Those who damage legal international order must be held to account 

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Sir Ronald Sanders is Ambassador of Antigua and Barbuda to the United States and the Organisation of American States. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies at the University of London and at Massey College in the University of Toronto.

By Sir Ronald Sanders

Over the last few weeks since the invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation, the world has witnessed the greatest weakness in the machinery entrusted with maintaining international peace and security.

That machinery is the UN Security Council in which five permanent members each have a power of veto over all decisions. The weakness is the inability of the Council to function in the global interest when one of the five exercises a veto.

The five permanent members are Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States of America. During the last seven decades, each of the five has exercised the veto with Russia casting more than any of the other four. Altogether, Russia accounted for 49 percent of the vetoes; the US, 29 percent;  Britain 10 percent; and China and France 6 percent each. In every case, the country that cast the veto did so to protect its own interest and not that of the global community.

In most cases, the threat to use the veto is enough to paralyze the UN Security Council from taking any action, however grave may be the circumstances that demand such action. Recently, Russia has used that threat in relation to its invasion of Ukraine and its violation of international law and the principles set forth in the UN Charter.

This immobilization of the Security Council caused the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to ask its members at a meeting on April 5, “Where is the security that the Security Council must guarantee?”. In an emotional address in the aftermath of evidence of atrocities in Ukraine by the Russian military, including the slaughter of civilians who were shot in their heads while their hands were tied behind their backs; the rape and murder of women; and the cutting off of limbs and tongues, Zelenskyy told the members of the Council “to dissolve yourselves altogether” if they could not stop Russia from “blocking decisions about its own aggression”.

The Ukrainian president’s anger and frustration is understandable, especially by militarily powerless countries that could also be the victim of aggression and who depend on the Security Council to safeguard their sovereignty and territorial integrity. Without action by the Security Council, no country is safe from a determined predator nation with the military power to enforce its ambitions.

It is important to note that Russia has not only severely damaged the international legal order, it has also undermined confidence in it. Worryingly, it has also violated the established rules of war. And, yes, even for war, there are internationally agreed rules that are set out in the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the First Additional Protocol to the Conventions and customary international law.

The laws of war prohibit willful killing, rape and other sexual violence, torture, and inhumane treatment of captured combatants and civilians in custody, pillage and looting. Yet, from the evidence gathered by authoritative international agencies, including the Office of United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and revealed on global television images, all these laws have been broken by Russian forces in Ukraine.

Russia’s claim that the images from Ukraine are fake caused UN Human Rights Offices to explain that its investigators “followed painstaking forensic procedures to ensure the veracity of any video or photographing emerging from scenes of possible war crimes”.

Paralysis of the Security Council forced the UN General Assembly (UNGA) to act twice concerning the devastating situation in Ukraine. On March 1, the Assembly adopted a resolution deploring Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and demanding the withdrawal of its military forces. Russia ignored the General Assembly’s resolution and escalated the violence, and its attendant atrocities. Then, on April 7, the UNGA, expressing “grave concern at the ongoing human rights and humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and reports of human rights and violations of humanitarian law”, decided to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council – a huge step against a powerful nation.

The suspension of Russia showed a clear determination by the majority of the world’s nations to rebuke the Russia government for its disregard of international humanitarian law and the rule of international law. Ninety-three countries voted in favour of the decision and 58 abstained, even though the Russian government had publicly threatened that it would regard abstentions as “unfriendly”.

Russia’s response to the suspension was to announce that it was leaving the Human Rights Council altogether. However, despite its disdainful public reaction, the Russian government can hardly be comfortable with its increasing isolation in the global community. It is significant that, for the most part, the 23 countries that supported Russia in rejecting its suspension are ruled by like-minded tyrannical regimes. These include North Korea, Iran, Syria, Belarus, and the Central African Republic.

For the rest of the world, particularly small developing states in the Caribbean, the words of UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, echo with significance. He says: “The full-fledged invasion of Ukraine is one of the greatest challenges ever to the international order and the global peace architecture”. Small states need global peace in which to develop and grow. They also need secure global economic conditions.

In a policy document to be discussed in a month’s time, the IMF and World Bank have identified the adverse effects of the war in Ukraine on Caribbean economies. These effects include higher prices for oil and food; significantly increased costs for transportation by sea, air and road; a negative impact on tourism; and importation of inflation from trading partners where costs have rapidly risen.

These conditions will lead to demands for fiscal strategies that could include demands for increased government revenues by more taxes and for reduced expenditure at a time when more spending is required on infrastructural investment, rebuilding crucial productive industries, and education and health. To avoid this, the developing world needs global peace and stability.

For all that to be achieved, the war on Ukraine must end, respect for the international legal order must be restored and growth of the global economy must resume – and all who disregard the international legal order must be held to account.

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