Times of crisis and the role played by international organisations

  • Analysing their functions amidst current developments in Afghanistan and Guinea

By the University of Colombo 

International law has not yet recognised a general right to a democratic Government which should handle the affairs of a country, a webinar organised by the Colombo University revealed.

The Colombo University Law Faculty organised a webinar on the “Role of International Organisations During Times of Crisis: A Contemporary Analysis Admits Developments in Afghanistan and Guinea” on 15 September 2021. The Helsinki University first Martti Ahtisaari Professor of International Conflict Management and Peace Research Prof. Jan Klabbers and Professor in Public and International Law and the Colombo University Law Faculty Public and International Law Department Head Prof. Wasantha Seneviratne conducted the discussion, while Colombo University Law Faculty Dean Dr. Sampath Punchihewa moderated the event and Colombo University Institute of Human Resource Advancement Lecturer (Probationary) K.A.A.N. Thilakarathna co-ordinated the programme. It was attended by many academics, students, and others alike, both from Sri Lanka and overseas. 

The discussion started with how international law had developed from a State-centric normative order to a more overarching system of law now, which governs not only States, but also international organisations and even individuals under the realm of human rights, where entities other than States are also allowed to be recognised as having legally enforceable rights under international law. The main crux of the discussion was initiated by Prof. Klabbers, who remarked that, while international law is ever more present in today’s world, it cannot get involved in internal matters of a country just because one may feel that international law should do something about it. By referring to both Afghanistan and Guinea, where the existing Governments were toppled through undemocratic means, Prof. Klabbers emphasised that international law has not yet recognised a general right to a democratic Government which should handle the affairs of a country, and that there are some discussions as to the constitutionalisation of international law, meaning that international law should, like a constitutional order of a domestic nation, impose some restrictions on the sovereign powers of a country when it acts in detriment to the others. A more prominent feature of this has to do with the independence of the international organisations, which would have much more freedom to act accordingly in each situation without having to subordinate themselves with the Member States. Prof. Klabbers emphasised that such an endeavour would take time to become a reality and as such, is not an inevitability. 

Prof. Seneviratne questioned how international law would become applicable in situations such as Afghanistan and Guinea, and whether there are some thresholds to be met. Answering this question, Prof. Klabbers referring to Article 2(7) of the UN Charter (the UN is not authorised to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter, but that this said principle will not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter VII which deals with the pacific settlement of disputes) pointed out that, when international law came into prominence with the end of the Second World War, the main objective was non-interference with the internal affairs of a country, unless there is a threat to the peace and security of the world. While many individuals like an intervention of international law on such occasions, it would not be possible to just invade the sovereignty of a nation. However, Prof. Klabbers opined that international law will become applicable if there is a refugee crisis near the borders of another State, where people may flee from their homes. In the same token, issues such as human rights violations or a humanitarian crisis may point at the application of international law. Additionally, investments which are either destroyed or need protection from destruction, or sometimes even environmental issues, may invoke the application of international law. Yet, it will all depend on the circumstances of each case, where one case is never identical to another. 

When Prof. Klabbers was questioned whether the UN, as an organisation established in the aftermath of the Second World War, should be re-established, or whether a new organisation should be created to overtake the UN, he pointed out that, even if a new organisation is to be developed, it would more or less be like the existing UN and that when one considers the super powers whose consent is absolutely necessary if the UN is to be restructured or abolished to establish a new organisation, such a mandate is unlikely to be obtained, highlighting the fact that the US could not join the League of Nations and that even the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics joined rather late, which lead to its ultimate and premature demise, failing to prevent the occurrence of the Second World War. 

Prof. Klabbers, in his final remarks, pointed out that, while international organisations are considered as capable of possessing rights that can be vindicated through international law, the focus of international law is still firmly with the control of States when they interact with one another in the international arena.