It is hard to find an argument the Arabs use more frequently in their interactions with the world abroad at times of crisis. When crisis hits this part of the world, immediately, Arabs talk about double standards. The charge of double standards is generally levelled at the “international community” for applying one set of standards to powerful Western nations and another set to the rest of the world, which includes us. The argument presumes a kind of universal moral charter upheld by international law as based on international conventions, treaties and agreements that should command the respect of all and be applied equitably without discrimination.
The presumption is something akin to a state or government embodied in such institutions as the UN, UN Security Council, the International Court of Justice in which member nations are the equivalent of citizens who should have equal standing before the law. In recent history, that line of thinking has been closely associated with the various phases of the Arab-Israeli conflict which currently centres on the “Palestinian Cause” and the question of Palestinian territory occupied by Israel in June 1967.
In the more than seven decades of this conflict, supporters of this cause deployed the double-standards charge in the context of Western (Western European and North American) pro-Isreal stances, arguing that they conflict with the liberal and democratic principles those powers claim should prevail across all corners of the earth until the “end of history” and beyond, if there is a beyond. But this works in two ways. In the case of a foreign territorial occupation in another country - Ukraine, for example - the Arabs ask why the international community focuses on that and ignores the Israeli occupation. Alternatively, when President Saddam Hussein invaded and occupied Kuwait, many Arabs suggested that he should only withdraw from that country in exchange for the Israeli withdrawal from Arab territory. That would presumably restore the balance and eliminate the Western sin of double standards.
In fact, we find not just double standards in the world, but triple and quadruple standards, depending on the relative ability of countries of diverse levels of power and geographic position to pursue their interests.
Nor is there a single universal moral or legal framework. In this multi-cultural, multi-religious world, different frames of reference determine what behaviours and assessments are legitimate. That is what politics is about. International law and its procedural codes were basically the product of agreements between world powers, especially the five permanent members of the UN Security Council that have the right to exercise a veto. These laws concern important matters. As for the less important issues, they are generally the subject of an agreement which, in turn, is often open to different interpretations: one for the state parties, another for its allies and a third for the rest of the world.
Take a look at the normative contentions surrounding the Ukrainian crisis these days. There is a set of standards for every side. Russia holds that its invasion of Ukraine was an act of self-defence undertaken because of the likelihood that Kyiv would join NATO. Moscow and its supporters point to the US reaction when the Soviet Union deployed missiles in Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of the US, and ask why Russia should not have the equal right to feel every bit as threatened, in this case by the spectre of hostile US missiles positioned directly on the Russian border.
The US has compiled a long list of Russian breaches of internal law and established principles. If left unanswered, Washington argues, Moscow would claim the right to apply the logic of its aggression against Ukraine to the three Baltic states (Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia) which are NATO members bordering Russia, a list that will grow after Finland and Sweden join the pact.
The hard truth in international relations is that the only standards that stand are those on which there is an agreement. But that hinges on interpretation, which varies from one situation or crisis to the next, and on the continuation of a spirit of consensus. The decisive factors in both cases (the interpretation and the consensus) is the national interests of the concerned parties and their relative power to pursue or protect those interests.
A growing problem with norms and multiple standards is that not all international players are states. In recent decades, multinational companies have become more powerful and influential than many states. International terrorist organisations do not recognise the world order and even aim to undermine it as they engage in their activities on the fringes of the world and in fragile states.
Meanwhile some crucial global concerns, such as Covid-19 which has killed millions, have been basically left to individual countries to deal with as best they can. After a vaccine was discovered, the majority of the world cried out for the fair distribution of the serums or the technologies to produce them, and railed against the double standards that grant the relative few a right to life and withhold that right from the rest of humanity. Before the pandemic, the world knew that greenhouse gases would destroy the planet. However with the Russian-American war in Ukraine, climate change has been kicked off the list of international priorities.
None of this is new to the Arab world. But the double-standards argument remains available for all situations, and no one has tired of faulting the international community for its hypocrisy. Arab diplomats are experts at wielding the argument in international forums where they derive a measure of satisfaction at putting world powers on the spot for their lack of integrity.
Friendly countries may congratulate them on this, but afterwards no one asks whether any progress has been made on the issues raised. As mentioned above, the Palestinian cause occasions frequent use of the double standards charge, not least with every new instance of Israeli settlement expansion. More recently it surfaced in connection with Israel’s assassination of the Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. As we all know, the US will not find it in its heart to punish another country that was built on a settler movement like itself, especially since some of the settlers in the US were Jews and Arabs as well.
If the Arabs’ “central cause” has a law, it is that those with the ability to impose de facto realties prevail. Recently, Israel announced plans to build 4,000 housing units in Area C in the West Bank. Ostensibly, they will also allow Palestinians to build 1,000 units on their own land. Israel has imposed tight restrictions on the Palestinians’ right to build in the West Bank, Gaza and, indeed, in Israel itself, where 21 per cent of its citizens are of Palestinian origin.
The only de facto reality that the Palestinians have managed to assert is their continued existence on the territory of historic Palestinian, which is to say, not just in the West Bank and Gaza but in present-day Israel as well. Unfortunately, they failed in everything else. They have not built an independent state.
The polity they established has split into three: those wanting to assimilate into the Israeli state, those living in Gaza under Hamas’ theocracy, and the Palestinian Authority whose power has shrunk to just the West Bank, and barely that. Here, at least, we find the only place where you can see a single standard. There can be no Palestinian cause that does not meet the criterion of a unified authority representing the whole of the Palestine people. Until then, double standards can have no bearing on the issue.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 May, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.