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  • Writer's pictureJackson Geadelmann

The UN and SDG 16: the Importance of International Law and Strong Institutions

The United Nations and SDG 16: the Importance of International Law and Strong Institutions to Counter the Rise in Political Violence and Hypernationalism

Jackson Geadelmann (2022-23 Iowa UNA College Ambassador from Luther College)

The United Nations plays an important role in solidifying the international laws and norms that have long been championed by liberal democracies: the freedom of self-expression, self-determination, and right to live in peace are just some of the liberal norms that the UN has worked to protect through peacekeeping operations and human rights advocacy work.

The United Nations recognizes the importance of the rule of law and strong institutions as critical for minimizing global political violence and promoting peace and justice. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals emphasize the body’s commitment to the rule of law and strong institutions. Specifically, Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16) seeks, among other targets, to promote the rule of law, to reduce political corruption, to develop transparent institutions, and to ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory, and representative decision-making at all levels.

The current global political climate threatens many of these liberal norms and the rule of law in general. With the rise of populism and hypernationalism around the world, what will happen when the people within liberal nations turn against liberal ideologies in favor of curtailment of such rights? How will international organizations like the UN respond?

The International Court of Justice (ICJ) is an organ of the UN that deals with questions of international law and disputes between nations. Among the ICJ’s docket this year is a case against the Russian Federation brought by Ukraine, alleging that Russia has committed genocide against the Ukrainian people, and thus are in violation of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide passed by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The United States filed a declaration of intervention, which goes into an analysis about the international law around genocide that the ICJ is assessing. The declaration also discusses how Russia’s own allegations of a Ukrainian-committed genocide is not sufficient to warrant Russia’s aggression. As a whole, the declaration reiterates that the ICJ does have jurisdiction to settle the allegations, which Russia contends it does not. While the legality of international legal procedures is being debated, the reality is that the ICJ does not have enforcement powers of its own to provide substantial relief. The ICJ serves as an arbiter of international law, but the relief must come from the individual member states—and ultimately from the citizens of those countries.

Many countries, including the United States, have given aid to Ukraine and have enacted sanctions against Russia, but calls to stop this aid have increased. In the United States, former President Donald Trump is noted to have praised Russian president Vladimir Putin, and members of the Republican Party have been critical of President Joe Biden’s handling of the invasion of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s application to join NATO. In a letter to Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Senator Josh Hawley (MO) expressed greater concern for China’s increase in political influence, arguing that “we must do less in those secondary theaters in order to prioritize denying China’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific” (emphasis added).

Hawley’s comments illustrate a growing hierarchical worldview where established liberal norms like freedom and democracy play second fiddle to the more popular tune of maintaining global hegemony. It represents hypernationalism’s challenge to liberal norms and international law. It epitomizes the challenge that international organizations like the UN, operating based on the freewill and good faith of member nations, must deal with before it imperils the ability for the organization to implement any kind of action.

Fundamentally, international law is only as meaningful as the support from states from which it derives its authority. With the rise of hypernationalism and extremist political violence, though, it is becoming extraordinarily difficult for nations to codify and uphold international law. However, political violence in liberal democracies—like what happened in the United States on January 6, 2020—is not new. In an article published in the Journal of Democracy, Rachel Kleinfeld, senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, writes about the rise of political violence in the United States. As she explains, “The bedrock idea uniting right-wing communities who condone violence is that white Christian men in the United States are under cultural and demographic threat and require defending,” (emphasis added). She adds that “This pattern is similar to that of political violence in the nineteenth-century United States, where partisan identity was conflated with race, ethnicity, religion, and immigration status; many U.S.-born citizens felt they were losing cultural power and status to other social groups; and the violence was committed not by a few deviant outliers, but by many otherwise ordinary citizens engaged in normal civic life.”

Contending with cultural and demographic shifts in thousands of communities within complex democracies is far beyond the ability for the UN to handle alone. This is why Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims to create stronger, more inclusive institutions to foster peace and justice. Strong democracies strengthen international law, observance of fundamental human rights, and values of freedom and justice. Democracy as a governing structure makes the simple concession that political differences need not be settled through violence, but instead through dialogue and understanding. On the international scale, the UN works to foster dialogue and promote global peace. The UN depends on individual nations to come willingly to the table, in good faith, to deal with issues of global consequence. The rise in political violence and hypernationalism may pose a great challenge for international organizations, but it doesn’t spell the end for them.

Within the US, according to a new poll released by the Better World Campaign, the UN retains a high favorability rating, with Americans supporting UN efforts in Ukraine. The UN’s work in peacekeeping operations has also given it a role of de-escalating conflict, helping to reduce the amount of violence. The UNs seventeen SDGs all provide a framework for individual countries to look to in order to combat global challenges most immediate and important to their citizens. Altogether, the UN remains an organization that has been integral to maintaining global peace and security since its creation in the aftermath of WWII. Despite periodic inflections of violence and anti-UN rhetoric, the organization has remained dedicated to advancing the core principles of freedom and democracy that have given prosperity to democracies around the world. The work of the UN is not finished, nor will it end soon, but it has stayed its course on a mission towards peace and justice for all. Proponents of the rule of law and democratic norms in the United States and other countries must also stay the course to achieve peace and justice at home and abroad.

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