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Alfred de Zayas

UN Independent Expert on International Order 2012-2018

In my 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council, I proposed 23 principles of international order, framed within the context of the UN Charter, UN resolutions , customary international law and general principles of law. I noted that the UN Charter is akin to a world constitution, which, if implemented in good faith, would enable all States to operate on the basis of a “rules based international order”. This slogan-like concept, frequently abused by some politicians, is a precondition for multilateral cooperation aimed towards promoting peace and prosperity for allhumankind. Indeed, the purposes and principles of the United Nations (as laid out in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter) would suffice to achieve, step by step, enhanced human rights, development, self-determination, fair trade, international solidarity, peace and security.

Alas, many powerful countries instrumentalize the UN Charter and apply it opportunistically to advance geopolitical agendas. The international disorder we live in today is a result of a cavalier attitude to the logic of law, double standards, and lack of good faith. In fact, we witness the serial breach of international treaties in total impunity. As an American and Swiss citizen, I have denounced what I call a “culture of cheating” in international relations, and the destruction of language through unilateral redefinition of concepts, an echo of what Orwell would label as “newspeak” and cognitive dissonance. Today, we witness a breakdown in civilized intercourse among nations: a departure of centuries-old diplomatic practices, such as the refusal of some countries to accept the sovereign equality of other states; and the growing tendency to apply international norms à la carte.

Thanks to the input of UN colleagues and academics, I continued working on my “Principles of International Order”, and republished a more mature catalogue of 25 principles in “Building a Just World Order”.

In my 2018 report to the UN Human Rights Council I formulated 23 principles of international order, framed within the context of the UN Charter, pertinent UN resolutions [1], customary international law and general principles of law. I noted that the UN Charter is akin to a world constitution, which, if implemented in good faith, would enable all states to operate on the basis of a “rules based international order”. This slogan-like concept, frequently abused by some politicians, is a precondition for multilateral cooperation aimed towards promoting peace and prosperity for allhumankind . Indeed, the purposes and principles of the United Nations (as laid out in Articles 1 and 2 of the Charter) would suffice to achieve, step by step, enhanced human rights, development, self-determination, fair trade, international solidarity, peace and security. Nearly 77 years after the entry into force of the UN Charter on 24 October 1945, humanity is yet to achieve the noble goals of the United Nations.

For norms to be effective, whether in the context of domestic or international law, it is axiomatic that there must be consensus about the meaning of legal terms, and that neither the facts nor the law can be subject to arbitrary reinterpretation. Selectivity in the application of norms or the introduction of ambiguity and uncertainty in the meaning of words or in the intended scope of treaties and oral agreements destroys an essential element of law, namely predictability, what German jurists call Rechtssicherheit.

Alas, many powerful countries instrumentalize the UN Charter and apply it opportunistically to advance short-term and long-term geopolitical agendas. The international disorder we live in today is a result of a cavalier attitude to the logic of law, double standards and a gross absence of good faith on the part of certain key players on the international chessboard [2]. In fact, we witness the serial breach of diplomatic commitments, gentlemen’s agreements, and international treaties in total impunity.

As an American and Swiss citizen, I have denounced what I call a “culture of cheating” in international relations, and the destruction of language through unilateral redefinition of concepts, an echo of what Orwell called “newspeak” and cognitive dissonance. We witness a breakdown in civilized intercourse among nations, a departure of centuries-old diplomatic practice, reflecting the intention of some countries to achieve “full spectrum dominance” and their refusal to accept the sovereign equality of other states and the growing tendency to apply international norms à la carte.

Thanks to the input of UN colleagues and academics, I have continued recalibrating my “Principles of International Order”, and recently republished a more mature catalogue of 25 principles in my book “Building a Just World Order[3]:

1. The paramount principle of international order is Peace.

2. The UN Charter takes priority over all other treaties [4].

3. Resolutions and decisions of the UN Security Council are legally binding.

4. International law and human rights law must be applied uniformly and in good faith.

5. International humanitarian law and international human rights law are mutually reinforcing legal regimes, grounded in the principles of respect for human dignity and justice.

6. States must respect not only the letter of the law, but also the spirit of the law.

7. General principles of law (Statute of the International Court of Justice, Article 38, para 1(c)) inform the interpretation and guide the application of international law [5].

8. International law is dynamic and progresses with the adoption of new treaties and conventions by the United Nations and its specialized agencies, with inter-State practice and the adoption of treaties within the framework of regional inter-governmental organizations, as well as with the binding resolutions of the Security Council, General Assembly, and the jurisprudence of the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and the UN human rights treaty bodies.

9. The principles of humanity and human dignity are the source of all human rights.

10. The right of self-determination of peoples as stipulated in the Charter and in common article 1 of the ICCPR and ICESCR is a fundamental principle of international law (jus cogens) and international public policy (ordre public).

11. “The scope of the principle of territorial integrity is confined to the sphere of relations between States” [6].

12. Statehood depends on four criteria: population, territory, government (effective control) and the ability to enter into relations with other States

13. Every State has an inalienable right to choose its political, economic, social and cultural systems, without interference in any form by another State [7].

14. Peoples possess sovereignty over their natural resources.

15. All peoples have the right to their homeland, their culture and identity.

16. States shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any other.

17. States have a positive duty to negotiate and settle their international disputes by peaceful means.

18. The principle of non-intervention is part of customary international law.

19. States must refrain from interfering in matters within the internal jurisdiction of another State [8].

20. States have a duty to protect and preserve the natural environment and the common heritage of humankind.

21. State sovereignty is superior to commercial and other agreements.

22. Everyone has the right to international solidarity as a human right.

23. The right to know and the right to access reliable information is an essential component of the national and international democratic order.

24. Violations of international law and international human rights law by powerful States and/or permanent members of the Security Council do not create legal precedents, change the UN Charter, or result in a “new international law”.

25. Wherever there is a violation of international law or human rights law, there is a State obligation to provide prompt, adequate and effective remedies (ubi jus, ibi remedium). The rule of pacta sunt servanda (treaties must be implemented) must prevail.

Chapter 2 of “Building a Just World Order” furnishes extensive commentary on each of these principles. Length limitations do not permit us to do so in this essay. Suffice to say, if States were to respect the UN Charter and implement their treaty obligations in good faith, we would have a more peaceful planet.

For international peace and security and for the enjoyment of human rights by all members of the human family, the implementation of principles 1, 6, 10, 12, 13, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 25 must be our priority. The alpha and omega of international order is to create a security architecture for all states so as to reduce tensions, prevent conflict and ensure durable peace. This has nothing to do with the Roman concept of imposing “peace”, or the Pax Romana, namely, solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant (make a desert and call it peace, Tacitus, Agricola).

What is urgent and necessary is to proactively create the conditions of domestic and international justice and the mechanisms for peaceful settlement of disputes so that armed conflict is rendered obsolete. This entails the readiness to make compromises, to negotiate in good faith, respect the sovereign equality of states and the self-determination of peoples.

Since the end of the Second World War, countless wars have been fought over self-determination…wars of liberation from imperialistic, colonial, neo-colonial rule, economic subjugation, theft of natural resources [9]. Yet, it is not the right of self-determination that triggers war, but the unjust denial thereof. It is high time that the UN realizes that the realization of the right of self-determination of peoples is a conflict-prevention strategy, and that it is the UN’s responsibility to mediate in cases of legitimate self-determination grievances [10], conduct and monitor self-determination referenda where appropriate, including in West Sahara, Kashmir, West Papua, Kurdistan, Catalonia, Corsica, Sri Lanka, Southern Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, etc. Had UN referenda been conducted in a timely fashion in Crimea and Donbas (e.g. in 1991 when Ukraine seceded from the Soviet Union, or in 2014 after the Maidan coup d'état), the current armed conflict in Ukraine would not be taking place.

Crucial for peace is the rigorous observance of Article 2(3) of the UN Charter. Negotiation is much more than speaking with an adversary. It requires good faith and the readiness to compromise. Intransigence is not a viable option. It is necessary to proactively look for and craft a viable quid pro quo. Both sides must be prepared to make concessions in the name of peace. Negotiation cannot mean “unconditional surrender” by one part and “winner takes all” by the other. Nor can it mean only a pro-forma presence at meetings in which one side refuses to budge. The failure of negotiations over a period of 8 years in the context of the Minsk Accords, OSCE and the Normandy Format can be attributed to the adamant refusal on the part of the US and NATO to honour to prior agreements and to stop its provocations. The record shows that a readiness to compromise was totally absent on the side of US and NATO when it came to the central issue of NATO expansion and the crafting of a European security architecture that would take into account both Ukrainian and Russian security concerns. NATO’s consistent refusal to recognize Russia’s vital interests in a modicum of security certainly made a mockery of the obligations laid out in Art. 2(3) of the UN Charter.

Indeed, in order for negotiations under article 2(3) to succeed, both sides must adopt certain confidence-building measures, must refrain from incendiary language and demonization of the other. An analysis of the media coverage of the Ukraine crisis since 2014, particularly in the United States and NATO countries, reveals multiple violations of article 20 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which prohibits incitement to racial hatred and violence and propaganda for war.

At this stage, it is opportune to clarify that article 2(4) of the UN Charter prohibits not only the use of force (e.g. by Russia in its Special Military Pperation in Ukraine on February 24, 2022), but also the threat of the use of force by NATO and Ukraine, the de facto NATO expansion into Ukraine, the delivery of lethal weapons to Ukraine in the period 2014-2022, President Zelensky’s public stance rejecting the commitments of the Minsk Accords and his decision to retake Crimea and Donbas by military force. It does not take a degree in nuclear physics to understand that any country would have reason to feel menaced by the reality of military encirclement, and NATO’s hostile arming of Ukraine since the 2014 coup [11].

Besides the obvious violation of the right of self-determination of the peoples of Crimea and Donbas, US, NATO and Ukrainian statements constituted a growing menace to the national security of Russia. OSCE reports confirm that the vast majority of the breaches of the Minsk Accords originated in Ukraine, with an exponential growth in February 2022. It can be documented that in a very real sense, the armed conflict in Ukraine did not start on February 24, 2022 but rather on February 22, 2014, when the democratically elected government of Victor Yanukovych was overthrown in the Maidan coup instigated and partly financed by the United States and NATO.

Another gross breach of the international order is evidenced by the growing interference by certain countries in the internal affairs of other states. Unilateral coercive measures violate numerous principles of international law and countless resolutions of the UN General Assembly and UN Human Rights Council [12]. Alas, these resolutions are considered “soft law” and are ignored by those States imposing the sanctions.

Among the “collateral damage” of the sanctions and financial blockades is a major dislocation of supply chains and the impossibility to implement trade agreements with consequences for the entire world, including the danger of famine and the aggravation of pandemics. As has been abundantly documented in the reports of the UN Special Rapporteurs on the adverse impacts of Unilateral Coercive Measures Dr. Idriss Jazairy and Prof. Dr. Alena Douhan, it is always the most vulnerable who suffer the consequences of UCMs. It is obscene to disguise such purely geopolitical sanctions in the language of the promotion of human rights. Sanctions kill [13]. Hence, sanctions must be seen as geopolitical crimes and as crimes against humanity pursuant to article 7 of the Statute of Rome. The UN General Assembly should quantify the adverse impacts of UCMs and refer the matter to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion. It is sad to realize that the benefits of globalization and economic interdependence are being destroyed by illegal UCMs. The entire world is held hostage to the imperial arrogance and the criminal intransigence of those states that impose sanctions for reasons of “full spectrum dominance”.

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter clearly was intended to prohibit coercion by States. Surely if the military bombardment of a city is illegal, the siege of a country through comprehensive sanctions and financial blockades intended to cause famine and chaos must similarly be seen as contrary to the letter and spirit of Article 2(4). This is a legal issue calls for clarification both by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court. In this context it should be remembered that the Nazi siege of Leningrad 1941-44 killed nearly a million human beings. Unilateral coercive measures currently imposed by the US and its allies against Belarus, Cuba, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela have certainly caused tens of thousands of deaths and should be unanimously condemned by the international community.

By way of conclusion let us remember that the continued arms race, the production and stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, constitute the greatest danger for the survival of the human race [14]. Military alliances which are not defensive in nature but have engaged in aggressive wars and committed war crimes in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yugoslavia should be judged according to the Nuremberg principles. The question must be raised whether because of its record of war crimes committed with total impunity, NATO could be brought within the meaning of articles 9 and 10 of the Statute of the Nuremberg Tribunal concerning “criminal organizations”.

My 25 Principles of International Order are a modest contribution to our awareness that the survival of the human species is endangered and that the nuclear doomsday clock is ticking.


1. In particular GA Resolution 2625 on Friendly Relations.

2. Zbigniew Brezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives. New York: Basic Books, 1997.

3. https://www.claritypress.com/product/building-a-just-world-order/ published in September 2021.

4. UN Charter Article 103, the “supremacy clause”.

5. Among general principles of law we recognize good faith, estoppel, reciprocity, proportionality, ex injuria non oritur jus (a breach of law does not give rise to new law), the prohibition of the abuse of rights, sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas (use your rights but do not encroach on others), the prohibition of contracts or treaties that are contra bonos mores (against good morals), the impartiality of judges, non-selectivity, the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of States (General Assembly Resolutions 2131 (XX), 2625 (XXX), 3314 (XXXIV), 36/103), audiatur et altera pars (all sides must be heard), actori incumbit onus probandi (plaintiff carries the burden of proof), presumption of innocence, the customary rule that domestic law cannot be invoked to undermine international treaties (Art. 27 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties ), and the “unwritten laws” of humanity (It is not only the written law that must be applied, but also the broader principles of natural justice as already recognized in Sophocles’ Antigone).

6. Thus rules the International Court of Justice in paragraph 80 of its Advisory Opinion on the Unilateral Declaration of Independence by Kosovo. https://www.icj-cij.org/en/case/141/advisory-opinions

7. See also General Assembly Resolutions 2625, 3314, 39/11 and 60/1.

8. GA Resolution 2131 (XX) “No State may use or encourage the use of economic, political or any other type of measures to coerce another State in order to obtain from it the subordination of the exercise of its sovereign rights and to secure from it advantages of any kind.” http://www.un-documents.net/a20r2131.htm Unilateral coercive measures are incompatible with the United Nations Charter. Only the Security Council can impose sanctions under Chapter VII of the Charter. Therefore, States shall refrain from imposing unilateral coercive measures, sanctions and financial blockades on other countries. When unilateral coercive measures cause widespread hunger and death, they may amount to crimes against humanity under article 7 of the Statute of the International Criminal Court.

9. See Human Rights Council Resolution 48/7 of October 2021 on the sequels of colonialism.

10. See Chapter 5 of « Building a Just World Order”.

11. John Mearsheimer, The Great Delusion, 2018. https://www.economist.com/by-invitation/2022/03/11/john-mearsheimer-on-why-the-west-is-principally-responsible-for-the-ukrainian-crisis

https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/uk-news/2022/06/27/kissinger-warns-russias-interests-must-be-respected-when-ukraine-fighting-stops/

12. See GA Resolution 76/161 of 16 December 2021 https://static.un.org/en/ga/76/resolutions.shtml

and HR Council Resolution 46/5 of 23 March 2021 https://undocs.org/Home/Mobile?FinalSymbol=A%2FHRC%2FRES%2F46%2F5&Language=E&DeviceType=Desktop&LangRequested=False

13. https://undocs.org/A/HRC/39/47/Add.1, paras. 29-39

https://www.counterpunch.org/2022/03/18/economic-sanctions-kill/

14. See Human Rights Committee, General Comment 14 on the right to life https://www.refworld.org/docid/453883f911.html


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