Ethical Issues in International Relations and Funding

Ethical Issues in International Relations and Funding

This article deals with ‘Ethical Issues in International Relations and Funding.’ This is part of our series on ‘Ethics’. For more articles, you can click here.


  • International ethics is a set of universal values that governs the actions and behaviours of nation-states. These include protection of human rights, prohibition of genocide, prohibition of attack on civilians during the war etc.
  • In International Relations, the state is called an Actor. Hence, 
    • All decision should protect and further the national interests of the State (Machiavellian Ethics) but  
    • It should also be seen as ethical.  
  • Examples where International Ethics played a role. Eg 
    • Sri Lanka objected to Nuclear Plant at Kudankulam as it is situated very close to the coast. India took their concerns into notice. 
    • India and China were initially against any quota on them in Climate Change negotiations. But, later they accepted the quota for the sake of whole humanity and people living in Small Island nations.
  • However, world powers try to mould International Governance in a way that their interests are protected. For instance, the US at World Bank, World Trade Organisation etc. 

Three Perspectives of Ethics in International Relations

Ethical Issues in International Relations and Funding

Realistic Perspective

  • There is anarchy in International Relations with no world government. Hence, the state is the most important actor. 
  • Peace is created by DETERRENCE. For instance, Proponents of the Realistic Perspective are of the view that the third world war hasn’t happened because of Nuclear Weapons).

Liberal Perspective

  • There is no world government.  
  • The state is an important actor but cooperation between states is possible. For instance, Mutual Cooperation in form of WTO, UN, IMF, World Bank, UNSC etc.
  • Peace & Stability is established via Cooperation.

Ideal/Cosmopolitan Perspective

  • They see the world as a single entity. 
  • Rather than citizens, all are humans. Hence, they are proponents of Universal Brotherhood.

Principles which should guide International Relations

In the international forums, countries negotiate based on their perception of what is good – economically or strategically. This approach ignores the larger ethical framework to make decisions that may be good in the long term for all and short term good for a few. A broad ethical framework that can ensure this includes:-

  • Equity, Justice and Human Dignity should form the bedrock of international negotiations.
  • Equally important is transparency, making decisions more acceptable. 
  • The international community is responsible for assisting the state to fulfil its primary responsibility of protecting its citizens (as envisaged in the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in UN resolution).  

Ethical Guidance Principles in India’s Foreign Policy

  • Non-Violence i.e. solving International Issues peacefully. 
  • Mutual Respect for each other’s sovereignty. 
  • Non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
  • Universal Brotherhood  
  • Protecting Human Rights (For Example: Helping Bangla, Baluch and Tibet Cause).
  • Equality at all International forums & break the hegemony of few. 

Some Ethical Issues at International Level

Human Rights Violations

  • Political interventions frequently lead to Human Rights Violations.
  • Terrorism: States use Terrorism as a tool of foreign policy and indulge in human rights violation. (eg: Pakistan (supporting LeT, JeM), Iran (supporting Hezbollah)). 
  • Refugee Issue: European nations are closing their borders to refugees fleeing war-torn areas.

Climate Change

  • International Equity Concerns: Countries that are least responsible for climate change and have the least economic capacity to fight the effects of climate change are the most affected ones. For example Marshall Islands.
  • Issue of Common but Differentiated Responsibilities: There are issues in defining and differentiating the responsibilities between present and future generations as well as developed and developing countries.
  • Climate Sceptics don’t consider climate change to be real.


  • Cause of disarmament at the international stage is being promoted by those states, which have massive reserves of nuclear armaments, missiles etc.
  • Countries like the USA impose economic and other sanctions on countries like Iran to prevent them from developing nuclear weapons. How it is ethical for a country to impose sanctions on others without discarding their own weapons.


  • The developed countries are depriving the poor countries of accessing the new technologies (even life-saving drugs) by the restrictive clauses of IPRs. It is essential to determine whether it is justifiable for a country to defend its IPRs on commercial grounds, or it should share technology for the greater interest of humanity.

Global Commons

Global commons are defined as those parts of the planet that fall outside national jurisdictions and to which all nations have access. International law identifies four global commons, namely the High Seas, the Atmosphere, Antarctica and the Outer Space. Some of the issues wrt global commons are as follows:-

  1. Zoonotic diseases like Covid-19 
  2. Greenhouse gas emission
  3. Governance and conservation of Arctic 
  4. Overfishing  
  5. Accumulation of plastic waste
  6. Accumulation of Space debris

Global Poverty

  • Rise in insensitivity: Global poverty as Kaushik Basu argues largely remains out of sight for those who are not living it. This enhances insensitivity amongst the well off nations.  
  • Whom to prioritise?: The states being a stakeholder in the global fight against poverty, face an inherent dilemma, that whether they should prioritise citizens or non-citizens for the allocation of the resources.  

Power Asymmetry at United Nations

  • UN is not democratic with Veto power given to 5 Permanent members. The organisation which is formed to protect democracy and led by the US and UK which calls themselves the defenders of Democracy in the world are heading institution in an undemocratic way. 


Genocide is a crime against humanity and the world has signed the ‘UN Convention on Genocide’ to end this. Even after that, Genocide does happen in the present world. Some of the notorious genocides include the Jewish Holocaust in Nazi Germany (1933 to 1945), Armenian Genocide by the Ottoman Empire (1915 to 1923) Rape of Nanking by the Japanese Empire (1937), Rwandan Genocide (1994), Tamil Genocide in Sri Lanka, Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar etc. Ethical aspects related to this include:-

  • Right to Protect is vague. As a result, either the international community acts very late or doesn’t at all against the genocides carried out by the states.
  • The international community also faces a dilemma that whether it should intervene on its own or arm the group so that persecuted section can protect itself.
  • The narrow definition of Genocide: The definition excludes targeted political and social groups. It also excludes indirect acts against an environment that sustains people and their cultural distinctiveness. 


Most of the countries of the world are affected by terrorism. But there are some ethical issues in this, such as

  • Good Terrorist vs Bad terrorist: States differentiate between Good Terrorists and Bad Terrorists based on their interests. This reveals selective and self-serving nature. For example, Pakistan differentiates between ‘Good Taliban’ and ‘Bad Taliban’. 
Good Taliban and Bad Taliban
  • Conduct of states during the anti-terrorist operations: States such as the USA and Australia, which present themselves as the ‘the saviours of the human rights are often alleged to violate human rights and mass killings. For examples, (in 2021) Australian soldiers were found guilty of killing innocent Afghans during their operations to eliminate the Taliban in Afghanistan. Apart from that, during Vietnam War, US soldiers were alleged to have committed war crimes epitomised by the My Lai Massacre (1968).

Issues with World Trade Organisation, IMF & World Bank

  • Western First World Countries have asymmetric voting rights in these bodies. 
Asymmetric voting rights in the World Bank

International Funding

  • Explained in detail below.

Ethics and International Funding

Foreign aid means the transfer of money, goods or technical knowledge, from the developed to the under-developed countries.

Why Funding of Countries is done

1. Philosophical Explanation

  • Humanitarian Concern: We might have drawn artificial boundaries to create a nation-state but we belong to the Human race.  
  • Historical Burden: Past Colonial nations like the UK, France etc. developed by exploitation of other nations in Asia, Africa, South America etc. To compensate for that, they give grants and soft loans to their earlier colonies 
  • Principle of Sacrifice: It is the duty of well off to sacrifice some of their wealth to protect those who can’t protect themselves. 

2. Economical Explanation

  • Export of Capital: Western Countries have an excess of capital that need investment in lucrative developing countries. 

Types of Aids

1 . Military Aid

  • It is the worst form of aid as it can destabilise the whole region.
  • The objective of this kind of aid is to garner new military allies or to strengthen the military capability of their respective allies. 
  • Eg: the US used to give huge Military Assistance to Pakistan.

2. Technical Assistance

  • It aims at providing technical know-how instead of equipment and helps in capacity building.
  • It is the least expensive with big benefits. 
  • Eg: Pan African e-Network Project by India in Africa.

3. Economic Aid

  • These are economic loans given at very nominal interest rates which are to be repaid over a long time. 
  • Such loans can help in the economic development of a nation by setting up the infrastructure.

4. Humanitarian Assistance

  • Humanitarian aids are the actions designed to save lives, alleviate suffering and maintain and protect human dignity during and in the aftermath of emergencies.

Issues in International Funding

State vs Non-State Actors

  • Through which actors Funding should be done? – State Actor or Non-State Actor. 
    • If funds are given to the Government of Donee Country, most of the times they are inefficient in spending them. 
    • NGO and UN organisations can utilise the funds effectively than Govt Organisations. 
  • But if rich countries give funds directly to Non-State actors, there is an issue that it erodes the sovereignty of the nation.  

Conditions on Funds

  • Most of the funds that developing nations receive have a large number of conditions attached to them. These include 
    • Receiving nations can’t use it for their most pressing needs but only on projects which donor country or agency allow. 
    • Highly-paid observers have to be hired which make the overall cost very expensive. 
  • World Bank and IMF Grants come with large conditions like Opening markets for the world. This can therefore be viewed as a continuation of colonialism by other means.

Other aspects

  • The proliferation of Monoculturalism: These programmes are often aimed at inculcating certain form of culture and have low regards for indigenous culture in the targeted nations.
  • Modern technologies are preserved for-profit motives and ‘Obsolete Technologies’ are transferred instead of advance, to the developing nations. 
  • Corruption: Only one per cent of humanitarian fund reach the affected population. For Example, It was seen in West Africa during Ebola Crisis.  
  • Dependency on foreign aid: The state starts to lose its independence and relies on foreign aid for socio-economic policies.
  • Indirect benefits to rebel groups: The rebel groups might derive considerable financial benefits from humanitarian operations by imposing charges on transports, levying taxes on imports and employees’ salaries, and collecting rent for warehouses, offices and residences.

Problems in Funding Institutions

The key problem of the major funding institutions of global governance is that of unilateralism of Economic powerhouses like the US, EU, Japan and lack of democracy in their working.  

Main Problems of Major Funding Institutions 

  • Democratic Deficits:  Voting shares are in favour of the US, EU and global north. Countries like China and India are showing discontent
  • Global Response to Regional Problems: Response concerning problems of developing nations are untimely.
  • Issues of Accountability and Transparency due to large back door diplomacy. 

Limit of Sovereignty

Responsibility to Protect

Important ethical concern in International Ethics includes what is the limit of Sovereignty? When large scale Ethnic cleansing & Genocide is taking place (eg in South Sudan or Myanmar), can a country protect its actions in the garb of sovereignty?

What is the limit of Non-Intervention by the International Community? 

  • For this, there is an initiative of the UN called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) Initiative. 
  • It states that Nations have sovereignty but subject to Human Rights. If human rights are violated, then International Community can unilaterally act against that nation. 
  • The idea was invented in the aftermath of the Nazi execution of the Jews to protect such crimes from happening which ‘shocked the conscience of mankind’. 
  • But weaker and smaller states fear that the garb of Responsibility to protect developed nations will undermine their sovereignty.

Just War Theory

What is a valid justification to start the war, if war has started which type of actions are justified during the war and what are the steps that country should take after the war?

Just War Theory

Principles of Jus ad Bellum (Just Recourse to War)

  • Last resort: All non-violent options must have been exhausted  
  • Just cause: The purpose of war is to redress a wrong  
  • Legitimate authority: Lawfully constituted government of a sovereign state can declare war, rather than a private individual or group.
  • Right intention: War must be prosecuted on morally acceptable aims rather than revenge  
  • Reasonable prospect of success: War should not be fought in a hopeless cause 
  • Proportionality: Any response to an attack should be measured and proportionate.  

Principles of Jus in Bello (Just Conduct in War)

  • Discrimination: Force must be directed at military targets only because civilians or non-combatants are innocent.
  • Proportionality: Force should be proportional.
  • Humanity: Force must not be directed ever against enemy personnel if they are captured, wounded or under control (prisoners of war). 

Post War

  • Reconstruction: Postwar reconstruction should also be done.
  • Reconciliation: There should be efforts of reconciliation after the war is over.   

It should be noted that the theory is not intended to justify wars but to prevent them, by showing that going to war except in certain limited circumstances is wrong, and thus motivate states to find other ways of resolving conflicts.

Similarly, Mahabharata outlines the principles and contours in the conduct of a just war. Some rules propounded were armies were allowed to collect bodies, personnel could meet for negotiations etc.

Ethical Issues around Nuclear Weapons

Ethical Issues around Nuclear Weapons

Nuclear weapons have the potential to destroy the entire ecosystem of the planet. However, a handful of states insist that these weapons provide unique security benefits, but reserve the sole right to possess them. Hence, the possession of nuclear weapons leads to numerous moral and ethical dilemmas.


  • The fact that there has not been a war between nuclear-armed states due to fear of mutually assured destruction implies that deterrence has prevented the aggravation of conflicts. Eg: USSR and the US didn’t fight during the period of the cold war.   
  • It has indirectly saved millions of lives as conventional wars have not happened. Pakistan and India are less likely to attack each other because both are nuclear states.
  • Nuclear statesmanship: Possession of nuclear weapons engenders a sense of responsibility and a strong bias against adventurism. 


  • The first question is whether nuclear weapons are moral or immoral in themselves. According to ethical theories, since morality cannot be attributed to non-human things, hence nuclear weapons in themselves are neither evil nor good. The question of Morality comes when it goes in hands of the person who will use it. Till Nuclear Weapons are available, there is always a possibility that Terrorists can get hold of them and use them.
  • According to proponents of nuclear weapons, these weapons create deterrence and stabilize the world order
  • From the utilitarian perspective, while nuclear weapons give a sense of security to the nations, which possess them, but it instils fear of destruction in the mind of billions. Even the citizens of nuclear-armed states cannot be sure of their safety. Hence, on the touchstone of ‘maximum good to maximum people’ nuclear weapons falter. 
  • Similarly from a deontological perspective, which believes that means to achieve peace should also be pure. Means to avoid war should not be fear of destruction but values of humanity, peaceful co-existence etc
  • Another dimension could be whether the money used for the production of nuclear weapons can be put to better use. Spending on social upliftment is more moral than spending on weapons 
  • The possibility that nuclear-armed states may go rogue, collapse, or fail to prevent their arsenal from falling into the hands of terrorists, cannot be ignored.

Hence, it can be concluded that although the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons worked during the bipolar ‘first nuclear age’, it is far less reliable in the less stable, multi-polar circumstances of the ‘second nuclear age’.


The response of countries to asylum seekers has been xenophobic


Against giving Asylum 

  • It leads to drain on the (scarce) economic resources of the country.
  • Giving asylum leads to fear of job loss.
  • It also leads to the entry of extremist elements into the country. For instance, the Indian government fears that a large number of Rohingya coming to India makes India prone to Islamic extremism and terrorism.
  • Rebirth of Extreme Right-Wingers playing on Xenophobia. For example, far-right political parties such as Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany and National Rally in France are gaining ground playing on this card.
Xenophobia in Europe

Favour of giving Asylum

  • Every human being has an equal right to the resources of the earth. 
  • The principle of non-refoulment (to which a large number of countries except India are signatory) states that no one should be returned to a country where they would face torture, cruelty or any other irreparable harm.

Sample Questions

Developing countries are often very vulnerable to exploitation by multinational corporations. They support industrialization but lack of infrastructure is a major limiting factor. Further, without suitable laws and regulations, developing nations are ill-prepared for such endeavours. In their efforts to attract business, these nations often overlook the health and safety violations by the corporations doing business within their borders. Drawn by low-cost labour, new markets, and lower operation costs, corporations have little incentive to address environmental and human risks once they are entrenched. In this situation, there is an imminent threat of disaster.

Discuss some feasible strategies to balance economic development and safety and security of people at large in developing countries with special emphasis on India

Governments of developing countries often compete fiercely for attracting Multinational Corporations (MNCs) in the expectation of the advantages they will bring to their economies, often prioritizing economic goals over fundamental human rights and environmental conservation. The fierce competition leads to defective policies by these governments, which are the reason for disasters in many countries. The Bhopal Gas tragedy of 1984 was a consequence of defective policies of the government and the exploitative character of the MNCs. To prevent a “second Bhopal” from happening, developing countries need to rethink their strategy & to balance the economic goals and their repercussions on the environment and human welfare. 

Strategies to control the exploitative character of MNCs can be classified under two broad categories namely at the National and Global level. 

National Level

  • Corporate Governance norms should be strengthened.
  • Regulatory institutions should be strengthened.  
  • Compliance towards Corporate social responsibility (CSR) should be ensured. 
  • Environment Impact Assessment & Social Impact Assessment
  • Mock drills – fast response in case of any industrial disaster. 

Global Level

  • A global industrial watchdog must be instituted. 
  • International best practices should be documented and widely disseminated.

Previous Year Questions

  1. At the international level,  bilateral relations between most nations are governed by the policy of promoting one’s own national interest without any regard for the interest of other nations.  This led to conflicts and tension between the nations.  How can ethical consideration help resolve such tensions?  Discuss with specific examples. (2015)
  2. Strength, peace and security are considered to be the pillars of international relations. Elucidate. (2017)