The Diminishing Liberal International Order and Age of Impunity

Published on 11th February 2020

I’ve been CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian charity, for six years. I oversee a team of over 30,000 staff and volunteers across nearly 40 countries. One fear is greater than all others: the news that one of our staff has been killed. I’m getting more of those messages every year. That’s what I want to talk about today. Why it is happening, and what we can do about it.

The work my organization does inside Syria is emblematic of our mission to help people whose lives have been shattered by crisis and conflict. We work in Raqqa, Idlib, and Deir-az-Zour, places that are still consumed by conflict. My colleagues there provide emergency cash assistance, medical supplies, and child protection services to more than a million Syrians each year.

Two of those Syrian aid workers are Mohamed Mishnen and Fadi Alomar. Here are their pictures. Mohamed was a 29 year-old paramedic and Fadi, a 34 year-old ambulance driver. Both were supported by my organization and our partner the Syrian American Medical Society. Their job was to treat civilians wounded in the fighting in the southern part of Idlib province in northwest Syria.

On August 14th last year, they were driving in their ambulance on the way to a patient in need of medical care. 30,000 feet in the sky above them was a Russian fighter jet. With speed, precision, and deadly effect the Russian jet targeted the well-marked ambulance and fired on it, killing both Mohamed and Fadi inside.

Welcome to the Age of Impunity

•Welcome to an age when Saudi Arabia bombs a school coach in Yemen, killing 40 children;

•When units allied to the Myanmar armed forces drive 745,000 Rohingya civilians across the border into Bangladesh in what the UN Secretary General calls “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing;”

•When terrorist groups in Nigeria tyrannize civilians and prevent nearly a million of them from accessing life-saving humanitarian aid.

And when all of them get away with it. So you can understand why my greatest worry is the safety of my staff.

There are three points I want you to take away: First, that the Age of Impunity is here and it is dangerous. Second, that the retreat from the rule of law, which is what the Age of Impunity is, should not just be a cause of NGOs, but also be the business of business. Third, that with governments in retreat from big global problems, or creating and compounding them, it is for NGOs and businesses to step up and step forward to find solutions.

Today 69 of the 100 richest entities in the world are businesses, not governments. You have the power. The question is how you use it. You know the phrase power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. That is the danger today. That outrages like the bombing of an ambulance will become precedent and precedent will become the norm.

After the Second World War, pioneering leaders recognized that where there is no floor under the protection of the most vulnerable, there is no limit to the abuses of the most powerful. That led to unprecedented rights for individuals.

And while the post-war order never fully lived up to its lofty ambitions, it ushered in an era of expanded rights and freedoms that enabled incredible advances in economic prosperity and powered the historic wave of democratization from which every one of us in this room has so greatly benefited.

But the checks written out in 1945 to the most vulnerable people in the world – checks marked “international humanitarian law,” checks marked “civilian protection” – are bouncing. The most basic rights are under threat.

•Last year there were nearly 1000 attacks on health workers, hospitals, ambulances and patients, including more than 250 in Syria alone.

•It’s not just health workers under attack. Each year for the past five years an average of 120 aid workers have been killed – more than double the average 15 years ago. In 2018 the number was 139.

•Ethnic cleansing, far from happening “never again,” is on the rise with 11 cases last year compared to 3 in 2005. And of course the greatest harm is to the most vulnerable – children. Today 140 million children are living in areas of high intensity conflict; twice the number of children who live in the United States or Europe.

•That vulnerability, particularly when the safety of your children are at risk, drives people to flee. Today there are more than 70 million displaced people around the world – more than at any time since the end of World War II.

This is the Age of Impunity. Anything goes. And the law is for suckers.

A time where war crimes go unpunished and the laws of war become optional. A time when militaries, militias, and mercenaries in conflicts around the world believe they can get away with anything, and because they can get away with anything, they do everything. Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, land mines, bombing of school buses, besiegement of cities, blocking of humanitarian supplies, targeting of journalists and aid workers.

You name it, we are seeing it, seeing more of it, and seeing less outrage about it, and less accountability for it.

So how has this happened? I would say we need to look at the following factors:

•First, there is a new balance of power in the world. It is not just a shift of power from west to east, or from a unipolar world to a multipolar world. It is a shift in the balance between liberal democracies formally committed to the rights and autonomy of individuals, and autocratic regimes which are not. If you want a symbol of this shift, it’s President Putin and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman high fiving at the G-20 summit just weeks after the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

•Second, the countries of liberal democracy have not set a good enough example. Civilian casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan have given false permission to other actors to do the same. Similarly, when the language of human rights is corroded in western foreign policy, it shouldn’t be a surprise when other countries around the world follow suit.

•Third, the Age of Impunity has been driven by the rise of many non state actors like ISIS or Boko Haram who have never signed Geneva Conventions and ignore their obligations under them. That in turn has given an excuse to some states – wrongly – to drop their standards.

•Fourth, the Age of Impunity abroad has fed off the retreat of democratic governance and the rule of law at home. You cannot expect human rights to be defended in foreign policy if they are not defended in domestic policy, and every year for the past 13 years the tide has been shifting in favor of autocracy.

These are deep trends. They go to the heart of the basic compact on which the global system is built and they weaken at every stage the institutions, laws and norms on which accountability rests and the rights we take for granted depend. And that leads to my next point: don’t believe that the rule of law will be strong in economics if it is weak in politics.

My appeal for the help of the business community today is not just on moral grounds. It is also on the grounds of self interest. For two reasons.

First, when the rule of law is meaningless in the most fundamental aspects of politics, it is a short jump to it being overridden in economics. When power is not accountable in matters of life and death, it is all too easy for it to become optional in more mundane matters of dollars and cents. Countries which sneer at human rights are usually a threat to property rights.

Second, the global problems are complex and long term. Climate change, protection from pandemics, are the great questions of our age. But if we cannot protect the most basic foundation stone of the international system, namely the rights to life of civilians and aid workers, their right not to be killed in conflict that is going on around them, then we have no chance of building a multilateral system worthy of its name.

And with governments in retreat, we need businesses and NGOs to chart a way forward. We need to use our voice. We need to use our resources. We need to use our experience to come up with new ideas.

Obviously I want those of you to support organizations like the International Rescue Committee. We are proud of the many great partnerships we have with the private sector, like the work the IRC does with Google, Microsoft, and Cisco to develop an information platform called Signpost that has connected more than a million refugees with the services they need.

But that is insufficient for the task at hand. Here’s where else we need your help:

•Get the facts out: We need to do a much better job in helping citizens in war zones, and journalists who cover them, document abuses of IHL. Thank goodness the New York Times and the Syrian Human Rights Observatory have detailed the bombings in Syria. We need the tech companies to help make it easier for citizens and citizen journalists to safely record and disseminate information about what is going on around them. The moment when a government wants to shut down the internet is precisely the moment we need tech companies to ensure access.

•Worry military commanders: We need military commanders to have in their minds that they will be held accountable for their actions. Thank goodness the German NGO the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights filed a criminal suit against Syrian war criminals. Thank goodness military personnel themselves are willing to speak up. They deserve our support.

•Hold our own governments to account: We need governments which say they support international humanitarian law but then do not observe it to be called out. And business can help. I was impressed when American Airlines refused permission to the US government to transport Immigration & Customs Enforcement detainees on their flights. I would love to see the entire arms industry refuse to service missile systems when they are used to target civilians, and I would love it even more if the financial services industry said that they won’t finance arms manufacturers who refuse to take this pledge.

•Inquiries with teeth: We need UN inquiries into the abuse of international law to mean something. There is an important example coming up: The UN recently launched a Board of Inquiry into the series of Russian airstrikes against hospitals in Syria. This is a positive step, but will be of little value unless the findings are made public, and those responsible identified.

•No more virtue signaling: We need to learn to last the pace not just signal virtue. It is good that many of you boycotted the Davos in the Desert in the wake of the Khashoggi killing. But not good that you were back the next year without any real accountability for that crime. If you’re going to make a stand, stick to it and make it real.

I want to end where I began. With two aid workers killed going about their business.

The liberal international order is becoming less liberal, less international and less orderly. And now there is an alternative future, what Yuval Harari calls a “network of fortresses.” Even less liberal, even less international and even less orderly.

Mohamed, Fadi, and the Syrian civilians they were serving were powerless in the face of the Russian and Syrian militaries, but we aren’t. So it’s on us to establish accountability for the powerful and turn the tide this Age of Impunity. And we need your help to achieve it.

The ambulance Mohamed and Fadi rode has been destroyed, but we still have more than a dozen more ambulances, twenty health facilities, and 300 staff continuing their mission every single day despite the dangers. If you believe Mohamed and Fadi shouldn’t die in vain and you want to create accountability for the most powerful, please help us.

By David Miliband

President and CEO, The International Rescue Committee (IRC) 

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