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Raoul Jennar CHRONICLES: The need to defend multilateralism

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Cambodia's Premier Minister Hun Sen addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 28, 2018. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

As was recalled a few weeks ago at the UN General Assembly, a strident call was made by Prime Minister Hun Sen to preserve international relations within the framework of international institutions and international agreements that is summarised under the term multilateralism.

How do we go about defining it? Without doubt, the best way to explain multilateralism is to recall its opposite, unilateralism.

In the first case, multilateralism amounts to respecting international institutions created in the aftermath of the Second World War in which the principle of equality of states was affirmed by the United Nations Charter. From these institutions emerged a practice of multilateral treaties that consolidated relations between states.

Unilateralism for its part amounts to considering that decisions in the international order fall within the framework of the law of the strongest that imposes itself on all others. If we recall, unilateralism gave rise to aggressive nationalism at the start of the two world wars of the last century. Today, unilateralism is regression in the international order.

International relations cannot go back to the time when relations between states were subordinated to the ukases and the dictates of heads of state intending to pass their country before others.

The brutal and unilateral decisions of the president of the United States, who denies his country’s signature to major international agreements and refuses to respect the common rules of international institutions, clearly demands international legal scrutiny.

Withdrawal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, withdrawal of the negotiation of the Trans-Atlantic Partnership, questioning of NAFTA, withdrawal of the Paris Agreement on the climate, withdrawal of the Iran nuclear agreement, withdrawal of the UNESCO, withdrawal of the UN Human Rights Council, withdrawal of the US-Iran treaty, launching a trade war with China, but also with its European allies and with Japan, are all unilateral decisions that weaken relations between states and create a climate that shakes the international community.

However, the fundamental principle of international public law formulated for the first time more than two thousand years ago by Cicero, “pacta sunt servenda” (commitments must be respected), is more than ever of a imperious necessity.

Let us remember the time – the 1930s – when governments treated international agreements as “scraps of paper”, when they left the League of Nations. What happened after that? If commitments made are no longer respected, international stability would collapse.

Everyone knows that an unstable world is a world in which peace is seriously threatened. As we move further away from the horrors of the twentieth century, sadly we risk forgetting their causes. In less than twenty years, this century has already accumulated suffering that we thought we would never see again. And the arms race, interrupted at the end of the last century, has begun again.

More than ever, in spite of their imperfections, we need the international institutions within which dialogue between nations is maintained. More than ever, we need an emerging multipolar world to be organised in a multilateral framework.

Raoul M Jennar is a political scientist based in Cambodia

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