The global community’s limp response to Russia’s belligerence shows the importance of toughening up international laws.

Opinion: Much of the contemporary approach to international relations has been shaped by the outcome of World War II, the first to involve the large-scale, indiscriminate slaughter of civilians on both sides. The horror of those brutal events weighed heavily on the victorious nations, leading to the establishment of the United Nations and the development of the rules-based approach to resolving tensions and conflicts between nations.

A critical part of the UN framework was the development of a substantial body of rules and procedures under the general heading of international humanitarian law which sought to limit the impact of conflicts on ordinary citizens. But, however worthy the objective, they have not always worked in practice.

Since 1945 civilians have often borne the brunt of suffering and deprivation caused by conflicts between nations. The ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the war in Vietnam, the earlier civil wars in Rwanda and Bosnia, and more recently the fall of Afghanistan, are obvious examples of where the international system has failed to protect innocent civilians.

All these have taken place in flagrant breach of countless UN declarations that all peoples have the right to live in peace, and that peace is an essential precondition for enhancing and protecting human rights. But the disregard of the declarations continues, and is happening all over again in Ukraine, with the Ukrainian government already lodging complaints of false allegations of genocide by Russia to justify the invasion.

Moreover, for small – and in this case distant – countries such as New Zealand, the bypassing of international humanitarian law in this way creates its own problems. Often the only realistic response we can make is a humanitarian one – either by condemning what is happening, or by providing humanitarian support through agencies such as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, and providing sanctuary for refugees.

New Zealand has a proud record of responding along these lines in time of crises, even if there has been criticism about the numbers of refugees we have been prepared to resettle. We also play our part when it comes to the imposition of sanctions, but often these are of limited effect. For example, New Zealand has already imposed sanctions on trade with Russia. However, our exports to Russia are only about $293 million a year – mainly butter and other dairy products – and the acting trade minister has acknowledged that restricting them because of the Ukraine crisis would be “inconsequential”.

There is little else we can do to show our national abhorrence of Russia’s actions. The imposition of the almost mandatory travel ban for Russian government officials is next to meaningless given the low level of Russian government officials coming here at the best of times but is part of the symbolic ritual followed in such circumstances.

Our actions are aimed less at protesting to Russia about its invasion of Ukraine and are more a statement of support to our western allies for their more substantial actions against Russia. On the other hand, any retaliation from Russia that curtails or reduces the nearly $200 million of petroleum products we import annually from Russia will be reflected in sharp price increases at the pump to New Zealand consumers.

Over time, the impact of financial services sanctions being imposed by the US, its Nato allies, and the EU, are predicted to lead to the collapse of the rouble and thus cripple Russia’s economy. However, Russia has shown itself to be resilient to western sanctions and may do so again. In that event, there is no clear telling when Putin will decide enough is enough, and be prepared to entertain some dialogue, very much on his terms if possible, and what the situation of Ukraine may be at that time.

All of this puts the focus back on the UN, and the Security Council in particular. Already Russia has vetoed a resolution critical of its invasion of Ukraine, raising once more the point of how effective the Security Council can be as the guarantor of global security when any one of its five permanent members can use a veto to block any resolution they are critical of.

Since the establishment of the UN in 1945, small countries have been constantly critical of the veto as an impediment to the Security Council operating as intended, but have been powerless to change it. For many, it has been a necessary evil – the price of keeping the big nations on board. New Zealand’s wartime prime minister, Peter Fraser, who played a significant role in the development of the UN Charter, described it this way in a speech to Parliament in July 1945:

“The New Zealand delegation took up a strong stand against the veto … of one of the permanent powers … it appeared so utterly ridiculous that a large power could stop its own condemnation that it was agreed by the representatives of the large powers that if it was actually done then there was the end of action under the provisions of the Charter … and the Charter would fail … We thought that was wrong, that it was untenable, undemocratic, and we did all we could to prevent it.”

But it came down to this:

“… the five permanent powers [were] just immovable. The Charter had to be accepted with that provision or there would be no Charter at all.”

And that would have meant no UN, and no international framework for the management of conflict between nations, leaving the situation that had led to the outbreak of war in 1939 in effect still in place.

Russia’s veto in the Security Council last week brings to 294 the total number of vetoes applied since the beginning of 1946. Russia (and the Soviet Union before it) account for 144 of those vetoes, and the US 83. By contrast, neither France nor the UK has used a veto since 1989.

These figures highlight Fraser’s frustration all those years ago. The veto remains just as undemocratic and untenable today as it was to him, and the reasons why it will not change remain the same. On balance, though, his argument that the UN with the Security Council veto is better than no Security Council at all is probably correct. But nothing is set in stone for ever, and however unlikely its achievement in the foreseeable future, abolition of the veto is a cause small nations such as New Zealand should continue to promote, to ensure the justice and workability of the international rules. The likely fate of Ukraine should be the spur that continues to push them to do so.

However, there will be many who will be dismissive of any suggestion that reforming the rules of international engagement, even if they could be achieved and the veto modified or abandoned, would be sufficient to curb the ambitions of uncompromising ultra-nationalists such as Putin. His behaviour, they argue, first in Crimea and now in Ukraine shows his real intent. His manipulation of the Russian constitution to enable him to stay in office until 2036, and his increasingly autocratic regime, show he considers himself immune to rules and laws that do not suit his purposes.

The problem is that accepting the argument that the UN will never be able to bring the likes of Putin to heel – which does have some validity – also means accepting a collective powerlessness to be able to do anything much about it, short of full-scale international conflict.

In the circumstances, working to reform the international system so that the UN functions as intended still appeals as the far better option to protect the collective interests of humanity and ensure it has a future. As Fraser said in that speech to Parliament, when acknowledging the terrible costs of World War II and contemplating the arrival of the nuclear age:

“… with that terrible knowledge in our possession any one of us would vote for any organisation, if only a debating society, where people would come together, where the nations of the world would come together, and try to understand better … in supporting any form of international organisation that will hold out any hope to the world.”

For small countries such as us, the UN, for all its failings and imperfections, remains essential as a forum for stating views on developing situations and as the overseer of the rules-based approach to international relations we have been committed to for the past 70-plus years.

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