Tag Archives: international norms

The Global Politics of Landmines

landmines_credit_Mary_WarehamIn a surprising move, the White House issued a statement declaring that it would no longer produce or purchase anti-personnel landmines and it would not update its existing stockpile. The announcement came at a meeting in Mozambique on the Ottawa Convention, also known as the Mine Ban Treaty. The Convention, technically a United Nations treaty, has been signed by 161 states, but not by the United States, China, or Russia, the world’s three largest producers of landmines. The United State stopped short of saying it would join the treaty, but a statement issued by National Security Council spokesperson Caitlin Hayden said that the United States was “diligently pursuing solutions that [might] ultimately allow the United States to accede to the Ottawa Convention.”

The United States has long maintained that it supports the humanitarian concerns expressed under the treaty, and the US government has provided more than $2 billion to aid in mine clearance efforts around the world. But it also maintained a stockpile of more than 10 million mines, and had continued efforts to develop “next generation” mines that could be remotely activated and deactivated. It had also asserted that mines were a central part of plans to protect US forces, most notably in the Korean peninsula, where a minefield with more than 1.2 million mines have been deployed.

At the same time, there is considerable pressure on the United States to join the treaty, and with more than 160 signatories, a strong case could be made that the anti-landmine effort represents a growing international consensus. But given the anarchic nature of the international system, some question whether it is in the national interest for the United States to limit its options in future conflicts.

What do you think? Should the United States join the Ottawa Convention? Why?

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Is the UN Security Council Broken?

The UN Security Council votes on a resolution endorsing an Arab League peace plan for Syria. The resolution was defeated by vetoes from Russia and China.

Yesterday’s veto, by Russia and China, of a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Syria’s crackdown on regime opponents and supported an Arab League plan to end the violence has provoked outrage from Western governments, human rights organizations, and international relations experts.  The veto came amid a brutal crackdownin the city of Homs that reportedly left over 200 people dead.  Russia and China claim that the resolution unfairly singled out Syria’s government for blame and ignored the culpability of opposition fighters.

The Syria crisis is only the latest in a series of cases in which the UN has failed to act against atrocities seemingly condemned by its charter due to the veto power granted to the “Big Five” permanent members of the Security Council: the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China.  If any of these five members votes against a Security Council resolution, the resolution is automatically defeated.  (The Syria vote was 13 in favor and 2 opposed).

Even the UN’s strongest supporters have expressed great disappointment at this vote and have suggested that the UN has failed in one of its core missions.  UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement saying the vote “undermines the role of the United Nations and the international community in this period when the Syrian authorities must hear a unified voice calling for an immediate end to its violence against the Syrian people.”

Middle East expert Marc Lynch likewise highlighted the serious implications–far beyond Syria–of this failure: “…The failure of the UN to act, as Secretary General Ban Ki Moon suggested, harms the institution itself by revealing its inability to act in defense of the Charter’s promise. The next stages, whether military or not (and I expect not), will more resemble the Kosovo and Iraq campaigns which were launched without international legitimacy. This will significantly undermine the prospects that such actions will contribute to the positive development of international norms of atrocity prevention or the more controversial ‘responsibility to protect.'”

Is it time to drastically reform the UN, perhaps by eliminating the veto privileges of the Big Five, a group of countries that is increasingly unrepresentative of the international community at large?  Does the Syria vote cast doubt on the continued utility of the UN as an instrument of international peace and security in the 21st century?

Is State Sovereignty a Privilege of the Strong?

Former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on Trial in the Hague.

State sovereignty—the right to independence and noninterference in one’s internal affairs—is a bedrock principle of today’s international system.  It is an important international norm (a widely accepted rule prescribing appropriate behavior), it is enshrined in the United Nations charter, and its history can be traced back to the genesis of the modern Westphalian system in 1648.  However, as constructivists have pointed out, sovereignty is an evolving norm: at one time the powerful states of Europe—the leaders of the international system—only viewed fellow white, Christian countries as deserving of sovereignty, a view that justified imperialism in Africa, Asia, and elsewhere.  The norm evolved gradually as a wider and wider group of countries was seen as deserving of sovereignty, and today the principle is widely accepted as applying universally.

While the sovereign equality of all states is a principle that today’s countries praise and claim to respect, there is growing evidence that for a certain class of countries, sovereignty has its limits. 

In March 2011 the UN Security Council authorized member states to use force to protect Libya’s civilians from a brutal crackdown by Colonel Muammar Qaddafi.  NATO forces have essentially taken the side of the rebels in Libya’s civil war and some leaders, including President Obama, have called for Qaddafi to step down.  In a similar case a decade earlier, NATO forces bombed Belgrade, eventually forced Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic from power, and paved the way for an independent Kosovo after Milosevic had unleashed a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Albanians in Kosovo—a province of Serbia and thus ostensibly an “internal matter.”  This week’s arrest of war criminal Ratko Mladic in Serbia and his extradition to the war crimes tribunal in the Hague is only the latest example of political and military officials being held accountable to supranational authorities including the International Criminal Court.  The ICC, under its ambitious Chief Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo, has gone so far as to issue arrest warrants for sitting heads of state including Sudan’s Omar Al-Bashir and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi.

In short, international norms seem to be evolving away from unconditional sovereignty and toward a “responsibility to protect” doctrine that says if governments fail to protect their own people from grave human rights abuses the international community has the right to intervene to do so.  But is this high-minded doctrine applied selectively to target only those countries who lack the political clout, economic pull, or military muscle to defend their own sovereignty?  Do China and Russia get away with human rights abuses because of their great power status and UN Security Council veto privileges?  Does Saudi Arabia get off the hook because of its oil wealth and powerful benefactors?  Does America’s superpower status render its political and military elites immune from ICC action despite allegations that the U.S.is responsible for war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan?  If the answer to each of these questions is “yes,” is there anything that can be done about it, or was the historian and early realist Thucydides correct when he famously said that “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must”?