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Deconstructing Accountability Under The Guise Of Sovereignty

| by Dr. Ruwantissa Abeyratne

( August 28, 2013, Montreal, Sri Lanka Guardian) A recent BBC article says that "maybe the biggest impediment to accountability is that it has become another victim of management speak, akin to synergy or thinking outside the box — words and phrases that every chief executive officer throws into a speech at an annual general meeting". Accountability and intellectual honesty have grown so much apart that spin doctors abound, twisting reality into a bizarre and jumbled maze of sweetened hogwash.

One of the most used words in the spin process is "sovereignty" where leaders claim that they do everything to protect the sovereignty of their country and their people. This is indeed as it should be, except when those leaders try to use the claim to cover up their own insouciance or self interests.

States recognize one another’s claims to independence and sovereignty and recognize circumscriptions of one another’s ability to exercise force against each other. Of course at the same time, an essential feature of international politics is the collaboration of States in sharing resources and helping each other. The prerequisites of an international society are common values, common interests and common rules. The shift in focus from tradition international law rules to a social process transcends from a society of States to a society of humankind where sectoral boundaries would be blurred and a globalized perception of human rights and values would emerge. In such a system, individuals from all parts of the world could consider themselves an integral part of the global system, with common interests, values and rules applying to all across the globe.
Principles of international law and legal rules provide an efficient means of measuring how a certain political structure can change the identity of actors. To obtain full results, international relations and international law should be linked, particularly through scholars of both disciplines who understand the principles of each other’s disciplines. Firstly, as Hurrell observes: " it is international law that provides the essential bridge between the procedural rules of the game and the structural principles that specify how the game of power and interests is defined and how the identity of the players is established ... international law provides a framework for understanding the processes by which rules and norms are constituted and a sense of obligation engendered in the minds of policy makers" .

Secondly, international law and international politics occupy the same conceptual space. These two disciplines supplement each other in providing the rules and regulations for the international system, which is an intellectual construct that international lawyers, political theorists and policy makers describe as a composite whole governing the entire spectrum of international policies. It makes little sense, therefore, to study one without gaining an understanding of the other.

It can be said with some justification that international law is the thread which runs through the fabric of international politics and provides the latter with its abiding moral and ethical flavour. Without principles and practices of international law, foreign policy would be rendered destitute of its sense of cooperation and become dependent on a national self interest. As President Woodrow Wilson once claimed: " It is a very perilous thing to determine the foreign policy of a nation in the terms of material interests ... we dare not turn from the principle that morality and not expediency is the thing that must guide us, and that we will never condone equity because it is convenient to do so"

This statement, made in 1950, has great relevance today, when continued progress is being made in technological and economic development and policy decisions of States have far reaching consequences on a trans-boundary basis. Nation States are becoming more interdependent, making decisions made by a particular State in its own interest have a significant negative impact on the interests of other States. Therefore ethics in foreign policy has largely become a construct which combines cultural, psychological and ideological value structures. Within this somewhat complex web of interests, decisions have to be made, which, as recent events in history have shown, require a certain spontaneity from the international community. 

For example, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the members of the United Nations chose economic sanctions against Iraq, claiming that war was the last resort to be embarked upon against Iraq if economic sanctions did not prove to have any effect. In hindsight, one could argue one way or another, firstly, as did the United States, that the use of force bore quick results and, on the other hand, as did many officials in Paris, Moscow, Ottawa and Washington, that the decision to wage war against Iraq was too precipitous as not enough time had been given to economic sanctions to compel Iraq to retreat from Kuwait. The precipitous but quick action taken in going to war with Iraq might be justified by some with the analogy of Britain appeasing Hitler in the 1930s without adopting a more aggressive and perhaps belligerent attitude toward German atrocities. This action, which was later labeled as folly by most political scientists, was applauded and endorsed at that time in the British Parliament.

For years the construct of international politics and foreign relations has been that we live in a global village. The ultimate reality of this concept was seen on 11 September 2001 when the world intimately shared the tragic disasters of the United States. The United States, which had policed the world for 56 years after World War II, lost its innocence and its isolation, suddenly turning into a different kind of world power to whose aid other nations rushed. Global cooperation reached its zenith, with NATO invoking Article 5 of its founding treaty and declaring that terrorist activity against one NATO member country constituted an attack on all NATO member States, which would collectively respond as if they had been attacked themselves. The President of Russia phoned the President of the United States and pledged Russia’s support. A week after the attacks, on 19 September 2001, the Organization of American States invoked their mutual defense pact - the Rio Treaty. The coming together of the entire world (except Iraq) in support of the United States signaled the dawn of a new cause and a new sense of challenge. New partnerships between governments were forged toward attaining a new global coalition against terrorism.

States come together as one in times of crisis and remain with each other at other times mainly because international relations have been a rule based system. Therefore, deviating from established rules of international law would act to the detriment of international unity and global cooperation among States. The first step toward ensuring a cohesive international consensus system is to continue building a rule based, cooperative democratic global system which does not succumb to individual acts of terror or conflict. Such a global system would not only ensure peace among nations but would also confront injustice, poverty, disease and environmental hazards.

The world must heed the call of some States which are now appealing to upkeep the principle of responsibility to protect which is enshrined in the United Nations Charter as the basic mandate of the United Nations. This mandate is primarily of the Security Council which was designed to meet threats and dangers posed by cross‑border aggressions. States must not be allowed to indulge in preventive action in a unilateral manner, merely because there is a perceived security risk or threat to their peaceful existence.

Restoration of the dignity of the United Nations Security Council should go hand in hand with increased collaboration and partnership between States, through the United Nations, to create institutions that could address burning issues relating to internationally displaced persons, refugees and poverty. Global disarmament is another problem to be tackled. The proliferation of arms around the world has spurned threats not only to international harmony but also to domestic peace within nations. A more democratic system than that which exists in the United Nations system at present could help in developing principles of international intervention when States concerned or affected are not prepared or willing to take measures in protecting their own people. The United Nations should be geared more toward safeguarding people’s interests through an international judicial system that would supplement the International Court of Justice which hears disputes between States and gives advisory opinions on issues regarding States. If the shifting focus of international law and politics would finally beam on the human being rather than the collective interests of the States, and human rights are ensured through various existing United Nations institutions and new ones which collect, disseminate and use information on abuse of human rights with a view to correcting them, such a shift of focus would indeed be a good thing.
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