CAST an eye across the world right now, and it appears that the "bad guys" call all the shots.

This past week, as in almost any other, global headlines are a constant reminder of the extent to which national leaders and states have become unencumbered and dismissive of international law.

Over the past few days alone, we have seen the junta in Myanmar gun down protesters and pluck others off the street to face an uncertain fate. In Belarus meanwhile the regime of President Alexander Lukashenko continues to do much the same.

China meantime prosecutes its state war and persecution of the Uighur Muslims and in Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been further implicated in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. And so, the list goes on.


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It was back in 2019 that David Miliband, now chief executive of the humanitarian agency International Rescue Committee (IRC) in his Fulbright Legacy Lecture at King’s College London, argued that we now live in what he called a new “Age of Impunity.”

In other words, a time when those engaged in wars and repression around the world – of which there is sadly no shortage - believe that the liberal rules-based order and norms no longer matter and that they can get away with anything, including quite literally, murder.

Now perhaps more than ever, is a time when war crimes and persecution largely go unpunished and conventions for the conduct of conflict become at best optional.

From Libya to Mozambique to the Central African Republic (CAR) and beyond, armies of so-called private security contractors – mercenaries to most of us – are at the beck and call of states, despots and dictators in a way rarely seen in modern times and with an unprecedented lack of accountability for their actions.

The list too of what passes as legitimate in warfare these days is tantamount to a re-regulation of force. War, as I know all too well from decades of covering the world’s frontlines, has never been subject to ‘real’ rules much as many of us would like to think it were.

But over the years given countless treaties and agreements and what ostensibly passes for an international policeman in the shape of the United Nations (UN), it perhaps might not have been too much to expect properly executed accountability for the most flagrant abuses.

Instead, we have a world where the bombing of schools, blocking of humanitarian supplies and besiegement of cities is as prevalent as it was in medieval times but with far more devastating firepower.

Cluster munitions, chemical weapons, the targeting of journalists and aid workers are now all weapons of war, their "tactical deployment", unhindered by any notion of diplomatic or political "progress".

And all the while these free-for-all-conflicts are often only conducted to satisfy the vanity, ego or megalomania of some political leader or wannabe head of state.

Sometimes too they result from corporate exploitation of natural resources, but whatever the motive they frequently ride roughshod over myriad laws and invariably generate ever more refugees putting economic and thus political strain on democracies far from where the violence is enacted.

So, what has become of the check and balances meant to hold those to account for war crimes, abuses, persecution, genocide and predatory sacking of states?

As someone who has often witnessed the negative effects of big power intervention, like many I’m leery of such courses of action. Iraq almost always springs to mind as does Afghanistan.

That’s not to say however that standing by and doing nothing in the face of mass human suffering inflicted in breach of an international-based rules order is an option.

The problem is that what we see now is democracies around the world – admittedly often far from perfect themselves – being neutered, made powerless and reduced to the role of the peace banker.

It’s far better, it seems, that we dig deep into our own coffers to help with post-conflict reconstruction or rehabilitation once others finish the fighting or get tired of persecuting their victims. Where has this impotence come from? Why has the international community lost its ability to say enough is enough and where necessary implement actions to hold the perpetrators to account?

The answers to such questions are complex, too labyrinthine for a column like this to explore in depth, but some thoughts come to mind.

To begin with perhaps the place to look for part of the answer is at home. It’s no coincidence that when governments forego a commitment to domestic accountability, they no longer feel any obligation to insist upon it globally.

I agree with Mr Miliband on this when in his speech back in 2019 he warned that “the checks and balances that protect the lives of the most vulnerable people abroad, will only be sustained if we renew the checks and balances that sustain liberty at home”.

But even if we lag or fall short of sustaining this liberty at home, the time is surely long overdue for those countries who deem themselves democracies to completely reassess just what they mean by multilateral action? There is the need for a new clarity and impetus in tackling those states, and leaders who inflict harm not only on their own but on others around the world by their disregard for an international rules-based order.

I know deeming what is right from wrong, acceptable, and unacceptable behaviour is sometimes difficult to determine and legislate for on the global stage. But quite often when viewed from a purely humanitarian or human rights perspective it’s not at all hard, and the risk of perpetual disengagement is often as high or even higher than the risk of intervention.

The inescapable fact is that we have averted our gaze for too long now and while doing so, a new order has fashioned itself and those most comfortable in its embrace are almost invariably autocrats.


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In response we, the West and the world’s democracies have become risk averse, dangerously reticent, and inward looking, a condition only made worse by the coronavirus pandemic and epitomised recently by the unedifying pursuit of vaccine nationalism.

It’s understandable that there will be those who argue against speaking out, standing our ground, or intervening, fearing accusations of hypocrisy. But when the new rules-based global order becomes ‘anything goes,’ then no one is safe.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the Herald.