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Donald Trump and International Law

Donald Trump and International Law

Is the US being isolated?

Ever since the dawn of human civilization, the fierce competition and armed confrontations over limited natural and human resources have been the indispensable part of efforts for the advancement of material wellbeing. These wars and armed clashes caused irreparable material and human losses and these horrible consequences forced the humanity to seek peaceful resolution of disputes through negotiated settlement and by agreeing upon some mutual responsibilities. In this regard, the Treaty of Westphalia, which was signed on 24th October 1648, can be cited as the first attempt to crystallize some basic contours of a continental body of legal framework upon which the longstanding territorial disputes could be resolved. The Treaty of Westphalia established the principle of state sovereignty that is considered the cornerstone of International Law.

The development and evolution of the concepts of nation-state and sovereignty necessitated the formulation of principles that could provide template by which interstate relations could be guided and moulded. The development of International Law as an instrument of maintaining peace and security gained momentum due to the devastation caused by World Wars that shattered the concept of balance of power as a deterrence against war. The establishment of League of Nations and then its successor body, that is, the United Nations Organization was, in fact, the material manifestation of the implementation of International Law as the source of maintaining global peace and security.

International Law can be defined as the legal responsibilities of states in their conduct with each other, and their treatment of individuals within states’ boundaries. International Law deals with a wide range of issues of international concerns and encompasses the areas like human rights, refugees, disarmament, migration, international crimes (genocide, crimes against humanity, the crime of aggression, etc) and the use of force. In addition, International Law also regulates the conduct of states regarding the global commons such as environment and sustainable development, international waters and global communication and trade. The Charter of the United Nations is the principal instrument of International Law as it codifies major principles of international relations; from sovereign equality of states to prohibition of use of force in international relations. The UN Charter aims at establishing conditions conducive to justice and respect for obligations arising out of treaties and other sources of International Law.

The United States of America has played a pivotal role in the development of all global political and financial institutions that are instrumental in evolving, expanding and implementing International Law. The role of the US in establishing the UN and supporting its global functions is beyond doubt. It has been the largest financial contributor to the administrative and functional expenditures of the UN. Throughout the history of the world body, all US presidents remained committed to the multilateral diplomacy and the obligations arising out of international conventions and treaties. However, this role is far from perfect as some US presidents grossly violated or avoided the International Law. For instance, President Ronald Reagan refused to sign the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice and pulled his country out of Unesco; George W. Bush unsigned Rome Statute, abrogated US-Russian Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and initiated war against Iraq despite a Security Council resolution against it. Nonetheless, in spite of this selective strategic employment and interpretation of International Law, the encouraging attitude of the US presidents was that they never pulled US altogether out of liberal international order. They supported multilateralism, upheld commitment to the protection of human right and strengthened globalized trade.

But, Trump-led march of devastation on global peace and security continues unabated, just like in other areas, in the arena of International Law also. A temperamentally-impulsive, diplomatically-inexperienced and politically-outsider Trump has begun unravelling the delicately-woven fabric of International Law with his reductionist and isolationist worldview.

The United Nations and its allied agencies and institutions have played very determinant role in maintaining peace and security through promotion, expansion and evolution of International Law. Many of the UN agencies are closely associated with the implementation of International Law. For example, Security Council’s actions such as sanctions and peacekeeping missions have International Law implications; General Assembly has power to initiate and make recommendations to promote the development and codification of International Law; the Sixth Committee, International Law Commission and UN Commission on Interstate Trade have the mandate to modernize and harmonize the global rules on international business. In addition, the UN Treaty Database maintains the status of more than 560 multilateral treaties – member states can sign, ratify or lodge reservations and objections against these treaties. Notwithstanding the pivotal role played by the UN in augmenting International Law and promoting global peace and security, health and human rights, Trump is bent on undermining this global platform. He announced a $285 million cut to US funding for the UN and threatened to cut aid to the countries that voted against his unilateral decision of declaring Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. All these steps and his sheer disregard for the UN speaks volumes about his intention of pursuing unilateralism while dealing with other countries without any respect for obligations arising from signing the UN charter.

Disarmament and non-proliferation are the most important pillars of International Law. For most of its history, the US has been the leading state advocating the reduction in stockpile and restricting the nuclear capabilities. It played important role in enactment, signing and ratification of major non-proliferation regimes such as the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) but Trump has shown scepticism over these treaties as well. His decision of not certifying Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, would have far-reaching consequences as this agreement was envisioned to prevent Iran from developing nukes in return for easing of the crippling economic sanctions. He also announced to modernize and expand the US nuclear capabilities and severely criticized the START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty) with Russia. His recent decision to develop tactical weapons would further undermine denuclearization process and may kick start an arms race among the world powers.

The respect to the commitment made to the world community through signing and ratifying conventions and treaties is the cornerstone of the efforts aimed at strengthening the International Law. In this regard, Trump administration seems adamant that it will reverse the policy adopted by the previous administrations. Trump’s decision to accept Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transfer US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has signalled the clear-cut deviation from decades-old US stance over Israel-Palestine dispute. Emboldened by a pro-Israel president in the White House, Israel has announced to expand its plan of settlements in West Bank and East Jerusalem; the area that is nearly 60 percent of the future Palestinian state, depriving of which would render the very idea of sovereign and independent state of Palestine impracticable and futile. Besides, Trump’s threats to cut aid to countries that voted for the UNGA resolution against Trump’s Jerusalem move is tantamount to the abrogation of the principle of sovereignty as it could cause undue economic constraints for poor countries and consequent changes in their respective foreign policies. Another incident that should be the source of deep concern is the resignation of the United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein due to undue pressure from the US. He quit while informing the world that pursuing further work in commission “might involve bending a knee in supplication”.

Global commons such as environment protection and conservation have emerged as the most important underlying objective of International Law. Given the fast-deteriorating climate and rapidly-changing atmospheric composition with devastating environmental consequences, climate change has become an existential threat to the very survival of humanity. Paris Climate Accord, in many ways, is the culmination of human efforts against this colossal threat and can easily be considered the most detailed and comprehensive roadmap to tackle global warming. Trump administration is showing a shocking negligence to this threat out of his vested business interests. Despite calls from leaders and institutions from across the world, Trump has decided to renege on US commitment to Paris Agreement and announced to withdraw, thus dealing a serious blow to multilateral diplomacy. This categoric policy reversal is being seen as an effort to undermine International Law.

Global trade agreements are an indispensable part of International Law. These are not only desired to sustain and grow economies of modern states, their implementation and interpretation have also increased the interdependence of states, providing thereby an environment conducive to consolidation and strengthening of International Law. Donald Trump has shown disdain for globalization and multilateral trade regimes. Right after being sworn in as president, he announced his plan of withdrawing from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TTP) and signalled his intention to withdraw or renegotiate a number of trade agreements such as NAFTA, NATO and even WTO.

Dealing with the issues of refugees and migration has always been an important pillar of International Law. The US has long been staunch advocate for an open door policy for those compelled to abandon their homes due to well-founded fear of persecution. Since President Reagan, refugee settlement has been the most conspicuous part of US foreign Policy but Trump administration seems intransigent on saying goodbye to this policy as well under the guise of America First and citing security concerns. In this regard, Trump’s two executive orders (Jan 27 and March 6, 2017) that proposed the suspension of all refugees was first blocked by US courts, but was later partially restored and put in place. These steps clearly show that the US is now deviating from decades-old policy of welcoming refugees and thus reneging on its international commitments.

The development and evolution of international legal framework as an instrument of global peace and security is the triumph of humanity as it helped resolve the bilateral and multilateral economic, political and territorial disputes and provided favourable global environment where cooperation rather than competition, soft power rather than hard power, inter-connectivity rather than isolation, globalization rather than militant nationalism and inclusiveness rather than exclusiveness worked for the material wellbeing of the human beings. In the light of these facts, it is asserted that it’s high time the world leaders remedied the evils of economic inequality, global onslaught on local cultures and hegemonic attitude of regional and global powers so as to enhance people’s trust in globalized political and economic order where International Law would be applied equitably and without discrimination.

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