How much do we still want a rules-based international order?

At the end of the recent G7 meeting, participants declared their commitment to ‘democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights’. How many had fingers crossed behind their backs? Boris Johnson for one, but probably others, spared their own blushes by the blatant fraudulence of their host regarding Northern Ireland.

But it is not just Northern Ireland. Last week his government declined its obligations under Common Article 1 of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, ‘to ensure respect for the present Convention in all circumstances’. After Israel’s recent punitive and extensive destruction of life and property in the Gaza Strip, the UK rightly rebuked Hamas for its undoubted war crimes but declined to rebuke Israel, essentially because it is ‘an important strategic partner for the UK’. To our shame, we pick and choose. Currently, the UK defies the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea regarding the Chagos Islands, which in January ruled that the UK has no sovereignty, confirming the same conclusion by the International Court of Justice in February 2019. Of course, the UK should have recognised the human rights of the Chagossians at the outset in 1965, or when challenged in the ensuing decades. Persistent failure to do so constitutes a crime against humanity. I feel sullied and I expect you do too.

Look, too, at the United States. Like the UK, it disregards international law (IL) when this suits it. In 2017 it recognised Israeli sovereignty over the whole of Jerusalem, violating a fundamental principle of international conduct: ‘the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war’, and repeated the offence regarding the Golan in March 2019. Last December it offered Morocco recognition of sovereignty over Western Sahara, territory occupied since 1975, on condition that it normalised ties with Israel.

We like to think this was simply Trump and that now things will change. ‘We’re back’, Biden proclaims, but what has he done about these flagrantly illegal acts? Not so much and currently it does not look as if he is going to. And to be fair to Biden (and Trump), the US and UK, twin architects of the Atlantic Charter and thus of the post-1945 rules-based order, have been busy eroding this order since the turn of the century, obviously with regard to their invasion of Iraq in 2003 (remember our principled legal adviser, Elizabeth Wilmshurst?) but in other ways, for example the way their much vaunted but futile Quartet Road Map ignored the prohibition on negotiating tracts of territory while still these are ‘occupied’. Almost no one has talked about this particular illegality, but perhaps one must put this down to widespread media ignorance about the law. Only three weeks ago, a distinguished Channel Four journalist referred to the Polisario Front as a secessionist organisation, as if Western Sahara were legitimately Moroccan.

When it comes to international law, politicians are insufficiently respectful, while journalists seem insufficiently knowledgeable. Five years ago, I trawled the published memoirs of British foreign secretaries since 1967. Each mentioned the Israel-Palestine conflict as a headache. Not one, though, mentioned relevant IL, even though it is crucial to any resolution not only of that particular conflict but elsewhere, for example, Western Sahara, northern Cyprus, or Crimea (where we hypocritically remembered it). When did you last hear a journalist quiz a politician on one of these issues with the question ‘And what legal obligations does this situation place on the United Kingdom, Minister’?’ This is no idle question, for how do we get other states to respect the law if we do not do so ourselves? In 1946, Churchill reminded us that the League of Nations ‘did not fail because of its principles or conceptions. It failed because these principles were deserted by those States who had brought it into being.’ The rules-based order is in peril today. It would be good to see the UK and US (and other parliamentary democracies) chivvied into greater respect for international law by persistent, well-versed journalists and media. What can we do about it?

* David McDowall worked for UNRWA in the 1970s, and was an Oxfam relief worker during Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Since then he’s written on Middle Eastern and British history.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • This article is a reminder that something enormously valuable created by previous generations has been lost. David McDowall lays out a pretty damning case against those supposed to be upholding international law. I don’t know which view of history applies in this case; Trump, Putin and Johnson are examples of the influential leader idea. They each discovered you can tear up the rule book and get away with it, and yet each is arguably a product of his times. In Johnson’s case the Brexit fiasco gave life to the populism which propelled him into power, and however flawed that process was, it is undeniable that a large mass of the British public wanted to retreat to the simplistic world we are now in, where gut-feel and tabloid headlines steer the ship of state. Arguably Johnson is just sitting on top of the wave created by the ‘will of the people’.
    David specifically refers us to some of the major breaches of international law, and asks us what we can do about it.
    With a leader like Johnson in power, the answer seems to be not much. His ability to ignore legal obligations is part of his ‘charm’ for many voters, and some argue that democracy inevitably ends in the kind of complacency that gave us leaders like Trump and Johnson. However, the Trump era is already over, and there is no reason (yet) to suppose the Johnson era will last much longer than Trump’s. I draw some strength from the way the EU referendum vote was correlated so closely with age. As we know, young people voted with an eye on the future, and in a spirit of co-operation and friendship with our neighbours, while it was mainly the elderly who voted to pull up the draw-bridge, and dream of the past glories, real and imaginary.
    Exactly how those young people are going to re-instate belief in international law is a little beyond the reach of my crystal ball, but I think it will happen. Those willing to march on the streets of many world capitals last month to protest against the bombing of Gaza were a start.

  • It was the the refusal of the other parties (and many from his own party) to deliver the result of the referendum that swept Johnson into power with a massive majority.

  • International law and the rules based international order are not synonymous terms and are subject to widely differing interpretations. The rules based international order is a more ambiguous term that encompasses concepts of ‘democracy’, ‘human rights’, ‘fundamental freedoms’, ‘diversity’ and more. As this article writes “It is primarily political voices that advocate for the “rules-based order” however, they often assume that they also embody lawyers’ commitment to the “international rule of law.” Yet, focusing directly on international law, it is increasingly clear that the legal core of the overburdened rules-based order may already be irreparably fractured”.
    ” …predominantly Western voices have sought to confirm that unified understandings are properly to be found in the institutions and understandings of law defining the post-Second World War, and especially post-Cold War, status quo of international order.
    It is increasingly clear that this core aspect of the rules-based order, stability fixed on universal legal rules, is now all but unattainable in the Indo-Pacific”.
    That may well apply anywhere outside of the Western democracies.

  • David’s question ‘what can we do about it?’ remains largely unanswered, in these pages and elsewhere. The Geneva Conventions were written immediately after World War II, when Hitler’s attempt to expand Germany eastwards had devastated Europe and cost upward of twenty million Russian lives. Fresh in everyone’s mind then, those events are distant now, made more unreal to modern voters by decades of peace in Europe. Clearly this is one reason why those laws were written in deadly earnest and yet are now so glibly ignored.
    However, wars still happen, and David rightly mentions the illegal invasion of Iraq. It is easy to forget that international law was still being respected in 2003; Parliament had to be lied to and told that the Attorney General had confirmed that invading Iraq was legal.
    It is also easy to write off the current prime minister as a narcissist. He may well be, but that is not always a bad thing in a leader. When he has finished fighting Covid ‘on the beaches and the landing grounds’ and anywhere else it dares to invade Great Britain he will be attracted to gestures that make him seem genuinely statesman-like. Creating a political landscape in which he can realise those ambitions by doing good is a job for all of us. Upholding International Law has a noble ring to it, and one that could be made to appeal to someone trying to make sure his performances on Have I Got News For You aren’t the only thing he’s fondly remembered for.

  • Helen Dudden 16th Jun '21 - 6:31am

    Johnson does not respect regulations or law, end of subject.
    As I read about Grenfell, and other cladding issue’s, this is within our borders. There is some thoughts now, on making disabled people pay for certain reports.
    The problems with Brexitt carry on, the oven ready deal, that was just word’s. We have laws on meat products, but with buying from the USA what value does this have?

  • Peter Hirst 20th Jun '21 - 4:19pm

    The United Nations as the creator and enforcer of international law must bear some responsibility. It suits many countries for it to be weak or malfunctioning. Failure to observe treaties must have consequences. Certainly being a signatory and then disobeying that same resolution should result in sanctions. Funding it is an issue and making that independent of nation states would help.

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