More on State Building and the International System

This is a guest post in response to a previous blog post by friend of the blog Matthew Kustenbauder.

Your post highlights the contradictions between today’s human rights regime (which is based on universal concepts of humanity and has its origins in European anti-slavery campaigns and traditions of humanitarianism, and before that debates in Christian theology) and the post-imperial international order (based on the nation state as the fundamental political unit).

Since the rise of nationalism after WWII, new states that were historically part of empires (and thereby incorporated under their systems of law, governance, and trade) have had to make their own way. For most of these states, and especially for the people living within them, the new era of national self-determination has been no more kind than was the Age of Empire. The withdrawal of imperial powers left a vacuum that today’s international system struggles to address with any effect. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that it is a fragmented and cumbersome system that gives the impression all states are “equal” — clearly they are not. It also tends to be a forum in which smaller and poorer states invoke language of victimhood in an effort, ironically, to get larger or more wealthy states to step in and do the work that states are meant to do for themselves — namely, govern those residing within their boundaries.

What do I mean by this last point? An illustration by way of anecdote may help clarify. I was recently frustrated watching a BBC World Report special (an outlet for the Bleeding Hearts Industrial Complex that you mentioned in your post) about multinationals and poor working conditions in the developing world. Cotton and chocolate were featured. The reporter investigated big cotton operations in India and cocoa plantations in Cote D’Ivoire. What registered as surprise to the BBC reporter was no surprise to me — He found lots of young women and children working there. But instead of asking why the local government didn’t regulate the industry or why they didn’t enforce the regulations already on the books, he ran off to Switzerland and the UK and America to ask why Nestle and Tommy Hilfiger, etc. don’t monitor their supply chains. I was baffled. This is a classic example of how an international system based on the sovereignty of individual nation states is at odds with universal notions of human rights. In many ways, it is the modern-day replacement for the old global-local tensions that existed between the imperial metropole and its colonies. We might ask, however, whether the current framework in which human rights activism operates is really any better suited to address the ongoing problems that plague developing nations. To my mind’s eye, the focus is on the wrong place … or is at least too focused on the role of businesses and advanced economies and not focused enough on working with multinationals in order to help citizens in poor countries put pressure on their governments to be accountable, competent, and truly sovereign.

The emphasis on human rights by Western governments and development work by NGOs in African countries have, more often than not, undermined the sovereignty of national governments since decolonization. More recently, however, China has emerged as the largest trading partner with many African countries. This is a game changer, not only because the Dragon does not hold human rights sacrosanct, but also because, unlike its Western counterparts, China considers economic growth and trade essential to establishing national sovereignty and the nation-state (not the international community) as the principal guarantor of the well-being of its citizens. The degree to which China can be ‘socialised’ in the ways of the international system, which was after all created by the Great Powers to replace the disintegrating world that western empires had made, remains to be seen. In any event, the long-standing tensions between universal principals of human rights, on the one hand, and the limits placed on intervention into the affairs of one state by another in the name of national sovereignty, on the other, will endure.

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Matthew Kustenbauder is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.

sovereign hypocrisy and the icc: exposing african impunity

UPDATE:

Keating at FP reacts to the UN resolution against Gaddafi.

In 2000 Stephen Krasner, a renowned academic and member of my department, published a book that outed the “organized hypocrisy” that is state sovereignty. The book noted that leaders of states want to stay in power and have violated or allowed their own sovereignty to be violated numerous times as long it suited them. We should therefore be wary of any leaders that go nationalistic and invoke sovereignty. The Chinese and Russians have done it to protect domestic human rights abuses. The US has done it to protect its leadership and generals from prosecutions for crimes committed during foreign military campaigns. The genocidal president of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has done it. The mullahs of Iran keep crowing about it.

Presently, the Kenyan government is doing the same to protect members of the political class that are suspected of having organized the murder of over 1300 and displacement of hundreds of thousands in 2007-08. Six prominent Kenyans, including two of the president’s closest allies, are expected to stand trial for crimes against humanity at the ICC. The African Union, a bastion of kleptocracy, impunity and ineptitude, has come out in strong support of Kenya’s efforts to have the trial of the six deferred, or even dismissed by the UN Security Council.

A section of the African media, including prominent academics and people of repute, have also come out against the ICC. They contend that it has mainly concentrated on trying African strongmen. Some say it is a racist and neo-colonial institution. Many have demanded that the ICC stay out of Africa’s business.

I say this is all horse manure.

The ICC is not perfect. Some of the drudge that has been thrown at it sticks. But that said, it represents a voice for the hundreds of millions of voiceless Africans who for half a century have been virtual serfs to their political elite. Charles Taylor, Idris Deby, Daniel Moi, Mobutu Sese Seko, Emperor Bokassa, Robert Mugabe, Francois Bozize, among many others, have for far too long used “sovereignty” to loot, rape and pillage. They have used their own people as pawns in a dangerous game of sovereign rent extraction. They have over-taxed farmers through marketing boards. They have siphoned away foreign aid intended to build schools and hospitals into Swiss banks. Worst of all, whenever it suited them, they have started wars that killed millions.

Robert Mugabe is starving, jailing, exiling and killing Zimbabweans. Kenya’s Moi engineered “ethnic clashes” in 1992 and 1997 that killed thousands. Charles Taylor fanned the flames of a brutal war in Sierra Leone. Omar al-Bashir continues to kill Sudanese, in the north, in Darfur and in border areas with the south. Mobutu destabilized the east and south east of his country, leading to the 1997 Congo civil war, the deadliest conflict since WWII. Over 5 million died.

If this is what it means for African states to be sovereign, then count me out. To be frank, 50 years of African independence has left Africans with not much to be proud of. Disease, abject poverty, conflict, and all sorts of maladies continue to define the region. This while most of Latin America, Asia and the Middle East, other regions that have been comparably poor, have sped off toward economic development and political stability.

Before 1945 war made states. States fought to best each other in classical Darwinian fashion. The UN has since taken that off the table. In most parts of the world peaceful competition has replaced war. Brazil competes for jobs, markets and resources with other BRICs. But in Africa, competition is still lacking. What you have instead is collusion among inept dictators. The African Union exists to protect the likes of Robert Mugabe and Omar al-Bashir.

In my view, the ICC represents a much needed international threat to an inept and murderous African leadership.

I reiterate. The ICC is not perfect. But I am perfectly willing to hold my nose and support it in its attempts to end impunity on the African continent. Idris Deby, Theodore Obiang’, Paul Biya, and their ilk should know that it is no longer acceptable that they live like gods while deliberately confining millions of their own citizens to 16th century levels of poverty and incessant conflict.