Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

It’s Time to End the Age of Impunity

The first hundred days of war in Ukraine represented the worst of modern warfare.

By , president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.
People help a young child in a pink coat cross a bridge.
People help a young child in a pink coat cross a bridge.
People cross a destroyed bridge as they evacuate the city of Irpin, Ukraine, during heavy shelling and bombing on March 5. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

A hundred days into the war in Ukraine, the abiding images are of impunity: a pregnant woman being evacuated from a maternity hospital under attack, a bombed theater full of children, millions of refugees forced out of their homes and their country for no real reason.

Ukraine’s suffering is abhorrent—but unfortunately not abnormal. Russia’s war represents the worst of our age of impunity—an era when militaries and the political leaders that control them have abandoned the basic laws that govern war and protect civilians. This age was not inevitable, but it will get worse unless those who believe in the rule of law tackle it now.

In war zones today, nearly 90 percent of casualties are civilians. Attacks on health facilities have increased 90 percent in the past five years while attacks on aid workers have increased 85 percent in the past decade. Two hundred million people are trying to survive in conflicts where humanitarian access constraints are very high or extreme, according to ACAPS, a humanitarian analysis nonprofit.

A hundred days into the war in Ukraine, the abiding images are of impunity: a pregnant woman being evacuated from a maternity hospital under attack, a bombed theater full of children, millions of refugees forced out of their homes and their country for no real reason.

Ukraine’s suffering is abhorrent—but unfortunately not abnormal. Russia’s war represents the worst of our age of impunity—an era when militaries and the political leaders that control them have abandoned the basic laws that govern war and protect civilians. This age was not inevitable, but it will get worse unless those who believe in the rule of law tackle it now.

In war zones today, nearly 90 percent of casualties are civilians. Attacks on health facilities have increased 90 percent in the past five years while attacks on aid workers have increased 85 percent in the past decade. Two hundred million people are trying to survive in conflicts where humanitarian access constraints are very high or extreme, according to ACAPS, a humanitarian analysis nonprofit.

From Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Mali, modern warfare has come to be defined by militaries and governments denying aid access; committing widespread gender-based violence, including rape; and targeting aid workers and civilian infrastructure, particularly health facilities.

The age of impunity has been gathering momentum for the past decade. That needs to change over the next 100 days in Ukraine. The world must pay attention to impunity, protest it, and be determined to act so that the political and military leaders responsible for violating the laws of war in Ukraine and beyond are held accountable by the international community.

The G-7 summit of the world’s leading industrialized democracies being held in Germany at the end of this month is a pivotal opportunity to change course. The German hosts have said the summit will focus on defending Ukraine, strengthening trans-Atlantic unity, and addressing the global food security crisis exacerbated by the war. These are vital goals. But the summit should also prioritize accountability in the conduct of war.

The G-7 will be tempted to make democracy versus autocracy its central focus. This would be a mistake.

Based on Western leaders’ rhetoric so far, the G-7 will be tempted to make democracy versus autocracy its central focus. This would be a mistake. While the West has maintained an impressive degree of unity against Russia since the war began, the same cannot be said of the wider world. Indeed, many powerful democratic countries—including India, Brazil, and South Africa—remain on the sidelines, seeking to avoid getting dragged into a brewing conflict between the West and Russia. This summit should focus on bringing them on board by using language and emphasizing priorities that address their concerns.

First, it is important that the summit reframe what’s at stake in Ukraine as a fight between the rule of law and impunity. The G-7 should make clear that it is not seeking changes to international law. Instead, the bloc is simply trying to protect the rights of civilians that countries around the world have agreed to do for decades through the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols; the United Nations Charter; and more recently, U.N. Security Council resolutions, such as Resolution 2286 on the protection of health in conflict. This does not mean giving up on democracy; it means recognizing that defending democracy depends on curbing the abuse of power internationally.

Second, it is critical to address Russian and global south claims of Western hypocrisy regarding conduct in conflicts—including ones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and the Sahel—as well as Western countries’ refugee policies. It is sadly too much to hope that the United States will join the International Criminal Court, which was set up precisely to strike fear into the hearts of those committing war crimes. However, the G-7 summit communique can reaffirm the commitment of all its members to international humanitarian law. Additionally, all G-7 countries should make respect for such law a prerequisite for all security coalitions and arms transfers. This could be modeled on the Leahy Laws in the United States, which are intended to prevent U.S.-funded aid and military assistance from going to foreign security forces that have committed human rights violations, or it could be achieved by incorporating more rigorous evaluations of humanitarian impact in programs, such as Blue Lantern, Washington’s end-use monitoring system for weapons exports. This will need to be a priority as G-7 countries ramp up their support for Ukrainian forces.

Third, a united voice at the summit in favor of real systems of accountability within the international system would make an important statement to the world. One small but real step in the right direction is the Liechtenstein-sponsored resolution that the U.N. General Assembly recently adopted, which would require the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council to justify their use of the veto, which has become a tool of obfuscation and gridlock. With this resolution, permanent members who block council action with the veto will now be held accountable in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. G-7 leaders should also push to establish independent monitoring mechanisms, including a standing body on the denial of humanitarian access, in conflict zones from Ukraine’s Donbas to Yemen to document and report on violations of international humanitarian law. Independent monitoring is critical to ensure humanitarian action is insulated from the political pressures placed on U.N. agencies that force officials into silence when parties interfere with the delivery of aid, often as a tactic of war.

Finally, it is imperative that already-fragile communities in countries such as Somalia, which relies on Ukraine and the surrounding region for 92 percent of its wheat imports, do not bear the costs of the war in Ukraine. This means seriously tackling the war’s “hunger fallout” by following through on the Global Alliance for Food Security that the G-7 launched in May, expanding aid to help food insecure countries get through this period, and investing in gender- and climate-sensitive efforts to fix the broken food system and prevent crises like this in the future.

If the G-7 seriously addresses these four points at its upcoming summit, it will reassert its relevance as a political bloc, mitigate the global impacts of the war in Ukraine, establish some real accountability for Russia’s actions, and help win over some of the countries that remain reluctant to call out this war of imperial conquest for what it is. Although the Russian invasion has been slowed by Ukrainian defenses, the reality is that impunity remains on the march 100 days into the war. It’s time to make sure it is in retreat over the next 100.

David Miliband is president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee and a former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a commission on military-technical cooperation with foreign states in 2017.

What’s the Harm in Talking to Russia? A Lot, Actually.

Diplomacy is neither intrinsically moral nor always strategically wise.

Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.
Officers with the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) wait outside an apartment in Kharkiv oblast, Ukraine.

Ukraine Has a Secret Resistance Operating Behind Russian Lines

Modern-day Ukrainian partisans are quietly working to undermine the occupation.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron wave as they visit the landmark Brandenburg Gate illuminated in the colors of the Ukrainian flag in Berlin on May 9, 2022.

The Franco-German Motor Is on Fire

The war in Ukraine has turned Europe’s most powerful countries against each other like hardly ever before.

U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden holds a semiconductor during his remarks before signing an executive order on the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

How the U.S.-Chinese Technology War Is Changing the World

Washington’s crackdown on technology access is creating a new kind of global conflict.