World risks new age of empires where might makes right, warns Estonian foreign minister

2023 has shown us the misery big-power politics creates. Here’s how we can do things differently.

by Margus Tsahkna, the Estonian Minister of Foreign Affairs

“Our rules-based world is the triumph of peace over war. At least, that’s how the story has been told for the past eight decades. The promise of “never again” has been the raison d’etre for global institutions such as the United Nations and the international criminal court (ICC), which all like to trace their history to the moment when nations emerged from the ruins of the second world war and forged a lasting peace. Rising freedom and prosperity was understood to be the byproduct.

Yet increasing numbers of people around the world no longer believe in that story. Its promise has been broken with the return of full-scale aggression by Russia, along with deteriorating violence and instability around the world. We are witnessing the horrors that this system was supposed to have long ago eliminated.

International institutions now too often seem powerless, at best, to deal with the most serious challenges of our time. At worst, they are complicit in enabling them. With confidence rapidly fading, the entire system risks collapse. That would mean the return to an age of empires in which “might makes right”, and everyone suffers.

I now hear people around the world ask, with ever-increasing urgency, about how we can save our rules-based international system. I also hear frustrations that not everyone seems to be equally invested in saving it. But we cannot merely hope to save the existing rules-based international system from the crises that this system led us to, nor expect everyone to be passionate about something they do not feel is working for them. If it can fail once, it will fail again. It needs fundamental change.

Russia’s ongoing and barbaric war of aggression against Ukraine did not just break the system. It exploited some of its many flaws to degrade its apparently unenforceable norms and values. If that continues, we will all eventually lose interest in saving the system.

In saving a rules-based system, we have to admit how, across Africa and parts of Europe, victims of imperial conquest feel disengaged from it. Similarly, during the second world war the smaller nations of eastern Europe found themselves forced into “spheres of influence” and had horrific aggression unleashed on them.

As someone who grew up under that Soviet occupation, I understand how it feels to be shut off from the world and shut out from decisions affecting your own life and those around you. Our rules-based world is really a continuing story about how we free ourselves from big-power politics and the misery and devastation that it brings to everyone. That’s a story we can all believe in.

We can end big-power politics for good by ensuring everyone has the freedom to contribute to international decision-making. Individuals, communities, even entire nations and regions currently just don’t have a proper say in the decisions that affect them.

We need to forge an international system far more resilient to aggressors, but also far better equipped to deal with poverty, disease, and the climate crisis. That’s why Estonia is calling for a new global conversation about how to make the world fit for freedom. First, we must strengthen the international rules-based order by admitting its flaws and ensuring it better reflects the realities of the 21st century. That includes reform of the UN.

The security council needs additional permanent members to better reflect our modern world. It must also be reminded that it has primary, not exclusive, responsibility for international peace and security. We must protect the world from abusive veto-users. We can do that by supporting the French-Mexican initiative on veto restraint and the code of conduct by the accountability, coherence and transparency group on not voting against resolutions aimed at ending mass atrocities.

But we need to be even more creative and ambitious. That’s why, to get started, we propose forming a core group to analyse the course of action to be taken by the general assembly when a permanent member of the security council tramples on the UN charter.

Just as seriously, the ICC has been left without jurisdiction over the crime of aggression, even though it was established as the supreme crime of international law at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis, and finally defined by all nations in 2010. This is the most striking example of a broken international system that allows the open violation of its most basic of international principles with impunity. The Rome statute of the ICC needs to be reviewed to ensure accountability for this crime without legal restrictions.

In the case of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, we need to urgently address this weakness now. The general assembly must take a lead. It has already repeatedly condemned Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and agreed there must be accountability for international crimes. To enforce this, it must create a special tribunal now to deal with the crime of aggression.

Second, we need to recognise that the countries that most seriously violate international commitments to other countries are also more likely to have already violated their own domestic commitments to their citizenry. The promotion of human rights and basic freedoms needs to become a natural part of global security policy.

Human rights violations cannot simply be ignored in one country when, in reality, they disrupt global inclusion and present dangers to the stability of the wider global system. Fundamentally, it is about ensuring all people are protected from violence. This is essential for those more likely to face risks of harm as a result of their work, such as human rights defenders and journalists. It’s also essential for marginal and vulnerable groups such as women and children, ethnic and religious minorities, refugees, migrants and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
It is also about safeguarding freedom of speech, which includes both the freedom of the media and the freedom of the internet.

Third, we must expand the inclusivity of international policymaking to make a world fit for freedom. That includes enabling the world’s small states and civil society to have a greater say in international matters that are traditionally decided by big states and blocs.

We are at a pivotal moment in world history. The only certainty is that the existing international system cannot survive unchanged much longer. However challenging the world becomes, remember that it was during the very darkest days of the second world war that the rules-based world was developed in its current iteration. In the spring of 1941, almost all of Europe had fallen to the totalitarian powers. While victory for the allies was far from certain, representatives of occupied and allied nations met in bombed-out London to – in their words – “define some purpose more creative than military victory”.

The conversation they started gathered momentum globally and led to the creation of the UN, whose charter they began drafting even prior to D-day, as well as the Nuremberg trials, which laid the foundation for modern international law and the ICC.

That conversation should never have been considered finished. We must not wait for a repeat of the devastation that they endured. We can and must continue the momentum that they started and inspire a new global conversation on making the world fit for freedom.”

Source: The Guardian