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WASHINGTON — 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% increase in landmine casualties — 8,605 of them in 2016 alone. 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 non-state 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 U.S. “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 G20 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, wrote “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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E.J. Dionne is on Twitter:

@EJDionne.

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(6) comments

johnnybragatti

trump"s orgasmic love/worship for EVERY one of the Worlds" dictators, should give ya"ll a lengthy clue "bout where his heads at. What an absolute humiliating embarrassment, to have this lowlife scumbag, representing our country. It certainly makes it hard to get up in the morning, at least, for the honest real Americans. Economy ? don"t make me laugh. How do you spell : "deficit"???. I bet the Exlax-too spells it :"decrepit." Now he says : Huh?

new2Lax

I spell it, “money in the bank”, why would I start worrying about the deficit now, When I was concerned about the deficit during the Obama years, nobody seemed to care, I guess I’ll go along with that now. This so called lowlife has done wonders for a vast majority of Americans, especially blacks, Latinos and women and for all those of us who participate in the markets. Apparently you are of a small part of the economy that seems to be affective in a positive way and if that’s the case, more than likely nothing would help someone in you position. You would have had to be a responsible person making decisions that would affect you now and in later years. Anyone who did look out for their future is reaping the benefits now. Sorry you are not one of them but you are in a very small group and this group will always be there. As a matter of fact we now have more people employed and fewer on food stamps than when Obama had his eight year go at it. How the tax cuts didn’t help you I’ll never no but you must be in the 5% group and remember that 5% group will always be there because the people paying no tax get no help.

oldhomey

A startling and important message in this excellent column. Sometimes it feels like there is just too much injustice in the world, that it is impossible to deal with it all. What struck me the most from this column is that we could be making a huge step in the right direction if we just deal with the human rights problem close to home, in the Central American chaos that is sending hundreds of thousands of desperate people out of their countries and to our borders seeking safety. If we can address the injustice and neutralize it in those countries, we are also helping ourselves by alleviating the crisis that Donald Trump has engineered on our own southern border.

new2Lax

The Democrats just now think there is a crisis, so was it just in the last week or two Trump engineered this crisis or were the Democrats just wrong about there being a crisis months ago. Can’t have it both ways here, either there was a crisis months ago and the Democrats were wrong then or the crisis just begun 2 weeks ago and Trump engineered it. You talk like a sausage. You know the crisis has nothing to do with Trump, it’s your Democrats that want open borders and today getting rid ofI Homeland Security along with the border patrol and HSS. AOC seems to be taking a hold of the party.

oldhomey

How does a sausage talk, new2? There has been a building pressure at the border that started even before the Obama administration. But it was not a crisis with children being yanked from parents and people put in camps with no basic humanitarian services for them. That came with Trump. There were episodes, as I recall, during the Obama years when there were spikes in intake and people were ill-housed for two or three days, but nothing like what we see with Trump. He is doing that by design, and he will have to answer for it at some point. Tell us more about those talking sausages. Did you see that in a commercial? Were they cute? Did you see that vote on border relief in the House that AOC opposed? She and three others voted against it, the rest of the Democrats voted for it. Has she taken over the party, yet? Is it a party of those cute sausages?

martian2

So we have dropped human rights promotion from our foreign policy with Trump. We now coddle tyrants who should be tried for war crimes. We no longer promote democracy around the world. We no longer have a moral compass when it comes to foreign policy or a border policy. So what do we promote, according to Trump it is money and wealth, and whatever human and environmental costs that comes with it. Yes this could be a country with the highest moral and human rights agenda in the world, but not with Trump at the helm. Therefor we will never be "great" until he is gone.

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