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An inconsistent international order - Lessons from Ukraine

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The aftermath of a massacre. Mullivaikkal, 2009.

Events of the last week, as Russia sent troops and tanks marching into Ukraine, have made global headlines, dominating news and politics around the world. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are facing bombardment and displacement as Moscow’s offensive gathers pace. Rightly, there has been an outpouring of sympathy for those trapped in the midst of the conflict, as well as widespread support for those resisting Russian aggression. Alongside protests in capitals around the world, there has been deep-seated military and diplomatic support for Ukraine’s armed forces, coupled with sanctions and almost unprecedented isolation of Russia internationally.

With global outrage and distress at Russia’s actions, however, there has also been growing dismay around the world at the radically different lens through which Western states have viewed Moscow’s offensive and Ukraine’s resistance to it. The past week has made it abundantly clear to many peoples around the world; it is not that Western states do not understand the politics of resistance to oppression. It is that they deem some nations or people as apparently unworthy of practising it.

The situation in Ukraine has proven to be a glaring example of that double standard. As Russian soldiers began their offensive, Ukrainian civilians were lauded for enlisting in the resistance effort to defend their homeland from foreign occupation, even as forcible conscription began. There has been no call for Ukrainians to lay down arms to avoid a massacre at the hands of the significantly larger, nuclear-armed Russian military. There was no condemnation of Ukraine’s Ministry of Defence as it publicly encouraged all civilians to pick up arms - regardless of age, and instructed those who had no weapons on how to fashion their own. Even soldiers who blew themselves up to slow down the Russian advance are praised as heroes in the Western press. The Ukrainian resistance, despite deploying some of the methods that some Western states decried, is not seen as extreme. Far from it. It is praised as courageous and legitimate, to the point that citizens of other states around the world are encouraged to join it themselves. The overall message is clear – Ukrainian citizens must be allowed to choose their own future, and the defence of their homeland and resistance to foreign occupation is right.

The international community’s rapid response to Russia’s transgressions and its flouting of a rules-based order has also sent global shockwaves. Alongside wide-ranging asset freezes, divestments and sanctions which have consequences in the tens of billions of dollars, there have been concerted cultural and sporting boycotts not seen since the days of Apartheid South Africa. Multilateral institutions, from financial to cultural, immediately mobilised and Russia is being shunned internationally in a range of areas. It is on the receiving end of swift, coordinated and concrete global action.

The point to note for many peoples is not over the fact that Russia does not deserve these sanctions – it can be argued that given its actions in Chechneya or Syria, it should have faced them long ago. It is that other states, many whose actions have been consistently more murderous than Russia in Ukraine so far and with far less diplomatic sway than Moscow, have not been subjected to the same. Indeed, with the case of Sri Lanka, a regime headed by war criminals that have committed mass atrocities, those who pushed for similar stern international action were told it was impossible. Even as bombs rained down on hospitals and men and women were shot dead on camera in 2009, Tamils who called for a ceasefire were lectured that they were asking for too much, too quickly. To this day, more than a decade later, Sri Lanka has faced few consequential actions for its genocide. There are no wide-ranging global sanctions, no sporting or cultural boycott and those who personally oversaw mass atrocities continue to reign over the island freely.

None of this is surprising. Tamils have known that Western liberal order, borne out of the legacy of colonialism remains tinged with racism, and has criminalised our self-determination struggle as well as others around the world. What is striking though is how brazen the indifference has been, and how swiftly the same language and terms can take on an entirely different meaning when Western interests are perceived to be at stake. Armed resistance to occupation and aggression is legitimate and must be wholly supported. Cultural and sporting boycotts can, indeed, must be enforced. Divestments in unethical and illiberal ventures should be enacted. Sanctions must be put in place. All of these are simply framed as right and just actions to take in defence of a global rules-based liberal peace. And they can all be done in days, not decades.

This hypocrisy is not new. However, its actions reinforce how many around the world view the supposed Western commitment towards the universality of human rights, democracy and freedom. More than 70 years since the signing of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights, a document that has been a cornerstone of international order, the criticism continues that any proclaimed commitment to its principles rings hollow. The inconsistency in its application and reaction to massive infringements of international law belies the notion that human rights are indeed universal. This selective application undermines almost entirely the decades-long progression towards a more cooperative rules-based international order.

There may still be an opportunity to change that legacy. As the response to the bombardment of Ukraine shows, it is possible to create a system in which human rights is more than just notional. Despite the relative toothlessness of bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, it has been proven that individual states, regional mechanisms, and other multilateral institutions can take action to stand up for such fundamental principles. Governments around the world can, and should, respond surely and swiftly.

The bombardment of Ukraine is a terrible transgression that is being reacted to appropriately. Other states around the world, including Sri Lanka, must face similar consequences, even if they hold less geopolitical significance. It is only then that the fundamental rules that underpin the global order and binds members of the international community become truly universal. Until they do, the solemn commitments that states around the world are told they must adhere to simply becomes a game between great global powers.

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