• Isolated Cases, or the Return of Impunity: South Africa and Burundi Withdraw from the ICC

    The International Criminal Court (ICC) was meant to solve the problem of impunity for those guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes. After the brutal genocides in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, and Burundi, the ad hoc system of international tribunals was widely seen as insufficient to provide international justice. The ICC was supposed to create a permanent court that would try such cases. Broad membership would mean that the community of states would collectively police the system of international justice, detaining individuals under indictment and surrendering them for trial.

    The ICC suffered some serious problems in the start of its life with the United States and Russia signing the treaty, but not ratifying it (the United States formally withdrew its signature). Other major powers, notably China, India, and Turkey, refused even to sign the treaty. So the coverage of the ICC was limited from the start.

    In spite of this, the ICC has largely served the function for which it was intended, seeking international justice in cases of the worst violations of international law. The main complaint against the ICC is that its cases have not treated all violations of international law equally. All of the court’s indictments to date have been in Africa. This has led African political leaders to see their counterparts (and sometimes themselves) as unfairly targeted by the Court.

    These complaints came to a head last year when South Africa, normally a staunch proponent of international human rights and a leading country in African regional governance, refused to arrest Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan under his outstanding ICC arrest warrant. The South African courts ruled that South African law required that President al-Bashir be arrested, but President Jacob Zuma refused to carry out the arrest. While this created a controversy at the time, it reflected a strong regional consensus among political leaders that African diplomacy required doing business with individuals under ICC indictment.

    South Africa has now take this logic forward and decided that it can no longer uphold its commitments to the ICC. The ICC treaty allows for withdrawal, and South Africa has begun the legal process (domestic and international) of walking away.

    An anarchic international system lacks a central enforcement power. There is no actor that can bind states to international laws. The system of international justice depends on states to enforce its rules. This creates a complex set of compliance problems. While the general understanding of crimes against humanity is widely shared, the devil is always in the details. When the system relies on broad consensus, it can be hard to act when consensus is lacking.

    If the withdrawal of African states from the ICC spreads, this will threaten the credibility of the ICC system. The idea behind the ICC was to create a universal court to tackle the worst crimes when states failed to do so. But only just over half the world’s states signed and ratified the treaty, the wholesale departure of all or most of a region’s states will be a serious blow to the goal of universalism.

    The fate of the ICC may not hang in the balance. There is strong commitment in many of the signatory states for the Court. But the ability of the Court to tackle the worst crimes will be irreparably damaged. And international justice will take a significant step backward.



    1. All of the ICC’s prosecutions to date have been of Africans. Does this, in and of itself, show a bias against the continent and its states within the ICC system? Or does it reflect a broader relationship of power within the international system?
    2. Fewer than forty individuals have been indicted by the ICC for crimes under its jurisdiction since the Rome Statute entered into force in 2002. With so few people charged in this time, does it matter if the ICC were to be weakened to the point that it collapsed?
    3. International law is notoriously hard to enforce. What lessons does the weakening of the ICC regime teach us about the challenges to maintaining a system of international jurisprudence? Do these lessons teach us something about legal processes in other issue areas such as trade treaties, fisheries, and other areas of international law?

  • A Quiet Meeting Strikes a Blow against Climate Change

    You’ve probably never heard of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC) gas, but it was just the focus of a major international agreement, signed by nearly 200 countries. The agreement signed in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, agreed to make significant reductions in the emissions of HFCs, a gas commonly used in appliances like refrigerators and air conditions.

    HFCs are an important industrial gas used in a range of applications related to cooling and refrigeration. They are efficient and effective, but also happen to be a significant greenhouse gas. HFCs are much rarer than carbon dioxide (CO2) but they have a much more powerful heating effect when in the atmosphere. This makes HFC reductions an important part of the Paris Agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to reduce the human contributions to climate change.

    The deal is somewhat controversial as it does not apply to all countries evenly. Developed states agree to reduce the emissions by 85% in a series of stages starting in 2019 with a final target date of 2036. Developing states will be split into two groups, with a freeze on HFC use beginning in either 2024 or 2028.

    The Kigali Agreement is an extension of the Montreal Protocol that ended the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the chemicals that HFCs replaced. CFCs were widely used, but were linked to ozone depletion. In 1987 the Montreal Protocol was among the earliest international climate agreements.

    As with many international agreements, the implementation of the Kigali Agreement depends on the willingness of nations to abide by their commitments. The need for three tracks for phasing out HFCs shows that there was disagreement on timing of the implementation. Like past climate agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol, the agreement is largely enforced by reputational costs due to defection.

    Like many similar agreements, the negotiations are also generally the purview of professionals. Few people in most countries were aware that the Rwanda meeting was taking place. Still fewer knew the details of the negotiations. The domestic political context for all 197 signatories will be different and this will impact the degree of commitment of future leaders to these commitments.

    But success or failure lie in the future. For now, the diplomatic momentum of the Paris climate talks seems to be pressing on. Coming in November, the 22nd Conference of the Parties (COP22) in Marrakech, Morroco.



    1. Climate change issues require widespread agreement and participation by many different kinds of states. How is this reflected in the commitments required in the agreement? What aspects show how concessions were given to some states to gain their support?
    2. Most average citizens are unaware of the detailed content of (and sometimes the existence of) most climate agreements. To what degree do such agreements pose domestic political problems for democratic states? Can international treaties, committed to largely out of the public eye, be reconciled with democracy?
    3. Climate change is often framed as a collective action problem. It is easy for nation-states to ignore their commitments in the hope that other states will pay the cost of providing the benefits. Are collective action problems especially difficult to solve in an anarchic system? Or are they just like other cooperation and coordination problems?
  • The Long Slow Grind against ISIS Marches On: Iraqi Forces Launch Offensive to Drive IS from Mosul

    IS burst into the thinking of people around the world when it seized significant parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014. The rapid progress of the group caught many observers by surprise and was seen as a sign of the spread of the turbulence generated by the Syrian Civil War.

    Backed by a coalition of strange bedfellows, Iraq began a major offensive this week to expel IS from the last of the major cities that it still holds in Iraq. The coalition forces include the Iraqi regular army, Sunni militias from Iraq, Iranian-backed Shia militia units, Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and Special Forces from several Western countries, including the US. The campaign is backed by significant air support from the United States.


    The offensive to retake Mosul shows the complexity of modern warfare against organizations willing to use asymmetric warfare and insurgent tactics. Most of the IS fighters stationed in Mosul were withdrawn to Syria, but a significant force remains behind to fight a holding action and force the coalition to fight its way into the city.

    Civilian casualties are likely to be high as the average citizens of the city are caught in the crossfire. The only way to avoid civilian casualties is to avoid the fight, which is not a realistic option for the coalition if it is to expel IS from the country. As the United Nations prepares for the likely humanitarian crisis that will come as the fight begins in a city of over 1 million people, the fight continues as coalition forces approach the city.

    The attack is a challenge given the complex nature of the conflict. The basic question of which groups can take and hold the city required juggling multiple interests. Shia militias are mistrusted by many non-Shia citizens following the widespread incidence of revenge killings of Sunnis in the aftermath of past victories over IS. Peshmerga fighters are trusted somewhat more, but are seen as serving the interest of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region and its regional government. In multi-ethnic Mosul, that poses concerns about the treatment of Sunni Arabs and other non-Kurds in the city. While not entirely trusted, the Iraqi national army is at least seen as somewhat neutral and more likely to be acceptable to the Sunni population.

    IS has been in a steady retreat since its peak in 2014, but it also is determined to make its enemies pay a price in blood for the city. As the fight goes on, expectations are that the coalition will drive IS out of Iraq, but at what price can only be determined by the fight itself. The war may continue to rage in Syria, but Iraq can see the prospect of a post-IS peace on the horizon.



    1. The US and Iran are generally considered at least unfriendly to each other, if not actual enemies. Yet Iranian and American troops are both serving as advisors to Iraqi forces in this attack. What drives the cooperation here between two such unlikely allies?
    2. What impact, if any, does the battle of Mosul have on the wider conflict that includes Iraq and Syria?
    3. In Iraq, the US and other Western countries have fought directly alongside their proxies in the fight to oust IS. Why have they been willing to put “boots on the ground” in Iraq in a way that they have not in Syria? How are the conflicts different in these countries?
  • World Leader or Irrelevant? Antonio Guterres Elected UN Secretary General

    The United Nations (UN) is among the most notable intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) in the world today. It is the only general purpose IGO that admits all of the world’s nation states as members. It has operations in most countries and it retains a special status as the organization that was chosen to maintain the peace that followed the Second World War.

    But time and again, the UN gets ignored when powerful states don’t feel like listening to it. As Antonio Guterres takes over as the Secretary General of the United Nations, he assumes the leadership of an organization with challenges on many fronts.

    Ambitious programs for development and global health face significant challenges as a mix of financial and security troubles threaten economic development. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted in 2015 with a target for accomplishment by 2030 represent a significant challenge for the UN. Building on the largely successful Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the SDGs seek to make substantial improvements in the lives of the world’s poor by 2030. But the MDGs were successful in large part because they were relatively modest and focused in fairly narrow areas. The SDGs reflect much greater ambitions such as the elimination of all poverty in the world. Getting the SDGs firmly on the path to success in a time of economic uncertainty in global markets will be a significant challenge.

    The Paris Agreement on climate change extends the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and sets ambitious targets related to greenhouse gas emissions and the finance of climate change mitigation. The United Nations faces steep challenges to ensure that members comply with their commitments under the Agreement. When many developing states prioritize economic development over climate concerns, it remains to be seen if the global and national targets can be met.

    Finally, no issue is more prominent that security and its relationship to human rights. The UN is currently coping with the largest flow of displaced persons since the Second World War. It struggles to meet the needs of tens of millions of refugees driven from their homes by war. There is little desire among states in the global North to accept these refugees. The resources of states in the regions of the conflicts as well as UN agencies are stretched to near breaking. NGO’s that have traditionally aided the UN are also faced with challenges that are beyond their capacity to act.

    These crises are driven by violence and war. Most famously, the war in Syria drags on. This conflict shows the weakness of the UN when faced with determined action by states that are not deterred by its rules or statements. The Syrian government, backed by Russia, continues to launch attacks that target civilians. Deliberate targeting of hospitals and relief workers, indiscriminant bombing of civilian population centers, and even an attack on a UN aid convoy itself, have all shown that the Syrian government cares neither for international law or the UN’s attempts to enforce it. As the death toll in the war approaches the half-million mark with the near-destruction of Aleppo and other opposition-controlled areas, the UN protests have had no effect on the actions of the parties to the conflict.

    To these concerns we can add the Chinese rejection of the arbitration panel enforcing the Laws of the Sea, the continued advance of the North Korean nuclear program, the proxy war in Yemen between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the continued illegal occupation of Ukraine by Russia, and many, many more examples. The world security order that has maintained peace and stability since the end of the Cold War is under serious strain and there are no simple or easy solutions for repairing it, if it can be repaired at all.

    Into this world steps a new face and a new voice. Antonio Guterres comes from the humanitarian aid side of the United Nations and has a long-standing reputation for seeking to use the UN as an agent for good in the world. To build on this reputation and manage will require excellent diplomatic skills and a fair amount of luck.



    1. The United Nations is an IGO with a great deal of prestige and respect in the world, but it is often ignored by the major powers when it suits them. How does this reflect the kind of power that the UN can deploy to meets its goals?
    2. Does it matter who is selected to be the Secretary General of the UN? The UN is a powerful IGO, but IGOs ultimately require their members to enforce their actions. With such limits on its power, does it matter who wields that power?
    3. The UN is a large organization with a vast bureaucracy. This makes it different from many IGOs in the world. Managing such a large and complicated organization is a tough job for any manager. How does the nature of the UN as an organization impact the job of its manager? What particular challenges face a person who has to manage an organization like this?

  • China Joins the Economic Great Powers: The IMF Adds the Yuan to the Official Global Reserve Currency List

    China’s rise as one of the great powers has been remarkable in the past two decades. Economic growth has made China the second largest economy in the world and China’s economic might has started to translate into military and political clout.

    While China’s economy has grown enormously, the relatively closed nature of its currency and financial markets has made its financial power rise more slowly. In the past few years, a loosening of these markets has led to an increase in the use of the yuan (sometimes referred to as the renminbi) in international trade and finance. While there is a long way to go before the yuan is tradeable in an open market, the power of the Chinese economy has made the yuan one of the world’s major trading currencies.

    This was given formal recognition in September when the IMF formally added the yuan to its list of official reserve currencies. The yuan joins the dollar, yen, euro, and British pound in the official “special drawing rights” (SDR) basket of currencies. The SDR basket is the official list of currencies that the IMF offers as “hard” currencies in its loan programs. These are considered to be the most stable currencies, backed by the strongest economies. It is a powerful sign of the rise of China that the yuan is the only currency in the mix that is not fully convertible on international currency markets. China maintains significant controls over currency and financial markets.

    International currency markets are divided between the very few hard currencies and the much more common “soft” currencies. International commodity transactions are conducted in hard currency terms. International loans from banks as well as various intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) such as the IMF are extended and repaid in these currencies.

    Nations that use a hard currency as their national currency have advantages over other nations due to their status and the relative advantage that the currencies have in exchange markets. It remains to be seen if the yuan gains the full benefits of its hard currency status while the significant restrictions on its tradability remain in place.

    The addition of the yuan to the SDR basket represents another important sign in the changing global power structure. The distribution of economic power is in constant flux, and the rise of the Chinese economy has altered the global balance of economic power. As the Chinese economy grows, and Chinese ability to convert this economic power to other forms of power grows with it, we can see the shifting balance between the major powers.



    1. The addition of the yuan into the SDR basket is a sign of shifting economic power. Does the shift in economic power create the same kinds of concerns that shifts in military power do? How do changes in economic power impact other major powers?
    2. China’s currency does not float freely on the global market. It is the only hard currency with these restrictions. What impact is this likely to have on the use of the yuan as a reserve currency in practice? Can countries rely on a reserve currency that they may not be able to trade in a crisis?
    3. Why does something symbolic like the inclusion in the SDR list matter to the status of a currency? What is it about modern currencies in an international currency market that makes such symbolic factors important?
  • In a Sometimes Scary World, Alfred Nobel’s Vision Still Shines Bright

    International relations can often be depressing. War, natural disaster, struggles to cooperate in the face of competing interests.

    At other times, international relations shows the best of what people can do.

    In 1895 Alfred Nobel wrote his will. He had been a prolific inventor, but the thing he is most remembered for is inventing dynamite. In the course of his life he had become a dedicated pacifist and he decided to dedicate his considerable fortune to the funding of prizes for those people who had made extraordinary contributions to human achievement. He died in 1896.

    In 1901 (after 5 years of lawsuits by his family), the first Nobel Prizes were given. This week a new group of winners receive their recognition for contributions to the same six areas. The Nobel Prize remains one of the most prestigious awards a person can win.

    But who decides what is worthy? Nominations come from around the world. Each of the prizes has its own path from nomination to award. As you might imagine, scientists pick the science winners. Literature is awarded by the Swedish Academy, a body of eminent persons in various fields. But the most interesting is the Peace Prize.

    Alfred Nobel was a pacifist. He created the Peace Prize to recognize those who had worked for the promotion of peace in the world. The Peace Prize can be controversial (such as when it was awarded to US President Barak Obama during his first year in office) and it can be heart-wrenching. When Nelson Mandela and F.W. de Klerk shared the Prize for shepherding South Africa through a peaceful transition to majority rule, two men who had been bitter enemies had found common cause in peace.

    This most famous of international prizes is awarded by a small group of people who work for a tiny NGO, but their choices impact a world community that still longs for peace in a violent world. There were 376 nominations for the Peace Prize this year (a new record) and we will only get to know who one of them is. The nominees who don’t win are kept secret for fifty years.

    We will find out who won the Peace Prize on Friday, but for now we can take solace in the reminder that one person’s vision of peace can ripple across more than a century.




    1. Each year the Nobel Prize awards make international news. Why? What about this kind of award catches the attention of individuals around the world?
    2. The Prizes are awarded by small groups of experts working for tiny NGO’s following the rules set out by Alfred Nobel’s will. Would the Nobel Prizes have the same power and impact if they were given out by governments, or an intergovernmental organization like the UN?
    3. Alfred Nobel died at the end of a century that saw almost no major power wars. The wars that did take place were relatively small and short. In a world that has seen two World Wars and the string of terrible conflicts in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries, would anyone create a Peace Prize today?