Who will take the lead?
by Satya Sivaraman, TGTE Parliament joint session, December 1, 2023
Theme: New Mechanisms and Norms for International Peace and Justice
Watching the horrific violence against civilian populations by the Israeli Defence Forces in Gaza the memories of many Tamils around the world must have gone back to the large-scale massacre of Eelam Tamils at Mullaivaikal in 2009.
Some in the international media have described the killing of over 14000 residents of Gaza in less than two months of bombing by the Israelis as the ‘largest death toll of a war in the shortest time this Century’. They are wrong because that dubious record still remains with Mullaivaikal which saw anywhere between 70,000 to over 100,000 civilians killed in just a few months.
From the beginning of 2009 the so called No Fire Zone in Mullaivaikal designated by the Sri Lankan government was densely packed with civilians, men, women and children, similar to the demographic situation in Gaza. It is estimated that there were between 300,000 and 330,000 civilians in that small area, which was deliberately shelled, including refugee camps and hospitals, by Sri Lankan armed forces with the intention of genocide.
The Report of the UN Secretary-General’s Panel of Experts on Accountability in Sri Lanka in 2011 found that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed by the Sri Lankan military. It concluded that “the conduct of the war represented a grave assault on the entire regime of international law designed to protect individual dignity during both war and peace”.
The findings of the ‘UN Internal Review Panel’ in 2012 headed by Charles Petrie exposed the colossal failure of the UN to stop the killings at Mullaivaikal.
“…events in Sri Lanka mark a grave failure of the UN to adequately respond to early warnings and to the evolving situation during the final stages of the conflict and its aftermath, to the detriment of hundreds of thousands of civilians and in contradiction with the principles and responsibilities of the UN.”
We see a similar failure of international institutions today, including the UN in Gaza, where Israel acts with complete impunity – committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and with its leaders making open threats of genocide against the Palestinians. Nothing seems to have been learned from Mullaivaikal, nothing has changed. We have in fact gone back to the lawlessness of the nineteenth century when colonial powers killed and displaced millions to grab their territories or resources with impunity
The massive human tragedy of the two World Wars that left over 100 million people dead, including the Jewish Holocaust, produced the slogan ‘Never Again’. It saw the creation of a liberal international order with strong legal frameworks and institutions like the United Nations to prevent aggression by states, safeguard human rights and enable self-determination of peoples.
However, for the last three decades, since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of a so called ‘Unipolar World’, dominated by the United States and its allies, there has been a clear undermining of this rules-based system. Instead of Never Again, what we have now is ‘Again and Again’.
No, this is not about the hypocrisy of the United States or the West alone, which preach democracy and human rights to the world, while violating these concepts whenever it suits them. It has more to do with the simple fact that absolute power, even in the hands of an otherwise benevolent system, will turn despotic if not challenged by other centers of power.
Democracy, whether with a nation or internationally, is not about good intentions of X or Y state. It is about the balance of power, indeed a balance of terror, between different players. And speaking of terror it is quite clear now that if you kill 20 people you are called a terrorist but if you kill 20,000 you are exercising your Right to Self-Defence! And if you murder 200,000 you become worthy of global admiration and respect and called a Superpower!
But more about this later, first let us look at the ways in which international law has been severely undermined in recent times:
Violation of Sovereignty: Powerful countries have bypassed the UN to undertake unilateral military interventions against other states to engineer coercive political change. Examples include the 2003 US invasion of Iraq over suspect WMDs, Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and the 2022 Ukraine invasion violating territorial integrity. Such acts threaten the sovereignty of weaker nations protected under the UN Charter and existing treaties.
Undermining Human Rights Commitments: Both US and Russia have withdrawn from important human rights institutions like the UN Human Rights Council for political reasons. The legitimacy and effectiveness of bodies meant to investigate rights violations during conflicts are being actively blocked, like Russia vetoing UN resolutions concerning its soldiers’ alleged atrocities in Syria and Ukraine. Rights groups accuse the US of underreporting civilian deaths from its air campaigns. These erode global norms and enforcement around rights frameworks.
Weakening the International Criminal Court: The International Criminal Court was set up to prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity where national jurisdictions fail to act. But when accusations have turned against American or Russian leaders, like possible Afghan war crimes probes, these nations have dismissed the ICC’s legitimacy instead of engaging transparently. This defanging of independent institutions emboldens the worst global offenders.
Enabling Abuses by Allies: Despite treaty obligations, dominant western powers enable client states and strategic allies to carry out atrocities without consequence, due to geopolitical considerations. For example, human rights organizations have accused the US of ignoring abuses by partners like Saudi Arabia and Israel. Similar criticism has been made of Russian support for widely condemned actions by states like Syria. Attempts to bring Sri Lanka to account for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the civil war have been stalled by China. Such partisan interpretation of international law severely damages its credibility and in fact renders it useless. A law that is not enforceable is not a law at all and merely wishful thinking.
The unilateral imposition of outcomes by whoever wields more hard power, over mediation through neutral institutions – recalls the failed League of Nations era that led to World War Two. It is obvious that urgent course correction is essential for global stability and perhaps for the survival of humanity itself – because if this trend continues it will only end in a nuclear war someday.
What are the new mechanisms needed?
The wars of aggression carried out by the US in Iraq, Russia in Ukraine, and Israel in Gaza have raised concerns about the adherence to key international institutions, laws, and norms. Here are some of the key reforms that are required:
- Democratization of Decision-Making: A more democratic approach within international institutions ensures that the views of smaller countries are taken into account. Reforms in the UN Security Council that limit the influence of major powers and promote inclusivity can enhance the legitimacy of decisions. The veto power of five countries over the entire UN system should be removed- it is a complete anachronism and violates the most basic tenets of democracy. Every country should have an equal vote in global institutions like the United Nations.
- Strengthening International Courts: Empowering international judicial bodies with the ability to prosecute individuals, irrespective of their nationality, for war crimes and violations of international law can contribute to a fair and just global order.
- Enhanced Accountability: Mechanisms that enhance accountability for violations, including the establishment of an international body to investigate and adjudicate on alleged violations promptly, can act as a deterrent and promote adherence to international norms. In other words, along with the International Criminal Court, an international police force is also needed. A law that cannot be enforced is not a law at all, but mere wishful thinking.
- Universal Adherence: Encouraging universal adherence to international treaties and conventions, without exemptions for powerful nations, is crucial for upholding the rule of law globally. The question of any nation opting out of the jurisdiction of the ICC should not arise at all. That would be like the mafia claiming immunity because it does agree with the idea of rule of law.
- Promotion of Dialogue: Emphasizing diplomatic solutions, conflict resolution through dialogue, and a commitment to peaceful means can prevent resorting to wars of aggression and foster a more cooperative international environment.
However, none of these objectives are likely to be achieved without the mobilisation of all those who are suffering from unilateralism and the ‘might is right’ attitude of powerful countries and forces around the world.
It is my belief that the TGTE should play a leading role globally by creating a coalition of nations, groups and the public at large for this essential and noble cause of deepening global democracy.
As the keynote speaker today morning Mr. Robert Avetisyan indicated there are many around the world waiting for such an initiative, for a ‘Campaign for Global Democracy’ or a Global Campaign for Peace and Justice. This could include smaller nations being bullied by bigger ones; groups fighting for national liberation; victims of ethnic, religious cleansing; and all those whose basic human rights have been violated.
Not an easy task but very essential to re-establish global norms, restore the credibility of international institutions and to show respect all those who have died fighting to strengthen democracy in different contexts around the world.
Satya Sivaraman, Communications Coordinator, ReAct Asia Pacific