In this paper, an analysis is made of the stability of the international order across Europe’s periphery. The purpose is to see to what extent various cornerstones of the international order are under threat: is the Westphalian system failing in the Middle East? Will disputes over water lead to conflict? Specifically, this paper looks at five different ‘regimes’, or sets of international rules: the state sovereignty regime, the human rights regime, the international justice regime, the environmental regime, and the sea transportation regime. The main conclusion is that for those domains in which states — including external power — have a direct stake, the rules-based systems are holding. Meanwhile, in those where they do not — human rights and international justice — the system has collapsed, for all intents and purposes.

1. Introduction

In this section, we will examine a number of regimes which constitute key elements for upholding the international order in the European periphery (see Figure 1). All of these regimes have distinct sets of rules enshrined in international agreements, and serve to maintain stable diplomatic ties. Political violence in its various manifestations can significantly affect the functioning of these regimes. In this paper, we want to see the extent to which various regimes hold up under pressure from political violence. The regimes selected here have in common that 1) their endurance is directly contingent on interstate cooperation, and that 2) transgressions or even the breakdown of these regimes affects the interests of the Netherlands and its European partners.

Figure 1
Division of regions in the European periphery
Division of regions in the European periphery

International orders are defined as networks of regimes. In defining regimes, we follow Stephen Krasner’s well-known description, being that they consist of “[i]mplicit or explicit principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures around which actors' expectations converge in a given area of international relations.”[1] In practice, this can be the set of rules that govern, for instance, diplomatic interaction or food security. Here, we define five regimes, which will be briefly examined so as to see to what extent they endure in a volatile part of the world. For each of these regimes, a characteristic norm and a corresponding rule are highlighted in order to gauge the condition of the regime. For instance, in diplomatic law, a norm is that diplomatic interactions shall not be tampered with. A specific related rule — say, that diplomatic premises cannot be entered by local law enforcement — may not be respected at all times, but such violations would not directly imply that the norm as such is under pressure. To test these assumptions for each regime, we look at a few concrete examples to see how a norm and corresponding rule have held up (or not) in circumstances of actual or potential political violence or conflict.

We will be examining five regimes: the state sovereignty regime, the human rights regime, the international justice/humanitarian regime, the environmental regime, and the sea transportation regime. The state sovereignty regime is relevant for two main reasons: one concerns the annexation of territory of one country by another (for example, Russia’s occupation of Crimea) and the failed attempt to create a new ‘state’ by ISIS; and the second concerns continuing intervention and effective occupation of foreign territory in, e.g., Syria, Libya, and Palestine. The human rights regime is relevant, in that both the southern and eastern flanks of Europe contain countries which at various times have not complied with basic human rights standards. The international justice regime is relevant because of (the lack of) accountability in warfare. For the Netherlands, the still unresolved case of bringing the perpetrators behind the MH-17 tragedy to justice is the most poignant example in this respect. The environmental regime, which focuses here on the governance of bodies of water, is deemed relevant due to drought issues and demographic growth which will continue to put pressure on water demand in the years to come. Finally, the sea transportation regime, as a dimension of what is sometimes called ‘flow security’, is considered relevant because Europe’s periphery contains multiple key trade routes (‘sea lines of communication,’ or SLOCs) which, if disrupted, can have serious consequences for the provision of goods to Europe and the Netherlands.

2. Actors and Institutions

The main actors in the periphery of Europe are the local governments, non-state actors including rebel movements — many of which operate as proxies — and outside powers who intervene in local affairs, chiefly the US, Russia, and China.

The key regional bodies to follow are the Arab League, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). In eastern Europe, the key bodies are the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) and, to some extent, the EU itself.

3. Regimes, Norms and Rules




State sovereignty regime

Recognition of legitimacy of Westphalian state

Non-intervention unless authorized by the UN Security Council

Environmental regime

Support for policies that address the effects of climate change

Adherence to international water regime

Human rights regime

Respect for human rights as governance objective

Adherence to International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)

International justice regime

Recognition that grave violations of international humanitarian law (IHL) are unacceptable

Cooperation with ICC prosecutions, or active cooperation on suppression of terrorism

Sea transportation regime

Recognition of need for unfettered sea lines of communication (SLOCs)

Non-imposition of maritime blockades, or active intervention to prevent or suppress these

3.1 State Sovereignty Regime

The strength of the state sovereignty regime has been extensively debated in the recent past, in relation to both Europe’s southern and eastern flanks. On the southern flank, the statehood of Libya and, to some extent, Mali has been put into question. Further east, the territorial advances made by ISIS and their so-called elimination of Sykes-Picot (i.e., the elimination of the border between Iraq and Syria) were sometimes seen as a sign that the Westphalian state system, the very cornerstone of the modern world’s state system, could actually collapse in the Middle East. Finally, state sovereignty as an organizing principle was challenged in Europe when Russia occupied Crimea in 2014.

The key norm for respect for state sovereignty is laid down in the Charter of the United Nations, (Article 2.4) which states that “[a]ll Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” The corresponding rules which provide an exception are Articles 42 and 51 of the Charter, stipulating that any action involving force needs to be authorized by the UN Security Council (UNSC), and that states have a residual right to defend themselves until the Council has intervened.

On the one hand, the state sovereignty regime has witnessed serious challenges in the past decade. Apart from the violations mentioned above, a number of countries have suffered violations of their territorial integrity without Council authorization, or where such authorization was used for other ends. This was the case in Libya with UNSC resolution 1973; with action authorized against ISIS in Syria and Iraq, in UNSC resolution 2249[2]; and with Turkey’s operations in Syria and Iraq, Saudi support to opposition groups inside Syria, and Russia’s presence in eastern Ukraine. On the other hand, none of these instances have led to serious calls for rethinking state sovereignty. For instance, discussions about possible post-conflict breakups of Syria, Iraq, and Libya never left the realm of theory. Also, in spite of comments by Russian President Vladimir Putin that “Ukraine is not a state,” the notion that Ukraine ought to be split up is simply inconceivable.

In conclusion, the norm of state sovereignty is still firmly established in the periphery of Europe. Even countries which violate the rules still seek to justify their actions with reference to international norms, whether they do this by claiming self-determination (in the case of Crimea), self-defense (in the case of Turkey in Syria), or the aim to serve international peace and security (the US in Syria). The authority of the UNSC has thus diminished in relation to these regions, but state sovereignty as a regime still prevails.

3.2 Human Rights Regime

The human rights regime is vast in scope, and in essence it governs the relations between governments and citizens in terms of mutual rights and responsibilities. The most significant norms of this regime are set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) of 1948. The most important binding treaty in this field is the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) of 1966. As a norm, we will focus on Article 19 UDHR, being that “[e]veryone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.” The corresponding rule (in this case, binding obligation) derived from the ICCPR can be found in Article 19, which stipulates that “everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression.”

All of the countries in the periphery of Europe, with the exception of Saudi Arabia, have signed and ratified the ICCPR. The Covenant is monitored through the Human Rights Committee, but only Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, the Caucasian republics, and the countries in the eastern flank of Europe accept its jurisdiction. When we look at trends in the countries at issue, we see that voice and accountability have significantly decreased in countries such as Turkey, Libya, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Increases could be noted in Iran, Iraq, Belarus, and, above all, Tunisia.

Figure 2
Voice and Accountability per region
Voice and Accountability per region

Source: World Bank Group

These trends are also reflected in various human rights reports. On Turkey, for instance, the UN Special Rapporteur noted in 2017 that “the laws preceding the attempted coup and those that followed give the authorities broad and increasingly unreviewable discretion to take measures against the press, writers, universities, jurists, civil servants, human rights defenders and many others. They have established one of the worst environments for freedom of expression in Turkey in decades, if not one that is unprecedented in its modern history.”[3] Regarding Libya, a Universal Periodic Review report from 2015 noted that “[a]ll armed groups must [...] desist from violations of international human rights law and humanitarian law and abuses of human rights, and remove from active duty those suspected of such actions [and] that the Libyan authorities hold accountable, in accordance with international standards, all parties responsible for violations of international human rights and humanitarian law and abuses of human rights.”[4] In relation to political freedom in Russia, one report by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) stated that “[t]he Human Rights Committee remained concerned about reports of harassment, death threats, intimidation, physical violence and killing of lawyers, journalists, human rights defenders and opposition politicians, in particular those working in the North Caucasus, in connection with their professional activities.”[5]

In sum, although the trend is mixed across the four regions and can be said to have experienced a slight upswing on average in the Middle East and North Africa, basic norms of the human rights regime are under serious pressure across all four regions, while rules are being widely violated. Hence, this regime will remain a source of instability for the international order in the years to come.

3.3 International Justice Regime

The international justice regime in this context refers to the upholding and respecting of international humanitarian law (IHL) in times of war. As a rule of thumb, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), custodian of the Geneva Conventions, determines the status of conflicts around the world — and thus whether IHL applies.[6] Grave violations of IHL can eventually be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Hence, for the sake of (post-conflict) stability of the countries in question, adherence to this regime is key to the stability of the regional order as a whole.

The core norm in IHL is enshrined in Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions, which states that “[p]ersons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed 'hors de combat' by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, color, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.” A specific rule deriving from this norm is that all persons listed in this norm shall not be subjected to “violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture.”[7]

In August of 2018, the ICRC sounded the alarm about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Libya.[8] In relation to the conflict in Ukraine, the ICRC expressed grave concern about violations against civilians back in 2014.[9] The incomparable carnage in Syria has elicited multiple appeals, including in September 2018 in relation to an impending invasion of Idlib province.[10] The ICC is examining the Maidan protests in Ukraine in relation to alleged crimes against humanity, and has opened investigations into war crimes in Libya in general since 2011; into Mali for crimes committed since 2002; into Sudan/Darfur for crimes committed since 2002; and into Georgia, for war crimes committed during the war with Russia in 2008.[11]

In general, the various conflicts that have dogged the region have demonstrated little respect for the norms or the rules of international humanitarian law, and are marked by widespread practices of indiscriminate killings of civilians. Such violations are not only committed by local parties, but also by foreign parties intervening in conflicts (such as Iran and Russia in Syria). As a result, the regime governing warfare can largely be considered broken.

3.4 Environmental Regime

Norms and rules that govern cross-border water flows are contained in agreements on trans-boundary natural resources. The most important norm in this regard was framed in the 1972 Stockholm Declaration on the UN Conference on the Human Environment, stating that “[s]tates have, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law, the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental policies, and the responsibility to ensure that activities within their jurisdiction or control do not cause damage to the environment of other States or of areas beyond the limits of national jurisdiction.” Following the International Court of Justice’s (ICJ) 1996 Nuclear Weapons case, the prohibition on inflicting transboundary harm was extended as a principle of customary law (i.e., binding on countries regardless of whether they signed up for it) to environmental law. In sum, one prominent international lawyer notes, “[p]robably the pre-eminent norm in international water law regarding the management of an international watercourse is the principle of equitable and reasonable utilization.”[12]

The most important cases where control over water resources could lead to conflict — sometimes called ‘water conflicts’ — are Turkey–Syria–Iraq, Israel–Palestine, and Egypt–Sudan–Ethiopia. There is a general legal regime for waterways, the UN Watercourses Convention of 1997, but for each of these situations, different treaty regimes apply.[13] All of the agreements contain a rule about how much water each party can use, or how much they can expect downstream, in line with Article 5.1 of the UN Watercourses Convention. A looming conflict over a controversial dam project in Turkey has put pressure on relations with Syria and Iraq, although conflict has not ensued just yet.[14] Between Israel and Palestine, an agreement to divide water resources was reached in July 2017.[15] However, the deal may perpetuate the unequal water distribution between the two sides, meaning that a source of potential conflict persists.[16] In North Africa, a longstanding stand-off about the rights to the waters of the Nile between Egypt and Ethiopia, with Sudan in between, recently came to a resolution when the three countries reached a definitive agreement.[17] Until recently though, there was a fear that the unresolved dispute could lead to violence.[18]

In brief, the water governance regime is holding in one of the most contentious regions in the world — one where water as a vital resource greatly matters. The basic norm of this regime is respected and used as a guideline to resolve disputes, even if the basic rule is occasionally under pressure.

3.5 Sea Transportation Regime

The norm of freedom of navigation in general is enshrined in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), part VII, Article 87.1: “The high seas are open to all States, whether coastal or land-locked.” A relating rule that is specific for sea lanes that can serve as Sea Lines of Communication (SLOCs) is captured in UNCLOS part III, Article 38.1, which establishes that “all ships and aircraft enjoy the right of transit passage, which shall not be impeded.” A number of critical sea lanes lead to and from Europe, some of which have their own legal regime. The key passages are the Bosporus, Dardanelles, the Suez Canal, straits of Tiran, and the Gibraltar strait.

In the past decade, the sea transportation regime has held up well, in spite of the fact that a number of states, most notably Turkey and Egypt, have experienced high levels of instability. For instance, at times of high tension between Russia and Turkey, the latter still allowed the former’s military vessels to sail through the straits past Istanbul on their way to the Eastern Mediterranean.[19] The security of the Suez Canal and the waters around the Sinai have not been affected by the volatility in Egypt, which includes ongoing military operations against ISIS on the peninsula.[20] In fact, at the time of the ousting of president Morsi, security at the canal was “beefed up.”[21] The straits of Gibraltar have also not seen shipping hampered as a result of the Arab Spring reverberations. However, like with the Suez Canal zone, non-state actors in the shape of jihadist groups can pose a danger to maritime traffic.[22]

In general, state actors in Europe’s periphery realize the importance of keeping shipping lanes open. None use key waterways as leverage for political purposes. The norm is clearly holding. What is more, it is not expected that non-state actors would be able to seriously disrupt traffic through major waterways. Hence, the sea transport regime and its basic rule that shipping in key SLOCs shall not be impeded, which is governed by the UNCLOS treaty, is being scrupulously observed.

4. Conclusions

In summary, when it comes to compliance with regimes, norms, and rules, a bifurcation emerges between those regimes that involve transnational issues and global public goods that are non-rivalrous goods, and those that are not. For instance, measures taken by one country affecting the environment or waterways are very likely to affect other countries. Violations of human rights shock the human conscience, but have no direct repercussions for third countries, which is one reason why egregious violations such as those committed in Syria can go unpunished. In practice, this means that the environmental regime, the state sovereignty regime and the sea transportation regime are holding, in spite of occasional transgressions or tensions over compliance. For the human rights and humanitarian regimes, this is very different, and in view of the blatant and systematic violations of basic rules, it can even be questioned whether the norms as such are respected in the first place.

In terms of the types of actors, it is expected that state actors will further assert themselves, especially if they manage to prevail over non-state actors (say, Egypt versus ISIS, or Ukraine versus Russia-sponsored rebels). At the same time, state actors have been to a great extent responsible for violations of rules in the human rights, humanitarian, and state sovereignty regimes. However, even if states transgress its norms or rules, they are still likely to recognize the legitimacy of the state sovereignty regime — if only because their own legitimacy is derived from it. Non-state actors are expected to play a significant role in political violence in the Sahel region in particular. Regional organizations such as the Arab League and the EAEU, to name but two examples, have been functional only to a limited extent. At the same time, the GCC seems to be close to collapsing. In the face of continuing involvement of strong external actors such as Russia, the US, and perhaps China, the role of such organizations in stemming political violence is expected to remain limited.

For Europe and the Netherlands, these developments mean that strategic economic interests are unlikely to be significantly affected by the instability in the European periphery. When it comes to safeguarding human rights norms however, the task will be much harder. What is more, a lack of respect for state sovereignty principles — something which Western countries also play a part in — suggests that the periphery may remain mired in conflict for some time to come, as the propensity for countries external to the region to intervene, or to continue to intervene, has not declined.


Reviewed by Rob de Wijk and Tim Sweijs. Edited by Esther Chavannes. Project set-up feedback provided by Joost Hiltermann, Robert Blecher (International Crisis Group) and Dr. Laila al-Zwaini (independent Middle East researcher). The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this paper.
Stephen Krasner, “Structural Causes and Regime Consequences: Regimes as Intervening Variables on JSTOR,” International Organization 36, no. 2 (Spring 1982): 185–205.
See discussed in Dapo Akande and Marko Milanovic, “The Constructive Ambiguity of the Security Council’s ISIS Resolution,” EJIL: Talk!, November 21, 2015, link.and Ashley Deeks, “Threading the Needle in Security Council Resolution 2249,” Lawfare Blog - Brookings, November 23, 2015, link.
Human Rights Council, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression on His Mission to Turkey” (HRC, June 6, 2017), 1, link.
Human Rights Council, “Report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Situation of Human Rights in Libya and on Related Technical Support and Capacity-Building Needs” (HRC, January 12, 2015), 16, link.
Human Rights Committee, “Concluding Observations on the Seventh Periodic Report of the Russian Federation,” March 31, 2015, 7, link.
At present, the four regions feature the following types of conflict: non-international armed conflict in Libya and Ukraine, international armed conflict in Ukraine and Kurdistan, and a mixed-type conflict in Syria. At the same time, because of the involvement of many regional and global players in these conflicts, upon which IHL is also incumbent.
See e.g. “Treaties, States Parties and Commentaries - Convention (III) Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.” (ICRC, August 12, 1949), link.
“Libya: Concerns over Rapidly Deteriorating Humanitarian Situation,” International Committee of the Red Cross, August 29, 2018, link.
See “Ukraine: ICRC Calls on All Sides to Respect International Humanitarian Law,” International Committee of the Red Cross, July 23, 2014, link.
“Syria: Hostilities in Idlib Should Not Produce Massive Civilian Suffering,” International Committee of the Red Cross, September 4, 2018, link.
“Situations under Investigation,” International Criminal Court, accessed October 18, 2018, link.
See Adele Kirschner and Katrin Tiroch, “The Waters of Euphrates and Tigris: An International Law Perspective,” Max Planck Yearbook of United Nations Law 16 (2012): 329–94. p. 354
Between Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the key agreements are a Syria-Turkey protocol from 1987 about water quantities and another on water quality (2009); between Iraq and Syria, the 1990 water accord, fixing a ratio of 42% to Syria and 58% to Iraq regarding the Euphrates, and between Iraq and Turkey, a 2009 MoU on water information exchange. Between Israel and Palestine, a 1967 water agreement that discriminates against Palestine, as well as provisions relating to the Oslo II agreements, govern the waters of the Jordan river. See Camilla Corradin, “Israel: Water as a Tool to Dominate Palestinians,” Al Jazeera, June 23, 2016, link.. Between Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, the 1959 Nile Waters agreements applies which fixed the amounts of water that should flow into each respective country. See e.g. “Factbox: Nile River Agreements and Issues,” Reuters, July 27, 2009, link.
See Erika Solomon and Laura Pitel, “Why Water Is a Growing Faultline between Turkey and Iraq,” Financial Times, July 4, 2018, link. and Joost Jongerden, “Dams and Politics in Turkey: Utilizing Water, Developing Conflict,” Middle East Policy Council, March 10, 2010, link.
Dalia Hatuqa, “Water Deal Tightens Israel’s Control over Palestinians | Water,” Al Jazeera, August 1, 2017, link.
See Hatuqa.
“Egypt, Ethiopia Agree to Settle Differences over Nile Mega-Dam,” Reuters, June 10, 2018, link.
Alastair Leithead, “The ‘water War’ Brewing over the New River Nile Dam,” BBC News, February 24, 2018, link.
Agence France Presse, “Despite Tensions, Russia’s ‘Syria Express’ Sails by Istanbul,” Al-Monitor, April 10, 2018, link.
“Oil on Troubled Waters - Middle East Sea Lanes,” The Economist, May 9, 2015, link.
JOC Staff, “Egypt Beefs Up Suez Canal Security, But Risks Remain,”, December 12, 2013, link.
Jesus Rodriguez, “Safeguarding the Strait of Gibraltar,” EL PAÍS, March 20, 2015, link. and see also Premoli, “The Evolving Role of Maritime Straits,” Global Risk Insights, December 13, 2016, link.