Belarus' grounding of a passenger jet is shocking - but it's not unprecedented, and the West should remember it has done the same

26 May, 2021 12:09
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By Glenn Diesen, Professor at the University of South-Eastern Norway and an editor at the Russia in Global Affairs journal. Follow him on Twitter @glenndiesen

Belarus has caused alarm and outrage across Europe this week by forcing a jet to land and detaining two of its passengers. What the West does next will matter but, at the moment, it looks likely its response will be the wrong one.

The Ryanair flight from Greece to Lithuania was compelled to land in Minsk on Sunday while traveling through Belarusian airspace, on the basis of what appears to be a fraudulent claim that a bomb might be on board. It is now evident that the purpose of the forced landing was to arrest Roman Protasevich, who, officials in the country claim, has played a major role in organizing unauthorized protests there.

The action taken by Minsk was a brazen violation of numerous conventions and treaties that govern international air space, and placed many people in danger. Anyone interested in an orderly Europe and a stable international system would have to condemn the move, not least because it demonstrates a profound deterioration of key international institutions and rules.

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However, the lessons being learned in the West appear to be all wrong. The reaction from the political-media establishment shows they think the incident came about because of the weakening of the Western-centric “rules-based international system,” and their only solution is to defend this system with more sanctions and pressure against Belarus.

In reality, it is the West’s “rules-based international system” that has displaced international law and become the key contributor behind the collapse of those shared institutions and norms.

While Belarus deserves criticism for its actions, it is important to understand them as symptomatic of a failing international system that the West has done its best to tear down and undermine.

A first-time event?

Interfering in international air travel for political purposes is a dangerous development that makes everyone less safe. Yet, Belarus’ actions are far from unprecedented.

In 2010, a flight from France to Mexico was diverted at the behest of the US government to arrest a passenger. Then, in 2012, Turkey forced a passenger plane traveling from Moscow to Damascus to land on Turkish soil in order to inspect it for military equipment. At the time, Western states committed to regime change in Syria prioritized solidarity with Turkey above any concerns over the rules of civil aviation.

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In 2013, France, Spain, Portugal and Italy all denied a plane carrying the president of Bolivia, Evo Morales, access to their airspace, at the request of the US government. Without enough fuel for alternative routes, the presidential jet was forced to land in Austria where it was “inspected” in a search for the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, who was falsely believed to have been on board. Breaching the conventions and treaties governing international air travel and potentially jeopardizing the life of the Bolivian president was deemed a legitimate step if it meant arresting the whistle-blower Snowden.

In 2016, Ukraine threatened to deploy fighter jets to force a Belarusian airliner to make a U-turn and return to Kiev, where officials were eager to arrest an Armenian anti-Maidan critic. There was no outrage from Washington, which was a key supporter of the 2014 movement and would become an advocate for future regime change in Belarus.

When the Bolivian presidential plane was forced to land over fears it was helping Snowden escape capture, journalists asked hypothetically how would Western powers react if its adversaries engaged in such “air piracy”? Well, this question has now been answered, with the European Council condemning this “unprecedented and unacceptable incident,” while the US expressed similar moral indignation. Memories are short, but rules applied to only one side are not rules at all.

The “rules-based international order”

The concept of an “international community” implies mutual benefits from complying with common rules to ensure stable and predictable relations. But what happens under a unipolar order, when power is concentrated with only one super-state and its allies? Are there still incentives to accept the mutual constraints under international law?

Over recent years, the standard of international law has been replaced with demands countries live up to the requirements of a “rules-based international system”. This is a distinctively different concept from international law, and demands the endorsement of liberal values, democracy and human rights. More specifically, it grants the West the prerogative to unilaterally breach international law when it allegedly is in the interest of liberal democratic values, putting ideology above legality. The term “international community” is now used interchangeably with “the West.”

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This does not excuse the actions taken by Belarus, yet it is important to recognize why international institutions and rules have broken down and a sense of lawlessness prevails – precisely because of these deliberate double standards.

NATO states are now calling for the immediate release of Roman Protasevich, who is referred-to as an independent journalist. However, Minsk considers Protasevich to be a regime-change operative supported by the West, which suggests that the borders between the domestic and international were broken long before the Ryanair flight was forced to land.

It is no great secret that the US has been investing in regime change in Belarus, and was possibly involved in an assassination attempt. Protasevich edits the Belamova Telegram channel and, previously, had overseen the Polish-based NEXTA, which has helped to organize protests in Belarus. He has also worked for the US state-run Euroradio and RFERL. Furthermore, reports indicate he worked in the press service of the neo-Nazi-led Azov Battalion in Ukraine, which took on a prominent role following the American-backed coup. One independent British journalist, Jake Hanrahan, has suggested he has proof that Protasevich even fought in the fascist militia.

A return to international law?

The very fabric of global institutions and international law is rapidly coming asunder. The unipolar order enabled Western powers to advance the so-called “rules-based international order” that dismantled key tenets of international law that previously restrained NATO states. The solution cannot be for the West to merely put more force behind unilateralism.

A return to international law demands accepting common rules that impose mutual constraints. Condemning Belarus without condemning the West for breaching international law implies acceptance of a system based on sovereign inequality. Thus, while many states around the world view the actions of Belarus with disdain, they will be reluctant to condemn.

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