Activist countries

Western countries demand that Russia respect international law – so why don’t they?

With a passion reminiscent of the aftermath of World War II, politicians and commentators are calling for a world order that takes seriously the rules of the United Nations Charter, including respect for sovereignty and fundamental human rights.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the immediate incitement, China’s conduct in the Indo-Pacific region has prompted similar calls.

It’s more than a fight between autocracies and democracies, Fareed Zakaria recently argued in the Washington Post. This moment requires a rules-based international order that has inclusive global appeal beyond Western interests.

Zakaria is joined by Edward Luce in the FinancialTimes in arguing for these calls for a rules-based world order, it is clear that the West must also take these rules seriously, pointing to both the war on terror and the International Criminal Court as proof that this is not not really serious.

The United States, for example, has refrained from joining the tribunal, even as it argues for war crimes trials against Russian soldiers and politicians.

Protests against China’s encroachment on the maritime sovereignty of its neighbors in the South and East China Sea – in violation of the Convention on the Law of the Sea – are also not helped by the failure of the states- States to ratify this treaty or participate in its tribunal (which ruled against China in a landmark 2016 case brought by the Philippines).

Chinese structures and buildings are seen on the artificial island of Mischief Reef in the South China Sea in March 2022. China has fully militarized at least three of the many islands it has built in the disputed South China Sea.
(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

According to international affairs experts Robin Niblett and Leslie Vinjamuri, there is a similar penchant for arbitrariness when it comes to trade rules and the World Trade Organization, health rules and the World Health Organization, and attitudes with regard to development financing in sub-Saharan Africa. They argue that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the fortunes of populist and authoritarian politicians could further erode liberalism.

This only scratches the surface. The essential question is not simply the inconsistency in the respect of rules which have an uncontested legitimacy. Rather, the question is whether these rules have withstood the attacks on their legitimacy by their Western architects.

Hypocrisies of the world order

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to a mass exodus of people, exceeding 6.4 million at this point. Their welcome in neighboring Poland and Hungary stands in stark contrast to the treatment of equally desperate refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen, among others. The conduct of so-called liberal nations – from Britain and France to the Nordic states, Canada and the United States – in terms of welcoming refugees from Ukraine compared to those from other nations is no better. .



Read more: Canada must be as welcoming to Afghan refugees as it is to Ukrainians


The principle of non-refoulement – ​​a guarantee that no one will be returned to a country where they risk torture, degrading treatment or other irreparable harm – is anchored in international law, as is the right to seek asylum. Neither enjoys much respect in the face of populist attitudes, which have become increasingly common among politicians and citizens.

What has been called the “ethical spasm” in the reception of Ukrainian refugees (support for refugee resettlement has reached 76% in Britain) stands out precisely because asylum has otherwise been abandoned as a as a pillar of international humanitarian law, and is replaced by what philosopher Serena Parekh calls “structural injustice” which is comparable to Jim Crow’s segregation laws.

This flagrant lack of respect for the letter and the substance of the rules is linked to the resistance to scrutiny of national compliance with international human rights law. When it comes to Indigenous peoples, for example, colonizing states like Australia, Canada and the United States have dragged their feet on any binding agreement, especially one that respects collective human rights.



Read more: Genocide is fundamental in Canada: what are we going to do about it?


The madness of “freedom of expression”

Incitement to hatred of vulnerable minorities, in violation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, is also now justified by a vague interpretation of “freedom of expression” – a phenomenon we see in white supremacist activism. and Islamophobic, especially on social media.

In Canada, the “Trucker Convoy” protest that openly espoused white supremacy received support from the official opposition inside and outside Parliament. It’s hard to imagine such an accommodation of a non-white protest paralyzing cities and borders for weeks.



Read more: ‘Freedom convoy’ protesters are a textbook case of ‘injured right’


In that vein, what are we to think of liberal Western states skirting the record of India’s egregious misconduct toward religious minorities in order to mobilize a front against Russia and China?

We boldly claim to defend the rights of China’s Uyghurs and Myanmar’s Rohingyas, but ignore Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s equal citizenship rule in his longstanding embrace of a violent Hindu supremacist ideology. This is deliberate sabotage aimed at holding states accountable.

Two men embrace with blue United Nations climate summit signs behind them.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi hugs Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as they attend the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Summit COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland in November 2021.
(AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

Finally, there is an outcry over the “occupation”, which Crimea has endured since 2014 and the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine seems doomed in the aftermath of the Russian invasion.

Foreign occupation is central to the narrative of the fate of Ukraine as David confronts the Russian Goliath. The occupation has put Taiwan on high alert, nervous China could be inspired by Russia.

But what of Palestine, where Israel’s more than half-century occupation is actively financed, militarily supported and legally protected by Western liberal democracies? Gershon Shafir, an American sociologist and human rights expert, explored why this is the case in the face of clear international legal and political norms to the contrary – from the United Nations Charter and the 1949 Geneva Conventions. to explicit judicial decisions and UN resolutions, in addition to essential ethical and humanitarian principles.

The International Court of Justice found in 2004 that Israel’s “separation wall,” built in the name of security against Palestinian attacks, was downright illegal in its intrusion into the occupied territories. This amounted to expanding colonial capture by conquest, a practice explicitly prohibited since the 1960 Declaration on Colonial Peoples and Territories, which no member of the UN objected to.

The unanimous UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 on the question of Palestine affirmed “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war”. Israel, however, ignored the International Court’s finding.

Set of precedents

A major precedent for rejecting judicial findings on an important issue of world order was set by the United States in response to the 1986 International Court of Justice ruling on “Military and Paramilitary Activities Against Nicaragua.” The United States simply rejected the decision of a tribunal that it had helped establish.

An Ipsos poll on public attitudes towards the Russian-Ukrainian conflict reveals, unsurprisingly, a marked divide between North and South. While 82% of people agreed that the conflict poses a great global risk, only 39% (entirely in the north) disagreed with the statement that Ukraine’s problems “are not our business and we must not interfere”.

A man rides a bicycle in front of a building destroyed by bombing.
A man rides a bicycle in front of a building destroyed by shelling in Borodyanka, Ukraine, May 24, 2022.
(AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

It’s not just about the north-south divide at the UN in condemning the invasion; it is about the alienation of civil society and ordinary people from the global order. Which raises the question of whether the very adoption of the rules of the world order has been systematically stifled.