A breakdown in world order

By Tim Livesey

When the international rules-based order falls below expectations, that’s one thing. When it starts to fall apart it’s quite another; and time for serious concern.

For some time now the UN has struggled to keep the peace, to act as an effective upholder of accepted international human rights norms, let alone to enforce international law.The EU is being tested as never before by Brexit and a breakdown in its own rules governing immigration and asylum. The WTO is about to discover how hard it is to maintain a balanced trading regime in the face of US, China and EU-led tit for tat protectionist measures.

As the international community failed to rise to the occasion of successive challenges to its collective authority– Syria, the Crimea, Yemen, Myanmar – hardliners began queuing up to assert themselves on the international stage, or within what they perceived to be their legitimate sphere of influence: the leaders of Russia, Turkey, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Israel, China and Burma to name a few.

All believing that they could act with impunity in the face ofthe vacillation and dysfunction of the UN Security and Human Rights Councils.

Things have got a lot worse since President Trump’s election.Unilateralism is making a strident come back on the international stage; led by the leader of the free world.Multilateralism is firmly on the back foot, and Britain’s choice to exit the EU is not going to help.

International treaties and commitments are being flouted, ignored or revoked, not least by the US,examples including the Iran nuclear deal, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, the EU’s Dublin II and Schengen agreements, the Geneva Conventions, and even the understandings underpinning NATO.Thereis a major unravelling going on.

GK Chesterton once said ‘When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in everything’.When political leaders, particularly so-called authoritarian strong men, stop believing in the rules-based system, they don’t sit idly.They do whatever they want.

The problems with this trend are legion; some obvious, others less so.All are invidious.One in particular bears in on Embrace the Middle East and some of our partners.

In December last year, President Trump broke with decades of international consensus that the final status of Jerusalemcould only be determined as part of a final and comprehensive peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.Acting unilaterally, and without prior consultation,he declaredJerusalem– not Tel Aviv — to be the capital of Israel.

Thisdeclarationwas followed by the physical relocation of the US Embassy in May this year.The international community was outraged. President Trumpappeared not to care.The deed was done. The government of Israel was quick to appreciate that the pendulum was swinging dramatically in its favour.The US administration was emboldened.

Two weeks ago the President, continuing the trend, declared an immediate end to US contributions to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).At a stroke one third of the UN’s $1.1bn budget was withdrawn.

This is money used to provide education, health, social services and some housing support to around 4.3 million Palestinian refugees, descendants of the 750,000 who fled, or were forced to leave, their homes in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel and the hostilities which ensued.

UNRWA works in Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.It supports people now described by the US government as an ‘endlessly and exponentially expanding community of entitled beneficiaries’; not as marginalised and dispossessed men, women and children asdeserving of human dignity as the rest of us.

This, notwithstanding that registration with UNRWA is tightly controlled, in accordance with strict internationally agreed criteria.Palestinian refugees displaced by subsequent wars in the region, such as the June 1967 ‘six day war’ or the civil war in Syria, do not qualify for UNRWA’s assistance.

This withdrawal of US support for UNRWA came just days after a similar decision by the US government to withdraw a further $200 million of its own bilateral aid programmes to Gaza and the West Bank.

It is not only US aid to the Palestinians that is being withdrawn.There is increasing evidence of a shift in US policy away from the longstanding international consensus that the Palestinian ‘right of return’, along with borders, security and the status of Jerusalem must be addressed in the context of a final peace settlement.

Weeks after the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, passed a new basic constitutional law declaring that the right to national self-determination is “unique to the Jewish people” — (excluding Palestinian Arab Israeli citizens) — the US Ambassador to the UN Nicki Haley made clear her view that that the Palestinians ‘right to return’should be ‘taken off the table’.

US foreign policy in the region appears to be veering dangerously off course.

If you are a Palestinian trapped in the prison of Gaza, living isolated behind the separation wall in the West Bank, or eking out a living with the help of UNRWA in a refugee camp,your confidence in the international community’s commitment to your equal right to self-determination is vanishing before your eyes.

The rise of unilateralism is not the only contributor to this new and deeply troubling situation.But the trend is ominous. President Trump’s particular contribution, on a range of issues, from climate change to immigration, to his America First trade policy and a go-it-alone Middle East policy, is giving succour to authoritarian regimes everywhere believing that with the slow dying of multilateralism, anything goes.

We will all end up losers, but yet again the Palestinians, including Embrace’s partners, will be among those who lose most.

Tim Livesey is CEO of Embrace the Middle East