The “rules-based international order” is a dull phrase beloved by diplomats that can sound like a meaningless cliché. Boris Johnson, Britain’s prime minister, even briefly considered instructing his officials to stop using the term.
But if anyone doubts the need for a rules-based international order, they should consider what has just happened to Ryanair flight FR4978 from Greece to Lithuania. The plane was crossing Belarus when it was forced to land in Minsk — allowing the government there to detain Roman Protasevich, a prominent Belarusian journalist, who has chronicled the brutal repression in his home country. The arrest was apparently made on the direct orders of Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’s president — who has been fighting for his political life since stealing his country’s presidential election last year.
Belarus is a small country with a population of just under 10m. But this hijacking and kidnap by the Lukashenko regime sets a dangerous global precedent. It will be watched closely by much larger countries that also like to pursue their domestic enemies overseas — in particular Russia (which is Belarus’s closest ally), China and Iran.
Passengers flying from Europe to Asia will often have glanced at their flight maps and realised that they are crossing over Russia or Iran. What was once an interesting geographical observation may now be a cause for slight concern. If even tiny Belarus can demand that a plane divert to Minsk, what is to stop the Iranians from compelling a plane to land in Tehran, or the Russians from forcing a jet down over Siberia?
Once the precedent is established, the potential threat will extend well beyond countries’ own citizens — and even beyond their own borders. Those who have wondered why it is worth disputing China’s claim to sovereignty over the whole of the South China Sea may now understand the point better. Roughly one-third of the world’s maritime trade crosses those waters. If China could claim the right to intercept any ship or plane crossing the South China Sea, it would have a stranglehold over global trade.
The threat of detention extends not just to Chinese, Russian or Iranian dissidents living abroad. Potentially, it extends to foreigners who have displeased those regimes. The Russian government has made persistent efforts to secure the arrest of Bill Browder, a US-born British investor who drove the successful campaign to impose “Magnitsky sanctions” on Moscow.
One of the Europeans sanctioned by China recently told me that he was not concerned by his inability to travel to China itself. But he did worry that Beijing might try to arrange for his arrest, in transit, in a third country. “After all”, as my contact put it, “they’ll think that’s the kind of thing that superpowers do.”
That thought raises the unfortunate precedent set by the US through its policies of drone strikes and “extraordinary renditions”, during its “war on terror”. The Americans can point out that this kind of treatment was reserved for those who used or planned actual violence against the US or its allies. But, to invert the old saying, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist. Belarus had placed Protasevich on a terrorist watchlist.
Nobody reasonable should accept the Belarusian (or Chinese or Russian) equation of peaceful dissent with terrorism. But America has encouraged the idea that powerful countries can reach out beyond their borders and grab people.
Those powers are alarming even when exercised by the US — a law-governed country committed to freedom of speech. When they are claimed by one-party states, dictatorships and assorted strongman leaders around the globe, they are a recipe for a much more dangerous and lawless world.
The alarming reality is that authoritarian countries are increasingly resorting to what Freedom House, a US-based pro-democracy organisation, calls in a report released in February, “transnational repression”.
The report pointed to six countries that use methods such as “assassinations, illegal deportations [and] abductions” to silence dissent overseas: China, Turkey, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran — with China highlighted as the country that conducts the “most sophisticated, global and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world”. The victims of these campaigns include Gui Minhai, a Chinese-born Swedish citizen, who had published books on the private lives of prominent members of the Chinese Communist party. He was kidnapped in Thailand in 2015 and later sent to prison in China. Another is Paul Rusesabagina, a Rwandan political activist, kidnapped in Dubai in 2020, and then put on trial in Rwanda on terrorism charges.
The action taken by Belarus represents a flagrant escalation of this trend. But this dangerous moment also represents an opportunity to arrest the slide into international lawlessness.
The EU, the US, the UK and others should now act together to ensure that Belarus’s move is seen to have consequences — for example by announcing that Belarusian airspace is unsafe and then banning international flights in or out of the country. If Lukashenko behaves like an international outlaw, he should be treated as one. It is time to defend international law and order, before it is too late.