Architecture of peace needs solid foundation

The news that the federal government will be funding the supply of weapons to Ukraine marks a sharp shift in Australia’s involvement in the response to Russia’s invasion. It comes after much discussion in recent weeks of the effectiveness of economic sanctions, and whether international law has been made a dead letter by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions. While it is important to identify the shortcomings of measures that stop short of warfare, it is even more important to understand that one of Moscow’s major goals is to discredit the very idea of an effective international system.

Putin wants to take us back to a time of great powers carving the world into “zones of privileged interest”. One can imagine him asking about the International Criminal Court or the SWIFT banking system, as Stalin is said to have done about the Vatican: “How many divisions do they have?”

War is always a failure of systems, with irreparable costs in human life, whether it occurs in Ukraine or Myanmar, Yemen or Libya. As it stands, the system has failed Ukrainians, and we are now trying with the tools we have available to minimise the damage. But we must also ask ourselves, what can be done to prevent failures like this in the future?

Putin’s actions are a textbook case of the crime of aggression as defined in the Rome Statute which established the International Criminal Court. While Australia became a signatory to that statute in 1998, it has not ratified the amendments relating to aggression since they were agreed in 2010. This is probably because our AUKUS allies take exception to the idea of being told when they can and can’t go to war.

Washington, which is not a party to the International Criminal Court, particularly objects to this “internationalisation of justice” and the idea that its troops might one day be held to account by such a tribunal. That’s an objection the Kremlin, which has itself derided the court as “one-sided and inefficient”, exploits to the hilt.

But it is not the only weakness Russia has come to rely on. While the world is now focused on the plight of Ukrainian refugees, Putin and his allies have long understood that the disarray in European and global policy on refugees provides them with leverage, which they used just months ago to engineer a crisis on the border between Belarus and Poland in response to sanctions.

Putin’s interventions in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine in 2014 and Syria in 2015 were all buttressed by the Kremlin’s understanding that the international community was reluctant to take any measure that might interfere with the supply of energy from Russian oil and gas fields. Every time that we fail to plot a decisive move away from fossil fuels, despots are allowed to use them as a shield for atrocities such as those still unfolding in Yemen.

Above all, the post-war international system represented by the United Nations provides Russia with a permanent seat on the Security Council and veto power over any actions the UN might propose. In a piece for this masthead, Liberal MP Dave Sharma suggested challenging Russia’s right to that seat. But this does not provide us with a solution to any future misuse of the veto power by any of the other permanent members. It is time to reconsider the structure of the Security Council as a whole.

In the short term, such questions offer little comfort for families in the gathering darkness of Kyiv, Kharkiv or Donetsk. But if we are to prevent further murderous breaches of the peace in the months and years to come, a renewed commitment to what former Australian diplomat Gareth Evans calls “good international citizenship” is imperative.

The more robust we make the architecture of global co-operation on the challenges that face us, and the more truly it reflects the outlook and priorities of those living outside the West, the less likely it is to fail when confronted with criminals at the head of nations.

Gay Alcorn sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive her Note from the Editor.

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