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Just cause, double standards and pragmatism in international relations

Alain Navarra-Navassartian. PhD Art History, PhD Sociology

Bombed maternity hospital (Republican hospital), Stepanakert, Artsakh (Oct. 2020
Bombed maternity hospital, Stepanakert, Artsakh (Oct. 2020)

The war in Ukraine, the crisis that it causes at many levels in the Western world and its treatment by the international authorities call for some reflections. It is necessary to specify the point of view from which I carry out these considerations: an association intervening in the field of culture and human rights in the South Caucasus and in Turkey having as president and director French-Armenians. Hyestart is committed, in particular, to the preservation of the Armenian cultural heritage in Artsakh, through the network of its board, as well as with the European authorities, the UN and other international organizations. The European Union has just passed a resolution on the preservation of the Armenian cultural heritage on March 10, 2022 (condmning the systemic racism of the Azerbaijani state). It remains to be seen what effective results this resolution will have. But there again, the temporality of the decision, even if we can only be delighted, does not cease to question.


Carl Schmitt, a much-discussed author, wrote: "It continues to be said that a war should only be waged ex justa causa: but this is an obvious statement that does not commit us to anything, since every sovereign claims to be in the right and to be right; that propaganda motives are sufficient to forbid him to use any other language".

Conflicts follow one another, do not resemble one another and do not generate the same indignation: the conflicts in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, Darfur, or Artsakh have not been treated in the same way as those in Kosovo or Bosnia. What makes a State intervene, awakens public opinion or take up the cause of a people in danger?

First of all, we should ask ourselves the question of "the conscience of humanity" which remains to be defined as well as the context, the link and the time in which this conscience is built or expressed. Why such a mobilization for one conflict and a silence, sometimes a guilty one, for another?

It is obvious that many Artsakh Armenians (as well as non-Armenians, for that matter) have pointed out this difference in treatment. It is obviously not a question of making a hierarchy of victims, which would be abject, but of reflecting on the processes which contradict the claim to the universality of human rights and which seem to apply only under certain conditions. One can only observe that each time a fundamental right is flouted or violated, it does not trigger the same battery of interventions. Once again, it is not a question of minimizing, for a single moment, the pain, the absurdity and the tragedy that has befallen the Ukrainian population. We have been fighting for years on different human rights fronts not to think that there are major misfortunes and minor sufferings.

What we found interesting, however, was the different treatment of the events of these conflicts, for example, the different treatment of the political discourse of some Western countries or the different treatment of the authoritarian regimes at the origin of these conflicts. The intervention of the Russian State was never discussed. It was clearly established who was wrong. In the case of the Azeri-Armenian war, the intention of the Azeri state on the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh never raised any concern. This is despite particularly aggressive speeches by President Aliyev, or acts of violence against the Armenian cultural heritage, despite the ceasefire. This is why we asked ourselves what is considered the bad intentions of a State and according to which criteria?

If we have to talk about intentions, the Western countries have shown a lot of good intentions, which were expressed in speeches that articulated facts and events in favor of President Aliyev. Telling the story has been a major issue in this conflict. It was necessary to demonstrate the so-called unintelligibility of the process that led to this conflict, which was shown as only a territorial conflict while its complexity was denied. (see Hyestart texts).

In the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the presentation of Putin's power by the West is rightly based on the domination and acceptance by this power of a type of legitimacy based on values and norms that privilege the use of violence, but what about the power of Aliyev or Erdogan for example? There has never been the same general outcry against the violent (and racist) logic of President Aliyev. While pointing out that there are various rationalities in the causes of wars.

The word "democracy" used over and over again in the post-conflict programs offered to the Armenians of Armenia functions as an "imaginary signifier" that can be contrasted with totalitarianisms (as for the Armenians of Artsakh, their fate seems to be sealed, by the Armenian government itself, which no longer even mentions the status that awaits this population which is in danger of death).

The articulation of democracy and the contingencies of neo-liberalism is the product of Western history and its universality is not easily reproducible, so in some cases, it is less a matter of offering a possibility of discussion or mediation than an assertion and a peremptory decision to populations that disturb the politics of the double standard by their displaced claims. Is there only right in a warlike order? But if war has become the "crime" par excellence, then whoever is waging it should be defined as a criminal.

Why does the deployment of Russian military force endanger the legal and rational norms established by the West and not in the case of other authoritarian regimes? These double standards, at work in Western policies, allow these regimes to prohibit the ethical and political practice of recognizing the other and to favor the antagonistic discourse of friend/enemy, to define the enemy by his nature and not only by his actions.


We have long believed that in an interdependent world, a war would be too costly, even for Russia, we will have to revise our judgment. The world of "traders" seems to be opposed to the world of "protective and virile heroes". I don't have the skills to analyze this conflict, but we could just point out that the West didn't seem or didn't want to be too "shocked" by the civilian casualties on both sides during the Russian-Ukrainian war of 2014-2015. Now Ukraine has become the issue, its population the victim of divergent and perhaps irreconcilable perceptions between a West that points to its "bad guys" and offers itself a "just war" and Russia that fears that Ukraine is a "Western weapon". But what interests us here is to underline that the international order implies, obviously, rules and norms that are supposed to act on the behavior of the actors of the world system, but that this is variable geometry and comes down to simple strategies of power, as in this Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Who can still believe it, if one advances an ethics of international relations?

For the Armenian populations of Artsakh, Libya, or Syria, these differentiated treatments are a denial of equality that calls into question universal conceptions of justice. How then can we define what is common? It is a particular experience of discrimination, since these populations are referred to the fact that they are not equal in law to others. I will take just one example: the demand for free public transport for Ukrainian refugees. Why not free public transport for all refugees? You only have to read the statements of the Bulgarian or Hungarian politicians to understand what kind of discrimination we are talking about.

This war will have a high cost for the Ukrainians with its thousands of victims and refugees, for Russia as well, but also symbolically for the Western world: the model of justice and the representations that the Western societies make of themselves is called into question.

The maintenance of peace and security is at the heart of international relations, but between muscular or incoherent interventions, between opportunism and "just war", between good intentions and economic interests, pragmatism often prevails over the principle of justice that should prevail, or so we are told over and over again.

If we look at international intervention in recent years (sanctions, declarations, military intervention, etc.), we can only observe a policy marked by double standards. The discursive elements or the means used vary according to the interests at stake. One only has to compare the crisis situations and their treatment in Kosovo, Darfur, Somalia or the Congo. It is therefore no longer surprising that questions are being asked about the fair treatment of crises by the "international community". This expression seems to express a harmonious conception of the international system through the implementation of its unifying forces, but it is highly ambiguous.

It is not a question of being naive and we are aware that international interventions are subject to the contingencies of the moment. And we are entering the minefield of morality and ethics. But there is what Weber called the "morality of responsibility", which should go beyond simple accounting reasoning, and by accounting I mean not only economic interests, but also ideological aims, such as the friend/enemy partition that we are experiencing right now through this disastrous war.

The hollow rhetoric of just intervention and its non-fulfillment (there do not seem to be any Western troops involved in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, for example), which creates expectations in world opinion as well as among the victims, brings the concept into disrepute and can only make one suspicious of any real or supposed motives of states and international organizations.

The whole of the Hyestart team was able to see how the discourse and attitude of the various men and women of power whom we met, concerning the defense of the Armenian cultural heritage, were linked to various interests other than the respect of human rights, without however questioning their good will.


It is easy for authoritarian States to point to the way in which Western countries fail to live up to the values they preach, allowing them to justify their own serious human rights violations. The lack of ethics in engagement only provides arguments to the leaders of authoritarian regimes (any political system, whether democratic or authoritarian, must maintain a certain level of legitimacy in order to ensure its long-term persistence) who rely on the shortcomings, procrastination or inconsistencies of certain interventions or non-interventions of Western countries. The different episodes that led to the Russian-Ukrainian war demonstrate this enough: the reactions, speeches or even acts of Western countries, including the USA, after the 2014-2015 war, led Putin to establish a nationalist discourse of endangerment of the country by Western forces ready to "invade Russia", a discourse that also allows him to maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most adequate for society in this moment of crisis. Thus, the nationalist discourse supported by legitimization strategies easily points to the shortcomings of the Western universalist claim. Well-formulated and orchestrated legitimacy claims become an effective tool for shaping the legitimacy perceptions of the general population.

The modes of engagement of members of the international community have repercussions in countries with authoritarian regimes, as can be seen in Russia, but also in Azerbaijan and Turkey. The failures of the Western universalist system allow for ideologically based claims of legitimacy. Nationalism makes it possible to write an exclusive narrative that emphasizes the particular position of the nation (Russian, Turkish or Azeri) in relation to other countries.

It is understood that global stability is based on the reconciliation of universal ethical principles and power asymmetries. This power seems to be moving away from the West, since many countries are evading the reach of global norms on human rights, international criminal justice, the rule of law, etc. There is thus a real interest in strengthening a global order based on rules, norms and values, but it is not a matter of weakening it by continuing to subject "others" to norms while exempting themselves from them or by demonstrating selective ethical indignation on the part of both governments and commentators and international institutions.

The gap between the universalist rhetoric of Western principles and the particularist pursuit of economic, geopolitical and other interests is becoming increasingly untenable. How then can one want to embody a "moral leadership”?


The dominant normative architecture of the international order is made by the interplay of power but also of ideas and values. All conflicts are underpinned by ethical challenges, the struggle for power is underpinned by ethical challenges. But international society does not seem to be homogeneous in terms of human rights, and while UN, Amnesty International and Human Right Watch reports are used to lecture certain countries, others are not. The good conscience has a short memory. History is full of these bloody episodes or failures to respect fundamental human rights, and we do not want to dwell on them in the name of a slippery concept such as the balance of power. Bass, professor of political science at Princeton: "The blood telegram. Nixon, Kissinger and a forgotten genocide", which points out with a nuanced but uncompromising look at the juxtaposition of geopolitics and humanitarian crisis during the events that affected Pakistan in 1971. But we punish Assange, Chelsea Manning or Snowden.

Millions of Syrians have been thrown on the roads of exile, billions of euros have been paid to Turkey to "keep" these refugees. A Bulgarian minister describes Ukrainian refugees as "intelligent, educated, and highly skilled" and compares them to "others". Other European leaders point out that they are European and therefore there are no terrorists among them.

It is not a matter of comparing the pain, the drama and the tragedy that refugees from this or that country experience, that would be shameful, but of pointing out that the double standard of the position creates a right legitimized by the West to offend, attack or exterminate certain populations and not others by authoritarian regimes "endorsed" by the Western world. It is obvious that being an individual of Armenian origin, I can only note the difference in treatment for the Armenian population of Artsakh: little or no reaction to the use of chemical weapons, to the use of Syrian mercenaries, to the scenes of torture on the civilian population, etc. A waltz of hesitation that has allowed Aliyev to carry out his aggressive policy against the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh without problems. I will not go back here to the inconsistencies of the Armenian government (see Hyestart blog text). The security effort has been biased and exclusively towards Azerbaijan, which has helped to shape reality into the narrow logic of the Azeri state's presentation of the facts.

Harry Truman liked to say that there could be "no compromise with evil". Really? Joe Biden called Putin a "killer" before the attack on Ukraine, in a speech that showed traces of the Cold War past, but not a word about other authorized "killers." The spectacle of the "benevolent self" against the "malevolent other" is still being played out successfully. Power relations are implicated by a number of shared ideas, interests and understandings in terms of cultural, racial, geopolitical, military and economic aspects.

Hyestart has been fighting on many fronts to raise awareness of the danger to the Armenian heritage of Nagorno-Karabakh and its people, but it must be admitted that we have often been met with a certain amount of annoyance. The willingness of international institutions to commit resources to condemn and act against oppression and the violation of a people's freedoms is based more on economic, military or geopolitical relations than on the human rights being violated. Especially since in the case of the Armenian population of Nagorno-Karabakh, the Armenian government seems to have no desire to disturb a neo-liberal process of pacification of the region after having lost or gambled, as one may wish, the lives of 5000 people, most of whom were young people.

The fact remains that these international power games have the effect of making the suffering of certain populations invisible.

The vision of what is "evil" thus seems intentionally articulated to serve as a means of shaping our political attitudes and imagination about how we see, think and act on security issues. All of this is articulated through strong interactions between privileged actors: States, media, economic elites, etc. But in this game of defining the enemies to be defeated or the violations that have the right to our attention, we end up flouting our own values and ultimately putting ourselves in danger.

I am not defending Putin or any other leader of an authoritarian regime, but I am just wondering about the difference in treatment (military, humanitarian, media, etc.) for similar situations that cause thousands of victims, make refugees out of entire populations and undermine fundamental concepts: exclusion/inclusion, democracy, citizenship, trust/distrust, the place of the individual and individual consciousness in society.


The EU's human rights policy is riddled with inconsistencies and inefficiencies, and undermines notable results. The European Union is the economic-political union that takes the most sanctions abroad but very few, if any, in its own space. Even in the case of violations of fundamental rights, the case of Poland or Hungary are perfect examples. Thus, one cannot but notice the discrepancy between the very idea of sanctions and the whole European policy of compromise and mutual accommodation. If there is a large scientific literature on the structural environment in which the common sanctions policy emerged (see Bibliography), there is little on the legitimacy and appropriateness of the EU sanctions policy in general. If it is not a question of economic sanctions or traditional ostracism, then hunting down Russian artists, banning performances or cancelling artistic events or suppressing a course on Dostoyevsky does not seem to be the best way to support the opponents to Putin's regime who have taken risks in the last few days and among whom there are a large number of artists and actors of the cultural and intellectual world. These sanctions can only comfort a population which, through the nationalist speeches of the Kremlin, sees the Western world as a possible invader and destroyer of Russian civility.

It is clear that our questioning concerns the fact that the Western world is so accommodating to certain authoritarian regimes and not to others. Of course, one could put forward "the casuistry of decisions", the necessity of compromise. One could even say, since we are talking about ethics, that it is only a pastoral for the devotees of human rights. But we could also insist on the necessary intersection between ethics and politics. Taking the measure of the phenomena of power that characterize international relations should not mean, for all that, that ethics is irrelevant, but should lead us to rethink the way in which its demands are articulated with the realism of given situations. This was clearly posed by one of the great figures of political science, Stanley Hoffman: "Given the nature of international politics and the constraints that are exerted on any foreign policy, what are the moral limits that actors (States, international organizations, regional, transnational actors...) must respect on the one hand, and on the other hand, the moral objectives that they must set themselves?". As a reminder, he was one of the first to advocate for ethics in international relations. Putin offers a great advantage to the Western world: we can clearly define his regime, without ambiguity. But what about the "partners" that are necessary in this period of conflict over energy, such as Turkey or Azerbaijan? What kind of regimes are we talking about? A "democratorship" ("démocrature"), a term popularized by Pierre Hassner?

But the perpetual renegotiations in the face of the constraints of reality, if they are not tempered by an ethic of politics, can lead to a purely instrumental representation of democracy and of those who embody it. We would only be in "post-democracies", a neologism formalized and popularized by the British sociologist Colin Crouch, who applies it to a political system that behind the appearances of democracy deprives the people of their political role, a pseudo-democracy deprived of all substance. This is a useful concept to describe the collapse and the feeling of powerlessness and alienation that the people feel towards their rulers. The rise of transnational corporations, international organizations and technocracy signals the invasion of private interests and norms into the heart of the public sphere and the state apparatus.

It is not a question of having a naive conception of human nature that would defend a finalism of values, but it must be noted that the interplay of geopolitical, economic, energy and other interests is leading to a growing separation between the order of the market and the order of human rights.

Who can still believe in international law, if every day we see that the impunity of some people, supported by Western strategic failures, leaves the field open to crimes committed by treacherous States?

Western determination in the face of the Russian attack is important, since determination is needed to affirm values, but this affirmation must be the same for all; if we do not accept that it is the authority that establishes the law but the truth, then we must apply this precept to all, and not only to the designated villain.

What demand for justice do we have?

Are we content to articulate normative theories that can guide our behavior by systematizing our moral judgments, in order to produce morally correct responses? A kind of moral realism. But morality is not conceived on the model of legislation, it is important to bring it back to our practices, our motives to act or not.

It is normal to react and to act in front of thousands of people driven out of their homes, in front of the atrocities of the war in Ukraine, but it is just as necessary to revolt against the atrocities and war crimes committed in Nagorno-Karabakh against the Armenian population, in Yemen, in Libya or in Syria.


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