Wednesday 12 December 2018

In a new world order of authoritarian nationalists, what now for democracy?

As allies are lambasted and dictators honoured, the world has entered an era of uncertainty, writes Shona Murray

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. Photo: AP
Canadian PM Justin Trudeau. Photo: AP

Shona Murray

A week that saw Donald Trump call neighbour and ally Justin Trudeau "dishonest" - and then tell North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un it was a "great honour" to meet him - has ended with the realisation that the rules-based order designed to protect humanity from the worst aspects of itself is under serious threat like never before.

A bleak future beckons if western and allied governments do not collaborate effectively to protect institutions and the world order.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came under fire for merely saying that his country would respond in a retaliatory way after President Trump's decision to impose tariffs, citing the risible defence of "national security" about America's nearest friend.

Canada's foreign minister Chrystia Freeland delivered a blunt rebuke to the US and warned that she considers democracy under threat. She urged Canada's allies not to take the path where each country is engaged in a "ruthless struggle between great powers, governed solely by the narrow, short-term, and mercantilist pursuit of self-interest".

She said the sanctions were "illegal", "absurd" and "hurtful", adding: "They are protectionism, pure and simple. Our friends among the world's democracies - in Europe, in Asia, in Africa, and here in the Americas - are shoulder to shoulder with us. Let me be clear that Canada knows where it stands. And we will rise to this challenge."

But it already appears that the battle may have been lost.

There is a sense in Europe that the EU can't rely for very much longer on Chancellor Angela Merkel for strength or direction.

She is in the closing stages of this part of her career, and President Emmanuel Macron of France - her apparent successor as the key EU leader - has failed to make any inroads with his plans for deeper integration in the euro area and wider EU.

Meanwhile, the rest of Europe's leaders - especially those in the powerful European People's Party group (of which Fine Gael is a member) - stand idly by while authoritarians like Viktor Orban in Hungary chip away at Europe's fundamental principles and progressive liberal values.

"We need to be honest with ourselves. The liberal order isn't coming back," said Professor Bruce Jentleson, former senior adviser to the Obama State Department.

Authoritarians like Kim Jong-un, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are now largely free to ignore the system of international justice aimed at keeping brutality at bay.

This week showed "we are going back to a 19th century legal order where effectively the last 70 years of international legal innovation hasn't happened," said human rights barrister Dr Colin Smith.

The international legal system used to have powerful guarantees that war crimes or crimes against humanity - which Kim Jong-un has been accused of - could be punished. The International Bar Association War Crimes Committee's report cites evidence of murder, extermination, enslavement, torture, sexual violence, and persecution under Kim Jong-un's rule.

The North Korean dictator has imprisoned up to 130,000 people in a network of gulags. These prisons "are as terrible, or even worse" than Nazi camps, jurist Thomas Buergenthal - who survived Auschwitz - told The Washington Post.

Previously, states at the UN, or signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights, at least felt the need to look over their shoulder or try to explain themselves. Even Russia appears before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg.

While there are reasons to criticise institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the separate War Crimes Tribunals, there have been some notable success - like the punishment for genocide of former Serbia military commander Ratko Mladic late last year.

All that - and the certainty that was thought to exist under international legal systems and understandings - seems to be changing.

Trump and Kim's denuclearisation statement could best be described as "opaque", far removed from the accepted rules-based order of legal treaties.

Trump is returning to "gunboat diplomacy" in defence of economic interests, said Colin Smith. "It reminds you of the days of the Brits making deals with 17th century Barbary pirates," he added.

Sunday Independent

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