A Deepened “West and The Rest” Divide?

After last week’s launch at The Hague Institute of the report of the Commission of Inquiry into human rights violations in North Korea, the divide between “the West and the rest” appears to have deepened – again.

Two days ago, again here in The Hague, Russia’s fellow BRICS members (Brazil, India, China and South Africa) responded with a statement of support regarding Russian participation in the Group of 20 meeting. They reacted to the Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop who raised the possibility that Putin might be barred from that summit after its recent annexation of Crimea.

This is not the only support that Russia has received since its annexation of Crimea. After more than a decade of rule of law assistance and other aid from the West, Afghanistanjoined Syria and Venezuela in publicly supporting Russia. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a tempestuous ally of Western countries, released a statement saying: “[We] respect the decision the people of Crimea took [sic] through a recent referendum that considers Crimea as part of the Russian Federation“.

A spokesman of Mr Karzai explained the annexation as a “legitimate move” and expressed the view that “Afghanistan always respects the free will of nations on deciding their future.” Afghanistan’s support apparently coincides with investment by Russia in “relics of the Soviet occupation”, while promoting “its own political and culturalprowess,” by delivering new equipment to old Soviet factories, building a Russian Cultural Center in Kabul, and rehabilitating rundown housing complexes. Afghanistan, which thereby became the first Western-backed democracy to express support for the widely denounced referendum in Crimea, might thus have made its first strategic move to tap into this new source of funding.

Soviet Russia was, of course, also a key player in the emergence of the North Korean state. The commission of inquiry has shed fascinating historical light on conversations on the status of DPRK between Josef Stalin, Kim Il-sung and Zhou Enlai, amongst other senior officials, held in September 1952. Citing a Soviet Union verbatim record of a conversation amongst this group, the Commission indicates how Kim Il-sung conveyed to Stalin that during the Armistice negotiations, North Korea had only acknowledged holding 7500 South Korean prisoners of war despite the real number of captive soldiers being almost five times higher.

Today, the pro-Russian response to the Crimean situation from a number of states is in stark contrast to the response to the North Korea inquiry of democratic states who once fell under the Soviet orbit. Albania, itself an erstwhile member of the Soviet bloc, strongly supported the findings of the Commission of Inquiry. Its Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, Ms. Prifti, reminded the body that: “Isolation and totalitarianism are not unfamiliar to Albanians; stubbornness of the regime not to cooperate with the international community and not to allow visits is also not a surprise – the regime has much to hide to its own citizens”.

In addition to Albania, Poland, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic have also called for a Security Council referral of the North Korean case to the ICC. Indeed, thirty-seven countries publicly expressed their backing for the findings of the Commission of Inquiry in the Human Rights Council, according to the Commission’s chair Judge Kirby. Arguing that they always oppose individual country reporting, however, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and North Korea disagreed with the findings of this unprecedented Commission of Inquiry that came into being without a vote.

This is an important time for states that still have to deal with their pasts, not least because Russia has made a claim to historical justice through its annexation of the Crimea.

Both the reflexive backing of Russia by both fellow BRICS countries and new or aspiring client states and the opposition from some countries to UN Security Council involvement in the North Korea case might suggest a return to realpolitik and a weakening of international norms and human rights standards. Nevertheless, the reaction of democratic states in Eastern Europe – many of whom provide useful models of transitional justice and historical reckoning in their own right – to both the illegal annexation of Crimea and the North Korea Commission shows that significant progress has been made in the advancement of norms of human rights and non-aggression.

The voices of those who have suffered the costs of authoritarianism, yet emerged from it, provide a powerful rejoinder to those who see a new era of arbitrary rule in international affairs, whether internally – as in North Korea – or through a disregard for territorial integrity, as in Ukraine. The challenge is to leverage the lessons of the democratic transition in Eastern Europe, rather than resigning ourselves to fatalism in the face of attempts to dismantle an international order based on the rule of law.

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