Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the international condemnation it generated contains key lessons for policymakers.
They are lessons that should have been learned in past global crises but weren’t. However, the Ukraine crisis offers an opportunity to correct that mistake.
A first lesson is that failure to firmly stand up to violations of international law as they occur convinces trespassers that they can get away with them. It emboldens violators to commit ever more flagrant infringements.
Kicking the can down the road by failing to immediately and firmly respond to violations amounts to allowing an open wound to fester. The longer the wound festers, the more difficult, costly, and risky it is to cure it.
The last 14 years of Mr. Putin’s rule are a case in point. Mr. Putin began the recreation of his Russian world in 2008 when he recognized the two Georgian breakaway republics of Abkhazia and North Ossetia.
The recognition constituted the first step in Mr. Putin’s defining of Russia’s borders in civilisational rather than international legal terms.
Mr. Putin has made no bones about the fact that he sees territories populated by Russian speakers and adherents of Russian culture as the determinants of Russia’s borders, not international law.
The Russian leader demonstrated in 2008, and since, his willingness to enforce his definition of Russia’s border with military might.
In 2008, the international community effectively looked the other way. The failure then to stand up to Mr. Putin emboldened him six years later to annex Crimea, which legally is part of Ukraine, and foster insurgencies in the Ukrainian republics of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The United States and Europe responded by slapping Mr. Putin’s wrists. The sanctions imposed at the time did little to stop Mr. Putin from increasing his war chest or making the cost of continued pursuit of his strongman tactics too costly and risky.
This month’s Russian invasion of Ukraine resulted from the international community’s failure to draw a line in the sand back in 2008 or at the latest in 2014.
“The Russian aggression is the result of years of appeasement of Russia by many countries,” said Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Russia is the most dramatic, most recent example of the cost of not responding firmly and unequivocally to infringements of international law as they occur.
Other examples are numerous. They include the ethnic cleansing of Rohingya and the subsequent military coup In Myanmar, the 2013 toppling of Egypt’s first and only democratically elected president in a takeover by the armed forces, the meek response to the brutal repression of Turkic Muslims in China, the increasingly blatant discrimination and disenfranchisement of Muslims in India and missed opportunities to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to name a few.
All of these examples, like Ukraine, contain lessons the international community asserted that it had learned from World War Two.
They all contain a lesson that should have been learned long before Ukraine but is undeniably evident in the East European crisis: abetting violations of human rights encourages and emboldens violations of sovereign, national, ethnic, religious, cultural, and gender rights.
Back in 1989, Genocide Watch director Greg Stanton warned then Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana that “if you don’t do something to prevent genocide in your country, there is going to be a genocide within five years.” Five years later, there was a genocide in Rwanda.
It is a word of warning that echoes in predictions by Indian journalist Rana Ayyub that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies could lead to large-scale violence against the country’s 200 million Muslims, the world’s largest Muslim minority.
It is a warning that reverberates in the contrast between the reception, and welcome that European states are justifiably according to refugees from Ukraine compared to the rejection of earlier waves of refugees from the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.
A Moroccan journalist posted a video on Twitter of students from the Arab world and Africa watching busses on the Ukrainian-Polish border pickup Ukrainians every 15 minutes but transporting people from countries beyond Europe only every four hours. The journalist, Anas Daif, reported some students have been stranded for four days on the border trying to escape the war.
In a similar vein, prominent BBC journalist Lyse Doucet, reporting from Kyiv, highlighted the fact that humans in distress are humans in distress irrespective of their ethnicity or religion.
In a video message, Ms. Doucet explained that her reporting on the current crisis in Ukraine prevented her from personally accepting in the Iraqi Kurdish capital of Irbil the 2022 Shifa Gardi Award named after a journalist killed in 2017 in Iraq by a roadside bomb.
“If anyone knows about the pain and hardship of living with war, it’s the people of Iraq, of Kurdistan. And if anyone knows what it’s like to live in a war that never seems to end, of living with powerful neighbours, and the importance of independent journalism, it is the Kurdish people,” Ms. Doucet said.
Ms. Doucet’s message brought it all together: the linkages between failing to stand up early and firmly to flagrant violations of international law, abuse of human rights, and suppression of freedom of expression.
Kurds formed the bulk of thousands of desperate refugees in Belarus who were trying to cross the border into Poland just four months ago. In contrast to Ukrainians being welcomed with blankets, cots, clothing, and hot meals, the Kurds were brutally beaten back as they sought to storm the borders.
Iraq, Syria, and Turkey may have been different places if Kurdish national and/or cultural rights, which Kurds have asserted for more than a century, had been honoured. Instead, the international community abetted repressive policies of both autocratic and democratic governments. Similarly, Ukraine would have been a different place if the international community had stood up to Mr. Putin from day one.
It would also be a different place if Europeans had less of a sense of superiority. Many have expressed shock that “this could happen in 21st century Europe.”
Europeans would be better served to recognise that their continent is as prone to conflict as are other parts of the world. Ukraine is not the first such incident in Europe. It was preceded by the brutal wars in Chechnya, Georgia, and the wars of former Yugoslavia in the 1990s that three decades later could erupt again.
That realisation may be seeping in. “War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone,” wrote Telegraph journalist Peter Hannan.
It’s never too late to learn lessons. The world is finally standing up to Mr. Putin. Yet, there is little indication that the broader lessons Ukraine offers are finally being learned.
The Unabashed Irony of the UNSC Reforms
The war in Ukraine has prompted multiple factors to breach the historical course. Oil prices have flickered near record highs, commodity valuations are through the roof, and global inflation is untenable. A robust western response to the Russian invasion is a rare display of western concord, not seen since the end of World War II. The waning neutrality of Finland and Sweden is the recent chapter in this NATO vs Russia saga. Nevertheless, conflicts as such are nothing new to global diplomacy. A recap of the yesteryears enlists multiple examples of Russian brutality – from Georgia to Chechnya to Ukraine to Syria. However, the dialled-up reaction to the invasion today is somewhat eccentric; divergent from the traditional path of diplomacy and instead focused on the economic (and political) derailment. Tough sanctions were already biting hard, pushing Russia on the verge of an international default – the first in decades. Adding weight to injury, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) convened earlier to reform the decades-old system of veto of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).
The consensus vote now dictates a supplementary meeting to defend any vetos cast in the Council. Since its inception, five permanent members of the Security Council – the US, UK, France, Russia, and China – can cast a veto to block any resolution presented in the Council. Now, the General Assembly must meet within ten days of any veto cast in the Security Council to demand an explanation from the veto casting member. In theory, the reform is intended to ask for an explanation from the big five regarding their regular abuse of veto power. However, it hardly curbs the power of the big five when it comes to utter disregard for international law or advancing barbaric allies. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has kickstarted this odd trail towards accountability in the Security Council. Curiously, Russia would not be in the hot seat much longer. The United States, on the other hand, has a long-winded history of power abuse.
While the veto of the Russian envoy has incensed the western bloc, the US has consistently used its veto to guard allies from accountability for their inhuman conduct. In 1977, the US blocked sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. An authoritarian government that programmed actual death squads to detain, torture, and murder the black community. Mr. Joe Biden recently casually tossed the word ‘genocide’ to describe the atrocities of Russia in Ukraine. However, he failed to mention the cruelties inflicted by his own nation. His convoy to the UN delivered an emotional spiel when the Russian envoy vetoed the resolution. “Russia cannot veto accountability,” she said. Well let us unravel the convoluted history of human rights abuse and the misuse of veto power by the United States.
Since 1989, the US has cast three vetos to defend its own illegal invasions. Exactly how destructive were these invasions? According to a Senior US Defence Intelligence Agency, the first 24 days of Russia’s bombing of Ukraine were less catastrophic than the first 24 hours of US bombing in Iraq in 2003. Since 2001, the US (and its allies) have dropped over 337,000 bombs and missiles – 46 per day – on nine countries. A UN assessment mission reported that the US-led campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was the heaviest bombing anywhere in decades. The report also counted 40,000 verified civilian deaths in Iraq and Syria. I haven’t even discussed Afghanistan, Vietnam, or Panama. I have even skipped past the US proxy wars in Angola and Zimbabwe. The brutality of the United States is the fact that makes this UNSC reform a joke in the guise of hypocrisy.
The United States cast 25 of the last 30 vetos to defend Israel from international condemnation. According to data published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), about 5,600 Palestinians were murdered between 2008 and 2020, while nearly 115,000 were injured. Last year alone, the 11-day Israel-Palestine war killed 275 Palestinian civilians – including 61 children and 35 women. The war decimated about 94 buildings in Gaza and displaced over 72,000 Palestinians. How did the law-abiding US respond to such human rights abuse? The so-called ethical United States blatantly blocked the UNSC joint statement – three times in a single week. Imposing sanctions on Russia while supplying military aid to Israel, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp the duplicity of the United States at display.
In my opinion, the UNSC reform would not change anything for the better. Sure, this stipulation could guilt-trip Russia into embarrassment. But an explanation of a veto would unlikely deter seasoned diplomats, rendered blasé about the atrocities inflicted by their nation, from justifying their abuse of power. The US, for instance, would only resort to lexical gimmicks in its defense of Israel. “Right to defend itself” has been the general parlance of the US to describe the Israeli genocide in Palestine. I do not doubt that the US (and the rest of the big five) have skilled envoys to weave emotional speeches and complex jargon to justify vetos in the Security Council. It is only a matter of time before this explanatory bid would be nothing but a PR segment to further the agenda of mocking international law. Nonetheless, it is funny how once the tables are turned, the veto seems an inconvenience rather than the traditional hedge against the backlash. I am particularly enjoying how the US is finally feeling the folly of its ways.
Russia-Ukraine War, China and World Peace
On May 3, when asked about the possible causes of the Ukrainian tragedy, His Holiness Pope Francis speculated about an “anger” probably “facilitated initially by NATO’s barking at Russia’s door. I cannot say whether this anger was provoked, but it was probably facilitated”.
What do the Pope’s words mean? In short, they mean that in international relations – of which the Holy See is Master of the Art – two things count: respect for the other and ignorance. The former is to be always placed as a founding element of peace, the latter is to be eradicated, especially in countries like Italy and in many others, as a factor of war.
Why was the Soviet Union respected and why the same respect and consideration is not owed to Russia? Why with the Soviet Union, after the normalisation of the Prague Spring, did a still divided but wise Europe (today, instead, united only by the banks’ and bankers’ money) and a sharp-witted West, with Russia’s agreement, launch the Helsinki Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe? Why instead did a powerless Europe, a semi-colony of the United States of America – with the UK as the 51st star on its flag – together with the White House, pretend not to see what was happening in Ukraine? Why did they turn a blind eye to this conflict, which has been going on since 2014, and fomented the rise to power of people who, by inciting hatred against Russia, were under the illusion that NATO would come to their aid, turning Europe into a pool of blood for their purposes?
Do some people probably believe that Russia is still that of Yeltsin, ready to open up – in every sense – to the first master coming along? These are the cases in which respect is lacking and ignorance triumphs.
As to an example of ongoing and consistent respect in foreign affairs, it is useful to comment on a recent speech delivered on April 21 by China’s President Xi Jinping, which developed several points.
He pointed out that, for over two years, the international community has made strenuous efforts to meet the challenge of COVID-19 and promote economic recovery and development in the world. He added that the difficulties and challenges show that the international community has a shared future for better or for worse, and that the various countries must strive for peace, development, and win-win cooperation so as to work together and tackle the different problems that gradually emerge on the scene.
With a view to facing the health emergency, China has provided over 2.1 billion vaccine doses to over 120 countries and international organisations and it will continue to make the pledged donations of 600 million doses to African countries and 150 million doses to the countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to proactively help bridge the vaccine gap.
With specific reference to the economic recovery, President Xi Jinping pledged to keep on building an economy open to the world, strengthening macroeconomic policy coordination and preserving the stability of industrial and supply chains, as well as promoting balanced, coordinated and inclusive development globally. He said: “People need to be put first and development and social welfare must be prioritised. It is important to promote pragmatic studies in priority areas such as poverty reduction, security, food, development finance and industrialisation, as well as work on solving the issue of unbalanced and insufficient development, and move forward by establishing job creation initiatives.”
With regard to the recent war clashes, President Xi Jinping deems necessary to jointly safeguard world peace and security. I wish to add that the Cold War-style mentality – what is happening in Ukraine, i.e. the West disrespecting Russia, considering it an enemy as in the past, but not as strong as in the days of the CPSU – can only undermine world peace. Hegemonism aimed at conquering Eurasia – as the land that holds the remaining raw materials on the planet – and the policy of the strongest country can only undermine world peace. The clash of blocs can only worsen the security challenges of the 21st century.
Why, while the Warsaw Pact (of which the People’s Republic of China was never a member and never wanted to be a member) was dissolved, did the same not happen with NATO? China has always wanted to promote world peace, never wanting to be part of aggressive and barking alliances.
China pledges to advance the vision of common, integrated, cooperative and sustainable security and to jointly preserve world peace and security. It pledges to respect all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity; to pursue non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, and to respect the development path and social system chosen by peoples. It pledges to abide by the aims and principles of the UN Charter; to reject the warmongering mentality (opposing the good countries by default vs. the bad ones conventionally); to oppose unilateralism and to reject the policy of bloc confrontation. China takes all countries’ security concerns and legitimate interests into account. It pursues the principle of indivisible responsibilities and builds a balanced and effective security architecture. It opposes one country seeking its own security by fomenting insecurities in the others. China seeks dialogue and consultation, as well as peaceful solutions to inter-State differences and disputes. It supports all efforts for the peaceful settlement of crises. It refrains from double standards and rejects the arbitrary use of unilateral extraterritorial sanctions and jurisdictions.
It is crucial to adopt a comprehensive approach to maintain security and respond together to regional disputes and planetary challenges such as terrorism, climate change, cybersecurity and biosecurity.
Global governance challenges must be addressed together. The world countries are on an equal footing when it comes to sharing fortunes and misfortunes. It is unacceptable to try to throw anyone overboard. The international community is currently a sophisticated and integrated device. Removing one of its components makes it very difficult for it to function, to the detriment of the party that is deprived by others of its own guarantees that call into question the very existence of a State – such as trying to deploy nuclear warheads a few kilometres from a capital city.
Only the principles of broad consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits can promote the common values of humanity, foster exchanges and inspire reciprocity between different civilisations. No one should believe to be better than another by divine grace or manifest destiny.
True and genuine multilateralism must be pursued and the international system centred on the United Nations and the world order based on international law must firmly be preserved. Great countries, in particular, must set an example in terms of respect for equality, cooperation, credibility and the rule of law to be worthy of their greatness.
In ten years of President Xi Jinping’s leadership, Asia has maintained overall stability and achieved fast and sustained growth, thus creating the “Asian miracle”. If Asia does well, the whole world will benefit. Asia has continued to strive to develop, build and maintain its strength, i.e. the basic wisdom that makes the continent a stabilising anchor of peace, an engine of growth and a pioneer of international cooperation.
These achievements come from as far back as the aforementioned Chinese refusal to join aggressive military blocs. They are based on the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence drafted by Prime Minister Zhou Enlai on December 31, 1953, published on April 29, 1954, and reaffirmed at the Bandung Conference on April 18-24, 1955: (i) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; (ii) mutual non-aggression; (iii) mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; (iv) equality and cooperation for mutual benefit; (v) peaceful coexistence.
They are based on the Eight Principles for Foreign Aid and Economic and Technical Assistance proposed by the aforementioned Zhou Enlai before the Somali Parliament on February 3, 1964, which became the emblem of China’s presence in Africa: (i) China always bases itself on the principle of equality and mutual benefit in providing aid to other nations; (ii) China never attaches any conditions or asks for any privileges; (iii) China helps lighten the burden of recipient countries as much as possible; (iv) China aims at helping recipient countries to gradually achieve self-reliance and independent development; (v) China strives to develop aid projects that require less investment but yield quicker results; (vi) China provides the best-quality equipment and materials of its own manufacture; (vii) in providing technical assistance, China shall ensure that the personnel of the recipient country fully master such techniques; (viii) Chinese experts are not allowed to make any special demands or enjoy any special amenities.
Over the last ten years President Xi Jinping has successfully applied the Chinese doctrine in international relations, following and implementing his country’s multi-millennial traditions of diplomacy. ASEAN’s central place and role in the regional architecture has been strengthened in Asia, preserving the order that takes all parties’ aspirations and interests into account. Each country, whether large or small, powerful or weak, inside or outside the region, contributes to the success of Asia’s development, without creating war frictions. Each country follows the path of peace and development, promotes win-win cooperation and builds a large family of Asian progress.
The ASEAN countries are the following: Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam (Papua New Guinea and East Timor as observers).
Furthermore, the fundamentals of China’s economy – its strong resilience, huge potential, ample room for manoeuvre and long-term sustainability – remain unchanged. They will provide great dynamism for the stability and recovery of the world economy and wider market opportunities for all countries.
The People’s Republic of China will be fully committed to its new development rationale. It will step up the establishment of a new growth paradigm, and redouble its efforts for high-quality development. China will promote high standards; expand the catalogue for the creation of new computer software; improve investment promotion services and add more cities to the comprehensive pilot programme for opening up the service sector.
China will take concrete steps to develop its pilot free trade zones and the Hainan Free Trade Port will be in line with high-standard international economic and trade rules and will move forward with the institutional opening process.
China will seek to conclude high-level free trade agreements with more countries and regions and will proactively endeavour to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA).
China is moving forward with the Silk Road (Belt and Road) cooperation to make it increasingly high-level, sustainable and people-centred. China will firmly follow the path of peaceful development and will always be a builder of world peace, as well as a contributor to global development and a defender of the international order.
Over the last ten years, under President Xi Jinping’s leadership, the People’s Republic of China has been following the old Chinese saying: “Keep walking and you will not be discouraged by a thousand miles; make steady efforts and you will not be intimidated by a thousand tasks”.
The More Things Change…
The brutality of ethnic cleansing is complete. It does not distinguish between mother and son, young and old, child or adult. It goes about its gruesome business without conscience or moral compensation. It is the conversion of man into an unthinking beast. It is Putin, Zelensky, Modi and Xi Jinping … all rolled into one. It is us. The seed is there, needing only fertile soil to germinate.
The EU announces more aid to Ukraine — mostly military aid; the US announces more aid to Ukraine — mostly military aid. The Ukrainians saying ‘we will never surrender’ continue to fight. The Russians asking for talks are not backing down. Ukraine’s real value to the world is as an exporter of grain which helps to stabilize grain prices. Feeding a war therefore, runs counter to such stability.
On the heels of covid and its inflationary fallout, who wants a rise in food prices? Not India, not Africa, not the EU and Russians are already feeling the pinch. Perhaps grain exporters in North America could be an exception. Yet at what cost?
According to the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, the Security Council failed to prevent the war or to end it. How can it when the most influential member and its European allies are busy funding it?
Human strife is displayed on almost every continent. Stone throwing at ultra-nationalists by Palestinians after Friday prayers is a routine accompanied sometimes by tragedy. One side provokes, the other side retaliates. Stones are thrown, fights breakout. The authorities respond and more Palestinians are killed — fifteen last Wednesday. Is this the big story in Israel? Of course not.
A TV report accused millionaire Naftali Bennet, the current prime minister, of extravagant expenditure from the public purse at his home, which currently serves as his official residence.
Mr. Bennett disclosed that $26,400 of taxpayer money was spent on his home each month including a $7,400 food bill. His defense avers that his conduct is within the rules and that his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu spent, on average, $84,300 per month during his tenure.
Noting his efforts at parsimony, he pointed out he did not employ a cook as he is entitled to. Instead, the family sent out to restaurants, presumably the best ones, to have food delivered. Sensitive to the criticism, he states he will henceforth pay for all the food from his own picket.
Sara Netanyahu, his predecessor’s wife, had to admit misusing public funds during a similar scandal and was obliged to pay a $15,000 fine. The prime minister is paid $16,500 per month — average monthly salary in Israel is $3,500.
Plus ça change …
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