27 մարտ, 2014 20:14

Why Diplomacy and International Law Matter

 Nareg Seferian

The ongoing dispute over Crimea has led more than one person around me to welcome power politics and decisiveness in the use of force internationally, as opposed to negotiations. My own education leads me to believe that diplomacy and respect for international legal frameworks are not only highly valuable as such, they are the only means for stability and security in the long term. Here’s why.

Guns are important. They are very important, in fact. But no state would be willing to use them unless absolutely necessary. Troops are expensive, and every life counts, especially in those countries where there is accountability and free and fair elections: no-one is going to vote you back in power if you caused someone close to them to die. Ever since 1945, international use of force has been outlawed, except if approved by the UN Security Council, and in self-defence until the Security Council takes up the matter. Humanitarian intervention (the “Responsibility to Protect” or “R2P”) is a new category that has been slow to gain currency internationally, as opinions vary widely on recent cases, such as Libya. States as sovereign entities have thus agreed to ban the use of force by adopting the UN Charter. What is more, there is no provision to leave the UN in its charter. Almost all states signed on to this agreement after the Second World War, and new states ever since have been quick to join the UN. Statehood and UN membership are more or less synonymous today. Therefore, use of force has ceased to be a value in international affairs. War is no longer a glorious, patriotic undertaking, the way it was portrayed in centuries past.

Besides generally maintaining good relations and contacts, as well as dealing with paperwork or other technical matters, states engage in diplomacy because – strange as it may sound – human life has, for its part, become a recognised value internationally. Note that that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, less than seventy years ago. The world could return to the “might makes right” model that existed before. It’s always an option to carry out massacres, and genocide has never been easier with today’s technology. But the imperative to resolve international disputes through peaceful means alone remains at present the accepted norm internationally.

But how to establish a lasting peace, a durable resolution to any given conflict? The parties to the conflict have to agree to the provisions of the peace. In the past, that meant the victor would impose conditions on the losing side of a war. The Treaty of Versailles is a prime, classic example of the negative consequences of such an approach. With a given international legal framework in place, however, all parties to a conflict can participate in whatever means that framework provides, coming up with an agreement of their own. As long as all the sides agree, the legitimacy of such a resolution would be a strong guarantee of its lasting nature.

Conversely, if there is already a legal framework in place, violating that framework strongly detracts from the legitimacy of any such undertaking. The events in Crimea violated Ukrainian law, and the changes currently being made in Russia to accommodate new territory is working backwards – the international agreement has already been signed, and the domestic legislation to implement that agreement is only later being put together. If the people in Crimea were willing to secede, provisions within Ukrainian law could have been drawn up to do so, as has been the case with Scotland, and Québec, and will most probably be with Catalonia. Certainly, if the authorities in Kiev were running a tyrannical regime – unwilling to negotiate anything, threatening the security of the people in Crimea – military intervention would have been deemed reasonable. Such is the narrative in the case of Kosovo, and perhaps in Abkhazia and South Ossetia as well.

Now, negotiations take time. Impatience is not very useful in international affairs, much as many citizens (and officials) may find it frustrating. There is no race to the end of the world, however, such that the best state will have to be in a winning position by a given date. States and statesmen and -women think big picture, long term all the time. That is very often difficult to convey to an anxious public.

Moreover, diplomacy has been traditionally a closed door, elite affair. That is a major shortcoming in this day and age. Indeed, so much well-placed scepticism when it comes to the work of the OSCE Minsk Group in resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute, for example, stems from a lack of transparency. Privacy, however, gives room for wider expression and creativity, in a way that making public every negotiation position would not. An informed citizenry will have segments ready to volubly oppose any given negotiation position, thereby potentially hindering progress towards a resolution. The balance of efficient diplomatic negotiations and public accountability has not yet been struck in the world of international affairs, it is true.

Closer to home, why is it that there has been hesitation in both Yerevan and Baku to react more fully to the situation in Crimea? Because neither would be happy to return to outright war, even with all the bellicose, nationalistic rhetoric that they produce. The Minsk process is in place – imperfect though it may be – and it may take longer to come to a resolution, but it would take extreme circumstances to push the leadership of those two peoples to take up arms again. Neither Kosovo, nor Abkhazia or South Ossetia, and now Crimea are enough to give up on the prior agreement to commit to a negotiated peace.

This is the way states are meant to work, and if what has been agreed upon is thrown by the wayside, the entire system of international peace and security may be undermined. States can always be fickle. Regimes may change. Treaties have been known to be torn up. There is never any real, full guarantee, it can be argued. Respect for the rule of law has proven to be as consistent a value as human life – there has been more than one armed conflict in the world since 1945 or 1948. The value lies in pacta sunt servanda, as the maxim goes – honoring agreements. If you don’t agree to abide by your agreements in the first place, then any agreement made would be worthless. The international system is not a rigid or tyrannical one. There are mechanisms in place to make changes. But it is unreasonable and even dangerous to demand those changes arbitrarily or retroactively.

Diplomacy and international law remain the best bets that exist in the world today. There are problems, certainly, but the current model is what has been agreed upon and what there is to work with. Those who would be happy to return to the world of crude power politics should be aware of the dire consequences of such retrogression. They should be ready to polish their guns and be willing to kill their neighbours, and to be shot at and killed by them in turn.

 Nareg Seferian received his master’s education at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts, and the Diplomatic Academy of Vienna, Austria. His works are available through naregseferian.com.