How do we adress the limitations of the international community?

One day, a great friend of mine asked me what the international community should do regarding the crisis between Hong Kong and China (the former being a semi-independent state from the latter). At first, I gave him a personal and emotional answer, but then I realized that passionate responses are mostly useless in these kinds of discussions. I should have based my arguments on a more solid foundation and considered the principles of international law. There is, however, an enormous vacuum in this context. International law is in fact unable to define the role of the international community in conflicts that are limited within the borders of sovereign states. Hence, when we approach the topic, we are confronted with opinion-based debates rather than fixed rules.

Nevertheless, I wanted to provide a more sophisticated answer to my friend and thus, I decided to do some further research. I structured my investigation around one main question that represented the starting point for the entire analysis. The question was: which international agency should play the role of representing the international community amid a border-limited dispute? The most intuitive answer is: the United Nations.

The United Nations 

According to the liberal theory of international relations (which argues that international institutions play a key role in cooperation among states), the United Nations is the international body requested to intervene on behalf of the international community in case of border-confined conflicts. Because of its global recognition, the UN is arguably the only organization legitimized to play a role during an internal dispute.

Even though this perspective seems promising, there are evident structural problems inside the UN which prevent it from ever becoming an institution allowed to intervene in national confrontations on a legal basis. The UN unifies hundreds of countries in one institution, but its security council is governed only by five of them, the well-known veto-powers: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. Through the veto power, these countries can block any UN intervention if it challenges their political interests. The UN has faced the possibility of becoming a rule-based institution with the ability to play a significant role in national issues many times, but every attempt has failed miserably because of these dynamics.

For instance, Russia used its veto power against an intervention during the 1999 war in Kosovo. Regardless of the evident violations of human rights in this conflict, Russia blocked any intervention possibility merely because of its political alliance with the Milosevic regime, which was at the head of the Yugoslavian Republic and included Kosovo at the time.

Alternative solutions 

Acknowledging that the actions of the UN are largely limited by structural problems, raises the question as to who is legitimized to represent the international community in these cases. Theoretical and empirical evidence on this topic suggests two possible alternatives: coalitions of the states that have the largest military and economic power or regional actors. Both arguments are based on the assumption that these groups of states may be able to offer the best intervention in different ways. Powerful states have the economic and military power to pressure the country in question. However, many argue that this approach sustains the dominant position of the most powerful countries and maintains a global hierarchy, rather than addressing the real causes of many conflicts. Neighbouring countries, on the other hand, can exercise a stronger political and social influence on the critical country because of their strategic geographical position.

Even though these lines of thinking have their logic, they both fail to provide any kind of legitimacy to these exclusive groups of states that should theoretically represent the international community. Furthermore, the interventions of powerful or neighbouring states that have happened in the past (without a legal basis) have demonstrated that these options can be extremely dangerous. The ongoing crisis in Libya (where the involvement of powerful states such as Russia and France as well as regional actors such as Turkey, Egypt and Jordan is evident) represents a very unfortunate case.

Need for a new perspective

Taking everything into account, it seems that there are many issues related to the presence and activity of the international community in national conflicts. If institutions such as the UN are paralized because of internal, structural tensions, who has the legitimacy to get involved in a national conflict? Should foreign countries have the right to intervene in these disputes and if so based on what? We have seen that the intervention of the most powerful countries can actually cause more harm than good. Regional involvement can also be problematic, considering that neighbouring countries will always have their own agenda and are likely to seek to expand their influence in the area. Recent scholarship argues that there is a need for a more local approach to internal conflicts. However, in many cases the actors involved do not have sufficient resources or an efficient institutional framework to regulate internal conflict.

It seems that the dilemma of who should intervene is far from being solved. Perhaps the most ideal solution is a hybrid approach: the engagement of international institutions with local actors based on equality and collaboration. However, in order to avoid power imbalances one very important thing has to change: international institutions need to be reformed in a way that is inclusive, so that each member has the same amount of power, starting with the UN security council. By redefining the members and the role of the international community hopefully we will be able to find better solutions to global issues.


References

Nardin, Terry (2013): From Right to Intervene to Duty to Protect: Michael Walzer on Humanitarian Intervention. European Journal of International Law 24(1), 67-82. 

Pape, Robert A. (2012): When Duty Calls: A Pragmatic Standard of Humanitarian Intervention. International Security 37(1), 41-80. 

Pattison, James (2010): Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press.

Social justice: A world scale out of balance

Exactly 12 years ago today, the UN convened the first World Day of Social Justice. Since then, the World Day of Social Justice has been held annually on February 20th, which is why I would like to take advantage of today and draw attention to the complex topic of social justice.

Where do we stand today? I urge all of us who live in a world of seemingly unlimited opportunities and resources to listen up for a moment and hear the grief of those suffering in our world. While we lead a seemingly happy life in our bubble of privilege, the majority of the world is struggling and suffering. We are still far away from the idea of social justice: our economic and social order is severely imbalanced. But who is to blame? It is time to take up the Social Question again.

Especially in times of a global pandemic, it is more necessary than ever to question the world economic and social order and to sensitize ourselves to the social justice we are striving for. COVID-19 represents another major challenge in this regard: the pandemic intensifies the social distribution struggle and throws the scales even more out of balance. Already strained and now collapsing health care systems, work stoppages, economic losses: all this leads to economic and social insecurity, but also social polarization. But the two sides of the coin must be considered here: besides its obvious obstructive characteristics, the pandemic also brings something positive. The momentum of the pandemic provides us with the opportunity to reopen the social question and renegotiate justice. A debate can be sparked about performance and needs, ethics and human dignity, and it can stimulate us to rethink our social, political and consumer behaviour.

Here, the fundamental question suggests itself: what does social justice mean? Aristotle designates justice as the most fundamental and perfect virtue. Interestingly, it is not related to the individual, but to man as a fellow citizen. Justice is something human, that arises from ethics. From Marx and Engels’ approach, social justice is achieved in a classless society. The decisive factor for this is human labor. Rawls shifts the concept into a political dimension and sets the ideal of social justice as the result of a just social order, established by the state. These extensions of the concept have one thing in common: they place man in the environment of his fellow men.

In the dichotomy between “us” and “others”

Perhaps this is the crucial point in the discussion and the answer to the problem of social injustice. Now, why is the question of identity crucial here? With globalization, digitalization and emerging affluence, we have not only become much more connected, but our needs have also changed. Self-actualization is now something we all strive for every day. This is directly based on our self-definition and self-identification: who am I and what makes me different from others? We live in an age of identity, which not only determines our own lives, but has also become a guiding and contentious concept in politics. The ideologies of extremist groups are often based on radical identity politics. Especially in highly emotionally charged debates such as the refugee crisis, this identity formation draws boundaries between “us” and “others”. This has a direct impact on how we formulate our needs and act politically: for the common good or for our own benefit?

To counteract this, we need to reform social coexistence based on the ethical foundation of a sense of community. Mutuality and a sense of responsibility are here the signposts to a society of solidarity that makes social justice possible. We as individuals need to acquire a collective identity in order to shift the focus from our self-interest to that of the community. Rethinking and conceiving our idea of community is the starting point of an approach to social justice and a shift of the global scales.