New anchors for global rule of law

Germany stands up for maritime law against China while Sudan moves to send a former dictator to an international court.

Sudan's ousted president Omar al-Bashir sits in a cage during a trial in Khartoum, Sudan, Sept. 15, 2020.

International law often gets a bad rap – which military enforces it? – even though rule of law is a concept quite universally accepted. So when two countries with checkered pasts take steps on behalf of international law, their actions are worth a shoutout.

On Monday, Germany dispatched a warship to the South China Sea to pass through waters claimed by Beijing. Under a 2016 ruling by an international court in The Hague, China is not entitled to islands and islets near the Philippines, more than a thousand miles from its shore. Yet that has not stopped China from building them up as military posts or threatening ships that sail near them.

For nearly two decades, Germany has not sent a naval ship to the South China Sea. It now joins a few other nations with ocean-faring navies that are making sure this major trade route remains open under the rules of the high seas. Claims to territory in the Indo-Pacific, said German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, must not be “applied by the law of might.”

The country’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, went a step further and said the Asian region is where the shape of the international order will be decided. “We want to help shape it and take responsibility for the rules-based international order,” he said.

The other welcome endorsement of international law comes from Sudan, an African nation where a former dictator, Omar al-Bashir, ruled for three decades over mass atrocities in that country’s Darfur region.

Two years after his ouster by pro-democracy protesters, Sudan’s transitional ruling cabinet voted Tuesday to join the International Criminal Court. The move opens a door to sending Mr. Bashir, who is imprisoned in Khartoum, to the ICC for trial on charges of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

“Justice and accountability are a solid foundation of the new, rule of law-based Sudan we’re striving to build,” said Sudan Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok.

In these actions, Germany and Sudan stand out because international law is failing on many fronts. Atrocities in Syria, Myanmar, China’s Muslim region in Xinjiang, and elsewhere have been largely ignored by the United Nations. Worldwide, rule of law has declined in recent years, according to a 2020 global index.

But that does not mean people don’t want it. “Everyday issues of safety, rights, justice, and governance affect us all; everyone is a stakeholder in the rule of law,” states the World Justice Project, which sponsored the survey of 113 countries. Two rather large stakeholders, Sudan and Germany, are now showing how to revive respect for the rules and norms that can help bind nations in peace.

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