Ukraine Must Be the Last War of the Age of Impunity

Russia’s invasion has rightly put Ukraine in headlines around the world. The brazen effort to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and now the growing attacks on civilian targets have shocked the global public.

But while what is happening in Ukraine is abhorrent, it isn’t an aberration. Russia’s behavior in this war should open our eyes to what has become the brutal standard of warfare for a range of combatants around the world. We’ve seen horrific siege tactics used in places like Syria. We’ve seen the bombing of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in places like Yemen. We’ve seen the targeting of civilians in places like the Sahel. The war in Ukraine is the capstone on the Age of Impunity that has defined the past decade of conflict worldwide—an era where too many think the rules are for suckers and the laws of war are optional.

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Human costs of the Age of Impunity have been staggering. The International Rescue Committee’s 2022 Emergency Watchlist, which highlights the 20 countries most at risk of worsening humanitarian crisis, finds record numbers of people in need, record numbers of people on the run from violence and persecution, and record numbers of civilians and aid workers exposed to extreme threats to life and livelihood. The war in Ukraine will continue to increase, with world grain prices on the rise, over 2 million Ukrainians fleeing across border lines, reports of Russian military targeting aid corridors and other humanitarian opportunities.

It is an enormous humanitarian task to end the suffering in Ukraine. This is why it is getting a lot of attention. IRC staff are on the ground in Ukraine, Poland. It is however vital that civilians also suffering in other places don’t pay the price in loss of attention and resources. This should not be the case. It is not right to support Ukrainians at the expense Afghans, Yemenis and Ethiopians. These people face similar brutal tactics, disregarding the laws of war, and are in need of the same kind of assistance.

Read More: Ukraine’s Refugees of Color Are Facing Discrimination and Racism

The easiest place to start is by a commitment to channel 50% of total international aid to fragile and conflict-affected states— given that less than half of the U.N.’s global humanitarian appeal was funded last year. With the upcoming donor conferences in Yemen and Afghanistan, this is an urgent matter. It is important to support frontline countries, such as Jordan, Uganda and Jordan, that have held hundreds of thousands of refugees in their country for over a decade.

The international system must be reformed if America, Germany, and the rest of the world want Ukraine to end the last war without impunity. In the past, the IRC supported France’s position of suspending its veto for mass atrocities. This is evident in the current crisis. However, we must face the fact that Russia and other P5 members will not touch it. The General Assembly needs to maintain momentum in Ukraine despite the impending Security Council impasse, including by addressing humanitarian issues.

A panel of independent monitors should be established by the General Assembly to oversee humanitarian access to Ukraine. They would have to make regular reports to General Assembly regarding access to assistance for Ukraine’s remaining populations. It would help to verify that parties comply with international humanitarian law, and to support efforts to address access issues in real time so people can receive life-saving aid.

Civilian casualties doubled in Yemen after the U.N. decommissioned a similar monitoring structure. This shows the restraint such monitoring can provide to parties involved in a conflict. The future should support these efforts by creating an Organization for the Protection of Humanitarian Access that will combat the weaponization and strangulation of humanitarian aid in war zones.

Continue reading: The End of the Ukraine War

Only if the law is properly enforced can monitoring and calling out abusive acts be made effective. The legal principle of universal jurisdiction should be used by countries to pursue egregious violations and abuses of international humanitarian laws. Similar tactics were used to bomb schools, hospitals and apartments in Ukraine. German courts were the first to convict those who committed war crimes in Syria. The same should be true for all war zones.

Putin wants to reverse the European geopolitical clock and allow Ukraine to become an independent country. However, the most pressing issue is to relive the 30 year-old lessons. Especially, that international law does not restrict national sovereignty, but rather provides the framework for nations to build a better, more secure, more just and more prosperous future.

Kenya’s Ambassador to the U.N. Martin Kimani summarized the task ahead best, “We must complete our recovery from the embers of dead empires in a way that does not plunge us back into new forms of domination and oppression.” That is the fight currently at stake in Ukraine, but we will fail if we lose sight of the way this same fight is playing out in other humanitarian crises around the world from Afghanistan to Yemen to the Sahel. There is only one choice: a dysfunctional system which continues to create more crises such as Ukraine, or a system that resolves conflict and prevents human suffering.


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