Josep Borrell Fontelles, High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Vice-President of the European Commission

Why we must resist when authoritarian regimes try to re-define international rules

HR/VP Blog

From the HR/VP Blog – 

During the Munich Security Conference (MSC), last weekend, I explained why we must uphold the international order, based on international law and universal rights and values against a strong revisionist campaign by Russia and China. I also discussed Ukraine, Iran, and the western Balkans with international partners.

After two years of pandemic, it was crucial that the MSC could be held in person. It makes a big difference in diplomacy when you can meet people physically and look them in the eye. On the side-lines of the MSC, I met in particular with the G7 foreign ministers to discuss the situation in and around Ukraine and the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, joined us. We reiterated our call for de-escalation and the use of diplomatic means(link is external) instead of force and reaffirmed our full solidarity with Ukraine.

A flagrant violation of international law

Since then it has become clear that, unfortunately, this call has not been heard. Last Monday, Russian President Putin decided on the contrary to recognise the independence of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk republics and to send troops there. To respond to this flagrant violation of international law and Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, we held an Extraordinary Foreign Affairs Council last Tuesday and unanimously decided in close coordination with our partners to adopt a package of sanctions. This package targets the 351 members of the Russian State Duma who voted for this recognition as well as 27 individuals and entities that threaten the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine. This will cover the political, military, business and media sectors. We also target the economic relations between the two regions and the European Union, exactly as we did in the Crimea case. The package will also target the ability of the Russian State to access the EU’s capital and financial markets. In parallel, the German government has decided to suspend the certification of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

But sanctions are only a part of our response. Our diplomatic efforts will continue to stop a new eruption of war in the heart of Europe. The risk of a major conflict is real and we need to prevent it at all costs. So, we will continue our outreach to the United Nations and the OSCE to bring Russia back to the negotiation table.

“Sanctions are only a part of our response. Our diplomatic efforts will continue to stop a new eruption of war in the heart of Europe.”

Revive the JCPoA as soon as possible

At the MSC last weekend, I discussed also, for the third time this month, the way forward for the Iran nuclear negotiations with the Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian. I also discussed the issue with my German, French and British colleagues as well as with US Secretary of State Blinken. It is vital to unblock the ongoing Vienna talks and to revive the JCPoA as soon as possible.

I also exchanged on the growing tensions in the Western Balkans with key local protagonists. I met Kosovo Prime Minister Kurti and his Foreign Minister Gërvalla to help relaunch the Belgrade-Pristina Dialogue. I have spoken to the Prime Minister Kovačevski and Foreign Minister Osmani of North Macedonia to confirm our willingness to make rapid progress on his country’s accession to the EU. I expressed also our strong worries about the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina. For 25 years, it has never been easy to keep the Dayton agreement alive, but the centrifugal forces have accelerated in recent months.

Finally at a lunch hosted by the Indian Foreign Minister Jaishankar, we discussed ways and means to reinforce our relations in the Indo-Pacific. I discussed this issue again with Japan Foreign Minister Hayashi. I also had a very interesting exchange with BBC anchor Lyze Doucet about the situation in Afghanistan, where she stayed after the takeover of the country by the Taliban.

Take a step back

On Sunday morning, I delivered a speech and joined a panel discussion with the French and German defence ministers. Before delving into the burning issues of Ukraine, the Sahel and so on, I wanted to take a step back and address a growing ideological challenge posed by Russia and China. Thirty years after the end of the cold war, we are facing a determined effort to re-define core tenets of the multilateral order. The outcome will decide whether the post-war multilateral ‘acquis’ survives, centred on the UN, international law and universal rights. Or, whether this will be replaced with a power-based, multi-polar order, with zones of influence and a relativist approach to human rights.

The Russia-China joint statement of 4 February(link is external) is the culmination of that long-standing campaign. It is an act of defiance and its essence is clear. It is a revisionist manifesto, in other words, a manifesto to review the world order.

“Thirty years after the end of the cold war, we are facing a determined effort to re-define core tenets of the multilateral order. The Russia-China joint statement of 4 February(link is external) is a revisionist manifesto, in other words, a manifesto to review the world order.”

It is worth reading carefully. One striking passage states that “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.” The UN charter starts with ‘We the peoples’ and Article 1 defines ‘the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples’. But for Russia and China, states are sovereign, not people. So they pledge to ‘counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries and oppose colour revolutions.’

Re-defining democracy

Re-defining democracy is another major plank in their revisionist drive. They talk about ‘genuine democracy’. Adding qualifying adjectives reminds us of Soviet times when communist regimes were talking of so called ‘people’s democracy’ or “organic democracies” in Franco’s Spain.

Democracy, they say, should be implemented ‘to suit national conditions’. And we are told that ‘China and Russia, as major countries with long-standing history and culture, have profound traditions of democracy rooted in thousands of years of experience of development.’ Russia claims to have thousands of years of experience of developing democracy…

When President Biden organised his ‘Summit for Democracy’ last December, China released a white paper with a telling title: “China: democracy that works(link is external)”. It argued that the ultimate criterion for judging a democracy was ‘whether it produces results’. So not whether it is based on the consent of the people expressed in free elections but by the result they deliver.

“Authoritarian powers – and not just Russia and China – seek to relativize the notion of individual rights, making them subject to local and culturally determined limitations.”

This is not a semantic discussion but a political one. We can see every day how in multilateral organisations there is a battle about the universality of human rights. Authoritarian powers – and not just Russia and China – seek to relativize the notion of individual rights, making them subject to local and culturally determined limitations.

The real question is what to do. I see three tracks:

1. We have to prepare for the long haul and be ready to see that ‘the technical and the legal is the political’.

What is at stake are not footnotes in legal documents but the core of the multilateral system.  So when we say that we want to defend the UN system, the OSCE acquis and the universality of human rights, we must understand that all this begins with defining the terms and upholding their meaning. If we reluctantly go along with innocent sounding phrases – just to get a resolution through or a Summit document agreed – and these terms are later re-interpreted in harmful ways, we will regret it. Europeans should know form our own experience that what may seem legal or technical actually has profound political implications.

2. We must realise that the main targets are not Western governments or publics, but those in ‘swing states’: i.e. governments and publics in Africa, South East Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

This is not about ‘defending the West’ but upholding shared principles that underpin common security and promote collective goals. And the big issue is what kind of model these ‘swing states’ will follow, as they hesitate between our democratic system and a more authoritarian one..

The message and appeal of democracy endures globally. The Afrobarometer shows for example that large majorities of African people (70%) want multi-party democracy, also – no, especially – in authoritarian-run countries. We need to tap into that broad reservoir of support to democracy and build on it.

3. We need to avoid looking defensive or backward looking.

In fact, Russia and China are the ones who want to go back, to the 19th century. Russia and China are becoming more and more assertive and willing to restore the old empires that they have been in the past. We want to move forward with the 21st century – taking into account the lessons learned from the 20th century.

Resist this Russian-Chinese revisionist drive

In conclusion, the UN and the wider multilateral system has two legs: the fundamental equality of sovereign states and the pursuit of common goals with the recognition of the rights of all human beings. Taking that second leg away means taking away the progress we made in the last 75 years. That is why we must resist this Russian-Chinese revisionist drive.

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