Ukraine must be the last war in the age of impunity

Russia’s invasion rightly made Ukraine headlines around the world. The brazen attempt to undermine Ukraine’s sovereignty and now the escalating attacks on civilian targets have shocked world opinion.

But while what is happening in Ukraine is heinous, it is not an aberration. Russia’s conduct in this war should open our eyes to what has become the brutal standard of warfare for a number of combatants around the world. We have seen terrible siege tactics in places like Syria. We have seen the bombing of hospitals and other civilian infrastructure in places like Yemen. We’ve seen civilians targeted in places like the Sahel. The war in Ukraine is the capstone of the age of impunity that has marked the past decade of conflict around the world – an era when too many think the rules are for fools and the laws of war are optional.

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The human cost of the age of impunity is staggering. The International Rescue Committee’s 2022 Emergency Watch List, which ranks the 20 countries most at risk from a deepening humanitarian crisis, sees a record number of people in need, a record number of people fleeing violence and persecution, and a record number of civilians and rescuers who are at risk of extreme threats to lives and livelihoods. Any record will only grow with the war in Ukraine, with global grain prices skyrocketing, 2 million Ukrainians already fleeing across borders, and reports of humanitarian corridors and other aid avenues being targeted by the Russian military.

There is a huge humanitarian task to stem the suffering in Ukraine that rightly attracts much attention. The IRC works on the ground in Ukraine and Poland. However, it is critical that civilians who are also suffering elsewhere do not pay the price of a loss of attention and resources. The opposite should be the case. Supporting the Ukrainians should not come at the expense of the Afghans, Yemenis, Ethiopians or Syrians, who face equally brutal tactics and disregard for the laws of war.

Read more: Ukraine’s Black refugees face discrimination and racism

The easiest place to start is a pledge to channel 50% of all international aid to fragile and conflict-affected states — considering that less than half of the United Nations’ global humanitarian appeal was funded last year. This is a particularly urgent need as donor conferences for both Yemen and Afghanistan are scheduled for this month. Next, it will expand resettlement and other refugee protection avenues and provide financial support to frontline countries that host the vast majority of refugees, 85% of whom live in low- and middle-income countries like Jordan or Uganda, which host hundreds of refugees have taken in thousands of refugees for a decade or more.

If the US, Germany and other countries around the world are serious about turning Ukraine into the last war of impunity, even greater changes to the international system will be required. Earlier, the IRC had spoken out in favor of supporting the French position on suspending the veto on mass crimes. The current crisis shows how important this would have been, but we must face the reality that the P5, including Russia, will never touch it. With the Security Council deadlocked, the General Assembly needs to maintain its momentum towards Ukraine, including by addressing the humanitarian situation.

The General Assembly should establish an independent body to monitor humanitarian access in Ukraine with a mandate to report regularly to the General Assembly on the status of access to assistance for the population remaining in Ukraine. This would serve the purpose of ensuring that the parties meet their obligations under international humanitarian law and to support efforts to resolve access challenges in real time so that people in need can access life-saving assistance.

When the UN disbanded a similar surveillance mechanism in Yemen, the number of civilian casualties immediately doubled, showing the restrained effect such surveillance can have on parties to the conflict. These efforts should be supported in the future by the creation of a Humanitarian Access Protection Organization to call for the strangulation and arming of humanitarian aid in conflict zones.

Read more: How the Ukraine war could end

Monitoring and reporting abuses is only effective if properly enforced. Countries should use the legal principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute egregious abuses and violations of international humanitarian law. The bombing of hospitals, schools and apartment towers in Ukraine follows tactics similar to those in Syria. German courts have taken the lead in sentencing those who committed such war crimes in Syria, and the same must apply in all war zones.

President Putin is attempting to rewind the European geopolitical clock 30 years to the establishment of Ukraine as an independent state. But the real urgent need is to relearn the lessons of the past 30 years, particularly that international law is not a straitjacket for national sovereignty but the framework upon which nations can build a more stable, just and prosperous future.

Kenya’s Ambassador to the UN, Martin Kimani, best summed up the task ahead: “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.” This is the struggle what is at stake in Ukraine right now, but we will fail if we lose sight of how this struggle is playing out in other humanitarian crises around the world, from Afghanistan to Yemen to the Sahel. If you have the choice between a broken system that produces more and more crises, like Ukraine, or a functioning system that prevents humanitarian emergencies and resolves conflicts, then there is no other choice but to take the hard road into the future. Ukraine must be the last war in the age of impunity

Justin Scacco

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