International law and the United Nations' role in maintaining peace amidst great power rivalry
Updated: Oct 24
Photo Source: United Nations
Recent events unfolded some surprises, and nations, big and small, have offered mixed reactions that make the geopolitical landscape all the more variegated. Amidst differing positions and opinions, however, one thing remains certain: great power rivalry is once again looming. The Quad and the newly-publicized AUKUS are outstanding indications.
They say it is for balance of power’s sake that great powers act as they do. Yet, the repercussions of great powers’ acts are not confined to themselves alone. They trickle all over the globe, and the entire world is imperiled when equilibrium is lost.
Although it forces some states to hedge, great power rivalry marginalizes, as the term implies, many non-greats and powerless. Some are even rendered inconsequential in such a politics.
However, the present order of things no longer allows the direction of global affairs, which ineluctably transcends into the domestic affairs, to be defined solely by great powers and no-one else. The world is a community of sovereign states, whose existence is guaranteed by the maxim, par in parem non habet imperium. Equals have no sovereignty over each other.
But one will ever be hardly convinced that all states are, indeed, equals. One only needs to look into how economic inequalities, among many others, enable only a very few countries to project power.
This is where international law will be most vital. International law can bridge the gap between states and help operationalize the tenets of sovereign equality, albeit not in absolute terms as, admittedly, power relations are inexorably intertwined with international law.
Moreover, as great power rivalry emerges and as tensions reek into the air, the demand to adhere to international law should be even greater. International law should place constraints on the acts of all states, great powers included.
History is replete with events that could vividly remind us of those moments when international law was brushed aside, instigating great fears or havoc to many. A recent instance is US’ invasion of Iraq, which was not sanctioned by the UN Security Council as required by the UN Charter, particularly Chapter VII on the use of force. A more recent example is Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military adventurism in other parts of Ukraine that infringe the latter’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And close to home, China’s activities and sweeping claim of sovereignty over the South China Sea—which, according to the South China Sea Arbitration ruling, contravene the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea—put the vital sea’s littoral states, as well as other maritime users, in constant vigilance and precarity.
Peace and stability are the underlying values that international law ought to serve. When states and other players withdraw from international law, peace and stability are threatened. Thus, it is everyone’s obligation to uphold international law at all times. As Hans Kelsen would remind, patience and fidelity to international norms and legal institutions are the sine qua non to the pursuit of peace. He emphasized rather poignantly, “He who wishes to approach the aim of world peace in a realistic way must take this problem quite soberly, as one of a slow and steady perfection of the international order.”
The perfection of the international order, which is a humongous challenge in itself, is a task not only attributable to states, but also and more conspicuously, to intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations.
It is in the interest of the UN that the international order takes a shape pursuant to international law. As an organization that was itself a product of international law, the UN must continuously wield efforts to propagate international law’s normativity and functionality.
The UN should also be unceasing in addressing crucial issues that are governed by vague provisions of international law, particularly those that relate to the use of force, which greatly hinges on one of UN’s purposes enunciated under Article 1 of the UN Charter.
Perhaps the most important recent achievement of the UN along the line of maintaining peace and stability is the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), which bans the use, possession, development, testing, deployment and transfer of nuclear weapons.
There is no bigger threat to peace and stability than nuclear weapons and capabilities. Because great powers are themselves nuclear powers, the entry into force of TPNW amidst great power rivalry cannot be more timely.
Although states possessing nuclear weapons have not (yet) signed, ratified or acceded to the treaty, the TPNW is still considered as a significant milestone in the effort to outlaw nuclear weapons that can be traced back to the beginning of the atomic age. It is then highly imperative and critical for the UN to build on this success by consistently providing platforms to engage nuclear power states and robustly highlighting the global public good that a nuclear weapon-free world can entail.
To a great extent, the TPNW was brought about by the self-empowerment of nuclear have-nots. This daring act, however, is a product of an enabling multilateral forum, particularly the UN General Assembly, where the value of sovereign equality is better regarded.
Certainly, the maintenance of peace and stability is a duty that inheres in the UN, and the latter is expected to discharge it more vigorously and unwearyingly during a great power rivalry.
However, the UN cannot be deemed as the “definite guaranty of peace” that many wish it to be. UN is hardly perfect, but with non-great power states realizing that they, too, are indispensable in strengthening and empowering the UN through strong and unswerving adherence to international law, the maintenance of peace and stability will not be far-fetched despite great powers engaging in tense geopolitical contest.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of his employer, the University for Peace, and Ateneo de Manila University.
Mark Anthony G. Articulo is a lawyer and Foreign Service Officer. He is presently taking up Master of Arts in International Law and the Settlement of Disputes at the University for Peace – Costa Rica and Master in Transdisciplinary Social Development at the Ateneo de Manila University, as an Asian Peacebuilders (APS) scholar. His fields of interest include international organizations, international adjudication, law of the sea, international human rights, peace studies and geopolitics. He is the Founder and Chairman of the Cagayan Legal Assistance on Wheels (CLAWs), Inc., which is a non-stock and non-profit corporation that aims to provide free legal assistance and promote legal literacy among the impoverished and marginalized communities in his home province.