A Just Peace for a Besieged Ukraine


In the latest round of negotiations between Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul on March 29, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan called on both delegations to act responsibly and agree to a ceasefire. He reminded them of their historical mission to achieve a just peace. There isn’t anyone who would oppose such a statement. However, as we have seen before in many other conflicts, defining what justice means in the context of war can present a seemingly insurmountable obstacle.

When Russian invaded Ukraine on February 24, many analysts asserted that the world was irrevocably changed. Some have said we are returning to a world divided into two blocs that vie with each other for power and influence, while others have argued that we are on verge of a new geopolitical order, the configuration of which is yet to be defined.

Whatever the future may be, the present clearly tells us that Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine is indeed a challenge to global peace and security and the rule of international law, with real repercussions for the entire world. Above all, the war is harming millions of citizens of a sovereign nation that had been energetically building its democracy since it gained independence in 1991.

ICTJ has worked in Ukraine since 2014, supporting national efforts to address the lingering consequences of the post-Soviet transition such as heightened regional and linguistic divisions, implement reforms after the Maidan Revolution, and deal with the ongoing conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Just one week before the Russian invasion, ICTJ participated in a conference organized by the Ukrainian Supreme Court on the role of the judiciary in post-conflict settings. The current war has greatly exacerbated these existing challenges while piling on a multitude of new ones.

The war has been a veritable geopolitical earthquake whose seismic waves has been felt around the world. It has had numerous direct and significant impacts.

The conflict has upended economies around the world, at a time when they are still struggling to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, with ordinary people bearing the brunt. The cost of fuel has risen at breakneck speed, driving up the price not only of gas at the pump but innumerable other goods, the production and transport of which requires varying levels of fossil fuels. Meanwhile, the Russian invasion has interrupted Ukrainian production and export of grain, upon which many countries including Ethiopia, Kenya, and Yemen rely heavily, increasing the risk of food scarcity and even famine.

We have also never before seen such broad international endorsement of sweeping economic sanctions against a country and many individuals. This parallel “economic war” is unfolding in many directions, threatening Russia’s financial viability and hurting not only oligarchs but regular Russian citizens. The targeted sanctions against wealthy oligarchs have also exposed the West’s longstanding social, political, and legal tolerance of international networks of corruption and money laundering.

Meanwhile, the European Union (EU) has demonstrated an unprecedented unity, missing in so many past crises, reshaping the frame of what is politically possible. Specifically, member states immediately and warmly welcomed the millions of Ukrainian refugees fleeing the conflict in an extraordinary display of solidarity in protecting human dignity. However, this response also reveals a double standard and discrimination when compared against member states’ treatment of Syrian and Afghan refugees not long ago. We should thus seize this moment as an opportunity to establish minimum standards for how EU countries deal with all asylum seekers, to which they should be measured and held accountable.

In addition, after the fiasco in Afghanistan, NATO is experiencing a renaissance of sorts with member states rallying wholeheartedly behind it in the face of a belligerent Russia. Accordingly, numerous members have recently committed to increasing their national investment in the military and defense, which might also signify a concerning trend away from mutual cooperation and diplomacy to ensure peace and security. For its part, the United Nations General Assembly has shown leadership and taken notable action in response to the conflict, and in spite of the Security Council’s well-known, repeated, and deplorable paralysis. Other multilateral institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC), International Court of Justice, and the Council of Europe also have leveraged their mandates to hold Russia to account to the extent that they can.

Over the past month, many people have wondered “How did we get here?” Some commenters have pointed to unresolved tensions in Ukrainian society and unsuccessful approaches to managing them or to Ukraine’s unique geopolitical importance as a bridge between the East and West. Many others have laid the blame squarely on President Vladimir Putin and his irrational obsession with restoring a lost Russian empire and expanding his power at any cost.

Speaking on behalf of an organization that works in many conflict-affected countries and whose mission among other things is to fight impunity, it is worth considering the role that impunity may have played in the violence to which we are bearing witness today in horror and disbelief. Russia has enjoyed total impunity for crimes its military committed previously in eastern Ukraine, as well as in Syria, where it bombed schools and hospitals, launched indiscriminate attacks, targeted civilians, and used chemical weapons for years. Decades earlier, Russia similarly invaded and devasted  Chechnya. Had the international community been more forceful in its demands for accountability and made a sincere effort to hold the Russian government or some individual state actors responsible, perhaps we would not be seeing the destruction and human suffering that we are today in Ukraine. Now may be the time to finally learn the lesson once and for all that justice is critical to preventing conflict and violence.

A just peace is what Erdogan demanded of the Russian and Ukrainian delegations. While we may not know how and when this conflict will end, we already know some of what Ukrainian society will be grappling with in the near future. Significant portions of country’s civilian infrastructure have been destroyed. More than 4 million Ukrainians are now living as refugees across Europe and beyond; another 10 million are internally displaced; and a rising but still undetermined number have been killed, are missing, or are wounded, including victims of the appalling massacre in the city of Bucha. The trauma—individual and collective—that Ukrainians have experienced will require extensive psychosocial support and take years to overcome.

The real question is what does a just peace mean for Ukrainians. Is justice bringing Putin or other high-level Russian officials before the ICC or another international tribunal, however unlikely this scenario may be? Would that even be enough? Is justice international condemnation and the imposition of crippling sanctions? Or, is it reparations, including Ukraine’s reconstruction? If so, who should provide reparations to all those affected by the war, and how? What are the justice-related needs of the war’s victims? How can we build a sustainable peace and prevent new cycles of violence?

It is certainly too soon to answer these questions, and only by consulting with and listening to Ukrainians can the responses be found. Nevertheless, even when conflict is ongoing and the priorities on the ground are to protect civilians and provide humanitarian assistance, experience tells us that is never too early to start preparing the ground for the difficult journey toward justice.

PHOTO: Refugees from Ukraine arrive in Poland. (Flickr/European Union)