The new omnipotence:

Dr Chris Williams

What is the oldest organisation within the UN? What is missing from Maslow’s ‘hierarchy of needs’?

What fuels the richest organisations in the world?

Is the digital revolution an opportunity, or a threat, to the emergent global community?

While reading this on a smartphone, how many of us immediately recognised the answer to all three: information and communications?

From 1865 the ITU standardised the use of telegraph across nations. Joining the UN in 1947, the ITU now regulates satellites, broadband, Internet, wireless technologies, navigation, radio astronomy, meteorology, mobile phones, radio and TV. The 19th century ITU had recognised a ‘global interest’. It then built a ‘global community’ of a kind – across European countries and their world-wide colonies.

Other UN agencies were slow to recognise comms as a theme. UNESCO set up a Communication and Information Sector in 1990, which runs the International Programme for the Development of Communication (IPDC) and the Information for All Programme (IFAP). 

Following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), realised the significance of new ICTs, setting up the Centre for Humanitarian Data, and ReliefWeb which provides free real-time data on emergencies.

Maslow’s oversight is curious. A defining feature of a living organism is the ability to receive basic information from forces such as gravity and the sun, and to use ‘signalling’ to attract pollinators, warn-off predators and participate in bio-cooperation. Without internal and external information and communications, there is no life, no social activity, and so no ‘needs’.

Maslow’s present-day psychologist counterparts converted our evolutionary need for information into the ‘click-bait, attention economy’ of social media, now often seen as addictive and compulsive. The human need for information is on a par with sex, and binge-eating sugar, salt and fat.

The third answer then falls naturally into place. Apple and Microsoft top the rich-list, with Google (Alphabet), Samsung, Alibaba and the social network platforms included in the same league – richer than many nations and more powerful than most.

Security is an issue. Concern now exists over Huawei providing 5G coms infrastructure in the US and Europe. In the 1930s, similar concern was expressed about the presence of Siemens in Britain. It was realised that Germany controlled Siemens, and eventually a Nazi employee was found spying on British companies.

The Catholic Church is a precursor of these new power elites. It created the concept of ‘propaganda’, and hired Marconi to set-up Vatican Radio in 1931. The omnipotent power-towers around the world are not now the church spires, pagodas or minarets. They are the comms aerials. People who identify themselves by their type of religion are declining, except in Africa. Those who identify themselves by their brand of Smartphone are increasing, particularly in Africa. The Tablet predicts that 1000 Catholic churches will disappear by 2025. Since 2018 the UK permits churches to rent their towers to host cell aerials and satellite dishes.

Global security explains much of the telecoms infrastructure, and coms towers tell their own stories. The Cold War communications ‘backbone’ of concrete towers in Britain started from London’s GPO (now BT) tower. The towers are round because the designers had noted that a dome was the only tall structure to withstand the nuclear explosion over Hiroshima. Now denuded of their old microwave horn-antennas, they are now virtually redundant.

The USSR followed with a ‘radio curtain’ centred on the Berlin Fernsehturm, which included beautiful towers in Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius. In 1989 they signalled the end of the Cold War when utilised by resistance groups. Two million people then created the ‘Baltic Way’ by holding hands to link the three radio towers across 700 km.  Their beautiful ‘Singing Revolution’ deterred further Soviet occupation, without any need to threaten nuclear holocaust.

What is the interest of the ‘global community’ in all this?  In short, it requires information and communications to be acknowledged as ‘global public goods’, along with the atmosphere and oceans.

The current UK Labour Party manifesto promises free fibre-optic broadband for all. New Zealand’s distinctive contribution is to Google’s Project Loon – a series of balloon-mounted coms aerials to link remote areas. In 2013, a pilot experiment in the Tekapo area connected local users around Christchurch. This will extend around the world. along the 40th parallel, linking NZ with Australia, Chile and Argentina.

Communications intersects the global security concerns. The political and commercial power has long been recognised. Yet comms is often missing from our conceptualisation of ‘global communities’ and the ‘global interest’. Why?

In part, this is because comms companies create dependencies and vulnerabilities – a now vital service that could be wiped out by a mega-virus created by a teenager in Albania or a few solar flares. They facilitate both (in Ulrich Beck’s words) the ‘goods’ and ‘bads’ of the modern world. This creates cognitive dissonance and denial. Teachers punish pupils for using smartphones, but rush to the staffroom to check their tweets. Psychologists treat people for excessive screen-time, and check online for new therapies. Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han points out in Psycho-Politics that smartphone users now willingly submit to self-surveillance by comms companies and states. The digitalised, networked subject is a ‘pan-opticon of itself.’ So we don’t notice and question, we ‘collaborate’.

In the field of information biology, Gregory Bateson provided a crucial insight in 1979: All receipt of information is necessarily the receipt of news of difference…’ .  As he pointed out, we cannot readily perceive information that is too slow or too fast, too small or too big. ICT works at the extremes. The 20th century Cold War comms towers were too big to see; the six aerials in smartphones are too small to see. The burgeoning cell towers are static; radio waves move at a speed that is imperceptible to human senses.

For the sake of the global community – to the extent it can be meaningfully identified in this context – we need to do two things: first, make the invisible power of ICT visible; second, recognise, and better conceptualise, the omnipotence of the new gods of communications – their ‘goods’ and their ‘bads’.

It is quite a challenge; perhaps something for the NZ Centre for Global Studies.

Dr Chris Williams is Visiting Fellow at the International Education Studies Centre, University of London. He is a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel.

Individual Rights and State Responsibilities:

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Ramesh Thakur

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle recalibrated the relationship among and between peoples, states and the international community.

State sovereignty comes with responsibilities, domestic and international, along with privileges. Citizenship confers rights alongside responsibilities, including the right to be protected by States and, should that fail, by the international community. There is a corresponding global responsibility to protect people threatened by mass-atrocity crimes.

R2P became the normative instrument of choice for converting a shocked international conscience into collective action to prevent and stop atrocities. All of us who live in zones of safety have a duty of care to anyone and everyone trapped in zones of danger.  But how did R2P come into being, in a world of contestable values and competing interests?

Despite continuing political controversy over implementation and scholarly contention regarding its normative status, R2P is no longer seriously contested in the policy community as principle. Consequently, there’s been no effort to rescind it as the UN’s organising principle for responding to mass atrocities.

However, R2P is under attack for offering too little protection, either against self-interested abuses by powerful countries of the non-intervention norm, or against gross abuses by ruthless national leaders of the human rights norm. The Security Council-authorised and NATO-led military intervention in Libya in 2011 seemed to validate the fear of many critics about the potential for abuse of R2P, just like the previous humanitarian intervention doctrine. The post-intervention instability, volatility, lawlessness and killings in Libya only strengthened the criticism. R2P remains vulnerable also to criticisms that in failing to alter state practice, it has failed to deliver on the promise of protection, most notably in the Syrian civil war.

Origins of R2P

The end of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the emergence of Russia as a shrink-wrapped successor state, set in train a cascading set of multiple consequences. With the frozen geopolitical frame unlocked, many local conflicts emerged from the shadow of the Cold War and erupted into complex humanitarian emergencies.

The US-led Western world was the only group capable of alleviating the resulting mass suffering. Demands grew correspondingly for the Western powers to ‘do something’. Efforts to intervene, based solely on humanitarian considerations where no national interests were engaged, lacked sufficient motivation for sustained engagement when difficulties were encountered, as in the 1994 Rwanda genocide. But interventions were mounted with mixed-motive calculations where geostrategic interests coincided with humanitarian tragedies, as in the Balkans in the mid-late 1990s.

The inability of any other actor to be a check on the untrammelled exercise of US-NATO military power, in turn fostered growing faith in using US power to refashion the world in its own image’ This bred ‘exceptionalism’ in the unipolar moment: “the US has rights; all others have responsibilities”. This blinded Washington to the concerns, fears and preferences of others.

However, developing countries still comprised a majority in the UN. They could, and did, deny the West the imprimatur of collective legitimacy by using their numbers. Their historical narrative of colonialism was starkly different from that of the major European colonial powers who thought they had exported civilisation to the natives.

Even now many Westerners fail to appreciate the widespread cynicism among non-Westerners about the hypocrisy and double standards that lie behind Western judgments of other countries’ actions and policies on human rights, considering the historical record of colonial rule. Anyone who wishes to understand the deep-seated cynicism of many people in the global South about the self-sustaining belief in an exceptional and virtuous America should read The Blood Telegram about the genocide in East Pakistan in 1971.

Need for new normative consensus

In the use of force within and across borders, states have had to conform increasingly to international standards and normative benchmarks that attempt to tame impulses to armed criminality by states in the use of force – domestically (to commit atrocities), and internationally (to commit aggression).

However, state-sanctioned mass atrocities produced a dissonance, between the norm of non-intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states and the humanitarian atrocities perpetrated by some brutish thug-rulers on their own peoples shielding behind that norm.

When some States intervened in internal affairs to protect the victims of mass atrocity crimes, their proclaimed emerging norm of ‘humanitarian intervention’ collided with the existing norm of non-intervention. The majority of States rejected the effort to re-legitimise the unilateral use of force internationally by some, in order to circumscribe the arbitrary use of force internally by others.

Thus the existing normative consensus was no longer fit-for-purpose against the brutal facts of the real world. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged member states to find a new consensus on the competing visions of national and popular sovereignty and the resulting ‘challenge of humanitarian intervention’.

In response Canada convened an international commission (of which I was a member) to explore possible pathways to a new normative consensus on the use of force to save strangers, but within the boundaries of both law and legitimacy.

R2P was our answer: reconciling the neuralgic rejection of ‘humanitarian intervention’ by the global South, with the determination by the North to end the atrocities. Henceforth, citizens were to be treated as the bearers of rights, while States had to accept responsibility towards the people and, if they defaulted, the UN would step in to do so.

Our formulation of the three symbiotically interlinked responsibilities embedded in the overall R2P principle – prevent, react, rebuild – are inflection-points along the arc of a conflict-curve. The unanimous endorsement of R2P by world leaders in 2005 limited the ‘triggering events’ to four actions: war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The unanimity notwithstanding, R2P implementation is an ineluctably contested normative terrain because, as I argued in my lecture for the Centre in Wellington in March, it lies at the intersection of tension between national and human security, state and human rights, and peace and justice.

All of these are, in themselves, essentially contested concepts. Some states will continue to exhibit the worst of human nature and engage in atrocities. Others will want to respond and help innocent victims based on the ‘better angels’ of human nature. Success can never be guaranteed by any principle or formula for international interventions. But the chance of success can be enhanced, and criticism muted, if interventions are based on an agreed normative framework regarding a triggering threshold, an authorising agent, and implementation guidelines.

One way or another, R2P addressed these concerns and requirements. While it will inevitably be tweaked, it is unlikely to be discarded anytime soon.

Ramesh Thakur is emeritus professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy and a former UN Assistant Secretary-General. His most recent book is: ‘Reviewing the Responsibility to Protect: Origins, Implementation and Controversies’ (Routledge, 2019).

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Multilateralism & the Rules-based Order:

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Kennedy Graham

Yesterday I attended MFAT’s annual Beeby Colloquium on International Law. Having had the privilege of working closely with Chris back in the ‘80s, it is quite a moving experience to attend these events.  It is also, equally, an annual highlight in terms of intellectual stimulation and insight into issues of international law.

In earlier blog-posts, I have touched on the issue of a multilateral rules-based order and the competing perceptions among prominent national leaders as to what this means and what is might be composed of. At the 2019 Colloquium, a more penetrating and analysis emerged from the informed and thoughtful contributions, not least from one of the Centre’s Board members, Duncan Currie, on the ‘common heritage’ concept and the law of the sea.

A highlight yesterday was some personal comment advanced by MFAT’s Acting Dep-Sec, Victoria Hallum.  Here are a few of her observations:

“New Zealand’s attraction to multilateralism and multilateral rules is strong.  Multilateralism allows us to pursue enduring multilateral solutions to shared problems.   New Zealand has tended to see the best solutions as underpinned by multilateral rules, because when States consent to being bound by these international solutions under international law, it increases the chance that they / we can rely on these solutions, and enhances stability and predictability.

However the multilateral system, as we know it, has been created in a way that is very State-focused and State-centric.  International law is particularly so, founded as it is on the principles of state sovereignty and state consent.  States are the main subjects of international law and non-State actors are still only recognised to a limited degree, with very constrained rights and responsibilities. There is some recognition of international organisations, the ICRC has a special status, we have international criminal responsibility for individuals, and investors can have rights under international investment law – to cite some examples.  But this is still very limited.  

Yet at the same time, non-state actors have more power and more ability to engage and have impact across national boundaries than ever before.  I am talking about:

  • multinational companies that operate apparently seamlessly across borders ;
  • distant water fishing vessels flying the flag of one state, owned by a corporate entity in another, crewed and mastered by nationals of a third state;
  • armed militias and terrorist groups;
  • NGOs ranging from well-orchestrated and transparent membership-based organisations through to more amorphous covert actors such as Anonymous;
  • And also the way in which individuals, aided by technology, can coalesce almost organically around particular issues, such as the “Me Too” movement or the recent climate strikes.

The consequence is that many of the current ‘wicked problems’ requiring international solutions cannot be solved by states alone.  Coming to terms with this and finding ways to engage with non-state actors to solve transboundary and global commons issues could be seen as the next frontier of international law.” 

My own take-away from the Colloquium is that, not only is international law under siege for various reasons, but the underlying aspects of the rule of law, at the global level, are up for re-examination.  Let me briefly try to encapsulate these below.  They are, to the extent they can each be captured in a word: jurisprudence, legitimacy, application, integrity and technology.

One paragraph on each – very much my own interpretations:

1. Jurisprudence

There was debate over whether the contemporary (1945-2019) ‘multilateral rules-based-order’ is experiencing a fundamental fragmentation, i.e. breaking down, or whether it is simply ‘enjoying’ a more vigorous input from different political systems (especially Confucian) beyond the traditional (Western) imprimatur.    The fundamental competing value systems of stability and liberty need some dialogue and reconciliation before a true jurisprudential foundation for ‘global law’ can be agreed.

2. Legitimacy

Victoria, and others, queried whether, in the 21st c. world, international law can be exclusively state-centric and rest on consent, or whether it needs comparable input from private corporations.  Can international (global?) law be legitimate if the legislative process does not accurately reflect the spread of power/influence?  Or, should it remain state-centric or at least public in source, with advisory input from the private sector?

3. Application

Should international law continue to be applied primarily to States, or should the recent trend to apply criminal international and humanitarian law to individuals be continued?  To what extent should the success of the ICJ encourage the concept of ‘compulsory jurisdiction’, and to what extent should the travails of the younger ICC give reason for pause?

4. Integrity

To what extent should the principles of good faith and of sovereign equality be maintained with rigour, and to what extent should it be tempered in the ‘real world’ by an acceptance of ‘exceptionalism’?  To the extent the latter is accepted, how much is this compatible with purely US exceptionalism, compared with that by other major powers?

5. Technology

To what extent can international law keep pace with the extraordinary pace and depth of 21st c. technological change?  How much of this ‘wicked problem’ applies to digital technology (social media) and how much to weaponry (nuclear weapons, autonomous weapons)?   How to define some of this?  Once defined, how to redress the stated problem?

Food for thought.  Areas for the Centre to explore.

Dr Kennedy Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies  

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Strengthening Multilateralism:

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Kennedy Graham

My first column (9 Oct.) noted the ‘bipolar mind-set’ discernible among national leaders at the UN General Assembly debates in recent years.  An ‘intellectual rivalry’ was playing out between two apparent doctrines – ‘patriotism’ and ‘universalism’.

Both address the issue of a rules-based order, though from apparently different premises and reasoning. The debate revolves around two central principles of the UN Charter: national sovereignty and international law.

The debate is not new, but the modern pace of change and the onset of existential challenges put the framing of global problem-solving in starker relief than before.  The UN, with 193 Member States, is founded on the mid-20th c. principle of national sovereignty, yet three-quarters of a century later the emerging global community faces global problems unanticipated back then.  How is this handled by today’s leaders?

At last year’s 73rd UNGA session, the differences were clearly enunciated:

  • US: … America will always choose independence & cooperation over global governance, control, and domination. We reject the ideology of globalism & embrace the doctrine of patriotism.  … responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination. …. protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.
  • NZ: This generation is a borderless one – at least in a virtual sense; one that increasingly see themselves as global citizens. We face what we call in New Zealand ‘wicked problems’; ones that are intertwined and interrelated.  …   New Zealand remains committed to continue to do our part to building and sustaining international peace and security; to promoting and defending an open, inclusive, and rules-based international order based on universal values.

The most explicit, if oblique, rebuttal of ‘patriotism’ as described by the US, came from France:

  • … France promoting universal values … exact opposite of the egotism of a people who look after only their interests, because patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is a betrayal of it. In saying ‘our interests first and who cares about the rest!’, you wipe out what’s most valuable about a nation, what brings it alive, what leads it to greatness and what is most important: its moral values.  Let’s again take the UN oath to place peace higher than anything.

The issue of national sovereignty in a globalising world surfaced again in this year’s 74th Session’s Debate.

Warning against a ‘great fracture’, the UN Secretary-General opened with a call to avoid zero-sum politics and revive UN values.  He expressed fear of the world’s two largest global economies creating separate and competing worlds, each with its own dominant currency, trade and financial rules, Internet and AI capacities, and its own zero‑sum geopolitical and military strategies.

Everything possible must be done, said Guterres, to stop the world from splitting in two. He called on ‘global leaders’ to maintain a universal system governed by universal respect for international law and strong multilateral institutions.

The theoretical merge between multilateralism and nationalism in the 21st c. was articulated by Slovenia.

  • Clearly, the world is in transition and international organizations are trying to follow accordingly. In adjusting to shifting paradigms, it would be a grave mistake to do away with the fundamental principles that have guided the international community for nearly a century: sovereign equality, collective security, international law, good faith, pacific dispute resolution and human rights.

Other Member States, however, gave specific national reasons for promoting sovereignty. Stronger multilateralism was described as the key to tackling global challenges, but not at the expense of state sovereignty, a ‘bedrock principle’ of the UN Charter.

  • Latvia argued that a strong multilateral, inclusive and rules-based international order was essential for global peace and security. But the multilateral order demands respect for sovereignty by all Member States.
  • Belarus suggested the world today is ‘closer than ever to disaster’.  Modern issues such as ensuring peace and security, promoting sustainable development, and addressing climate change demonstrate the inadequacy of States acting alone.  Global challenges require effective, ambitious joint solutions. The UN should lead this because of its universal composition and mandate.  The 75th session in 2020 ‘must not be for show’ or everyone will lose as the ‘sinister spectre’ of a third world war becomes a reality.
  • Cambodia said that the emergence of a multipolar world should pave the way to peaceful coexistence.  But some powers, ‘under the pretext of universal values’, are fomenting a new form of global division. Using humanitarian reasons as a pretext to interfere in domestic affairs or provoke regime change was deceptive and deceitful. Increasingly serious threats to global security and the planet’s future are a direct consequence of weakening multilateralism.
  • Myanmar warned that while the UN is at the heart of multilateralism, it must avoid the mistake of unilaterally extending its powers ‘without corresponding due diligence’.  Multilateral institutions should never be used as a tool for targeting Member States.  Such institutions should uphold the sovereignty of nations; none should have its value in the UN dependent on its wealth or influence.

The most forceful political articulation of national sovereignty came, unsurprisingly, from Brazil:

  • The Amazon has been mistakenly called a ‘world heritage’ and its forests the ‘lungs of the world’.  In so doing, countries have disrespected Brazil in a colonialist spirit, questioning its most sacred principle, our sovereignty.  …  We are not here to erase nationalities and overrule sovereignty in the name of an abstract global interest.

National sovereignty, it seems, can be used as rationale for a variety of causes. It can be used to embrace the global interest – territorial integrity, multilateral sanctions, climate stability and maritime law.

  • Ukraine: Every country has its own problems, but there is no longer such a thing as somebody else’s war.  We cannot think globally while turning a blind eye to small things.
  • Lithuania: We need a stronger UN to respond more effectively to the illegitimate use of force and violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
  • Laos: The embargo on Cuba should be lifted so that this sovereign country can enjoy economic and trade freedom.
  • Tonga: Our sovereignty should not be compromised by the effects of climate change.
  • Marshall Is: Illegal fishing is not only an economic menace, but a threat to sovereignty.

Yet it can also be used in defence of national sovereignty over global trends – against migratory flows, trans-national criminal jurisdiction, international electoral observation and global species-control.

  • Hungary: The issue of migration again rules the issue of global affairs.  The UN has a responsibility to uphold international law.  Migration is not a fundamental human right, yet the UN promotes migration.  Instead of promoting human rights, the Global Compact promotes the movement of people.  This is unacceptable. The UN promotes the idea of encouraging migrants to violate sovereign borders.
  • Philippines: While some claim that States erode multilateralism by asserting their excessive sovereignty, States are bound to protect their populations ‘by any means necessary.’ Multilateralism is threatened by its own vain attempts to usurp State functions and return the world to the anarchy of the pre-war period preceding the UN.
  • Burundi: The electoral process in Burundi is an internal matter that comes under the remit of national sovereignty.  Any support to the process must be requested by its Government, in accordance with the UN Charter.  Any attempt to define a new role or redefine an existing role for the UN to address the Burundi elections would be a violation of national sovereignty and a breach of the Charter.
  • Botswana: The Government is working with neighbouring States under the auspices of CITES to find sustainable solutions.  It proposed a one-off sale of ivory, which was regrettably rejected. Attempts to extend the scope of the Convention in a way that would infringe on sovereignty are equally disheartening.

What to make of this? The debate, as expressed, is between levels of identity and prescriptive behaviour. Is it amenable to an analytical-prescriptive framework that might facilitate a reconciliation of views?

From the statements made by Member States, there appears to be three levels of conceptualisation in international relations, with some nuanced differentiation within each.

  • Universalism universal values; global citizenship; global governance; global interest
  • Globalism economic, financial & trade globalization; incursion into national economies
  • Multilateralism strengthened rules-based international order; UN institutional reform
  • Internationalism cooperation for common ends; collective security; international law
  • Nationalism national independence; sovereign equality; territorial integrity

International relations at the United Nations can be analysed in the above context.  Each conceptual level needs to be clearly defined, and the inter-relationships among them identified and explained, before a prescriptive framework that encompasses all recorded views can be advanced.

Introducing a degree of confusion is the concept of ‘patriotism’. Traditionally this has applied to national identity. But patriotism it is not an analytical concept; it is a political affiliation that can be applied to any level of analysis according to taste.

This is not to denigrate the notion of patriotism, but rather to acknowledge that the American and French exchange reflects a legitimate debate.  The added value from New Zealand is that a new generation will influence that debate, reflecting an emerging global community, over the next few decades.

The purpose of the Centre for Global Studies is to develop a framework for reconciling these apparent differences of view advanced at the UN with prescriptive comment – respecting national sovereignty and abiding by international law, while resolving global problems through genuine global solutions.

We intend to develop a project to that end over the coming year.

Dr Kennedy Graham is Director of the NZ Centre for Global Studies  

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