In Discussion

By Christopher Black. Presented at the International Round-table Conference in Vienna and published by the International Progress Organization (I.P.O.), September 21, 2023.

At a critical juncture of international politics, a panel of experts from Austria, Canada, China, Germany, Iceland, India, Serbia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States, supported by academic team members from France and Italy, gathered in Austria’s capital to address the theme of “Responsibility in International Relations.” The International Progress Organization, continuing its long-standing tradition of addressing crucial issues in international affairs, convened the one-day meeting at Vienna’s Imperial Hotel.

In his opening remarks, Professor Hans Köchler, President of the International Progress Organization, emphasized the significance of responsibility as foundational principle of international relations in an era fraught with the dynamics of a changing global power constellation. He distinguished the dual aspect of responsibility as states’ obligations, on the one hand, and accountability at both the individual and state level, on the other. Introducing the main topic of the conference, the president focused on the legal aspects of accountability, both in terms of states’ liability to compensation and individual criminal responsibility. He illustrated the problems by highlighting a basic inconsistency in the UN Charter that proclaims “sovereign equality of states” as basic principle, but effectively shields the permanent members of the Security Council from being held accountable for their violations of international law. Professor Köchler concluded his introduction with observations on the role of realpolitik since the time of the Vienna Congress.

Professor Anthony F. Lang from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) spoke on “Responsibility as a Universal Value,” laying the philosophical groundwork for the subsequent debates. His presentation included a semantic analysis of the terms dialogue, rationality and responsibility, followed by the analysis of responsibility at the moral, legal and political levels. He concluded his remarks with an analysis of the relationship between the concepts of responsibility and universality.

Dr. Seán Fleming from the University of Nottingham (UK) critically examined the contentious topic of punitive sanctions against states, elaborating ethical problems of coercive measures in the international realm and emphasizing that, in the present intergovernmental system embodied by the UN, international criminal law does not apply to states but only to individuals. He also explained that “state crimes” couldn’t be meaningfully prosecuted without the necessary institutional infrastructure at the global level.

The historical depth of the debate was enhanced by Professor Fabian Klose from the University of Cologne (Germany) who provided insights on “Human Security and Responsibility to Protect in Historical Perspective.” Describing in detail the evolution of the concept of humanitarian intervention since the 19th century, he drew the panel’s attention to the national and geopolitical interests that have often driven interventions since the colonial era.

Delving into the complexities of the United Nations system, Professor Ramachandra Byrappa (India) of Eötvös Loránd University and HIIA, Hungary, analyzed the challenges faced by the UN vis-à-vis what he described as “feudal infiltration” stemming from the geopolitical context of the Cold War and from feudal global structures inherited from European empires. He argued that the design of the UN is good, but the construction is dysfunctional because of an inadequate interpretation of sovereignty at different levels.

Professor Berdal Aral from Istanbul Medeniyet University, Turkey, examined the extent to which the UN Security Council’s resolutions have been carried out responsibly. He particularly focused on the wide range of the Council’s enforcement actions, including the imposition of massive economic sanctions and the use of armed force or authorization of the use of force, pointing to the tragic human consequences of many such interventions and emphasizing the incompatibility of such measures with basic human rights. He concluded his presentation by outlining what a “responsible” UN security system should look like.

Shifting the lens to the interplay between international organizations and global power politics, Christopher Black (Canada), an international criminal lawyer who served as Defense Counsel at several international criminal tribunals, shared his experiences from the Milošević trial at the Yugoslavia tribunal, as well as from the Rwanda and Sierra Leone tribunals. The speaker analyzed false narratives that can influence judicial systems as well as public opinion, and the tendency to subject members of defeated parties to discrimination or abuse.

Professor Alfred-Maurice de Zayas (USA), a former Senior Lawyer at the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Independent Expert on the Promotion of a Democratic and Equitable International Order, followed with his testimony of the influence – and interference – of state actors in international legal contexts. He also highlighted the illegality of unilateral economic sanctions, explaining that such punitive measures often amount to massive human rights violations, punishing the people rather than the government the sanctioning state claims to target.

Professor Lyal S. Sunga (Canada), affiliated with the American University of Rome and the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Lund (Sweden), analyzed the indictment of Russian President Vladimir Putin by the International Criminal Court (ICC). He argued that the symbolic power of the ICC’s indictment should not be underestimated despite practical and jurisdictional challenges. Finally, he emphasized that the ICC was not simply a Western tool, pointing to the fact that out of 123, only 25 State Parties are from the West. The speaker concluded that international legal institutions are certainly not flawless, but that the ICC indictment represents a step in the right direction for the international rule of law.

In the subsequent session, Professor Zhipeng He of Jilin University, China, led a discussion on the “Impossible Trinity for Great Powers,” meaning challenges to the international rule of law due to the antagonism between (1) national interests, (2) the demands of global ethics, and (3) the expectations of a state’s allies. The speaker focused on the inevitable distrust of great powers towards international legal organizations, as the former are usually not prepared to put their national interests aside. The presentation was concluded with a reflection on how self-interest shapes the behavior of great powers in international organizations.

Professor Dušan Proroković, Senior Research Fellow at the International Institute of Politics and Economics in Belgrade (Serbia), provided insights into the role of intergovernmental organizations in an evolving multipolar landscape. His thesis was based on Structural Realism and focused on the growing polarization between the “Collective West” and the rest of the world. Evidence was brought on how several great powers and members of the Security Council not only push forward their antagonizing positions but also perceive each other as threats. The speaker further described the growing mistrust in international organizations and how the multipolar world is shaped mostly by confrontations over national interests.

Bringing the roundtable to a close, Ögmundur Jónasson, a former Minister of Interior and representative of Iceland at the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, made a compelling case for dismantling colonial legacies within international institutional frameworks, advocating for a transformative approach. Mr. Jónasson analyzed the power of a narrative of values in the ongoing geopolitical conflicts and described the current global scene as divided between national interests and humanistic principles. The presentation included many historical parallels that backed the speaker’s thesis.

In the course of an intense debate, with diverse yet interconnected views and analyses, the participants highlighted, each in their scholarly domain, the nature of responsibility in international relations. Addressing both, historical developments and contemporary challenges, the discussions revolved around the tension between sovereign rights and global responsibilities. Among all the differences of approach, there was consensus on the imperative to reform existing intergovernmental organizations and develop new international frameworks that reflect current global realities.

Upon conclusion of the roundtable, the President of the International Progress Organization hosted a banquet at Salon Metternich in Vienna’s Hotel Sacher.

The papers presented at the roundtable conference will be published by the International Progress Organization in the series Studies in International Relations.

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