strategy, especially in the maritime domain will never be an easy situation to tackle. With sufficient suggestive evidence, one can assume that China in the case of the South China Sea dispute has opted to deal with the situation through the employment of the grey zone strategy to pursue its revisionist goals. But it is of course only suggestive and not conclusive, neither can be categorised in a watertight compartment. One must also keep in mind, that this strategy is not only time consuming but also ends up exhausting a lot of resources while at it. Therefore, the cannot be the only approach towards achieving ones revisionist goals, rather it can be one of the approaches while moving towards their ultimate goal. To retaliate such an approach, the ones safeguarding the present global order must have a coordinated response which is resolute enough to bring the situation under control. They must also portray a sense of enthusiasm to maintain such response ensuring that instigator rethinks the plans at hand.

Presently however, China has maintained a stronghold over this approach in the area of the South China Sea dispute and one can only wait to see what is their next step, for grey zone strategy is all about strategic gradualism.


[1] it is a Japanese word, which literally translates to “explosion affected people”, for the survivors of the bombing

[2] a group within a country at war who are sympathetic to or working for its enemies.

[3] “grey zone.” dictionary.cambridge.org, Cambridge Dictionary 2020. Web. 2 July 2020

[4] “Scarborough Shoal Dispute ‘Of Concern’,” Viet Nam News, 26 April 2012, https://vietnamnews.vn/politics-laws/223972/scarborough-shoal-dispute-of-concern.html (accessed 07 July 2020).

[5] Jerry E. Esplanada, “Malaysia Too Wants Peace in Panatag Shoal,” Inquirer, 31 May 2012, https://globalnation.inquirer.net/38389/malaysia-too-wants-peace-in-panatag-shoal (accessed 07 July 2020).

[6] China Adheres to the Position of Settling Through Negotiation the Relevant Disputes Between China and the Philippines in the South China Sea (People’s Republic of China Response to the 12 July 2016 ruling on the South China Sea territorial claims by the UNCLOS Tribunal), Beijing, 13 July, 2016, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/nanhai/eng/snhwtlcwj_1/t1380615.htm (accessed 08 July 2020).

[7] Ben Blanchard, “Amid Sea Disputes, China to Set Up Maritime ‘Judicial Center,’”Marine Insight, March 12, 2016. https://www.marineinsight.com/shipping-news/amid-sea-disputes-china-to-set-up-maritime-judicial-center/ (accessed 08 July 2020)

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International Law

UN at 75: The Necessity of Having a Stronger & More Effective United Nations

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October 24, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. In this context, this article investigates the necessity of having a stronger UN for the benefits of the world’s people. In fact, if one looks at the past, the UN came up in 1945 in response to the Second World War for a more stable, secured, and peaceful world. And the UN has been successful to a larger extent to that goals and objectives, many argue. Kofi Annan, the former UN Secretary-General for instance, wrote that ‘The United Nations, with their rules and institutions, are at the heart of the international system. They encourage States to prevent or settle disputes peacefully. The United Nations speaks for the voiceless, feeds the hungry, protects the displaced, combats organized crime and terrorism, and fights disease across the globe’ (Annan 2015).

If one looks at the history, after the Second World War, there are not so many wars on a large scale or conflicts except some bilateral Wars like Vietnam War or Iraq invasion in Kuwait or US invasion in Afghanistan or Iraq or Syrian crisis or Rohingya crisis. One can claim that the present world is more stable and peaceful than the world before the Second World War. Against this backdrop, Ramesh Thakur rightly observes, ‘On balance, the world has been a better and safer place with the UN than would have been the case without it (Thakur 2009:2). And it will not be wrong to claim that the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) is playing a crucial role in this regard, focusing both on ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ security issues. Hard security issues ranges from nuclear threat to international terrorism and soft security issues include human security issues to human rights to international criminal justice and international sanctions (For details see, Thakur, 2009).

The UN is not only concerned about international peace and security but also concerned about economic and social issues. There are several UN organizations e.g. United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), World Food Programme (WFP) or the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) which is involved in socio-economic issues that impact millions of people globally.

First, one can look at the role of the UN General Assembly to understand the necessity of having a more robust UN. It is the core organ of the UN. It is the only organ in which all the member countries are represented all of the time. The role of the UN includes to pass resolutions and to create subsidiary agencies to deal with particular issues (Barkin 2006: 58). UN General Assembly works as a forum where the world’s states meet and discuss the pressing global problems. In this context, Eleanor Albert, Leo Schwartz, and Alexandra Abell write that ‘Since its inception seventy-one years ago, the United Nations General Assembly has been a forum for lofty declarations, sometimes audacious rhetoric, and rigorous debate over the world’s most vexing issues, from poverty and development to peace and security’ (Albert et al. 2016). However, in September 2015, the Assembly agreed on a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, contained in the outcome document of the United Nations summit for the adoption of the post-2015 development agenda (resolution 70/1). Notably, the implementation of SDG goals will have broader implications for the world’s people.

In addition, the Assembly may also take action in cases of a threat to the peace, breach of peace or act of aggression, when the Security Council has failed to act owing to the negative vote of a permanent member. In such instances, according to its “Uniting for Peace” resolution of 3 November 1950, the Assembly may consider the matter immediately and recommend to its Members collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.

Second, one should also look at the role of the Security Council to make the case of having a stronger United Nations. The UN Security Council is the most powerful security-related organization in contemporary world politics. As the Charter of the United Nations says: ‘the Security Council has primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security (Article 24). The Security Council takes the lead in determining the existence of a threat to the peace or act of aggression. It calls upon the parties to a dispute to settle it by peaceful means and recommends methods of adjustment or terms of the settlement. In some cases, the Security Council can resort to imposing sanctions or even authorize the use of force to maintain or restore international peace and security’

In contemporary world politics, the UN Security Council is the most potent security-related organization because it is the only recognized and legitimate international organ which deals with international peace and security. In this regard, Justin Morris and Nicholas J. Wheeler claim that ‘The United Nations Security Council is at the heart of the world’s collective security system’ (Morris and Wheeler 2007: 214). The UNSC play role by passing Resolutions regarding maintaining international peace and security, determining threats to peace and security and finally undertaking peacekeeping operations.

Decisions made by the Security Council are known as the Security Council resolutions. Examples of Security Council resolutions include Resolution 794 (1992), which authorized military intervention in Somalia on humanitarian ground, or the resolution 1325 (2000), which called on states to recognize the role of women in peace, and security and post-conflict situations. In the UN Security Council Working method Handbook, it is noted that the UNSC has adopted over 2,000 resolutions relating to conflict and post-conflict situations around the globe. Another report, titled Repertoire of the Practice of the Security Council noted that between 2008 and 2009, the Security Council adopted  35 out of 65 resolutions in 2008 (53.8 %), and 22 out of 47 resolutions in 2009 under Chapter VII (46. 8 %) concerning threats to the peace, breaches of the peace or acts of aggression. The report also notes about several UN resolutions authorizing United Nations peacekeeping missions. In connection with the mission deployed in the Central African Republic and Chad, the Council approved the deployment of a United Nations military component for the first time in 2009 to follow up operations by the European Union in Chad and Central African Republic (EUFORChad/CAR). The Council continued to authorize enforcement action for United Nations peacekeeping missions in Côte d’Ivoire (UNOCI), Darfur/Sudan (UNAMID), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC), Lebanon (UNIFIL) and Sudan (UNMIS). This increased number of UNSC Resolutions dealing with international peace and security reinforces its legitimacy and power as a security organization.

The critical question that comes into the forefront is how much UNSC can implement its mandates neutrally or independently in terms of maintaining world peace and security. The critiques bring the example of Iraq war (2003) where UNSC ‘faces a crisis of legitimacy because of its inability to constrain the unilaterally inclined hegemonic United States.’ (Morris and Wheeler 2007:214). Another critical question is the role of UNSC in resolving the long-standing Syrian crisis or the Rohingya refugee crisis.

It is undeniable the fact that UNSC cannot function with its full potentialities due to the challenges and limitations it faces because ‘in their pursuit of raisons d’état, states use whatever institutions are available to serve their interests’ (Weiss 2003: 151). And here comes the politics in the Security Council which is highly manifested in the past. Against this backdrop, Weiss correctly observes, ‘the politics of the UN system- not only the principal organs of UN like Security Council or General Assembly is highly politicized but even ‘technical’ organizations, for instance, World Health Organization or the Universal Postal Union continue to reflect the global division between the so-called wealthy, industrialized North and the less advantaged, developing South’ (Weiss 2009: 271).

It is, therefore, states and particularly the P5 want to use the Security Council as a means to uphold its interest. Gareth Evans rightly points out ‘for most of its history the Security Council has been a prisoner of great power manoeuvring…’ (Evans 2009:Xi).  Hence, using veto by the P5 remains a significant challenge for the UNSC to work in its fullest potentials. In the recent case of the Rohingya refugee crisis, the UNSC is unable to take adequate measures due to veto power used by China and Russia. However, the UNSC is responsible for maintaining world peace and security.

The bottomline is that there is no alternative to having a stronger and more effective UN because it is the only hope for millions of people around the world. The UN is an inevitable international organization in this turbulent world despite its criticism or limitations.Thus, it becomes essential for the P5 nations to think about the broader benefits of the world’s people instead of their narrowly defined interest in the case of using veto power. And the world also needs to acknowledge that the UN reform has been a reality to ensure the neutrality and objectivity of the United Nations for a more peaceful, stable, secured world.

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The United Nations and the Neglected Conflict of Kashmir

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The principle of ‘right of self-determination’ and its applicability to the 72-year-old Kashmir conflict needs to be considered during the 75th session of the Fourth Committee of the United Nations General Assembly that is taking place between October 8 to November 10, 2020 at its headquarters in New York. The Committee will discuss and deliberate the issues related to international conflicts and decolonization. What I do hope to offer is an unstarry-eyed view of the fate of self-determination in Kashmir; and, the indispensability of convincing the United Nations that international peace and security would be strengthened, not weakened, by resolving the Kashmir conflict to the satisfaction of all parties concerned..

The self-determination of peoples is a basic principle of the United Nation Charter, which has been reaffirmed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and applied countless times to the settlement of international disputes.

The concept seems to be as old as Government itself and was the basis of French and American revolutions. In 1916, President Wilson stated that self-determination is not a mere phrase. He said that it is an imperative principle of action and included it in the famous 14-point charter. This gave a prominence to the principle. Self-determination as conceived by Wilson was an imprecise amalgamation of several strands of thought, some long associated in his mind with the notion of “self-determination,” others hatched as a result or wartime developments, but all imbued with a general spirit of democracy.

Self- determination is a principle that has been developed in philosophic thought and practice for the last several hundred years. It is an idea that has caused people throughout the world to rise up and shed the chains of oppressive governments at great risk.

Finally, in 1945 the establishment of the UN gave a new dimension to the principle of self-determination.  It was made one of the objectives, which the UN would seek to achieve, along with equal rights of all nations. Article 1.2 of the Charter of the Untied Nations reads: “To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples.”

From 1952 onwards, the General Assembly of the UN adopted a series of resolutions proclaiming the right to self-determination. The two most important of these are resolution 1514 (XV) of 14 December 1960 and resolution 2625 (XXV) of 24 October 1970. Resolution 1514 was seen almost exclusively as part of process of decolonization. 1514 is entitled: Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples.”

International Court of Justice considered the several resolutions on decolonization process and noted:  “The subsequent development of International Law in regard to non-self governing territories as enshrined in the Charter of the UN made the principle of self-determination applicable to all of them.”  This opinion establishes the self-determination as the basic principle for the process of de-colonization.

The principle of self-determination in modern times can be defined as the right of peoples to determine their own political status and pursue their own economic, social and cultural policies.  Self-determination in its literal meaning or at a terminological level also implies the right [of a people] to express itself to organize in whatever way it wants. A people must be free to express their will without interference or threat of interference from a controlling authority. This includes alien domination, foreign occupation and colonial rule.

Although, the applicability of the principle of the self-determination to the specific case of Jammu and Kashmir has been explicitly recognized by the United Nations. It was upheld equally by India and Pakistan when the Kashmir dispute was brought before the Security Council. Since, on the establishment of India and Pakistan as sovereign states, Jammu and Kashmir was not part of the territory of either, the two countries entered into an agreement to allow its people to exercise their right of self-determination under impartial auspices and in conditions free from coercion from either side. The agreement is embodied in the resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, explicitly accepted by both Governments. It is binding on both Governments and no allegation of non-performance of any of its provisions by either side can render it inoperative.

It is apparent from the record of the Security Council that India articulated the principle, accepted the practical shape the Security Council gave to it and freely participated in negotiations regarding the modalities involved. However, when developments inside Jammu & Kashmir made her doubt her chances of winning the plebiscite, she changed her stand and pleaded that she was no longer bound by the agreement. Of course, she deployed ample arguments to justify the somersault. But even though the arguments were of a legal or quasi-legal nature, she rejected a reference to the World Court to pronounce on their merits. This is how the dispute became frozen with calamitous consequences for Kashmir most of all, with heavy cost for Pakistan and with none too happy results for India itself.

By all customary moral and legal yardsticks, 23 million Kashmiris from both sides of the Ceasefire Line (CFL) enjoy a right to self-determination. Kashmir’s legal history entitles it to self-determination from Indian domination every bit as much as Eritrea’s historical independence entitled it to self-determination from Ethiopian domination.

India’s gruesome human rights violations in Kashmir also militate in favor of self-determination every bit as much as Yugoslavia’s human rights violations and ethnic cleansing created a right to self-determination in Bosnia and Kosovo. Kashmir’s history of social and religious tranquility further bolsters its claim to self-determination every bit as much as East Timor’s history of domestic peace before Indonesia’s annexation in 1975 entitled it to self-determination in 1999.                                   

If law and morality are overwhelmingly on the side of Kashmiri self-determination, then why has that quest been thwarted for 72 years? The answer is self-evident: the military might of India. India is too militarily powerful, including a nuclear arsenal, and too economically mesmerizing to expect the United States, the United Nations, NATO, or the European Union to intervene. The United States is reluctant to exert moral suasion or pressure to prod India because it covets more India’s alluring economic markets and collaboration in fighting global terrorism.  Further, the size and wealth of the Indian lobby in the United States dwarfs the corresponding lobbies supporting Kashmir.  

The world powers need to understand that there is no way the dispute can be settled once and for all except in harmony with the people’s will, and there is no way the people’s will can be ascertained except through an impartial vote. Secondly, there are no insuperable obstacles to the setting up of a plebiscite administration in Kashmir under the aegis of the United Nations. The world organization has proved its ability, even in the most forbidding circumstances, to institute an electoral process under its supervision and control and with the help of a neutral peace‑keeping force. The striking example of this is Namibia, which was peacefully brought to independence after seven decades of occupation and control by South Africa; East Timor and Southern Sudan, which got independence only through the intervention of the United Nations. Thirdly, as Sir Owen Dixon, the United Nations Representative, envisaged seven decades ago, the plebiscite can be so regionalized that none of the different zones of the state will be forced to accept an outcome contrary to its wishes.

In conclusion, a sincere and serious effort towards a just settlement of the Kashmir dispute must squarely deal with the realities of the situation and fully respond to the people’s rights involved in it. Indeed, any process that ignores the wishes of the people of Kashmir and is designed to sidetrack the United Nations will not only prove to be an exercise in futility but can also cause incalculable human and political damage.

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International Law

UN anniversary’s gloomy takeaways

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On its 75th anniversary and amid the global COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations has for the first time convened world leaders mainly in an online format to seek action and solutions for a world in crisis.

The UNO’s predecessor, the League of Nations, wrapped up its work with the outbreak of World War 2, but the further the start of the present United Nations slides back in history, the more skeptical assessments of its performance are being heard today. How come?

The United Nations Organization was created by the victorious nations shortly after the end of the Second World War, but the idea of ​​creating a new international organization tasked with maintaining global peace and security was actually floated by members of the anti-Hitler coalition even before the war was over. During their August 14, 1941 meeting at the British naval station Argentia (Newfoundland), US President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill inked the Atlantic Charter, which defined the two countries’ goals in the war against Nazi Germany, and outlined the first sketches of the post-war world order. The Soviet Union joined the declaration on September 24 of that same year. On January 1, 1942, representatives of 26 Allied countries endorsed the Atlantic Charter and signed the United Nations Declaration. Welcomed as the idea of creating a new organization was by everyone, however, there still were numerous disagreements regarding its tasks, goals and powers.

At a conference held in Moscow on October 19-30, 1943, the foreign ministers of the USSR, the US and Great Britain (Vyacheslav Molotov, Cordell Hull and Anthony Eden), signed the Declaration of Four Nations on General Security (it was also signed by China’s ambassador to the USSR Fu Bingchang), where the parties pledged to fast-track the creation of an international organization to maintain peace and security. The final agreement on the creation of the United Nations Organization was reached in March 1945 during the Yalta Conference by the leaders of the three Allied Powers – Josef Stalin, Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill.

It was established that the UN would be based on the principle of unanimity of the great powers – permanent members of the Security Council with a veto right. Harry Truman, who succeeded Franklin Roosevelt, who died in April 1945, was openly critical of the agreement, but during a conference in San Francisco, where Soviet and US representatives locked horns over a number of issues pertaining to the UN Charter, the Soviet position prevailed.  The sides eventually reached a compromise whereby the UN General Assembly could discuss any issues, but did not have the right to take decisions binding on the UN member states.

On June 26, 1945, representatives of 50 countries met in San Francisco to sign the UN Charter. On October 24, 1945, the Soviet Union became the 29th state to have submitted the instrument of ratification, thus securing the necessary number of votes for the Charter’s entry into force. Since 1948, October 24 has been marked as United Nations Day.

The status of the United Nations Organization, paid for by tens of millions of lives perished in World War II, went unquestioned for quite some time, ensuring for more than half a century peace in Europe and a relatively predictable situation globally. Over time, however, even the most durable world order is bound to be put to a test.

At the turn of the 1990s, the bipolar system of international relations and the Cold War were replaced by a new world order based on the political and economic predominance of the United States and its closest allies. By historical standards, however, this period proved pretty short-lived since the world is too complicated to unconditionally kowtow to the principles of the Washington Consensus. By the close of the 20th century and the start of the 21st, new centers of power and integration projects began to emerge, initiated by countries in Eurasia and Latin America.

Serious doubts about the reliability of the existing system of international security appeared already in 1999 with NATO’s enlargement to the east to incorporate Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – the first such process since the end of WW2. In that very same year, the forces of the North Atlantic Alliance, sidestepping the UN Security Council, launched bombing raids against Yugoslavia, thus throwing in question the entire system of post-war treaties. Since then, almost every US-initiated military operation in the world has been conducted illegitimately and classified by the UN Security Council as an act of aggression and condemned by both Russia and China, which insist that any use of force in international relations, be it political, economic or military, should come exclusively as a result of consensus of all members of the Security Council.

The veto right by a permanent member of the Security Council to block any decision, even if it is approved by all other members, remains the backbone of the entire system of international security. Everyone understands this, but not everyone is ready to come to terms with it.

The UN’s presence in the world after the end of the inter-bloc confrontation has significantly increased with its mandate transcending military aspects and now including humanitarian and social issues.

However, the world is facing the growing threat of numerous conflicts flaring up that can’t be resolved without a consensual decision by the key UN member states which, in turn, has proved to be extremely hard to achieve. It’s not just about the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, as even the content of international documents is being disputed now. Who would possibly object to the need to combat the activities of terrorist and extremist organizations? And still, practice shows that the term “terrorism” carries a different meaning for European countries and, for example, those in the Middle East. As a result, UN Security Council resolutions on the settlement of contemporary conflicts in this region are actually ignored. Civil wars in Libya and Syria, as well as the extremely difficult situation in Iraq, caused to a large extent by the interference of the United States and its allies, as well as by the activities of network extremists, have added to the decades-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Adding to this is the rising threat posed by drug and cyber terrorism.

With the situation being as it is, the United Nations is facing a growing wave of criticism. The organization has been criticized before – in 1993 the UN mission in Somalia fell though, and in 1994, the UN failed to prevent genocide in Rwanda, stop hostilities in Congo and the civil war in the Balkans, which led to an armed intervention by NATO. The actions by representatives of the UN and organizations it helped create in the Middle East often lack their declared impartiality.

While during the Cold War era decision-making mechanisms in the international arena were based on the decisions by the Yalta and Potsdam conferences of 1945, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe and a raft of arms control treaties, after the period of confrontation ended, so did the period of transparent “rules of the game” in world politics. Moreover, many non-state actors have emerged and now wield serious financial and political influence. Nevertheless, the UN remains the only organization that prevents the existing structure of global security from falling apart in the extremely difficult circumstances of this day and age.

There have been growing demands to bring the UN and its Security Council in line with modern-day realities. During the 75 years of the organization’s existence, the number of its member states has increased from 50 to 193, as have the shortcomings of many of its agencies. Many criticize the UN’s peacekeeping operations as haphazard, extremely selective and prone to double standards. The organization has been repeatedly called out for being in a financial crisis. Many developing countries (states of the “global South”) are trying to limit the veto power enjoyed by the permanent members of the Security Council and are demanding more equitable geographical representation in the Council. Developed countries such as Germany, Japan, Brazil and India also seek the status of permanent members of the UN Security Council. They propose to expand the Council to 25 members, with two permanent seats reserved for Asia and Africa and one each for Latin America and Western Europe.

In 2017, US President Donald Trump came up with a plan to reform the UN, proposing, among other things, to optimize the organization’s expenses and get more return for every dollar invested in it. Well, by the efficiency of the UN’s work Trump apparently means decisions that would serve America’s best interests.

Washington’s tactic regarding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on the Iranian nuclear program is very indicative here. In 2015, Iran and the 5 + 1 group of states (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France, as well as Germany) signed the so-called Iran nuclear deal, according to which Tehran refused to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for a gradual lifting of international sanctions. However, in 2018, Washington pulled out of the accord and announced new sanctions against the Islamic Republic. On August 20, 2020, the United States sent a letter to the UN Security Council announcing the launch of the so-called sanctions snapback process whereby any signatory to the 2015 deal could re-impose sanctions against Iran if it found that Tehran was not fulfilling its obligations under the agreement. The idea was simple: it was enough to submit a request to the UN Security Council to launch the snapback mechanism to force the Security Council to raise the issue of continued implementation of the entire Iranian nuclear deal. The Americans would then use their veto power and the document would simply cease to exist. This didn’t happen though as all other permanent members of the Security Council ignored the US request. Therefore, following the necessary 30-day pause, on September 21, the US imposed unilateral sanctions against Tehran. A paradoxical situation ensued: de jure, no sanctions exist for most countries, but de facto, Washington feels free to punish anyone who dares to violate these “nonexistent” restrictions and continues to cooperate with Tehran pursuant to Security Council Resolution 2231.

The majority of the permanent members of the Security Council want to more or less keep in place the UN’s current decision-making mechanisms, which give them obvious privileges while simultaneously allowing them to solve the main task the UN was originally created for, i.e. the prevention of major wars between great powers. Besides, no comprehensive reform of the organization appears likely since there are no criteria all member countries would agree with. Therefore, despite all the critical barbs, the organization will continue in its classical form, at least for now. Meanwhile, the world finds itself in a state of complete uncertainty caught between the remaining fragments of a failed attempt to build a unipolar system and institutions inherited from the second half of the 20th century.

Russia’s position on the UN reform remains fairly balanced. Moscow believes that changes should not affect two key provisions – the approval of the proposed plan by the overwhelming majority of the participating countries, and the preservation of the Security Council’s prerogatives, including the right of veto.

Russia stands for the development of the UN’s peacekeeping potential, which it believes is not fully in line with the tasks currently facing the organization, and for wider cross-border social and humanitarian cooperation necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The way out of the socio-economic crisis caused by this epidemic will be long and extremely difficult, therefore it is imperative to stop dividing countries into “us” and “them,” and start developing all the necessary mechanisms of cooperation. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov outlined these priorities in his speech at the 75th anniversary session of the UN General Assembly on behalf of the CSTO member states.

“The fate of the United Nations is in the hands of its member states. Just like in 1945, we need to cast aside our differences and come together for the sake of delivering on common objectives, based on equitable dialogue and mutual respect for one another’s interests. The UN offers all the necessary conditions to this effect,” Lavrov emphasized.

From our partner International Affairs

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