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International Law

Is federalism a moat against autocracy?



The rogues’ gallery of autocratic rulers has been growing for some years now. It is no more an age of much-reviled ‘tinpot’ dictators. Today, we have wolves in sheep’s clothing. The elected autocrats follow a familiar playbook for capturing power and holding on to it. Since the owl of Athena no more spreads her wings as evenings fall, autocratic leaders have grabbed more powers during the Covid-19 pandemic.

We gloated over the global expansion of democracy but didn’t pay sufficient attention to the parallel rise of autocracy. We are currently witnessing what Anna Luhrmann and Staffan I. Lindberg call a “third wave of autocratisation.” It is marked by the tyranny of the executive and a growing phenomenon what Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt describe as “capturing the referees”.

The elected autocrats use institutional violence and repression but they also seduce, appeal, exert charisma and draw on myths and digital storytelling. It is very much like what Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Adichie writes about “the danger of a single story.” She says, “power not only spreads a story but also makes its ideas persist. Power can be used for malintent, through controlling “how [stories] are told, who tells them, when they’re told, [and] how many stories are told.”

A democrat invents a very different new role when new situations arise. But an autocrat acts both like a prophet and a guru. After all, he/she lives by the myth of a flawless hero. As a poem by Iranian-American poet Kaveh Akbar reads, “my empire made me happy because it was an empire and mine…(it was) cruel and the suffering wasn’t my own.”

Federalism was, for long, considered a moat against autocracy, particularly in large and ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse countries. It was seen as a valuable tool for mitigating ethnic conflict and for enabling people with divergent ideologies and aspirations to co-exist in the same polity.

Today, federalism is confronting twin attacks from autocratic rule and the Covid-19 pandemic. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres has written how some leaders have used the pandemic to deploy “heavy-handed security responses and emergency measures to crush dissent, criminalise basic freedoms, silence independent reporting and restrict the activities of nongovernmental organisations.”

Federalism, considered the most meaningful constitutional design to prevent authoritarianism, is facing a crisis of faith. It has suffered serious erosion even in well-established federal states like the United States, India and Brazil. Federalism no longer thrills and it has now accumulated a chorus of new sceptics.

Devolution of power is the quintessence of federalism which is intended to empower the state and local governments as also to impede the tyranny of the national government. However, recent experience suggests that the institutional design that most federal states created are not adequate to prevent autocracy at the Centre.

How have federal states fared in dealing with the corona pandemic? Australia’s Lowy Institute has ranked countries handling the Covid-19. The top 10 best performers include only Australia as a federal state. Germany, Canada, India and Brazil hold 55th, 61st, 86th and 98th positions respectively. It appears federal states are outcompeting each other only by degrees of underperformance. The East Asian, South-east Asian and Australasian countries have fared significantly better. Interestingly, some surveys reveal that Canadians distrust both their federal and provincial governments. Brazil and India stand out to be the worst performing federal states.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil has openly attacked federalism as he considers his ministers and bureaucrats to be his vassal. He has frequently flogged state governors for lockdown. He went to the extent of saying, “my army won’t go to the streets to ensure obedience to governors’ decrees.” Its healthcare system has collapsed and as Miguel Nicolelis, professor at Duke University, says, Brazil is facing a “biological Fukushima.”

As far as India is concerned, both democracy and federalism are moving in reverse gear. Federalism is certainly grating and grinding and democracy is fast becoming a festival of hypocrisy.

Even though India is not a textbook federation and under the classic theory of federalism not a federation at all, India was considered a success story. India made a success of its federal polity largely because of its impressive democratic record, the role of its civil society, its institutional strengths and its vibrant political culture.

During the Congress Party rule, federalism remained rather weak. In the words of former Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer, India remained “unitary at the whim of the Union and federal at the pleasure of the Centre.” However, today much of the etiquettes of federalism is in tatters. India had never experienced such systematic destruction of its federal structure. The institutionally weak state and local governments have failed to become the sites of resistance.

Majoritarian politics is predatory in nature. The much touted “cooperative federalism” has turned out to be a predatory federalism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to market “cooperative federalism” as the distinguishing feature of his style of governance. The BJP government accepted the 14th Finance Commission Report which favoured greater devolution of funds to States. The states’ share in tax collection was raised from 32% to 42%. But the States soon realized that there was a poisonous sting in the tail.

By a sleight of hand, the federal government expropriated a larger share of revenues than prescribed by the 14th Finance Commission and reduced the states’ share. The government said later it had no money to pay the States their share of Goods and Services Tax (GST) revenues. Cooperative federalism was offered to the states in handy package. Smart packaging has a way of causing eyes to glaze over. India’s cooperative federalism is like the “Ikea Kit” where recipients are expected to assemble the furniture without help and if the furniture is faulty or lopsided, it is the fault of the customer.

What India is left with today is federalism in a frilly apron. Indian federalism always had a bias in favour of the Centre. The chain of command—bureaucracy, law enforcement agencies, supervisory bodies and commissions has, for all practical purposes, collapsed. The Modi government has weakened federalism by “capturing the referees.” It has used institutions to its advantage and disabled impartial adjudicators from performing their roles.

The anti-commandeering doctrine authored by the US supreme court saved American federalism despite Trump’s all-round attack on federal institutions. This doctrine prohibits the federal government from commandeering state governments from imposing coercive duties upon state governments. The US federal government can’t force state governments to implement its policies. It can’t appoint or remove state officials or judges.

When Prime Minister Modi imposed a harsh lockdown at a few hours’ notice in March last year, it sought to convey a message that he stood by the principle ‘Dare to be a Daniel! Dare to stand alone!’ However, India’s patchwork response to the pandemic caused immense hardship for the poor migrants and other marginalised sections of society. While cases began to surge last March, India’s health minister Harsh Vardhan claimed that India had entered the endgame” of the pandemic.

Albert Camus says, “plagues and wars always find people equally unprepared.” India was not only not prepared, it allowed huge election rallies and religious gatherings flouting all norms. That was an open invitation to the virus to strike ferociously. As CBS News put it, “surging Covid cases and lack of oxygen make India living hell”.

With India struggling to cope with the second wave of Coronavirus and the hospitals reeling under shortage of beds and medical oxygen, the reputation of the vaccine superpower is in tatters. India is reaping the bitter harvest of the government’s premature triumphalism and lowering the guard.

Today, India looks like what Guillermo O’ Donnell calls a “delegative democracy” marked by low levels of horizontal accountability. Federalism is not to blame. Federalism as an organising principle is neither the problem nor the answer. It should be judged by the parabola of its uses rather than by the curve of its misuses.

And yet, ‘federalism for me, not for thee” is no federalism. Suddenly, Indian federalism looks like a ‘patchwork quilt.’ The federal government under Modi has worked like an invasive, noxious weed that has rendered the states powerless and vulnerable. The pitfalls of pop federalism or comical federalism could be injurious to democracy.

Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi

International Law

Democracy at Risk: The Global Challenge of Rising Populism and Nationalism

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Authors: Meherab Hossain and Md. Obaidullah*

Populism and nationalism represent two discrete political ideologies; however, they may pose potential threats to democracy. Populism is a political ideology and approach characterized by the emphasis on the interests and concerns of ordinary people against established elites or perceived sources of power and privilege. Populist leaders often portray themselves as champions of the “common people” and claim to represent their grievances and desires. It is a political stance that emphasizes the idea of “the people” and often contrasts this group against “the elite”.

 Nationalism, on the other hand, is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpass other individual or group interests. It represents a political principal positing that there should be congruence between the political entity and the nation-state. While populism emphasizes the idea of “the people,” nationalism emphasizes the idea of the nation-state.

In what ways can populism pose a threat to democracy?

While some argue that populism is not a threat to democracy per se, others contend that it poses a serious risk to democratic institutions. Populism can become a threat to democracy by undermining formal institutions and functions, discrediting the media, and targeting specific social groups, such as immigrants or minorities. This threat arises from its potential to confer a moral legitimacy upon the state that it might otherwise lack. Consequently, it can jeopardize the defense mechanisms established to safeguard against tyranny, including freedoms, checks and balances, the rule of law, tolerance, autonomous social institutions, individual and group rights, as well as pluralism.  Populism imposes an assumption of uniformity onto the diverse fabric of reality, distorting not only factual representations but also elevating the attributes of certain social groups above those of others.

In Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s populist rhetoric and policies have led to the erosion of democratic institutions, including the judiciary and the media. Populism in Turkey can be traced back to the era of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s regime, during which Atatürk’s elites, who had limited commonality with the broader society, assumed the responsibility of educating and guiding the masses. This phenomenon, often referred to as ‘regime elitism,’ has rendered Turkey susceptible to populism, which fundamentally revolves around the conflict between the elites and the general populace.

 In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s populist government has been accused of undermining the rule of law, limiting press freedom, and targeting civil society groups. He has established a repressive and progressively authoritarian state that operates under the guise of democracy.

In media discourse, he has been designated as a populist leader. Empirical analysis reveals that Hungary is currently governed by a form of political populism, characterized as conservative right-wing populism. The salient features of Hungarian political dynamics encompass the government’s claim of challenging established elites, a lack of a clearly defined political agenda, the utilization of propaganda as a prominent tool in its political communications, advocacy for the preservation of a Christian Hungary, intervention in areas traditionally considered independent from state interference such as education and jurisdiction, the implementation of mass clientelism to reward its supporters while exerting pressure on critics, and overt criticism of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Consequently, this trajectory underscores the ascendance of authoritarianism within Hungary.

How Nationalism can be threat to Democracy?

Nationalism can pose a potential threat to both democracy and international relations when it manifests in forms of discrimination, violence, and the exclusion of specific groups. The ascension of nationalism may jeopardize the established efficacy of multilateralism, which has historically been instrumental in preserving lives and averting conflicts. This can result in unilateral actions by certain nations, thereby undermining the collaborative approach to the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Nationalism can serve as a catalyst for conflict and division, fostering tendencies toward exclusivity and competition that impede the resolution of common global challenges. The ascent of economic nationalism has the potential to undermine global collaboration and policy alignment, resulting in a resurgence of nationalist economic strategies in many regions worldwide. Such strategies often prioritize individual national objectives over the collective global interest. Unrestrained nationalism can pose a threat to stability by inflaming ethnic tensions, thereby increasing the likelihood of violence and conflict.

In Europe, nationalism has historically been a significant catalyst for conflict and division, spanning from the emergence of Nazi Germany in the 1930s to more recent upsurges of nationalist movements in various countries. Nationalism tends to foster exclusivity and competition, thereby complicating efforts to address common global challenges. Under nationalist ideology, exemplified by Hitler, instances of extreme cruelty and inhumanity have been documented.

Another instance of nationalism, which presents a significant challenge to democracy, is the ascendance of Hindu extremism and nationalism in India, resulting in communal tensions. Since the Hindu nationalist BJP came into power, there has been a heightened sense of insecurity among Muslims in India, with the situation reaching unprecedented levels of concern. The government has actively employed media, television, and the film industry to propagate Islamophobia among the Hindu majority. In 2018, the Indian High Court rendered a judgment advocating for India to be declared a Hindu state, citing the country’s historical religious divisions. Nonetheless, it is crucial to emphasize that, in accordance with its constitution, India is mandated to maintain a secular state. Needless to say, the rise of Hindu nationalism under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of fueling sectarian tensions and undermining the country’s secular democracy.

Indeed, while populism and nationalism are distinct concepts, their simultaneous global rise poses a considerable threat to democracy. These ideologies frequently favor specific groups over the broader population and can corrode democratic principles. They tend to exacerbate polarization and undermine vital democratic institutions. Hence, many countries are grappling with substantial challenges to their democratic systems, which puts their stability and effectiveness at risk.

*Md. Obaidullah holds both a BSS and an MSS degree in Public Administration from the University of Barishal. He is currently employed as a Research Assistant at the Centre for Advanced Social Research in Dhaka, Bangladesh. His writing expertise spans various subjects, including Public Policy, Politics, Governance, Climate Change, and Diplomacy, on which he frequently contributes

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International Law

Principles of International Relations as Homo Sapiens

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After listening to Hariri’s Home Sapiens, I grasped, with a new perspective, the state of our humanity. I deeply realized that indeed we are the last human species. Our closest relative and competitor, the Neanderthals, were long gone. So how do we, as homo sapiens (“wise men”), wisely ensure the well-being and future of our species?  The question seems too general or even irrelevant to many considering that everyday life on Earth continues despite the horrors of war, the devastation of calamities, and the forebodings of apocalypticism. But let’s not toy around with the destructive propensity and capability of our species which could have played a significant role in the demise of the Neanderthals and could also threaten our very own existence.

Life on Earth now is multifaceted and more complex than when we were still cohabiting our planet with other human species. The ancient “us and them” have become the modern and ironically complicated “among us,” and consequentially “us versus us.” We have become the only remaining human species—but the only remaining species that wants to destroy itself for self-interest.     

Reflecting on the implications of our being the only human species left on Earth, I deduce the following principles for our international relations.

As one human species living on one planet:

The principle of cohabitation

We all have the rights to peacefully and productively cohabit on planet Earth without the sequestration of others due to superficialdiversity such as geographical locations, skin color, social ideology, and culture; or because of national or corporate resource exploitation.

The principle of mutual survival

We cannot survive without the human ecosystem. Human life is a multidimensional ecosystem. It cannot survive and thrive with only one feature or characteristic in one locality. It necessitates global diversity and mutuality. For our species to survive, our relations need to be based on mutual universal survival.

The principle of co-thriving

We cannot thrive secluded from the universal life system. Regression and destruction of one geographical locus, one ethnicity, or one natural feature impacts the whole bio-societal system. Inversely, the flourishing of one locus, one ethnicity, or one natural feature in conjunction with others, furnishes the whole human system to thrive.

The principle of developmental competition

We have both the latent propensity for destructive bouts and a penchant for developmental competition. International relations based on destructive bouts eventually inflect global crises. Global relations based on developmental competition advance our civilization. Each progress in a varied sphere, though will not be the same, complements the whole progression.  

The principle of common home protection

We only have one home, one present habitat for our species to live and thrive, and one human family. Allowing these to decay will not only result in our degeneration but also the eventual risk of our survival.

As homo sapiens, we are at the top of the food chain and intolerant. We want to devour everything we can see and irrationally have the delusion of grandeur of being the only predator left. But the prey and the predator are one and the same. It’s not so naïve to outline what can be tagged as an idealistic theoretical construct. But let’s also accept the fact that the most influencing factors in our international relations are either commercially exploitive or ideologically invasive. And these are not sustainable and globally beneficial—for they are calculated goodness intended for the temporal benefits of the very few. The principle of the common good will enable us to see more beyond our present state and ensure the well-being and future of our species. 

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International Law

UN 2.0: Reimagining our global organization for a world in flux

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Working towards better results on the ground and focused on the future, the UN family is undergoing a reset that will give rise to more agile, tech-savvy and impactful UN organizations.This transformation in skills and culture, encapsulated in the Secretary-General’s vision of a UN 2.0, is focused on fostering cutting-edge capabilities in data, digital, innovation, foresight and behavioural science – to deliver stronger results, better Member State support, and faster progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals.

During a roundtable with Member States, a group of UN leaders and experts explained the potential and strategies of UN 2.0. They highlighted early success stories, that, when replicated, will boost on-the-ground impact of a stronger, more flexible and modern UN. 

This event came before the launch of the Secretary-General’s policy brief on the issue of a UN 2.0 revamp.

At the core of UN 2.0 is the so-named ‘Quintet of Change’, a powerful combination of data, innovation, digital solutions, foresight, and behavioural science solutions.

Opening the discussion, Melissa Fleming, the Under-Secretary-General for Global Communications, emphasized the need for change, highlighting that the progress towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – adopted by all UN Member States in 2015 as a blueprint for peace and prosperity – is currently not on track

Responding to the growing demand for reform, UN 2.0 represents a shift in how UN system organizations operate, aiming to accelerate progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). 

Guy Ryder, the Under-Secretary-General for Policy, who brings extensive experience from his decade-long tenure leading the International Labour Organization (ILO), explained that the purpose of UN 2.0 is to equip UN organizations with the contemporary expertise required to be an effective partner for Member States in the twenty-first century.

A transformed UN leaves no one behind

Catherine Pollard, the Under-Secretary-General for Management Strategy, Policy, and Compliance, explained that the primary beneficiaries of UN 2.0 are the people the UN serves in its 193 member countries. “But equally important, UN 2.0 is about UN organizations themselves, because they will develop new skills, new talent, new purpose to better deliver our mandate.”

The UN continues to be a relevant player in the multilateral arena. To maintain this relevance, Ms. Pollard said, the Organization will develop employees’ skills, offer more training, attract new talents, and improve human resources policies.

Like many things in the modern world, UN 2.0 will be driven by digital solutions and cutting-edge technologies. Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer of UNDP, the UN agency promoting international development, advocated for the potential that new technologies offer and contemplated on what the future can bring. 

“AI is the current challenge, but there will be quantum computing and other breakthroughs around the corner, what we haven’t even anticipated,” he said, adding that when the ‘Quintet of Change’ is successfully implemented across the UN system, the Organization’s agility in responding to new challenges and in helping Member States will increase dramatically. 

Data, digital innovation, foresight and behavioural science play key roles  

The UN is actively supporting Member States in their pursuit of new solutions. A network of innovation labs has been established in more than 90 countries, serving as platforms for sharing new expertise in technology, data and other areas.

One notable success story comes from Indonesia, explained Faizal Thamrin, Data Scientist at UN Global Pulse Asia-Pacific. He illustrated how his team collaborated with the Government and thousands of small and medium enterprises to prepare for the future. Additionally, the team’s data analytics skills, combined with Indonesia’s experience, helped replicate early warning systems for natural disasters across the region.

UN 2.0 extends beyond data and digital solutions. Behavioural science, a multidisciplinary field that integrates insights from psychology, economics, communications, data science, sociology, and more, plays a crucial role in the ‘Quintet of Change’. 

Claire Hobden, an ILO expert on domestic work, provided an example from Argentina’s informal sector. With support from UN colleagues, the Government was able to significantly expand social security coverage to domestic workers, such as nannies and caregivers, who are often hard to reach. 

“Through a very small intervention we  hope to be able to give more people access to social security, realizing their rights and access to decent work,” said Ms. Hobden noting the huge potential of replicating these methods, as there are 75 million such workers around the globe.

‘With new tools, we can do better’ 

In conversation with senior diplomats, Mr. Ryder emphasized that UN 2.0 is about potential of doing our job better “if we take a fresh look at some of the things we’ve been doing for a long time.”

Commenting on the journey ahead for UN colleagues, Mr. Ryder said “What you’ve done has been great. Now we have new tools. Let’s pick up those new tools, use them and maybe we can improve on what we’ve done before. It’s not saying what happened in the past was bad. It’s saying what we do in the future can be better”.

The event was co-organized by the Permanent Missions of Norway and the Republic of Indonesia to the United Nations in partnership with the Executive Office of the Secretary-General.

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