Do international law, global institutions and the world powers uphold the cherished principles of the rule of law, human rights and democracy?
Something is seriously wrong with the current world order. After the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations, there were many hopes that the future would be peaceful. These hopes were based on the hypothesis that the rule of law, democracy and human rights would ensure peace and harmony in the world. However, the reality is the opposite. At present, the countries are fighting amongst themselves on the basis of theories such as “national interests”. The rule of law is being openly violated, human rights are being abused — despite the international declarations related to human rights — and the very notion of democracy is being challenged.
Islamic State has successfully established a presence in the Middle East and parts of Asia and continues its territorial conquests through inhumane means: suicide bombings, attacks on Muslims and non-Muslims, destroying historical buildings and terrorising women and children. The European Union (EU) is facing the challenge of survival, particularly now that Greece has defaulted. Scepticism about the euro is on the rise and there has been talk of holding referendums about the future of the EU. In Asia, the conflicts over the South China Sea are threatening security. The conflicts between the two nuclear states, India and Pakistan, pose the threat of another nuclear crisis.
Another reason for the conflict is the rising inequalities spurred by the phenomenon of globalisation. The gap between the rich and the poor is widening and has serious implications for peace and stability in the future. Such violent conflicts and crises all over the world raise the question: is the current world order capable of managing the crises? Do international law, global institutions and the world powers uphold the cherished principles of the rule of law, human rights and democracy? Unfortunately, the answer is no.
The survival of the world order depends upon whether the superpowers show leadership and intervene to solve the ongoing crises. After World War II, two countries emerged as superpowers: the US and the USSR. This bipolarity managed to preserve the status quo during the Cold War between the two powers. After the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, a new order, led by the US, emerged. During the 1990s, the US was the only superpower that managed to spread the ideals of the rule of law, human rights and democracy all over the world through its active foreign policy, based on the idealist notion that the expansion of these principles would ensure international peace. This situation changed with the start of the 21st century.
Now, the world order is no longer led by a single superpower. Rather, power has been distributed and the world is multi-polar. Different countries, such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa have a place in the global power structure. In this multi-polar world order, there has been a decline in the influence of the US and the dispersion of power. A new trend is also emerging: the rise of China. In the world order characterised by the diffusion of power, China has a major share. It is aggressively translating its economic success into geopolitical influence. But the problem is that the current world order is not reflective of these changing realities. The US is still uncomfortable in accepting that it is no longer a superpower and it has to take along major countries like China to provide the leadership to the world and to preserve the world order.
In order to sustain the current world order and to bring about international peace and security, the international order needs to be redefined so that it better reflects the geopolitical realities. The current world order is reflective of the post-World War II realities, when the world was dominated by the US and the USSR. International institutions like the UN, IMF and World Bank reflect the realities of that time. Let us look at the example of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). There are five permanent members — Russia, the US, China, UK and France — who have veto power. So, to enforce the UN charter, especially Chapter seven, there has to be a consensus amongst the permanent members. The exercise of veto power by any member can stall the whole process.
Now, the realities have changed. The US openly supports Israel, which is permanently in conflict with Palestine to the extent of openly violating human rights. Therefore, the US would never welcome any resolution against Israel. The same is the case with China. If China becomes aggressive in the case of the South China Sea and manages to take control of the disputed islands, how will the Security Council react? UK and France are no longer great powers to have the roles of protectors of international peace. The solution lies in reforming the UNSC. Efforts must be made to make the Security Council more reflective of today’s needs.
There is also a need to revitalise the international system to reinforce the values that it is based upon. There is a need to revitalise the concepts of democracy, rule of law and human rights. All around the world, citizens are frustrated with the way their governments work. The growing inequalities have further disenfranchised them, thereby affecting the system of democracy. Democracy needs to be given new meaning to make it more reflective of the people’s demands. There is a need to further theorise the concepts of participatory democracy and local governments. There is also a need for collaboration amongst the major powers to bring about a united perspective on international issues. The prolonged conflict in the Middle East is the result of differing interests of the US, Russia and China.
The writer is a political analyst based in Islamabad. He tweets @hassanshahjehan and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Reinvigorating the International Order | Hassan Shahjehan