India, Myanmar & US Snub UN: A Decline in Power of Global Bodies?
Today, we are facing a daunting challenge to re-build universal confidence in global institutions like the UN.
Over the past few months, instances from three countries – India, Myanmar, and the US – have brought to the fore, once again, perennial tensions between sovereignty of the nation-state and systems of global governance.
A Series of Exits and Snubs
On 14 June, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) issued one of its harshest statements in the recent past – against the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), for its first ever report on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). It described the report, which calls for independent investigations into human rights excesses by both India and Pakistan in their respective territories in J&K, as “fallacious, tendentious and motivated”.
Myanmar, in the wake of the Rohingya crisis since 2017 has found itself in the cross-hairs of the UN and other international organisations, for serious war crimes. But, the civilian government and military have dismissed most UN reports as garbage and falsities, even snubbing a request from the International Criminal Court (ICC) to provide observations on the court’s jurisdiction.
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On 20 June, the US, under President Donald Trump, pulled out of the UN Human Rights Council, calling it a “hypocritical” organisation that “makes a mockery of human rights” and displays “unending hostility towards Israel”. In October 2017, Washington had quit the UNESCO – the UN’S educational, science and cultural organisation – accusing it, again, of anti-Israel bias. In June 2017, it pulled out of the Paris Climate Accord on the pretext of ‘unfair dealings’.
These rumblings tell us that global faith in international institutions and supra-bodies may be dwindling once again.
They reflect common themes of nationalistic resurgence, reductive comprehension of ‘national sovereignty’, and a continued lack of trust between nation-states and the international regime.
National over Global?
While national governments have traditionally been suspicious of (perceived) overbearing external actors – even in the heydays of global governance – the recent dismissals and pull-outs reflect a distinct shift in the post-Cold War discourse that once gave a new lease of life to global institutions.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, nationalistic tendencies fell, and bipolarity gave way to an increasingly multi-polar world order.
Dis-aggregated identity-based conflicts steadily replaced conventional nation-versus-nation wars. Technological advancements in communication blurred physical borders, and the world began to converge and coalesce.
Within this new international framework, global governance mechanisms flourished. There was renewed activity within the UN ecosystem, and engagement between nation states on issues of common interest – like poverty, hunger, water security, climate change – increased manifold.
But the landscape began to change again with 9/11 and the events that followed in its wake. The 2008 global recession and the unprecedented refugee crisis that began around 2010, spurred a souring of relations between powerful nations and the global governance regime that demanded unwavering commitment to supra-national principles in the face of widespread social, economic, political, and geopolitical uncertainties.
These tensions sharpened rapidly as the migrant/refugee crisis escalated through the second decade of the century, triggering fresh ethno-nationalistic anxieties and xenophobic sentiments.
The rise of the internet and social media, further consolidated this new nationalism as anti-migrant lobbies came together to assert their voices more vehemently, and successfully influenced electoral outcomes across the board – both in the global north and south.
Apathy Towards Global Bodies
Not surprisingly, the net outcome of this renewed national consciousness has been a corresponding heightening of the apathy towards globally-recognised norms. For example, public awareness in India around New Delhi’s international commitments to human rights regimes is so scant that the term ‘human rights’ has almost become a non-starter in the dominant discourse.
Further, while countries like Myanmar and India were already averse to foreign involvement in what they deem as ‘sensitive, internal or bilateral matters’ (read: Rohingya and Kashmir, respectively), recent retrenchments by big powers like the US are bound to have a strong impact on how small and middle powers view global regimes.
After all, what qualms would New Delhi have in loudly thrashing a UN human rights report on Kashmir, when its most powerful Western partner has openly rejected the entire UN human rights regime?
On the other hand, what credibility does Washington, now a non-member of the UNHRC, have in sermonising Myanmar for its continued rejections of the UN human rights regime?
Further, while it is a good thing that the global institutional framework is largely inclusive in terms of general membership, across-the-board inclusion has only sharpened realist tensions amongst member states.
Even a Saudi Arabia, where ‘human rights’ has been boxed-in for decades, or a US that has pathologically disregarded international humanitarian norms, can preside over the UNHRC. This endemic quality of the UN ecosystem – to not differentiate between members on the basis political belief systems or even state practice – has created avenues for repeated finger-pointing and whataboutery – mostly for self-redemption.
Are Global Institutions Truly Inclusive?
A fundamental characteristic of the UN ecosystem is its encapsulation of contemporary realist power dynamics. The larger a country’s constituent power in global affairs, the greater its leverage in key international bodies, particularly the UN Security Council. In this sense, the UN simply mirrors the world as it is, with its inherent hierarchies of influence.
However, this inequality also presents a daunting challenge to building global confidence in global institutions.
This is the century of the middle powers, and possibly even the smaller ones. The world is no more governed by big power binaries, and influence is much more dis-aggregated now.
This implies deeper geopolitical aspirations amongst a wider range of nation-states, and in turn, lesser confidence in international bodies that permit traditional powers to reign supreme.
For example, with rapidly growing national economies in the global south, the UN Security Council’s ‘Permanent Five (P5)’ framework has become untenable. More and more countries now want a seat at the center table, and for good reason.
Why must an India or a South Africa or an Indonesia – with their expanding aspirations – be left out in an increasingly multi-polar world?
The idea here is not to simply expand the P5 veto group, but to dismantle it completely and create a new rolling system from scratch, that accords equitability in global decision-making without riders and vetoes.
The Way Forward
The truth is that our collective existence today transcends national boundaries. Thanks to social media, we are able to virtually teleport ourselves across oceans. More importantly, we are still plagued by common issues of interest that go beyond borders – climate change, pandemics, terrorism, and migration.
There is no denying that these issues require global consensus and action, and not siloised policy-making within national boundaries.
Hence, the case for global governance remains – but only one that is fair to all and gives equal agency to ascendant powers. Otherwise, advocacy will continued to be seen as ‘preaching’, and actions as ‘interference’.
(Angshuman Choudhury is a researcher and coordinator, South East Asia Research Programme, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @angshuman_ch. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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