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  • William Paton

ONE LAW FOR ALL

We Are All Here Together and the Time Has Come

Gavel and Globe: Our world's justice system

by William Paton, Beijing 5 May 2024


Our invaluable framework of international law is not being sufficiently applied, and fairly enforced, mainly because of abuse of the veto by just a few states in the United Nations. It is time for the global majority to come together and demand one international law for all states. By forming a new organization to 'veto the veto', the majority of states can seize the moral high ground. Together, they can exert a powerful diplomatic censure on veto-wielders, enough to end such flagrant disregard for fair rule of law on our planet, opening a path to a more peaceful future.


Introduction


The international laws we have today, though imperfect, provide an invaluable framework with which to stop wars, punish war crimes or genocide, protect human rights, resolve territorial or trade disputes, protect biodiversity and reduce other types of international friction. However, there can be no international rule of law without enforcement, and many of our best international laws today are not being enforced.


The greatest weakness of our international legal system is the use of the veto by permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, a flaw in the United Nations Charter so great it may lead us to the same fate as the League of Nations, another world war. Wielding of the veto often impedes key parts of our international legal system from functioning. Critically, the United Nations Security Council is often unable to pass a resolution to stop a war, because at least one of the three veto-wielding powers still using it (the USA, Russia and China), does not vote in favour, or refuses thereafter to vote in favour of a further resolution to enforce it. To their great credit, both France and the UK have desisted from using their veto power since 1989. Nonetheless, invasion of another country, crimes of aggression, mass killing of civilians, and other crimes against humanity, usually go unpunished, even if a great majority of members of the Security Council vote to stop these crimes. As many as 14 out of 15 members frequently vote in favour of a resolution, with a single permanent member blocking its adoption. This is offensive. One day soon we must make it impossible and, in time, illegal.


Rulings of the International Court of Justice are legally binding on member states, but the Court has no powers of enforcement, beyond the mandatory obligation of members to enforce arrest warrants. Stronger action to follow up on a ruling is a matter for the United Nations Security Council where, once again, a single veto can prevent a ruling’s enforcement. In the 21st century, for just a few states to have the power to unilaterally overrule all other states, is unjust, an unacceptable impediment to further advancement of international rule of law. It is particularly egregious that the same three states (the USA, Russia and China), have all not ratified the treaty that created the International Court of Justice, yet retain the power to veto resolutions on enforcement of its rulings.


Since the addition in 1965 of four more seats to the Security Council, states have been unable to agree on any further reform. Formal negotiations are now in their fourth decade, with little progress made. A number of states aspire themselves to attain additional permanent seats on the Council, in addition to the present Permanent Five or ‘P5’, even suggesting they too be given a veto. Competition to join the ranks of states deemed ‘more equal than others’ is not converging towards a consensus, and would only deepen the flaw in the Council, while further dis-empowering the majority of states.



Concept


While each state has the right to develop its own legal system, with different laws, countries generally accept that there should be one law, nation-wide, with equal treatment for all. Simple fairness demands that at the international level the same principles apply, with one law and legal system, and equal rights, obligations and treatment, for all. Accepted wisdom is that veto-holding states will never willingly relinquish their vetoes, thus advancement of more impartial global justice will remain at an impasse. However, this will only continue as long as the global majority of states continues to accept it. Many even think ending the veto is impossible, but they are wrong, because it must be wrong to think humanity dare not even try to achieve such a basic tenet of justice as equality before the law. Once a particular treaty has come into force, no state – whether they have ratified it or not – should possess the right to decide in which cases that law should or should not be applied and then enforced.


Developing countries comprise the majority of the world’s population, and now also the majority of its economic output. Today, combined, they have the strength to stand up for the principle of ‘one law for all’. A formal international organization or treaty could be formed, where members would agree to automatically apply diplomatic sanctions against any power using the veto.



Goal


As states should not adhere to a new treaty that contradicts the United Nations Charter, the primary goal of One Law for All (‘OLA!’), should be to: Discourage use of the veto in the Security Council and encourage fair application, and impartial enforcement, of international laws among states. Without the veto, future opportunities to apply international law will expand, as the probability of passing any one Security Council Resolution will increase. The aim should be a complete cessation of use of the veto and, in time, amendment of the United Nations Charter to remove it.



Method


Discouraging use of the veto will include in particular, the application of mandatory, diplomatic sanctions against any state that has used it. For instance, issuance of visas to citizens of the country that used the veto could be suspended for 90 days, with humanitarian exceptions. Ambassadors could also be withdrawn for a symbolic 90 days. Scheduled joint military manoeuvres with a veto-user would also be mandatorily postponed. Measures applied should be designed to inflict the minimum of harm to economies or human health, aiming instead to express maximum moral indignation. While mere diplomatic sanctions may seem too mild to be effective, a sizeable number of states – ideally representing the majority of humanity – will express their profound indignation, together. Such joint action, for instance condemning the blocking of a resolution against a war or war crimes, will provoke massive media coverage, worldwide discussion, and considerable discontent among a vetoing state's own citizens, becoming a serious deterrent.


Only when a sizeable minimum number of states have adhered to the treaty should it come into force, perhaps 50 – reminiscent of the day in 1946 when 50 countries’ representatives signed the original UN Charter. Some states in the ‘Global North’ may also decide to join, thus the treaty should be open to all.



The Way Forward


Many will judge this concept too ambitious or too idealistic. Indeed, it is ambitious and it does pursue an ideal, but a global movement in support of ‘One Law for All’, today has genuine potential to succeed. As it gains momentum it would encourage more governments around the world to believe that they have the support of their peoples, and each other, in taking such a noble stand. Solidarity will also lessen the risk of any one state being singled out for too much retaliation by a state opposed to the movement. The power of moral authority rising not from the pinnacles of power, but rather from the bottom up – from the majority – will resonate strongly.


In some countries, a non-governmental organization for One Law for All, might be initially established, to help build support for the cause. Wherever the government is already supportive, this would not be necessary. A small group of states could take the lead to organize the first inter-governmental meeting, on opposition to use of the veto, perhaps in The Hague. In due course, more official meetings would be held at the intergovernmental level to discuss the content of the new treaty. Accession to the treaty by states could then begin, coming into effect once a minimum number of states have ratified it, and one day representing a global majority. That would represent sufficient ethical authority to achieve an historic improvement in international rule of law for all, much improving the course of human history. We are all here together, and the time has come.

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