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5 October 2022, Gateway House

Double standards at the UNSC

The BRICS have largely abstained from the UNSC resolution condemning Russia’s attempts to annex four Ukrainian provinces. Is it BRICS solidarity or is it because the interests of the Global North and its allies, and those of the Global South, are diverging?

Former Italian Ambassador

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On September 30th, the Russian veto killed a United Nations Security Council resolution[1] tabled by the U.S. and Albania to condemn the annexation of the four Ukrainian provinces occupied by Moscow’s troops.

The veto is a power that the UN Security Council’s Permanent Members self-attributed when the United Nations and the current rules-based world order were created at the end of the Second World War. Such power has been widely used. As of May 2022, the Soviet Union, and then Russia, have used it 121 times, the U.S. 82, the U.K. 29, China 17, and France 16 times. In the September 30th instance, 10 of the 15 members of the Council voted in favour, Russia vetoed it and four abstained – Brazil, China, Gabon, and India.

The relevant news is not the Russian veto, but the three eminent abstentions: Brazil, India, and China. It could seem like solidarity among BRICS, but there could be something more.

Three of the five BRICS members (Brazil, India, and China) have decided not to condemn another member of the same group, Russia, for an act that appears as an open violation of international law. If the last BRICS member, South Africa, had been in the Security Council, it would probably have abstained as well. Brazil, India, and China might be blamed for having not been consequential in their formal claim of supporting international law and one of its main principles provided under Article 2 (4) of the United Nations Charter[2]: the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territories by force.

What is then the message that the most important country of Latin America, Brazil, the two most important ones of Asia, China, and India, and, by a plausible association, the most important African one, South Africa, are trying to convey?

Formally, the three countries did not match their principles to their actions, but it can be assumed that they cast such vote to make clear that international law should always be respected. It sounds like a paradox: important and rising members of the international community, and of the so-called Global South, and representing almost half of humankind, that refuse to condemn a violation of international law with the purpose to reinforce international law. If it sounds odd, it is because it is odd; nevertheless, it makes sense.

A small example might be helpful.

In early 2021, at the beginning of the Joe Biden administration in the U.S., CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer interviewed[3] the new Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. Making a reference to former U.S. President Trump’s administration’s decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights annexed years earlier, he asked if the Biden administration continued to see the Golan Heights as part of Israel. Blinken answered: “Leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel security…”

Blinken put aside the legality of the issue because Israeli annexation of the Syrian Golan Height was, and still is, illegal. Although he provided sound explanations about the security threat Israel is facing in the Golan, the inevitable message he conveyed to the international community is that when the U.S.’s and its allies’ interests are at stake, international law becomes irrelevant or at least secondary. Therefore, when it is necessary the rules-based world order can be twisted.

If this rule is apparently valid for the U.S. and its allies, why can it not be valid also for others? Especially if it is a great power which owns nuclear weapons.

Does it justify Russian aggression in Ukraine and the annexation of some of its territory? Certainly not. But it explains why an increasing number of countries are fed up with the double standards of the current U.S.-led rules-based international order and with Western democracies which have displayed and tolerated it for the last three decades.

Another example of double standard. Western mainstream media and political elites are rightly emphasizing the war crimes committed by Russian troops in Ukraine in the last seven months, but they have maintained a deafening silence on the ordeal that Yemeni people have been living with in the last seven years, being bombed by Western allies.

The occasions where international law has been sacrificed at the altar of pure power politics and realpolitik are innumerable, but this is not a justification to persevere.

The current US-led rules-based world order is probably crumbling and not because its rules are bad but because for far too many times, they have not been fairly implemented. In the last two decades, double standards have been applied to many international crises – Kosovo in 1998, Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, to mention the most relevant ones. The pre-requisite for an effectively working rules-based world order is that its rules must be valid for everyone – with no exceptions.

A refoundation of the world order is then long overdue. It would be ideal if it could also include the reform of the UN Security Council with new criteria to determine its permanent members and, above all, the abolition of their veto power.

A healthy interaction between BRICS and the G7 could be a good starting point for such an accomplishment. Now, the realities determined by the war in Ukraine make this difficult, but sooner or later the main global actors will realize that there is no other path if they wish to agree – peacefully – on a new world order.

In this context India – being a member of the BRICS, Shanghai Cooperation Organization and, at the same time, the Indo-Pacific Quad with U.S., Japan, and Australia – is the country better placed to promote dialogue and bridge the rising gap between Western democracies and the Global South. New Delhi should make this effort the priority of its forthcoming Presidency of the G20.

Marco Carnelos is Former Ambassador of Italy to Iraq, Special Envoy for Syria and the Middle East Peace Process

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