How disregard for international law undermines Middle East security
At the recent annual meeting of the Helsinki Policy Forum, I was asked to identify the main challenge to peace and security in the Middle East. Many factors came to mind, but I suggested that the weakened role of international law and institutions was the main issue underlying the region’s chronic instability and insecurity.
What I mean by that is the fact that international law is being violated in the region on an almost daily basis by states and non-state actors alike. Not just promises, but treaty obligations are also repeatedly shirked. This permissive environment is being enabled by superpowers shielding their allies from UN Security Council scrutiny by vetoing unacceptable draft resolutions. In other cases, when a UNSC resolution is somehow adopted, its implementation is dodged, even when it is under Chapter VII of the UN Charter — i.e., being binding and enforceable by any means necessary.
Here are some glaring examples of the breakdown in international norms. The Assad regime has routinely used chemical weapons, in clear violation of the universally accepted Chemical Weapons Convention. According to UN reports, the regime has used chemical agents dozens of times, frequently causing devastating loss of life among civilians. No regime officials have been held accountable.
Bashar Assad and his Lebanese allies have also assassinated or attacked numerous Lebanese political figures, writers and journalists. Those attacks have so far gone unpunished.
Almost every week, Iran-allied proxies are launching ballistic missiles indiscriminately against civilian populations. The Houthi rebels, Iran’s proxies in Yemen, use internationally banned anti-personnel mines and IEDs, killing and maiming innocent children.
The weakened role of international law and institutions have left the Middle East chronically unstable and insecure.
Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg
Siege and starvation are now widely used as methods of warfare, with this approach perfected by the Assad regime. This medieval stratagem is responsible for the “success” of the regime in retaking large swaths of territory from the opposition and rebel groups.
It is fair to say that some countries still adopt a laissez-faire approach to terrorism. Iran in particular takes a proactive approach by training, funding and arming cross-border terrorism. Hezbollah of Lebanon has been designated as a terrorist group and has openly admitted it receives Iranian funding, yet it occupies a significant number of seats in the Lebanese Cabinet and Parliament. Hezbollah has turned its facilities in Lebanon into a center of excellence and logistics hub for terrorism training, with graduates operating throughout the region (including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq and Syria).
Israel has consistently flouted Geneva Conventions, universally considered as the binding rules of war, especially the Fourth Convention regulating the governance of occupied territories. It has for years failed to accept Arab offers to negotiate a peaceful end of the conflict. Israel adds insult to injury with the frequent use of excessive force against protesters and disproportionate collective punishment against whole families and entire communities, in clear violation of international humanitarian law.
Finally, Iran violates the UN Charter on an almost daily basis, especially the provisions on state sovereignty, respect for the political independence and territorial integrity of states, and non-interference in their internal affairs. The charter prohibits the use or threat of force to settle disputes and its spirit rejects sectarian-based politics. The UN system rejects a priori extraterritorial reach by any government to sow the seeds of civil strife by exploiting such differences. Regrettably, Iran has declined to commit in words or deeds to the UN Charter’s principles and refrain from inciting or exploiting sectarian differences.
It is true that international rules and the institutions set up to enforce them are not strong enough to fully restrain large powers, especially permanent UNSC members, but it is counterproductive to dismiss them altogether. International norms, which took decades, even centuries, to develop, can still play an important and effective role.
I will cite two examples where international rules and institutions played a deciding role: The current fight against terrorism and the experience of the Helsinki Accords a few decades ago.
Al-Qaeda and Daesh are on the run now thanks to international cooperation based on the UN system and international law. UNSC resolutions 2199 (2015), 2249 (2015) and 2368 (2017), among others, established an international consensus to fight those groups.
Acting under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the council adopted resolution 2368, a sweeping 33-page text detailing the types of sanctions already imposed on Daesh, Al-Qaeda and associated individuals and groups. The UN further set up powerful bodies to impose sanctions, monitor compliance and coordinate security work against them. The result is that we are now close to winning the war against those two groups.
In the 1970s, the Helsinki Accords demonstrated the worth of appealing to the values embodied in the UN Charter. Those accords started by restating the axioms of international behavior laid out by the charter and establishing a body to monitor compliance. Gradually, the accords were able to influence the conduct of international relations across the Iron Curtain and elsewhere.
The current UN approach toward our region’s crises, whether in Syria, Iran, Palestine or Yemen, is not working because it is not anchored in a similar international consensus, but rather on ad hoc arrangements. UN mediators are left trying to get compromises any way they can, often ignoring long-established rules.
- Abdel Aziz Aluwaisheg is the GCC Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs & Negotiation, and a columnist for Arab News. The views expressed in this piece are personal and do not necessarily represent GCC views. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @abuhamad1