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Fixing the rules-based order: Start with the UN

Fixing the rules-based order: Start with the UN

The US must learn to walk the walk when it comes to international laws and norms. It can start here.

Analysis | Global Crises

U.S. President Joe Biden, in his rousing State of the Union speech, warned that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is on the march, “invading Europe and sowing chaos throughout the world.” There’s no doubt that Russia is a rogue, nuclear-armed state which crushes dissent at home, exports war abroad, and endangers what the United States and its allies call the “rules-based international order.”

But many people around the world — especially civil society activists from the Global South — are not just concerned about Putin’s threats to the rules-based order. We also worry about Biden’s commitment to it. As Israel’s death toll tops 30,000 in Gaza with Washington’s material support and diplomatic cover, many of us shake our heads at Biden’s moral dualism on international norms.

Indeed, if President Biden truly wants to save the rules-based order, he should start by looking at the United States’ own behavior. Then, he should urgently push for United Nations reform that checks both Putin’s influence, and America’s own. Biden’s administration should also back systemic changes that put the world’s people, not the world’s powers, at the center of global decision-making.

Our research — based on over 250 interviews and articles we published over the last year on civil society activism — shows that the Biden administration’s hypocrisy on Gaza is seriously undermining the rules-based international order. Crucial global governance systems like the UN Security Council, already weakened by Russia, are now at their breaking points. The unrelenting carnage in Gaza makes clear that the UN cannot stop wars as long as the belligerents have leverage in New York.

It’s easy for us to call out Putin. His atrocities in Syria and Ukraine confirm — in the worst way possible — that he is willing to go to any length to preserve his power.

That’s why many activists — including from Ukrainian and Russian civil society, who suffered the brunt of the invasion — applaud American support for Kyiv. But Gaza’s wreckage has all but buried the goodwill the U.S. gained in support of Ukraine.

Israel, like Russia in Ukraine, has disregarded almost every rule of international humanitarian law in its response to the October 7 Hamas massacre. Yet Biden has put no restrictions on American weapons flows to Israel, even as they are used to bomb and starve innocent people.

At the Security Council, where the U.S. has often called out Russia’s self-serving obstruction on Ukraine, the Biden administration has used its veto power just as cynically to cover for Israel’s actions in Gaza — which the International Court of Justice says is plausibly genocide — and to block a ceasefire.

With such hypocrisy at the helm, it’s no wonder the UN system’s response has pivoted to trying to supply never-enough humanitarian relief, rather than proactive diplomacy to stop the fighting and hold perpetrators accountable.

The U.S. isn’t the only country exercising double-standards in international affairs.

When The Gambia brought genocide charges against Myanmar before the International Court of Justice, Britain stood with the Rohingya and argued that blocking aid to civilians was a war crime. But when South Africa used the same argument at the ICJ against Israel, a UK spokesperson derided the suit as “wrong and provocative.”

Sadly, South Africa is not immune to hypocrisy, championing the Palestinians while withholding criticism of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s persecution of the Uyghur people.

Indeed, double-standards are hardly the West’s purview. The expanded BRICS coalition claims to be an alternative to Western hegemony, but its members include the most repressive countries on Earth, some of whom have exported war and suffering to Sudan, Yemen, and elsewhere.

Hypocrisy reigns in “peaceful” forums, too. The UAE used the COP28 climate summit to ink oil deals. And from the UN General Assembly to the G20, world leaders in 2023 spoke the language of democracy and rights on the one hand, while repressing citizen activism or sidelining civil society on the other.

The results of these double-standards are all around us: a world beset by war, economic inequality, and rising temperatures.

No country can fix these problems alone — all must work together. Despite his record on Gaza, Biden in particular has an opportunity to pull the rules-based international order from the brink.

First, he should change tack on Gaza to prove he believes human rights apply equally regardless of who is the perpetrator and who is the victim.

Second, his administration should champion UN Security Council reform to either abolish the much-abused veto or allow a UN General Assembly vote to override it. The perfect time to achieve such a change is September’s Summit of the Future in New York.

Biden’s administration can also use the Summit of the Future to challenge the UN’s state-centric approach to diplomacy. Currently, the UN, despite its public commitment to human rights, favors governments even if they are unelected or unaccountable to their own people.

To boost popular participation and oversight instead, the U.S. should push for the UN to adopt the five recommendations of the UNmute Civil Society initiative at the Summit of the Future. These modest reforms include appointing a UN civil society envoy, mandating a civil society day at the UN, and providing wider public access to the UN through digital technologies.

More boldly, in the spirit of the UN Charter which begins with the words, ‘We the Peoples’, Biden’s team should back a world citizens’ initiative, modeled on European Union processes, to allow people to petition to put issues directly before the General Assembly. Even better: a UN parliamentary assembly of elected representatives alongside the General Assembly to further balance state power with people power.

All these reforms would curb powerful states’ ability to act with impunity — including the US, Russia, China and their respective allies. But trading double standards for diplomacy is a worthy price if it means reducing the risk of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide across the board.

Above all, U.S. leadership on global governance reform would show that Washington doesn’t just talk about the rules, it plays by them, too. Putin would hate nothing more.

nexus 7/ Shutterstock

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