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.
The human costs of the Age of Impunity are 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. Each 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 opportunities for aid being targeted by the Russian military.
There is a massive humanitarian job to contain the suffering in Ukraine, which is rightly commanding a lot of attention. The IRC is on the ground working in Ukraine and Poland. It is however vital that civilians also suffering in other places don’t pay the price in loss of attention and resources. The opposite should be the case. Support for Ukrainians should not come at the expense of Afghans, Yemenis, Ethiopians, or Syrians who face equally brutal tactics and disregard for the laws of war.
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. This is an especially urgent need with donor conferences for both Yemen and Afghanistan coming up this month. Next is by expanding resettlement and other pathways to protection for refugees, and by financially supporting the frontline countries that host the vast majority of refugees, 85% of which are in low and middle-income countries like Jordan or Uganda who have been hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees for a decade or more.
If the U.S., Germany and other countries around the world are serious about making Ukraine the last war of impunity, even bigger changes will be needed to the international system. Previously the IRC made the case for supporting the French position on suspending the veto in case of mass atrocities. The current crisis shows how important this would have been but we have to face reality that the P5, including Russia, will never touch it. In the face of Security Council deadlock, the General Assembly must maintain its momentum on Ukraine including through addressing the humanitarian situation.
The General Assembly should establish an independent panel to monitor humanitarian access in Ukraine with a mandate to report to General Assembly on a regular basis regarding the status of access to aid for populations remaining in Ukraine. This would serve the purpose of helping to ensure parties are meeting their obligations under international humanitarian law and support efforts to unlock access challenges in real-time so that people in need can access life-saving assistance.
When the U.N. disbanded a similar monitoring mechanism in Yemen, civilian casualties immediately doubled, which shows the restraining effect such monitoring can have on parties to a conflict. These efforts should be supported in the future with the establishment of an Organization for the Protection of Humanitarian Access to call out the strangulation and weaponization of humanitarian aid in conflict zones.
Monitoring and calling out abuses will only be effective if enforced properly. Countries should utilize the legal principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute egregious abuses and violation of international humanitarian law. The bombing of hospitals, schools and apartment towers in Ukraine follows similar tactics used in places like Syria. German courts have taken the lead in convicting individuals who have committed such war crimes in Syria, and the same must hold true in all war zones.
President Putin is trying to rewind the European geopolitical clock by 30 years, to the formation of Ukraine as an independent state. But the real pressing need is to relearn the lessons of the past 30 years, above all that international law is not a straitjacket for national sovereignty but instead the scaffolding on which nations can build a more stable, 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. If the choice is between a broken system that continues to produce more crises like Ukraine or a functioning system that prevents humanitarian need and resolves conflicts, then there is no choice but to take the hard road ahead.