We must avoid double standards in foreign policy | Opinions

With brutal wars unravelling in Ukraine and Gaza, and escalatory attacks between Iran and Israel, defending international law has never been more necessary. Many have argued that the West’s support for Ukraine, often couched in terms of respect for international law, has been undermined by the same countries’ lacklustre support for Gaza. This has given rise to a larger foreign policy debate about alleged double standards of the West. The claim is that Western countries are concerned with violations of international law only when it serves their own interests.

If I speak for my own country, Norway, I can say that the accusation is off the mark. We have been clear that a real commitment to international law demands condemning Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine but also calling out Israeli violations of international law in Gaza.

Avoiding double standards in our foreign policy has been a longstanding Norwegian priority. Successive Norwegian governments have, as a matter of principle, come to the defence of international law regardless of who violates it. Whether it is the ongoing war in Gaza, conflicts on the African continent, Israel’s illegal occupation of the Palestinian territories, Britain’s violation of international law in the Chagos Archipelago or Russia’s illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, Norway has been principled and clear. We have not shirked from calling out any of these violations for what they are, regardless of who committed them.

Is this the right approach? There are those who have been sceptical. It has been argued that countries should be careful not to criticise allies and partners when they violate international law. The argument is that the world is fraught with peril, and all states, perhaps especially smaller states such as Norway, should be careful not to alienate their allies and partners, even when they act inconsistently with international law.

This is, however, a mistaken approach. Real security depends ultimately on a peaceful international community equipped to resolve global challenges. That in turn requires that we work to ensure that international law is respected. Unless all countries are committed to international law, the system will eventually collapse. That would invariably lead to less security and more uncertainty for everyone.

A 100 years ago, Francis Hagerup, a prominent international lawyer and Norwegian prime minister, observed that the principle of sovereign equality of states was the Magna Carta of the world’s states. Still today, any move away from anything other than an unwavering commitment to international law would be disastrous for the international community. It is the very bulwark against a situation where might is right, against what the International Court of Justice called, in its first ruling after the second world war, “the manifestation of a policy of force”.

Could our consistent defence of international law, including in relation to Western allies, be misconstrued as acceptance of the narrative propagated by Russia and China that the West is hypocritical? Only if one deliberately tries to misunderstand. It is true that Western states, too, have committed violations of international law. The invasion of Iraq by the United States and Britain in 2003 is one example. In the face of such a policy of force, a country such as Norway must, as we did 20 years ago, have the courage of its convictions. Only then can we, with the benefit of real credibility, criticise states that truly and systematically base themselves and their foreign policy on double standards.

It is only then that we can credibly punch holes in Russia’s narrative that it is the valiant advocate of international law on behalf of the Global South. There is apparently no limit to how appalled Russia has been by the killing of civilians under bombardment in Gaza, while Russia at the same time has been bombing schools and hospitals in Ukraine. As our Western allies are coming to understand, this cynical double standard can be countered effectively only if one is principled. Norway’s consistent stance as regards both Ukraine and Gaza allows us to point out such contradictions in a way that actually cuts through. The same is the case now with the attacks on the Iranian consulate in Damascus and Iran’s retaliatory strikes against Israel; having criticised Israel for the first event, which not all states were willing to do, Norway can, with the benefit of consistency and credibility, criticise Iran for the second.

Some have argued that it is unrealistic to be equally concerned about every violation of international law all of the time. Yet, Norway’s commitment to counteract conflicts and crises consistently does not preclude us from implementing a foreign policy based on realistic priorities. It is intuitively understandable that a war in a neighbouring country concerns people more than if it is taking place in a far-flung place on another continent. It is logical that it is particularly alarming for Norway that Russia, a country with which we share a long border, is attempting to annex Ukrainian territory through the illegal use of force. A war in our own neighbourhood inevitably has serious security policy implications likely to outweigh those of a conflict far away.

Norway cannot, therefore, be accused of double standards for providing materiel to the Ukrainian defence struggle or for giving a historically large aid package to Ukraine. We must, however, be careful not to create the impression that Russia is assessed according to special rules. Accordingly, we have, in our criticism of Russia, as of other states, emphasised the violations of the United Nations Charter and of other universally accepted rules of international law.

Similarly, Norway has not shied away from being critical of Israel’s policy of annexation of the occupied Palestinian territory. Norway made this clear in its submissions in February 2024 before the International Court of Justice in the ongoing advisory opinion proceeding concerning Israel’s policies in the occupied Palestinian territory. In our oral submissions before the Court, we were clear that Israel’s actions in Gaza amount to indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force. We are now working to ensure that Palestine is granted full membership in the United Nations.

What is crucial for Norway – what underpins our foreign policy across the board – is that we insist that similar cases be treated similarly, and that all states be subject to the same rules.

This is a position that should inspire all states. Every state has a stake in upholding universally agreed rules on the use of force, free and fair trade, human rights and the uses of the oceans and their resources. Our common future depends on respect for international law. This requires countries in the Global North and the Global South to be able to see international law as a fair set of rules; in turn, this means that the rules must be applied consistently. All states must resist the temptation, based on short-term national interest, to violate the tenets of the international legal order.

If there was one common thread running through the works of Norway’s foremost playwright and poet, Henrik Ibsen, it was the insistent calling out of the double standards of polite society. Ibsen’s insistence may, at times, have irked those who felt called out; it was nevertheless the right position. For Norway, the position is clear. Our most important contribution to a peaceful and just world order – and to our own national security – is to avoid double standards in foreign policy and to work to ensure that other states do so too.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.


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