Conflict resolution: Bilateralism or multilateralism? - Hindustan Times
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Conflict resolution: Bilateralism or multilateralism?

ByHindustan Times
Jul 10, 2023 04:11 PM IST

This article is authored by Mehdi Hussain, doctoral candidate, Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

The realist view of international politics suggests conflicts are always imminent in international politics. Sovereign states act through raison d’état to choose what constitutes the best interests and to act bilaterally or multilaterally in times of conflict. Since the establishment of the United Nations (UN), international peace has become a measure of international consensus and convergence of foreign policies on the principle of multilateralism. It is the efforts through dialogues and discussion that can bring conflicting parties to the peace table which interests the citizens of the world. Achieving international consensus of multiple actors on conflict and peace is a factor of the causes of conflicts—ideology, geopolitics, history, territory, resources, ethnicity, religion or society.

International Relations
International Relations

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Multilateralisation of conflict represents the collective response to a crisis with the hope of establishing sustainable international peace, provided nation-states exhibit political will. The UN Security Council sits as the apex multilateral body having the power to pre-empt or intervene in a conflict across the world and alter its course. However, its role in conflict prevention and conflict resolution during the Cold War is questionable due to the vetoes (so far 267 since 1946) in the Security Council. The situation improved at the Security Council after the Cold War due to which it was one of the favored multilateral bodies for conflict prevention and preservation of peace. Thus, in the Agenda for Peace in 1992, the governments of the world agreed to the need for a concerted effort including States, regions, non-governmental organisations, and UN agencies. The UN was successful in the late 1980s and early 1990s to manage conflicts in Namibia, Nicaragua and El Salvador. However, it also failed in Somalia, Srebrenica, Rwanda and Yugoslavia in 1990s.

The UN Charter calls for a pacific settlement of disputes under Chapter VI via methods of preventive diplomacy including negotiation, inquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, or other peaceful means of their own choice. Beyond the hard-power politics, internal conflicts due to ethnicity, religion, social, or linguistic have severe implications for human rights and international peace requiring a common vision of conflict prevention. These issues are referred to as non-traditional threats to security and they constitute the changing context in the post-Cold War era. Chapter VI also allows the members or non-members to refer any dispute to the Security Council, which can also independently intervene in a dispute under Article 37 for the maintenance of international peace and security.

The Agenda for Peace highlights the significance of mutual confidence and good faith are essential to reducing the likelihood of conflict between States. The UN’s principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and respect for sovereignty provide a credible force to be reckoned with. Thus, both conflicting parties in an inter-state dispute need to agree to a UN’s preventive deployment. It also recommends that if a nation fears a cross-border attack, the Security Council can devise preventive deployment upon its request which could deter conflict. In case of a war, the UN can create demilitarised zones by the agreement of both parties as part of peace-keeping operations that can prevent the conflict/war. Under Article 42 of Chapter VII, the Security Council can also use military means, for instance in the war between Iraq and Kuwait, if peaceful means fail to maintain or restore international peace and security. However, peacekeeping operations are expensive, amounting to $8.3 billion till 1992 and $3 billion a year. The UN is limited in its personnel—civil and military—financial capacity, and other logistics, and, thus, the political will of the member States is necessary for their contribution to strengthen its capacity.

As an extension of multilateralisation of international peace, the UN Charter VIII allows regional organisations to take up regional action which could contribute to the maintenance of international peace and security. Thus, the Organisation of African Unity, the League of Arab States, and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference collaborated with the UN in peace efforts in Somalia. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) took up with the UN the matter of the Cambodian conflict. The Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) Declaration of 1971 created a neutral Southeast Asia free from external influence and also resolved to set aside bilateral contentious issues for regional cooperation and integration. Then, groups of States and the Organisation of American States among other actors contributed to the end of the war in Nicaragua. Regional action, thus, complements the Security Council’s efforts in the maintenance of international peace and security.

The biggest challenge to multilateral conflict management is that major powers like the United States (US), Russia, and China may not find a common ground on preventing or resolving conflicts, instead they are likely to engage in a zero-sum game, for instance in Afghanistan where China’s win is supposedly observed upon the withdrawal of the US from the country. However, they were on the same side in the war against terror after the 9/11 attacks. Further, given the costs of conflict management and peacekeeping, the major powers may unlikely commit to the cause of international peace, except for geopolitical interests. However, the UN with its universal principles of pacific settlement of conflicts remain relevant in checking and controlling the major power rivalries. The General Assembly approved the Manila Declaration of 1982 which focuses on pacific settlement of international disputes. It emphasises the significance of direct negotiations and judicial settlement—by following international judicial tribunal norms, for example, the International Court of Justice—of disputes.

Two countries can choose Track I/official diplomacy of conflict resolution by involving representatives of the two countries. Track II diplomacy or citizen diplomacy between states, for instance, between India and Pakistan, can include ordinary citizens, non-governmental organisations, and soft power tools Cricket in an attempt to bring about mutual understandings/advantages in improving the relations. The Georgia-South Ossetia Dialogue brought peoples from both sides for dialogues and discussion for over five years in a series of meetings exploring each other’s experiences, interests, and fears. Through this process, both sides could establish a common understanding on issues of culture, refugees and development that eventually improved relationships.

However, bilateralism and multilateralism didn’t work in favor of Russia and Ukraine. In 2014, the war over Crimea’s referendum between Russia and Ukraine was settled through the Russian annexation of it. In February 2015, negotiations involving France, Russia, Ukraine, and Germany to find diplomatic solutions were unsuccessful. In 2016, several militarisation steps in Eastern Europe were followed up, a move led by the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to prevent further Russian aggression. On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine, which was pushing to join NATO. On March 2, 2023, the aggression was condemned by 193 countries in a UN General Assembly session. The US has been giving military aid worth $40 billion to Ukraine. It has declared various economic sanctions against Russia including the ban on export of oil and gas and other diplomatic measures but they have been largely unsuccessful.

Bilateral nuclear disarmament talks between the US and the former Soviet Union went through a roller coaster ride. It is reported that the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) in July 1991 between two reducing 10,000 deployed warheads in 1990 to below 6000 by 2009. The Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972 failed in 2000 when the agreement was not ratified by the US Multilateral efforts to reduce nuclear tests became a success when the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and the US agreed to restrict nuclear explosions under the Limited Test Ban Treaty. They also signed Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on July 1, 1968 and later joined by China and France in 1992. NPT has expanded to 190 countries.

In another instance of bilateralism, Pakistan tries to internationalise the dispute over Kashmir, however, India refutes to entertain any offer for a third party to it. But with the support of the World Bank (also a signatory to the Treaty), the two countries signed the Indus Water Treaty in 1960, with the help of which differences are to be resolved by a neutral expert and disputes are to be referred to an ad hoc arbitral tribunal called Court of Arbitration.

It, therefore, can be said that in bilateralism or multilateralism, the resolution of conflicts depends on the types of conflicts and the actors involved. Resolution of conflicts through diplomatic methods may involve only the two conflicting parties or with the support of a third party or more—in which case it becomes multilateralism. The ultimate goal of both remains reduction or end of incompatible interests amongst the disputing parties. It is by learning from the past experiences and best practices that we can improve the chances of preventing or resolving conflicts either through bilateral or multilateral means.

This article is authored by Mehdi Hussain, doctoral candidate, Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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