The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We’re in an ‘Age of Impunity.’ It will have consequences for us all.

Yemeni people attend the funeral of victims of a Saudi-led airstrike, in Saada, Yemen, in 2018.
Yemeni people attend the funeral of victims of a Saudi-led airstrike, in Saada, Yemen, in 2018. (Hani Mohammed/AP)

Our conversations about the global retreat of democracy usually highlight its impact on those in relatively well-off nations with long-established traditions of free elections, free speech and a free media.

But David Miliband, the chief executive of the International Rescue Committee, reminded us in a recent speech that the effects of what he called the “democratic recession” are being felt most catastrophically by civilians living in lawless failed states, many of them caught up in civil wars and waves of persecution. As moral inhibitions are swept away, innocents are exposed to unspeakable horror.

Miliband called ours the “Age of Impunity,” a moment “when those engaged in conflicts around the world — and there are many — believe they can get away with anything, including murder, whatever the rules and norms. And because they can get away with anything, they do everything.”

His list of “everything” should call us all up short: “Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, land mines, bombing of school buses, besiegement of cities, blocking of humanitarian supplies, targeting of journalists and aid workers. You name it, we are seeing it, and seeing more of it, and seeing less outrage about it and less accountability for it.”

The former British foreign secretary knows what he is talking about. The leader of one of the oldest and most respected agencies dealing with the struggles of refugees and other displaced people, Miliband offered a grim litany: 142 million children living in high-intensity conflict zones; more than 20,000 civilians killed by explosive weapons in 2018; in the same year, 973 attacks on health facilities and health workers, 167 of whom died; since 2013, a 150 percent increase in land-mine-related casualties — 8,605 of them in 2016 alone.

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Miliband added that civil wars are generating more refugees (29.5 million) and more internal displacement (involving 41 million people) than at any time since World War II. And “there are fewer refugees going home than ever before.” As a result, wealthy nations struggle with large flows of migration. The United States’ border policies defy our own standards of humanity.

“A new and chilling normal is coming into view,” Miliband concluded. “Civilians seen as fair game for armed combatants, humanitarians seen as an impediment to military tactics and therefore unfortunate but expendable collateral, and investigations of and accountability for war crimes an optional extra for state as well as nonstate actors.”

But these evils cannot be isolated from the larger political corrosion in the rest of the world — and this includes the long-standing democracies themselves. “The checks and balances that protect the lives of the most vulnerable people abroad,” he said, “will only be sustained if we renew the checks and balances that sustain liberty at home.”

This isn’t simply about aligning principle and practice. More fundamentally, when governments abandon a commitment to accountability domestically, they no longer feel any obligation to insist upon it internationally. It’s no accident, as Miliband noted, that under President Trump, the United States “has dropped the promotion of human rights around the world from its policy priorities.”

He pulled no punches: “The new order is epitomized in the photo of Russian President [Vladimir] Putin and Saudi Crown Prince [Mohammed bin] Salman high-fiving each other at the G-20 meeting in Argentina in November last year. With Syria in ruins, Yemen in crisis, and political opponents like Boris Nemtsov and Jamal Khashoggi dead, theirs was the embrace of two leaders unencumbered by national institutions or by the fear of international law.”

Miliband acknowledged the mistakes of an earlier era (including the Iraq War) but argued that “accountability, not impunity” was on the rise in the 1990s, when there was “an unusual consensus across the left-right divide” about “the need for global rules.” We have said goodbye to all that.

In 2002, Samantha Power, later the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, published “ ‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” a book that stirred consciences about the world’s obligations to helpless people unprotected — and often targeted — by sovereign governments.

Nearly two decades on, we are numb, distracted and inward-looking.

Miliband understands that democratic citizens, grappling with their own discontents, will be inclined to look away from the travails of others “until there is a new economic and social bargain that delivers fair shares at home.”

But an Age of Impunity not only poses immediate dangers to millions confronting violence far away. It also corrodes the sense of obligation of the privileged in wealthy nations toward those left behind. When anything goes, no one is safe.

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