October 1, 2023


It's Your Education

MIT’s Robert A. Muh Award in the Humanities, Arts & Social Sciences Awarded to David Miliband, President and CEO of the IRC


It is a pleasure to be back at MIT (albeit virtually). I had a wonderful year at the university as a graduate student in 1988/9; came back as UK Foreign Secretary in 2010 to give the Compton Lecture, arguing for a national and regional political settlement to end the war in Afghanistan; and then in 2011, after the electorate relieved me of my governmental responsibilities, came back to the Political Science Department for a week of teaching. It is a source of pride to come back this year to receive the Muh Award

The bookends for this talk are the changed geopolitical environment since I was a graduate student. I completed my Masters’ thesis in the summer of 1989, and vividly remember watching on TV the scenes in Tiananmen Square as I house-sat in leafy Belmont. Few of us had the sense that the post-war order was about to be turned upside-down by the fall of the Berlin Wall less than six months later. The idea of the End of History was only just going into academic articles. Certainly there was no sense that we were about to enter “weeks in which decades happen.”

This became the era of the Third Wave of Democracy, so called because the number of countries democratizing tripled from 25 to 75 in the span of a decade.[1] From Eastern Europe to Southern Africa to Latin America to the Far East, the tools of authoritarian rule did not seem to work anymore.

A new future was quite suddenly in view (perhaps too suddenly for clear thought). Not the end of arguments about the good society. Not the end of protest about equality or governance or foreign policy. Not the end of wars based on ethnicity or religion – after all the 1990s were the decade of the Rwandan genocide. But the emergence of an arguable case that political history had a settled destination, reached at different speeds, in systems based on accountable government, human rights, and political democracy. In this telling, the Cold War had two sides. One was democratic, the other autocratic. The democratic side won. And history would bring more victories for democratic governance.

That is one bookend. The other is the present day. The contrast is stark. Not the Third Wave of Democracy but what the scholars at the Varieties of Democracy project at the University of Gothenburg call the Third Wave of Autocratization. Across the world, democratic systems based on fair elections and the rule of law are in retreat. Here is what they are talking about:

  • According to the Economic Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index, 70% of the world’s countries saw a reduction in political freedom last year.[2]
  • Autocratic regimes now outweigh the GDP of the democratic West for the first time in 100 years.[3]
  • The number of countries ranked as full liberal democracies is down to 32, and 68 per cent of the world’s population are living under autocratic rule – a 20-point jump in a decade.[4]
  • Only 14 per cent of the global population according to the Varieties of Democracy project,[5] and 8 per cent according to the EIU, live in fully democratic systems. The population living under autocratic rule is more than four times higher.[6]

Professor Larry Diamond of Stanford University says all types of regimes are becoming less liberal.[7] The data from the Gothenberg database put numbers on this. In the past decade 10 countries have moved from liberal democracies to “electoral democracies” where rights have been circumscribed.[8] Poland is an example of a democracy where the ruling party has consolidated and often abused its power. 13 countries moving from democratic ranking to “electoral autocracies.” This includes India, which was previously the world’s largest democracy. And 5 autocratic regimes moving into the most harsh category, “closed autocracy.” What’s happening in China fits this category.

Two academics, James Robinson and MIT’s Daron Acemoglu, have explained in their brilliant book The Narrow Corridor,[9] why this should not be a surprise. There is nothing “natural” about liberal democracy. If anything it is an unnatural creation, and certainly one that takes perpetual nurture if it is to endure.

Today I want to apply a particular lens to this story and link it to developments in foreign affairs. That lens is the idea of ‘impunity.’ It’s traditionally been a legal term, but I want to use it as a tool of political and policy analysis. As you know, impunity means the absence of consequence for an action, and in the case of an illegal action, the absence of punishment for that action. In more colloquial terminology, impunity is the exercise of power without responsibility, what the British PM Stanley Baldwin called “the refuge of the harlot throughout the­ ages.”

I am going to make three claims today.

First, that there is a growing age of impunity that is the international or foreign relations counterpart of democratic recession at home. Systems and cultures of impunity are leading to more acts of impunity.

Second, that international impunity is on the rise in international conflicts around the world because of a shift in power against the aspirations of the rules-based order established after 1945. I want to highlight two elements. Autocratic regimes are stronger. They insist that what happens within a country is only the responsibility of that state. And they have found unexpected bedfellows in this assertion of national sovereignty, and against the assertion of universal rights, in democratic states that are in retreat, turning inward, reasserting national sovereignty (as well as domestic focus) themselves and reeling from foreign policy failures.

The third claim is that to fight against international impunity we do not need new ideas about the laws of war or the rights of individuals. The ideas in the UN Charter and associated documents are good ones. What we need is a defining idea for how to defend them, a focus on some key issues, and the mobilization of the assets of government, private sector and civil society to do so. Since power has shifted against the defense of universal rights, a reversal of the trend depends on more than “quoting laws to men with swords.” It requires countervailing power to change their calculus.

The Rise in Impunity

When a coach of children is bombed in Yemen, when health facilities are bombed in Syria, when civilians are denied humanitarian aid in Ethiopia or Nigeria, we are seeing impunity because there is no consequence or punishment. At best there is pleading to stop.

The data is striking. There are more civilian victims of war. An average of 34,000 civilians are killed in conflict each year, more than double the average five years ago and nearly seven times the average in 2008.[10]

More civilians are fleeing conflict. A record 79.5 million refugees and displaced people around the world.[11] But it’s not just total numbers, it’s the way conflict is displacing more people. In conflicts since 1945, an average of 5 people were displaced for every one person killed. In the Syrian war, that ratio has been 25 to 1.[12]

There are more aid workers killed. 121 aid workers are killed each year on average, including several of my IRC colleagues, compared with an average of 53 aid workers killed each year in 2004.[13]

There are more attacks on health facilities. Since the UN passed a resolution condemning attacks on hospitals in May 2016, there have been 2,387 attacks on health worldwide[14] from the Ebola epicenter of the DRC to warzones in Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen. Far from abating during the global pandemic, these attacks have only worsened, with more health care workers and patients killed in 2020 than in 2019.

More children are living close to high intensity conflict. Today 160 million children are living in areas of high-intensity conflict according to Save the Children.[15] That’s more than the number of children who live in the United States and Europe combined.

There is more ethnic cleansing. The civil society group Genocide Watch lists 13 ongoing “Genocide Emergencies” where ethnic cleansing massacres are ongoing.[16] These involve powerful countries not just small rogue states.

And there is a remarkable direct link between poverty and conflict: nearly fifty per cent of the world’s extreme poor live in conflict and fragile states,[17] and that percentage is growing every year.

So there is the first claim: that there is a clear trend of growing international lawlessness and norm-lessness. Interestingly enough, the latest National Intelligence Council report, Global Trends 2040,[18] highlights the rule of law as one of the threatened norms of the global order.

This trend has been enabled by what the Munich Security Conference calls “Westlessness” – the retreat of the West – part of the second claim to which I now want to turn.

Shifts in the Balance of Power

The second claim is that this trend towards impunity in international affairs is a symptom of a shift in the balance of power. Those ready to abuse international rules have less reason to fear that they will be held accountable. There never was a Golden Age, but after the traumas of genocide in Rwanda in the 1990s and the massacre in Srebrenica in former Yugoslavia, there was a determined attempt to live up to the promises of the post-Second World War settlement, culminating in the so-called Responsibility to Protect principle in 2005. This was a unanimously agreed resolution of the UN General Assembly which promised that if nation-states abused the rights of their own citizens, then the international community had a responsibility to uphold them. That seems like another world today, because in many ways it is.

The causes of this shift are multiple but the essential dynamic is simple. There is less chance today that war crimes will be punished. And of course the confidence of combatants that war crimes will be unpunished is reinforced every time a war crime is unpunished. So there is a vicious circle in play.

The reasons for this shift are deep rooted. Three seem especially important:

  • There is the changing nature of conflict – towards internal conflict, so-called civil wars, not wars between states; urban warfare that engages civilians; the rise of non-state actors; the use of proxy forces; and the increasing presence of international players operating by proxy in other people’s wars. The NIC report I cited earlier gives prominence to the Uppsala Conflict Data Program’s finding that the number of internationalized intrastate conflicts has more or less quintupled in the last 15-20 years.[19] All these factors have brought complexity and opacity faster than digital media have brought clarity and accountability.
  • Then there is geopolitics. There is the emergence of the powerful alternative political system represented by China, unfree in politics but competitive in economics, which has challenged the Western model and especially its dominance of the global system. Meanwhile Russia has sought revenge for what it sees as the economic and political humiliation of the 1990s. Both these countries adhere vigilantly to the doctrine that what goes on within a state is the business of that state and that state alone. This has weakened the ability of the international system to enforce and uphold the basic pillars of the international order, particularly those that protect civilians and vulnerable communities during conflict – the Geneva Conventions, the Genocide Convention, the Refugee Convention.
  • Third, the West is in political and intellectual retreat. Failures in foreign policy and economics have sapped the strength of populations in liberal democratic countries for international engagement and the sacrifice it involves. Meanwhile the Chinese and Russian use of national sovereignty as a shield against calls for accountability has chimed with those nationalist movements within the liberal democratic world who have sought to make national sovereignty their calling card.

So there has been a power shift. Secretary Blinken said recently: “Look at the countries that run roughshod over the rights of their own people. They’re almost always the same countries that flout internationally accepted rules beyond their borders.”[20] The whole point of the UN Charter and the associated founding documents was to mitigate against this tendency, by creating rights for people against the over-mighty power of the state, and institutions with the mandate to defend those rights. Countries could choose their own political system, democracy or dictatorship, monarchy or republic, but they would sign on to international rules.

Just as Robinson and Acemoglu argue that at the national level, there is a “constant, day-in, day-out struggle” between the state and society to walk the narrow corridor between the fear and repression wrought by despotic states on the one hand and “the violence and lawlessness that emerge in their absence,” so international relations needs the rights of individuals to be upheld against the rights of states, or the result is despotism and impunity. This takes a balance of power, and that is what is missing in the world’s war zones.

The Need for Countervailing Power

The third claim is that the battle ahead, for those of us who fear a world of impunity, is to build the force of accountability to counter the abuse of power. I think this is a better way of encapsulating the challenge or the mission than building the power of democracy. Sure, I want to see democracy strengthened, notably in countries that are democratic but whose democracy is under assault. But democracy is the strongest form of political accountability and cannot be built on sand.

70 years ago, JK Galbraith published his book American Capitalism: The Concept of Countervailing Power. It offered a powerful critique of the development of the American economy after the Second World War, notably in the way concentrations of economic power at the corporate level were a threat to the interests and well-being of ordinary Americans. His answer was not anti-trust, though he did not oppose it, but the development of market and non-market institutions that could countervail the power of the big corporates. Where there were big producers, he favored big retailers. Where there were corporate consortia, he favored countervailing power from government. Where there were unorganized workers, he favored labor (trade) unions. As he put it: “Liberalism will be identified with the buttressing of weak bargaining positions in the economy; conservatism will be identified with positions of original power.”

I think Galbraith’s concept needs to be brought back to life today. I can see applications in the national economy, where market concentration is again on the rise, fueled by political and legal attacks on the role of government in the economy.

However, to my thesis today, the idea of countervailing power has relevance in curbing the abuse of state power not just private power. And it needs to apply in the international domain not just the national one.

I am glad that the Biden Administration supports a meeting of liberal democracies to discuss how to defend the rule of law and democratic practice. But the big decision is not to have a meeting. It is to decide the agenda.

I would like to see it discuss defense of democratic institutions against cyber-attack; a common front to tackle laundering of money from autocratic states; common positions on the regulation of anti-social media; common positions on global trade issues, linked to human rights standards.

But I also want to see them take common action in international fora to impose costs on those who abuse international law. If impunity is the absence of consequence for actions, then accountability must be about creating consequences, and thereby worrying military commanders and political leaders about their actions.

In fact, I would go further, and say that if the rights to life of civilians in war zones cannot be defended, when they have been codified in international law, then we have less chance of defending other rights that are important, whether that be the rights of protestors against their government or the rights of women against abuse by men or the rights of minorities to freedom of religion or thought or sexuality.

So the idea that should animate the drive against impunity is that of countervailing power. The issues should include those of life and death, to curb the abuse of power that my colleagues and I at the International Rescue Committee see every day, as we work to help people whose lives are shattered by conflict and disaster survive, recover and gain control of their lives.

And the coalition that needs to be mustered should engage government, private sector and civil society. None alone will be enough. A world where accountability, not impunity, is on the rise, needs pressure comes from government, civil society and the private sector together.

Governments in the West need to get their own house in order. They need to combine their weight in political fora to apply political pressure for adherence to the laws of war. At the United Nations they need to be calling for genuinely independent and comprehensive investigations of war crimes wherever they happen. They need to be supporting efforts to use their own legal systems – as in the recent German cases of Syrians accused of war crimes – to hold people accountable. They need to be using military-to-military contacts, military training, and military coalitions of which they are part to stand against the drift to impunity in conflict. And they need to be engaging the private sector.

We have seen in the recent Georgia and Texas voting rights cases the power of major corporates like Coca-Cola and Dell to take a stand. This should be the demand of those who engage with governments who flout the rule of international law. If you are a weapons manufacturer, or a financier of weapons manufacturers, who thinks it is wrong for your weapons to be used to target civilians, then you have a duty to speak up and act up.

Money is often used to grease the wheels of impunity through corruption and patronage, but it can be a force for accountability if channeled properly. This includes targeted economic sanctions against individuals committing atrocities, such as freezing their bank accounts. This also means divestment and suspension of aid by public and private actors. For example insurance companies should decline to provide coverage for companies and countries engaged in activities that violate international humanitarian law. The drift to impunity will not be stopped without those with economic power taking a stand.

There is special responsibility on tech and media companies, because control of the information space is critical to sustaining systems of impunity. In conflict zones around the world, effective news blackouts are the norm not the exception. Breaking the blackout takes political pressure, but also requires technological innovation, to make it safe for civilians to record what is happening, and then get the information out.

And then there is civil society. The New York Times and independent actors like Bellingcat and the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights have done more to expose abuse of international law in Syria than any UN commission. This should be the inspiration to expose and hold accountable those perpetrating the worst atrocities.

The next decade promises to be a race or a fight between accountability and impunity, within our own countries and internationally. That applies in politics, in economics, even in respect of the environment, where ecological plunder can be considered a form of impunity, albeit a longstanding one. Impunity offers quick solutions, but feels brittle. Accountability courts the accusation of being slow. But the methodical tortoise sometimes beats the hyperactive hare.

The End of History was the Kool-Aid of the end of the Cold War. It was misdiagnosed. But the impulse that protested, unsuccessfully, at Tiananmen Square, and successfully in East Berlin, was strong and clear. It was the impulse for power to be held accountable. The coming age of impunity is only inevitable if we let it be so.

[1] V-Dem. (2021). Autocratization Turns Viral – Democracy Report 2021.

[2] The Economist. (2 February 2021).  Economist Intelligence Unit – Democracy Index 2020.

[3] Foa, Roberto Stefan and Mounk, Yascha. (1 March 2019). When Democracy Is No Longer the Only Path to Prosperity. The Wall Street Journal.

[4] V-Dem. (2021). Autocratization Turns Viral – Democracy Report 2021.

[5] Ibid.

[6] The Economist. (2 February 2021).  Economist Intelligence Unit – Democracy Index 2020.

[7] Diamond, Larry. (March/April 2008). The Democratic Rollback. Foreign Affairs.

[8] V-Dem. (2021). Autocratization Turns Viral – Democracy Report 2021.

[9] Acemoglu, Daron and Robinson, James A. The Narrow Corridor. New York, Penguin Press, 2019.

[10] Calculation of five-year annual rolling average based on data from Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project. Number of Reported Civilian Fatalities from Direct Targeting by Country-Year.

[11] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. (18 June 2020). Global Trends: Force Displacement in 2019.

[12] Feldstein, Steven (17 July 2018). Rethinking the Impact of War: Elevating Protections for the Displaced. Social Science Research Network.

[13] Calculation of five-year annual rolling average based on data from Aid Worker Security Database.

[14] World Health Organization. Surveillance System for Attacks on Health Care.

[15] Save the Children. (2020). Killed and Maimed: A Generation of Violations.

[16] Genocide Watch. Current Alerts.

[17] The World Bank. (2020). Fragility and Conflict: On the Front Lines of the Fight Against Poverty.

[18] National Intelligence Council. (March 2021). Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World.

[19] Peace Research Institute of Oslo.(March 2019.) Trends in Armed Conflict, 1946-2018.

[20] U.S. Department of State. (30 March 2021). Secretary Antony J. Blinken On Release of the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.