As Russian troops mass on Ukraine's border and US plans Afghanistan withdrawal, United Nations' founding ideals are at risk – Joyce McMillan

On March 16 this year, with something of a fanfare, the Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to incorporate the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child into Scots law.

A Ukrainian serviceman works on his tank near the city of Lysychansk, not far from the front line with Russian-backed separatists earlier this month (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)
A Ukrainian serviceman works on his tank near the city of Lysychansk, not far from the front line with Russian-backed separatists earlier this month (Picture: AFP via Getty Images)

Public buildings in Edinburgh were lit up in a fine shade of UN blue to mark the occasion; but the move has since become famous mainly for the decision of the UK government to go to law in an attempt to strike down the legislation, along with a similar act, proposed by independent MSP Andy Wightman which incorporates into Scots law the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

In a sense, the row over the Convention on the Rights of the Child is more a matter of symbolism than of substance. The incorporation of the charter into national law does give Scottish children the highest possible level of legal protection, when it comes to the rights enshrined there; but it is, nonetheless, almost 30 years since the United Kingdom itself ratified the Charter, an act which has had precious little impact on the shameful growth of child poverty in the UK, with all its attendant evils.

By adopting the UN Convention into Scottish law, though, the Scottish government seeks to send a signal that it represents a nation committed to the upholding of international law, and of the norms and values that support it; and eager to take its place, if and when independence is won, within international bodies such as the UN.

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Boris Johnson’s UK government, on the other hand, currently wishes to send only one signal, both internationally and internally; and that is that Westminster holds absolute sovereignty, and will do as it pleases, whether that means trampling over the views of the devolved nations, deliberately breaking international law in dealings with our nearest neighbours, or treating all international charters and conventions with a measure of scorn.

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Boris Johnson’s government has been well warned, of course, about the likely consequences of its “muscular brand of unionism”, and of its absolutist attitude to national sovereignty in the 21st century.

The Tories, though – along with right-wing parties across the world – currently feel that their brand of bully-boy politics is on a roll; and that the idea of a global system based on democracy and human rights is little more than a liberal pipe-dream.

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Afgan security forces gather around the bodies of Taliban militants killed during fighting and air airstrikes in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar province in February (Picture: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP via Getty Images)

It is all a far cry, in other words, from the UK and international scene of the late 1990s, when the newly elected Blair government was not only legislating to introduce devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also enthusiastically supporting what were known as “humanitarian interventions” designed, at least in theory, to make the values expressed in the UN Charter a reality for victims of oppression and conflict across the world.

That process juddered to a halt with the Iraq War of 2003, of course; conducted without full legal sanction from the UN, by what came to seem like two rogue western powers, that shocking conflict crue