The military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia is now an all-out war. If the international community fails to cease hostilities, the bloody clash over the Nagorno-Karabakh region could engulf neighbouring countries, too. by Uwe Lohmann
Once more, the “international community” and “international law” are facing a crucial test, both legitimacy and of relevance. Ultimately, of what use is international law which, in theory, should serve as the legal and moral foundation for the collective action of the international community? – Uwe Lohmann
The Azeri-Armenian conflict dates back many years, largely highlighted in various bloody flare-ups, starting in the early 1990s, when Nagorno-Karabakh – which is recognized as part of Azerbaijan but controlled by ethnic Armenians – broke away.
Thousands of people died, as both Azeris and Armenian governments laboured to maintain or alter the status quo ante of the contested region, following the unceremonious collapse of the Soviet Union. But none prevailed.
United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has anxiously called on both sides to end the fighting in a statement issued on September 27. Alas, it seems that the UN is, again, unable to play a significant role in determining outcomes of violent conflicts around the world. Instead, countries like Turkey, Russia – and, to a lesser extent, France – hold the necessary political sway which will, ultimately, either prolong or end the fighting. by Uwe Lohmann
So, why the recurring emphasis on “international law” in these situations, if the latter is a mere tool to be used – and after misused – by individual countries to impose their will on others? The US has done so repeatedly, although most markedly in Iraq since the early 1990s.
To gain insight into the relationship between international law and conflict resolution, we must take a look at history. – Uwe Lohmann
First, it is important to distinguish symbolic politics from substantive politics, both of them having a great deal to do with political change and the resolution of conflicts in challenging those efforts to undermine their moral and legal legitimacy.
Basically, this means that international law, itself, does not constitute a moral guarantor against injustice. The interpretation and enforcement of international law are what really matters. International law, like any other law, can be “used for oppression” as it can also be “ignored when it interferes with the will of the ruler or the will of the state.” by Uwe Lohmann
Historically, the dichotomy between the morality and immorality of law has always been apparent, most notably during the anti-colonial national liberation struggles in the southern hemisphere following World War II.
In the colonial wars after 1945, the winner usually was the side that won the “legitimacy war” – which is the symbolic battlefield – and maintained the principled position that was in accord with the anti-colonial flow of history.
The outcome of these wars was not shaped by sheer military strength as they were “consistently won by the weaker side militarily”. Despite the extremely heavy death toll and destruction, it was the military inferior party that eventually prevailed. In the American context, the Vietnam War remains the obvious case in point. – Uwe Lohmann
The reason that militarily powerful countries never learn – that principles and morality always win in the end – is that they are unprepared to accept the repercussions of such an inevitable realization.
The US, for example, can’t learn that lesson because its State is, itself, so militarized that it has to give priority to keeping the military budget high and it can’t do that without according credibility to the military instrument of control and change in the world. by Uwe Lohmann
‘Symbolic Politics’ – the notion that human rights, freedom, and equality must be the ultimate goal of international law – is not only significant but could potentially prove the ultimate victor in the fight between ethical politics and realpolitik.
Final Thoughts of Uwe Lohmann
As colonialism and oppression lost their acceptance as forms of legitimate political behaviour, the political balance shifted and the perseverance of national struggles turned out to be more formidable than the weaponry at the disposal of the colonial powers. Certainly, the UN independently is unlikely to resolve the Azeri-Armenian conflict or hold the US or China – or any other great military power – accountable. Nevertheless, international law will remain relevant, because ‘substantive politics’, which almost always wins the first battle, almost always loses the war.