Resolving the Conflict between Russia and Ukraine

dan kuwaliWelcome to our blog, the Human Righter. We shed light on contemporary human rights issues and comment on human rights developments. We dig deep into our focus areas within human rights, discuss SDGs and human rights. You will also find book reviews and analyses of new laws.

By: Dan Kuwali[*], Affiliated Professor, Raoul Wallenberg Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Pain in Ukraine

The world is grappling with the question of the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia that sparked the humanitarian crisis unseen in Europe since the end of the Second World War. At the heart of the debate is the fear that this crisis may be the beginning of an apocalyptic Third World War. After months of military buildup, on Thursday, 24 February 2022, Russia invaded its south-eastern neighbour, Ukraine. Moscow deployed troops from three fronts and fired missiles on several locations near the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The sovereignty and statehood of Ukraine have been shaken, innocent civilians are bearing the brunt of the war, which has threatened stability in Europe and around the globe, putting the rules-based international order at risk.

War against innocent civilians

Moscow has used medieval tactics in total disregard of the Laws of Armed Conflict (LoAC), in which all four Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols afford protection to civilians and non-combatants from attacks. According to LoAC, attacks can only be against combatants and military objectives , and civilians and civilian objects should be spared. Belligerents should take feasible precautions to minimize harm to civilians and civilians objects.

However, indiscriminate Russian attacks have obliterated villages, killing women, children, the elderly, and people with disabilities. Moscow can legitimately contend that civilians have taken up arms in Ukraine and waived their rights to attacks. Nevertheless, this argument does not hold as the world has witnessed images of babies, expectant mothers, and journalists being killed resulting from indiscriminate attacks on civilian objects and infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, and residential apartments in cities such as Maliopor.

Russian troops have used indiscriminate weapons such as ballistic missiles and cluster munitions banned in 2008. Article 51 (5)(b) of Geneva Conventions’ Additional Protocol I, which governs international armed conflicts, prohibits attacks that may cause incidental loss of life and injury to civilians and damage to civilian objects, especially more than the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.

Russia’s conduct has sparked massive human rights, humanitarian, and displacement crises. As of 14 April 2022, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 4,450 civilian casualties in the country: 1,892 killed and 2,558 injured since the invasion in According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees,  more than a quarter of Ukraine’s population has been uprooted since the beginning of the war and more than 4.6 million people have fled the country. Reports indicate that one in every two children of the 7.5 million children population in Ukraine has been displaced. Russia’s conduct of waging war in Ukraine triggers allegations of war crimes. The ICC prosecutor has called Ukraine  a crime scene and opened an investigation into the conduct of Russia in the country. The situation in Ukraine tests the objectivity of the ICC, which has been widely accused of only targeting Africans.

The Ripple Effects

The Russian-Ukrainian conflict is already internationalized in a way that is unimaginable for similar regional conflicts that have taken place in other continents such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The gravitas of the conflict reflects the persistence of imperial mindsets in Euro-America. The ripple effects of the conflict include rising prices for food and fuel worldwide, stocking fears of hunger and turmoil in African countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the economy is already hobbled by geographical remoteness and decades of violence. As the biggest importer of wheat from Russia and Ukraine, Egypt faces a soaring price of bread, a politically symbolic staple on which many Egyptians are heavily dependent, as Black Sea wheat exports are disrupted and global prices surge.

Geoeconomic sanctions by the EU, the United States, and Japan have hobbled long-standing Russian trade ties. There are enormous economic consequences to sanctions, given Russia’s significant role in the world energy markets. With oil price volatility shaking global markets and fears of fuel shortages, European nations are looking more closely at Africa’s abundant natural gas as a potential new energy source. The United States has also offered an alternative fuel supply source for Europe.

‘Western’ Response

The world has seen a quantum leap of non-military offensive action that has cut Russian banks off from the global financial system, cut Russian airlines out of the airspace of much of the world, and stand to leave the Russian economy volatile. While sanctions may have a deterrent effect, the Kremlin has defiantly said that they are used to such sanctions. However, the Kremlin is wary of the effects of “secondary” sanctions, through which the sanctioning country punishes violations by third parties. In this regard,

Western capitals have joined hands to seize property belonging to oligarchs with a close connection to the Kremlin. In turn, the Oligarchs are said to have exerted pressure on Putin to reconsider his position. Such creative imposition of maximum pressure campaigns on the Kremlin may contribute to the targeted sanction achieving their current objective.

What should be done?

The war between Russia and Ukraine has been incredibly destructive in life, blood, treasure, and time. Russia’s illegal occupation of parts of Ukraine can morph conflict into an insurgency, exacerbating the number of refugees and civilian casualties and creating a war economy.

The consequences of this conflict have global ramifications with the shifting geopolitical landscape in Europe. Putin’s decision to place Russia’s strategic nuclear arsenal on ‘special alert’ is a particularly shocking development that underscores the existential threat to humanity posed by nuclear weapons and further undermines the road to peace. NATO’s nuclear powers should keep their nuclear weapons off high alert. Putin’s actions should serve as a sharp wake-up call to global leaders that nuclear de-escalation, disarmament, and risk reduction is needed now more than ever.

From a legal perspective, there can be no justification for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Impunity for Moscow’s flagrant disregard of the very foundation of the international legal order and core provisions of the UN Charter cannot embolden others to follow suit.

Hence the need to ensure accountability for international wrongs. According to Articles 2(3) and 33 of the UN Charter, it is incumbent on all states to settle international disputes by peaceful means so that international peace, security, and justice are not endangered. While the provision of support to Ukraine to defend itself against a stronger opponent cannot be discredited, more effort should be directed towards assisting the two parties to reach a negotiated settlement.

Therefore, instead of the bellicose rhetoric from Western capitals, diplomacy and multilateralism are essential in resolving this conflict. The ICJ also ordered that both parties should “refrain from any action which might aggravate or extend the dispute before the Court or make it more difficult to resolve.” Equally, in the spirit of the ICJ order, other states should not escalate the conflict with words or deeds. Going forward, first, what is immediate is that Russia should comply with the Order on provisional measures to end the hostilities in Ukraine.

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, Russia together with other veto-holders have a particular responsibility to uphold the principles of the UN Charter. Second, members of the UN Security Council should help broker peace in Ukraine  in line with their responsibility under Article 24 of the UN Charter.

Third, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to use its confidential humanitarian diplomacy as the guardian of LoAC, to persuade the warring parties to respect humanitarian norms and spare civilians from deliberate attacks. Fourth, humanitarian agencies should be allowed to work freely and provide access to aid for civilians trapped in the violence.

Fifth, a sustainable settlement of the conflict should include resolving the historical resentments and providing assurances to address the fears discussed above. It is pleasing to note that Ukraine is open to adopting neutrality as part of a peace deal with Russia. Moscow’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states is inconsistent with international law governing state sovereignty and secession. Kosovo cannot be a precedent as it was an exceptional case justified by a humanitarian mission limited to stop ethnic cleansing.


[*] Affiliated Professor, Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law.

Photo credit: Julia Rekamie, Unsplash
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