The world’s rules-based order is cracking


Rarely have international courts been busier. In The Hague, the International Criminal Court (icc) is considering war-crimes prosecutions against Israeli leaders, including Binyamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, over the conflict in Gaza. It has already issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, for war crimes in Ukraine. The International Court of Justice (icj), also in The Hague, is weighing genocide charges against Israel. In Strasbourg the European Court of Human Rights will hear a request in June for Russia to pay compensation to Ukraine.

And yet, for all the legal action, rarely have activists seemed gloomier about holding rulers to account for heinous acts.We are at the gates of hell,” says Agnès Callamard, head of Amnesty International. Countries are destroying international law, built over more than seven decades, in service of “the higher god of military necessity, or geostrategic domination”.

For a time after the cold war the world seemed to move towards an international rules-based order with less conflict, more democracy and open trade. Lawyers looked forward to “universal jurisdiction”—a borderless fight against impunity. Some leaders, such as Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia and Charles Taylor of Liberia, even stood trial for atrocities.

But the order, always imperfect, is breaking up because of intensifying geopolitical rivalries—and efforts to uphold it may only expose its weaknesses. Russia blatantly violated the un Charter by invading Ukraine. China supports Russia abroad, represses minorities at home and bullies neighbours. America, the chief architect of the system, undermined it with the excesses of its “war on terror”, not least after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Now critics accuse it of being complicit in atrocities by supporting Israel’s war on terror. Israeli forces have killed tens of thousands of Palestinians in an attempt to destroy Hamas, which killed or kidnapped some 1,400 Israelis on October 7th.

China and Russia mock the “rules-based international order”, a phrase intoned by President Joe Biden, as a cloak for American dominance. The fuzzy term is similar in meaning to “liberal international order” (a more common phrase that can confuse Americans, for whom “liberal” means left-wing). For Mr Biden it is the antonym of a world governed by brute force. Antony Blinken, his secretary of state, says it is the broad system “of laws, agreements, principles and institutions” to manage relations between states, prevent conflict and uphold human rights. Critics reckon America avoids referring to “international law” so as to preserve its freedom to use force.