The age of impunity

Bobby Duffy / Jun 2019

Image: Shutterstock

We’re living in a new “Age of Impunity”, where nation states feel they can get away with anything, without intervention from other countries.   National sovereignty outweighs any concern for human rights abroad, and what others do with their power and to their citizens is their business not ours. 

This is the argument that David Miliband made in his Fulbright Legacy Lecture at King’s College London last week, which he sees as a political emergency, going hand in hand with the weakening of liberal democracy.

But does public opinion reflect this growing political narrative that national sovereignty overrides other priorities, including human rights? 

A major new 24-country survey by the Policy Institute at King’s College London and Ipsos MORI shows that the public are more balanced than many of their politicians – citizens see protecting human rights abroad as an important part of the complex trade-offs that need to be made in international relations.

For example, half agree that if a country commits war crimes, other countries should intervene to stop it, even if that infringes on that country’s sovereignty, with only 15% disagreeing. 

This is not to say that the public in these 24 countries see intervention to protect human rights as the only objective in international relations.  Around a third of people around the world think their country should only trade with nations with a good human rights record, even if it hurts their economy – but the same proportion would overlook human rights concerns if there was a benefit to their economy. 

European countries in general and Britain and Sweden, in particular, are the most focused on only trading with countries with good human rights records: 50% of Brits and Swedes think we should prioritise human rights in international trade, compared with only one in five putting trade above human rights.

More generally though, the top two factors the global public say should be important in deciding the closeness of relations with other countries are economic and security benefits.  But a country’s human rights record and respect for international law come next in the list of priorities, ahead of the environmental impact of that country, whether or not the country is a democracy, military benefits and historical relations between the countries.

Miliband also flags the attacks on international organisations by the Trump Administration, challenging not just their funding but their very existence, and attempting to position the multilateral system as an “establishment stitch up.”  

Public opinion is very different.  The United Nations is rated second only to Canada (always the winner in these lists) as using its influence for good around the world.  Only around one in ten see the UN, NATO or the EU as a bad influence, while 22% say the US is a bad influence.  And people seem to have spotted a shift in the US position: 29% say that the US is less likely to use its influence for good now compared with 10 years ago, nearly twice the level that feel it is doing more good now than in the past. 

Miliband raises important issues for the future of the international order, and how there is more nuance and maturity in public opinion than we’re getting from some global leaders. There is a space and a pressing need for more open and honest discussions with European publics about the choices we need to make overseas, to reflect the type of society we want to be.


Bobby Duffy

Bobby Duffy

June 2019

About this author ︎►

Related content