NEW YORK – Whenever something bad happens – Iran moving closer to acquiring nuclear weapons, North Korea firing another missile, civilian deaths reaching another grim milestone in Syria’s civil war, satellites revealing an alarming rate of polar-ice melt – some official or observer will call upon the international community to act. There is only one problem: there is no “international community.”
Part of the reason stems from the absence of any mechanism for “the world” to come together. The United Nations General Assembly comes closest, but little can be expected from an organization that equates the United States or China with, say, Fiji or Guinea-Bissau.
Switzerland risked a jumping in at the deep end on Tuesday. Deviating from the agenda, Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter confronted participants at the Seoul Nuclear Security Summit with his call for nuclear disarmament.
Burkhalter emphasized that if the risk of nuclear terrorism was to be minimized – the official aim of the summit – it was necessary “to do everything possible to reduce the sources of such an act”, namely to cut down the number of nuclear warheads and weapons capable material.
Switzerland’s foreign minister has a point. Even though the New START treaty marks a step towards the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons, there are still far too many warheads around.
For years, Swiss diplomats have tried to keep the debate on nuclear disarmament running and have pushed projects and international initiatives. Switzerland leads by example: it has ratified all multilateral disarmament agreements open to it and plays an active part in the work of multilateral bodies related to arms control and disarmament.
However, the country has not always advocated nuclear disarmament. In fact, until the 1960s, Switzerland followed quite the opposite course with its nuclear weapons program. Only after the Cold War it fully embraced a multilateralist approach to disarmament. All this became apparent during a lecture on Swiss security policy, held on 22 March 2012 at the University of Zurich.
A ship built in Japan, owned by a brass-plate company in Malta, controlled by an Italian, chartered by the French, skippered by a Norwegian, crewed by Indians, registered in Panama, etc. etc. is attacked while transiting an international waterway in Indonesian territory. So – if the pirates ever get arrested – who exactly is in charge of prosecuting them?
Some legal scholars recommend that captured pirates should be prosecuted in the region where they are arrested. Unfortunately, countries that lack the capacity to secure their waters often also have limited resources for prosecution. If more than one country is interested in prosecuting the arrested pirates, it is not immediately clear which country’s judiciary system should be applied. The international legal framework remains vague and sometimes even contradictory. And it starts with the definition, around which there is no consensus: The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) defines piracy as 1) an act of violence 2) conducted on the high seas 3) against another vessel 4) and for private gain; while the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence against the Safety of Maritime Navigation (SUA) defines it as 1) intentionally seizing or damaging a ship or 2) attempting to seize or damage a ship.