From the rule of law to the ‘age of impunity’

By on 27/06/2019 | Updated on 27/06/2019
Miliband: ‘puerile nativism and fake news’ are weakening the UK and USA’s interest in maintaining the global order (Image courtesy: World Economic Forum).

International law and national democracy are on the retreat, former UK foreign secretary David Miliband said last week – allowing civil wars and rogue states to run out of control. Matt Ross reports on his call for a return to global cooperation

“The new age of impunity is epitomised in the photo of Russian president Putin and Saudi crown prince Salman high-fiving each other at the G20 meeting in Argentina last November,” said David Miliband. “With Syria in ruins, Yemen in crisis, and political opponents like Boris Nemtsov and Jamal Khashoggi dead, theirs was the embrace of two leaders unencumbered by national institutions or the fear of international law.”

Speaking at King’s College London’s Policy Institute last week, Miliband – a former UK foreign secretary, who left British politics in 2013 to become president of US refugee charity the International Rescue Committee – was describing a world in which those engaged in conflicts “believe they can get away with anything. And because they believe they can get away with anything, they do everything.”

“Constraints on the abuse of power are being weakened internationally and nationally at the same time,” he argued, with today’s leaders increasingly ready to disregard human rights both overseas and at home. And this isn’t a problem confined to autocratic states: “The multilateral system is under assault from its cornerstone in the United States, and Brexit represents a further attack here in the UK. Politics on both sides of the Atlantic is besmirched with puerile nativism and fake news.”

So in Miliband’s view, the evident retreat from international collective action is inextricably connected to the rise of populists and autocrats within nation states. “You cannot have a rules-based international order unless you also have rules-based national orders,” he said: a new generation of national leaders dismissive of democratic principles, human rights and the rule of law are as scornful of the structures of global cooperation as their own constitutions and courts.

A few years ago, he said, it was a very different picture. In 2005, 165 nations – including Russia and China – signed a resolution signalling their willingness to support UN interventions to protect civilian populations, including against attacks from their own governments. State sovereignty, they were saying, is trumped by human rights. “It was the high point of international confidence and commitment to uphold the standards not of the ‘western liberal elite’, but of the whole international system established after the Second World War,” said Miliband.

Best of friends: Russia’s president Putin and Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Salman, pictured in the Kremlin in 2017 (Image courtesy:

That tide has long since gone out. Indeed, many would argue that by 2005 it had already turned as a consequence of the 2003 Iraq war, whose doubtful legal status, illusory basis and terrible outcomes turned many westerners against overseas interventions. Miliband described the war as a “strategic disaster”; he was at the time a UK minister, and has previously acknowledged his shared responsibility for its results.

But if Iraq shook the international order, today sees it in headlong retreat: state actors repeatedly flout international law without repercussions, the lack of blowback encouraging them on to greater atrocities. When Nemtsov was gunned down in the shadow of the Kremlin in 2015, Russia at least ensured it could plausibly deny his killing; but when Khashoggi was murdered in a Saudi embassy, the kingdom was caught red-handed – and has suffered no consequences.

The number of aid workers being killed has doubled over the decade, said Miliband, and there were nearly 1000 attacks on health facilities and workers in 2018. In Syria, he added, Russia and Syria were told the precise locations of health facilities in rebel-held areas, so that they could avoid attacking them; within a couple of months, ten had been targeted with air strikes.

States are also much more ready to intervene unilaterally in civil wars overseas. In 1991, just 6% of civil wars involved foreign countries, he said; that figure is now 40%, with each attracting an average of 14 foreign actors. And countries are increasingly willing to apply overwhelming force in a bid to squash their internal opponents; he mentioned Syria, Sri Lanka and Yemen as examples.

It’s no coincidence that this disregard for human rights and law is being reproduced at the national level, Miliband argued: we’re experiencing a global “democratic recession”, with autocrats and populists on the rise. “The Trump administration is leading from the front in [arguing] that national sovereignty trumps human rights,” he said.

It is a bitter irony that these nationalist leaders do cooperate in their efforts to undermine international cooperation – an alliance of interests symbolised by Putin and Salman’s high five. And in answer to a question from the audience, Miliband pointed out that they also act to undermine their enemies, seeking to pull them down the same anti-democratic path.

Russia, he said, is engaged in a “concerted, systematic, ongoing, enduring, effective assault to create instability and dysfunction in western democracy.” Its influence was visible in the UK’s EU referendum and in Germany’s and France’s elections, as well as in Trump’s victory. “And it’s not that Putin wanted Trump to win: he wanted American democracy to look ridiculous,” he added. “So that recession of democracy is partly from within, but it’s also from without. And it is strategic, and it is ruthless.”

Civil strife: internal struggles are becoming more deadly, said Miliband (Image courtesy: Christiaan Triebert).

Brexit provides another illustration of the slide away from international cooperation. “The promise of Brexit was to make Britain an independent rule-maker, but in an interdependent world that is a complete mirage,” he said. “In fact, Brexit reduces our power in global rule-setting and makes us prey to the trade policies of the world’s biggest powers.”

The UK’s silence on Hong Kong’s current democracy protests, he added, demonstrates how Brexit “castrates our foreign policy”: Britain is so “desperate” for a trade deal with China that it dare not speak up.

In answer to another question, Miliband said that he could not understand how the UK’s sales of arms to Saudi Arabia – which uses them against civilians in Yemen – could be legal; coincidentally, on the day of his speech the Court of Appeal ruled them unlawful. And the former foreign secretary noted the suggestions by Tory party leadership contenders that Parliament should be dismissed so the executive can force Brexit through. The UK too is shifting from rule-making to rule-breaking.

And how can progressives, internationalists and democrats rally against this age of impunity? Miliband offered five thoughts.

“Beware the vacuum,” he warned: when nations retreat from their global responsibilities, bad actors fill the space.

Remember that foreign policy ethics are built on domestic affairs, he continued: countries that respect human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles at home also do so abroad.

Third, he noted that this struggle is being fought over a new political dividing line: one “between those who believe the laws and norms that protect individual rights – in foreign policy but also at home – are there to be observed and strengthened,” and those “who say the law is for suckers, internationally and domestically.”

Fourth, he argued that people “need to remake the case for international cooperation from first principles” – explaining the value of global bodies, while working to reform and improve them.

Finally, Miliband pointed out that hard-won rights can be lost as well as gained: citizens must understand the threat, and act to protect their values and freedoms. “Every generation has to refight the fight for civil and political rights. There is no iron law that says: ‘Dictatorships can become democracies, but democracies can’t become dictatorships’,” he concluded. “Just ask the people of Hungary.”

David Miliband’s full speech is available on the International Rescue Committee’s website.

About Matt Ross

Matt is Global Government Forum's Contributing Editor, providing direction and support on topics, products and audience interests across GGF’s editorial, events and research operations. He has been a journalist and editor since 1995, beginning in motoring and travel journalism – and combining the two in a 30-month, 30-country 4x4 expedition funded by magazine photo-journalism. Between 2002 and 2008 he was Features Editor of Haymarket news magazine Regeneration & Renewal, covering urban regeneration, economic growth and community development; and from 2008 to 2014 he was the Editor of UK magazine and website Civil Service World, then Editorial Director for Public Sector – both at political publishing house Dods. He has also worked as Director of Communications at think tank the Institute for Government.

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