The age of impunity

The age of impunity
Опубликовано: Friday, 24 March 2023 02:56

A more just world is one where accountability triumphs. And by shining a light on the crimes Putin has unleashed on Ukraine, we are one step closer to that world.


Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin is now wanted for war crimes, with the International Criminal Court issuing a warrant for the his arrest for the illegal abduction of children from war-torn Ukraine to Russia.

Putin isn’t about to face trial in the Hague — nor is he likely to be arrested when he travels abroad. But his face has now been indelibly plastered on wanted posters around the world. And much like Charles Taylor of Sierra Leone and Slobodan Milošević of Serbia, Putin faces the risk of one day being caught and held to account for his crimes.

Accountability lies at the core of the rule of law. Those accused of committing crimes are arrested, prosecuted and tried, with those found guilty punished for their deeds — at least that’s the theory. In practice, however, accountability is hard, especially in international settings where the rule of law lacks agreed enforcement. Here, impunity reigns instead, not least when it comes to the actions of the powerful against the weak.

Russia’s war against Ukraine is an extreme case of impunity — of the exercise of power without accountability — but it’s hardly the only instance. As former British Foreign Secretary and current President of the International Rescue Committee David Miliband has argued, we live in an Age of Impunity.

And impunity affects all nations and societies, existing both within and among them. It’s not that societies are anarchic — there are rules and laws that seek to regulate behavior. Rather, it’s that many of them lack accountability, or the acceptance and enforcement of agreed laws, rules, norms and customs.

It isn’t just impunity in the face of conflict and violence either. In all too many cases, impunity triumphs when it comes to governance, economic development, human rights and the environment as well.

To see just how widespread it reigns around the world, Miliband teamed up with us at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the Eurasia Foundation to create an “Atlas of Impunity,” measuring the lack of accountability.

The findings are sobering, but they also contain important insights into how accountability might one day be strengthened around the globe.

First, the sobering part: Measured across five dimensions — unaccountable governance, conflict and violence, abuse of human rights, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation — for the 163 countries for which we have data, the extent of impunity around the globe is frighteningly widespread.

Afghanistan ranks highest on the list (scoring 4.25 on a 5 to 0 scale), with Syria (with 4.16), Yemen (with 3.88) and Myanmar (with 3.85) not far behind. And at the other end of the spectrum, Finland ranks lowest (with 0.29), followed by its Scandinavian neighbors Denmark (with 0.35), Sweden (with 0.43) and Norway (with 0.53).

Meanwhile, the United Arab Emirates (with 2.40) represents the median case, meaning that impunity in half the countries is worse than in the UAE — an oil-rich, high-income autocracy.

It also turns out that when it comes to impunity, the great powers aren’t actually so great.

Russia and China rank 27th and 48th on the Atlas of Impunity | Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Coming in at the 118th spot, the United States ranks closer to the median case than the lowest, though it still does far better than other global powers like Russia and China, which rank 27th and 48th respectively. For the U.S., this is mainly the result of scoring relatively poorly on the governance, economic and environmental measures — at least compared to other high-income democracies.

That said, the atlas does contain good news as well, pointing to how accountability can be improved, which can be gleaned from the countries that do well. For example, nine of the 10 lowest scoring countries on the impunity scale are European, and seven are members of the European Union — with New Zealand, Norway and Switzerland rounding out the rest. The EU prides itself as a union of laws — and when it comes to accountability, it shows.

As a region, Europe scores lower on every dimension than any other region, including Oceania, with 17 of the 25 lowest ranked countries coming from the EU. Hungary, placing 123rd, is the highest ranked EU country on the list — and it still scores better than the U.S.

European countries in general do particularly well in terms of governance, human rights, absence of conflict and economic equality, though their environmental record is often much worse than their overall score would indicate — something that’s particularly true for Norway and Iceland, for example.

Overall, however, it’s hardly surprising that the well-governed, cohesive and prosperous European societies, which embrace fairness and equality, rank well on the accountability scale — and that European countries like Belarus, Russia and some states in the Balkans do poorly.

But though liberal democracy certainly is important to impute the necessary characteristics for accountability, it still isn’t enough. Societal cohesion across ethnic, racial, religious and class lines is also important. And while prosperity matters, making sure the gains are distributed widely and equitably is even more so.

Impunity thrives in darkness. Therefore, societies that embrace openness and shine a light on those who do wrong are most likely to enhance accountability. And a richer, better and more just world is one where accountability triumphs.

Today, by shining a light on the heinous crimes Putin has unleashed on the people of Ukraine, we are one step closer to that world.

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