As a child of the Eighties I was introduced to the horrors of two world wars with the promise “never again”. Never again would a single despotic leader be able to invade another sovereign country with impunity; never again would an entire people face annihilation. No – now we had structural safeguards to curtail malign power and protect peace: the United Nations, the International Criminal Court, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction that argued that surely no leader would actually fire a nuclear weapon, given that Armageddon would quickly ensue.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has shown these safeguards to be hollow. He has invaded another sovereign country claiming to “deNazify” it; an entire population is left vastly under-defended in the face of his relentless shelling and air raids. And yet, like the villain holding the heroine at gunpoint before her rescuer, he has warned Nato not to involve itself unless it wants to see consequences “you have never seen in your history”.
Effectively, his warning suggests, we are all being held at gunpoint, and looking on in horror as his forces – sluggish as they may have been – bomb endless military and civilian targets: residences, hospitals, a shopping centre, even the humanitarian corridors created to get unarmed Ukrainians to safety.
What of the UN Security Council? Where are its condemnations? Its hands are tied because Russia is a permanent member and currently holds presidency of it. Could Russia be kicked off it, or even out of the UN? No. According to the UN Charter, “A Member of the United Nations which has persistently violated the Principles contained in the present Charter may be expelled from the Organization by the General Assembly upon the recommendation of the Security Council.” But Russia would never vote to be expelled.
Instead, Russia has obfuscated and misinformed, claiming at Security Council meetings that the US has biological warfare laboratories in Ukraine and denying it is targeting civilians.
Some people would say the impotence of the UN institutions was already evident in earlier crises. Efforts to hold Syrian president Bashar Al-Assad responsible for crimes against humanity in 2012, early in his country’s civil war, failed because security council members Russia and China refused to back such efforts. (When an international chemical weapons watchdog found that Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, the US accused Russia of blocking an investigation into their use.) And what sanctions did Britain and the US face for invading Iraq in 2003 without the backing of the UN Security Council?
Sadly the worst damage inflicted by the Iraq invasion was not that done to the hundreds of thousands of displaced or ended lives, or the destroyed homes, infrastructure and cultural symbols that nurtured those lives. No, the most serious damage was that by ignoring the Security Council, the US and UK inadvertently opened the way for other nations to replicate such destruction in other contexts.
With Ukraine, clearly it is vital that other routes to a ceasefire are found. Targeted sanctions are welcome and must be strengthened; European nations must somehow, quickly, find alternatives to buying Russian fossil fuels. Lord Alton, a human rights lawyer, also suggests blacklisting Russia as a terrorist state and suspending it from the World Trade Organisation, and getting the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog involved. However, sanctions that punish the Russian people as a whole are risky – while they could turn their anger against Putin, he could instead goad them to turn it against the West.
Worthy discussions about how to hold Putin to account are also under way: Gordon Brown favours a Nuremberg-style trial; the International Criminal Court is investigating possible war crimes in Ukraine. These are all very well, but feel rather academic when the death toll climbs daily. Short of a coup, how would you persuade a man such as Putin to pop down to the Hague to attend a trial? All these steps might spare the next country in Putin’s sights – but what is there to stop the onslaught now?
It is clear that the UN Charter – passionately and altruistically crafted to prevent another world war – did not envisage that a powerful, nuclear-armed member would actually want to return to the sort of destruction we are now seeing daily on our screens. It aimed “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”, advocating “tolerance and liv[ing] together in peace with one another as good neighbours”. But as Putin has already ripped up the rules on what UN members can get away with, other member states need to rapidly recraft the safeguards that were supposed to ensure that violence on such a scale never happened again.
Above: The port city of Mariupol, which the BBC has described as ‘the most heavily bombed and damaged city in Ukraine’s war with Russia’. Photo: Ministry of Internal Affairs of Ukraine