Politics, World, Asia - Pacific

Confrontation on Taiwan, South China Sea could turn into war, warns expert

Former UN rapporteur Richard Falk talks to Anadolu Agency on multipolarity, Israel-Palestine, UN in exclusive interview

Iclal Turan   | 15.10.2021
Confrontation on Taiwan, South China Sea could turn into war, warns expert


There is real risk of confrontation in relation either to Taiwan or the South China Sea turning into warfare, a former UN human rights rapporteur and expert in international law has warned.

"And more broadly, it creates a new kind of bipolarity in the world, where you find China, Russia on one side, and Europe and North America on the other side," Richard Falk told Anadolu Agency in an exclusive online interview from his home in Bodrum, a seaside town in western Turkey.

Underlining that many countries are trying to decide which side is right, Falk said that the world is undergoing "a period of geopolitical realignment. And how that works out will determine the shape of global politics over the next decade or two."

Asked about the possible effects of an increasingly multipolar world, Falk said it remained to be seen whether this multipolarity would "live up to its potential," and meet the challenges that the world is currently facing.

One of these challenges will be climate change, according to Falk, who questioned whether countries would be inclined towards cooperating to deal with it and "adopt the kind of policies that make multipolarity more than a slogan, having translated into policies and practices."

"And there's not strong evidence of overcoming statist world order, which is dominated by states trying to promote their national interests, whatever that might mean for the global interests, or the human interests," he added.

Voicing doubt that multipolarity would displace such dominant statist tendencies, Falk said the world's experience during the coronavirus pandemic "reinforces" this view. "It has been called, you know, that people have used the phrase, 'vaccine apartheid' or 'vaccine diplomacy'.”

According to Falk, any serious multipolarity would depend on strengthening the role of international law and the UN.

He referred to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's repeated calls for reforming the UN Security Council, saying these proposals are "quite relevant in that respect."

"Multipolarity is not able, at this stage, to challenge what I call the primacy of geopolitics. As long as that's true, you're really dependent on the goodwill of the dominant sovereign state, as they pursue policies that are in their own selfish interests, not in the interest of the general community by large," he stressed.

Israel-Palestine conflict

On the more specific international challenge of the Israel-Palestine dispute, Falk said the Abraham Accords announced last year to normalize relations with the UAE and Israel could be interpreted as "a decision by even the Arab governments, or some of the Arab governments, to give up trying to influence the outcome of the conflict."

As there has been no real pressure from the UN or from other governments for a "sustainable and just solution" between Israel and Palestine, Tel Aviv continues to build more settlements in the occupied West Bank, Falk noted.

However, he also noted that the Palestinians had won a "symbolic victory" in civil society, referring to reports released this year by both the Human Rights Watch and B'TSelem, the leading Israeli human rights organization, that concluded that Israeli practices amounted to the international crime of apartheid, which is a crime against humanity.

The International Criminal Court agreed to investigate allegations of criminality, he also said, adding: "That was a major breakthrough, in a sense, because it acknowledged the credibility of the Palestinian grievances."

"I've taken the position that symbolic politics are very important in relation to civil society and popular struggle that people are influenced by grievances that they understand to be reinforced by credible international observers and credible international institutions," he said.

"So, it's not surprising that Israel has attacked the symbolic development as expressions of anti-Semitism. So the argument has, to some degree, shifted to whether that allegation is a reasonable one or not."

UN failure to stop Israeli settlements

Asked why the UN and world powers have failed to act to at least stop the expansion of settlements, the former UN rapporteur explained: "First of all, you have the US as an influential permanent member of the security council, protecting Israel's position, almost unconditionally."

"And Europe, for reasons connected with the Holocaust and others, doesn't want to take any kind of lead, and have the allegations of anti-Semitism directed at them," he added.

Commenting on the role of the Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, Falk said these nations were "more concerned with Iran than with Israel at this point."

"You have a political context in which, at a governmental level, there's very little incentive to support the Palestinian struggle," he stressed. So, the prospects of the Palestinians depend "very much on what happens at the more popular level, societal level," he added.

However, Falk also underlined that "all of the anti-colonial wars were won by the weaker side."

"In other words, the whole realist sense that history is made by hard power, by having military superiority, is not really justified by the record of the last 75 years," referring to the US experience in Vietnam, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

On his experiences as the UN special rapporteur for Palestinian Human Rights, which he served as for six years between 2008 and 2014, Falk said: "It was discouraging, in the sense that the situation for the Palestinians, on the ground got worse in that period, despite my efforts to alert the UN to the wrongs that were being inflicted upon them."

"At the same time, I think the report had a good effect on the discourse within the UN and for some important governments. It made certain ways of understanding the struggle much more sympathetic to the Palestinian," he said.

He added that a 2017 report he had written with Virgina Tilley and commissioned by the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), was the origin of the "serious allegation of apartheid."

After the report, Falk was harshly criticized by the US envoy to the UN at the time, Nikki Halley, as well as Israel, with some accusing him of anti-Semitism, which he said was "unfortunate."

Such allegations probably led to some cancellations of invitations or ... friendships, and that kind of thing. But somehow, rather I felt, in fact, that ... I must be doing a good job to be attacked in this way."

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