Ukraine crisis underscores need for equitable multilateralism


During the UN Security Council debate on Ukraine on Tuesday night, President Volodymyr Zelensky exhorted the council’s members to act, asking rhetorically, “Are you ready to close the United Nations? Do you think that the time for international law is gone?”

Zelensky’s remarks underline the

 feeling of many that the rule of international law has been severely eroded recently and, with it, the revered global rules-based system. Ukraine’s crisis is the latest, but not only, example of the breakdown of the international rules-based system.

Listening to recent UN debates on Ukraine, one notices that international law means different things to different speakers. While it is true there have always been differences in the interpretation of some principles, the post-Second World War innovations, such as the UN and the Bretton Woods institutions, managed to create an emerging consensus over core principles and relations between nations.

Recently, however, the whole idea of one international rules-based system has been challenged in favor of a “competition of systems” — an idea that was popular in the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War.

Although the global system has been in the making since the end of the Second World War, the current nomenclature of the “international rules-based” order or system was shaped largely by Western nations, especially the US, in the 1990s following the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was popularized by Francis Fukuyama’s book “The End of History,” or the end of the postulation of the “competition of systems.”

The new terminology nevertheless acquired many adherents around the world and it became almost a job requirement in many circles to preach the new-old gospel. It was popular because it was anchored in the postwar multilateral system and respect for the UN Charter and international law. But its main attraction was the hope of stability and, with it, prosperity and long-lasting peace.

The Sept. 11 attacks and especially the American reaction to them accelerated the erosion of the consensus around that global rules-based system, as the US and many other countries waged war against terrorism with no holds barred. The tactics employed in the “war on terror” went beyond traditional law many hitherto sacrosanct rules of the new order, such as respect for sovereignty and the inviolability of borders.

The invasion of Iraq, for example, was based on false information and took place without the proper UN Security Council authorization. It opened a Pandora’s box of troubles in the Middle East and contributed to the erosion of the rule of international law, as did the routine use of torture, cross-border apprehensions, targeted assassinations and the warehousing of terrorist suspects for years without trial in Guantanamo Bay.

While the intentions of the campaign against terrorism were mostly noble, the means used in that war contributed to a free-for-all atmosphere that was seized upon by nations with less noble intentions. The new “no-rules-based” chaos allowed Iran to meddle in its neighbors’ affairs using terrorism, sectarian militias and foreign mercenaries to expand its influence at the cost of millions of lives and instability and poverty wherever it went.

Syria’s Bashar Assad also went after his own people with a vengeance, using chemical weapons and indiscriminate aerial bombardments of civilian areas, killing more than 500,000 and torturing and disappearing many more. Half of Syria’s population has been made homeless as refugees or internally displaced people.

The feeble international reaction to the Syrian mayhem dealt another serious blow to the rules-based system, especially when the regime used chemical weapons many times in clear violation of international law.

Myanmar’s genocidal policies against its minorities were also met with little pushback from the international community, other than providing aid to the refugees. And there was hardly any reaction when India stripped Kashmir of its special status in 2019, effectively annexing it in clear violation of many UN resolutions and upending a stable regional arrangement that had lasted for decades.

There are, regrettably, many examples of countries breaking the rules of the post-1990 global order, mostly occurring in the Global South. The limited international action in standing up to those violations has threatened to obliterate any faith in the existence of order. Trade wars between China and the US and the new cold warenforcementcement rules an 

war have also contributed to the declining confidence in the global order.

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