The strains on multilateralism are increasing with each passing day. The most recent development is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to revoke the Soviet statement made during the ratification of the Additional Protocol I to the 1949 Geneva Convention that relates to the protection of victims of International Armed Conflicts. In his letter of 16 October 2019 to the speaker of lower house of Russian Parliament on the “recall of the statement made at the ratification”, he said an international commission, set up in order to investigate war crimes against civilians, “has effectively failed to carry out its functions since 1991.” Some Western media reports have speculated that this move is connected to the latest situation in Syria.
The Russian move, like the US President Donald Trump’s decision in July 2018 to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva is a major challenge for the post World War II international order. The US Permanent Representative to the UN in New York at that time Ms Nikki Haley described the Human Rights Council as a “hypocritical and self-serving organization“. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo denounced the Council as “a protector of human rights abusers“. The latter criticism has been re-played in stark manner in the recent days with the victory of Venezuela to the 47-member Human Rights Council.
The progress on the disarmament front has been taking place in fits and starts. The two major players, Russia and USA, seem unable to handle the China factor either creatively or with a sense of purpose. This is also partly because of the state of the respective bilateral relations. The United States’s withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was officially completed on 2 August 2019. Recent reports indicate that talks between Russia and the US on extending the New START treaty (set to expire in early 2021) is running into the China factor hurdle. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in 2018, Russia and the U.S. each have more than 6,000 warheads, followed by France at 300, China at 290, the U.K. at 200, India and Pakistan with over 100 each, Israel at about 80 and North Korea estimated at 20 to 30.
It is not just the liberal internationalism of the World War II vintage that is being undermined. In fact, the most dramatic episodes are being enacted on the platforms of environmentalism and climate change. The climate change skeptics have become energized after the US President Donald Trump refused to continue the association with the Paris Agreement. Even in the discussions between the US and China, these issues have taken a backseat. The checkered history of the green movement has shown that countries are unwilling to commit to legally binding obligations but want others to sign on to the dotted line. But what we are witnessing now is a fundamental challenge to long held assumptions about transnational issues and concerns.
There is more bad news on the other major concern of terrorism. The international collaboration seems to be fraying at the edges with political compulsions overriding all other considerations and in this regard, the absence of a comprehensive treaty with a commonly accepted definition of ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorism’ is a grim reminder. It is indeed instructive to observe how quickly the cards have been shuffled on the Middle East table. Some countries plod on with the medieval ages belief that sending killers across borders to target innocent people is kosher in the twenty-first century international comity of nations.
In the midst of all this the emerging consensus on the need for development is heartening. This is partly the result of the weakening of the European experiment and the dissonance between the polities on the two sides of the Atlantic. The more important reason however is the prosperity that has been manifested in China and India, besides other parts of Asia. However there are apprehensions about China’s intentions especially about their One Belt, One Road initiative. Some argue that the Chinese want to replace the US as the global superpower; others counter by saying that cooperation for infrastructure development cannot and should not be misunderstood. From an Indian perspective, it would not be possible to accept Chinese arguments about a corridor through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. In short, even on the slightly positive dimension of development, there are issues. Alongside the weakening of the institutions that held up the international liberal order especially those related to global trade was the phenomenon of the marginalization of the small states in the global discourse. The role of regional arrangements is one side of the story because the smaller countries do not select themselves. The other side is the fact that the fault-lines between the opposing camps are so stark that these small states can no longer afford to be seen as neutral. The state of affairs in the World Trade Organization’s dispute settlement body does not augur well for the future of the global trade architecture. Finally, there is some good news about the International Court of Justice which has become active again. That countries have started taking the legal approach for settling issues and disputes is a welcome development. So is the increasing spread of the territories that are being governed by the rule of law. If not a democratic wave, a greater degree of legalism and constitutionalism is being witnessed around the world.
In conclusion it is becoming abundantly evident that fissures, in the humanitarian and human rights front, environmental matters, cross border trade, security and disarmament aspects are real and not merely episodic. Perhaps it is time multilateralism paid heed to these changes and adapted its norms, principles and institutions accordingly.