There is still a place for neutrality in Ukraine
Grievously wronged, Kyiv argues that this is no time for niceties, including impartiality. But for some organizations, it is crucial.
Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.
Speaking before the United States Congress 11 days after the terror attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, then President George W. Bush made clear it was time to choose. “Every nation, in every region, now has a decision to make. Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
From the perspective of an aggrieved nation, such a black-and-white ultimatum seemed reasonable — although less so when the war against al-Qaeda morphed into a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq that didn’t have the approval of the United Nations. And that expansion of the war against terror goes some way to explaining why some Global South nations, troubled by Western double standards, are now reluctant to choose a side in Russia’s war on Ukraine.
However, along with its Western partners, Ukraine — a grievously wronged nation — is now likewise arguing that this is no time for niceties, and to them, this includes neutrality. Yet, for some organizations, neutrality is exactly what’s required — otherwise, their raison d’être would be shattered, they wouldn’t be able to fulfil their missions and the world would be a much poorer place for it.
“The closer you come to the front line, the more people know how important neutrality is because it protects you,” said veteran Swiss diplomat Mirjana Spoljaric, the first ever woman to head the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The ICRC currently has nearly a thousand workers in Ukraine, and “we have very little means of assuring safety and security for our staff other than our strict 160-year-old neutrality and impartiality,” she told POLITICO.
“We are fulfilling our role in international armed conflict by relying on our established work modalities, by talking to all parties, by ensuring confidentiality, by insisting on being granted access to prisoners of war, and doing so through all appropriate and available communication channels that we have,” Spoljaric said.
“If you ask us to criticize one party in public, communication channels and access will close. For me, the responsibility to uphold and protect the principle of neutrality is enormous — not just for the ICRC. The national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies would be impacted, along with many other international and national humanitarian organizations,” she added.
And among those global rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) have both come under ferocious criticism for their reports faulting not just Russia but also Ukraine for breaching the laws of war.
For example, Ukraine is a signatory to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention — a treaty prohibiting any use of antipersonnel mines — and HRW has called Kyiv out for firing thousands of banned antipersonnel mines at Russian-occupied territory in last year’s savage battle for the city of Izium.
Amnesty also prompted a firestorm of Ukrainian and Western indignation when it criticized the conduct of Ukraine’s armed forces, for endangering civilian lives by the way they were operating in some residential areas. The report led to the resignation of the head of Amnesty’s Kyiv office, Oksana Pokalchuk, who said her local team hadn’t been properly consulted over the report, which unwittingly “sounded like support for Russian narratives.” She added that while “seeking to protect civilians, this research instead became a tool of Russian propaganda.”
However, neither Amnesty nor HRW have pulled their punches when it comes to Russia’s egregious misconduct. Both have documented assaults on civilian neighborhoods; gathered evidence of war crimes, torture and disappearances; and denounced the blocking of humanitarian assistance to civilians. That doesn’t assuage their critics, though, who for all intents and purposes argue that in a war pitting a highly vicious aggressor against a clearly aggrieved party, there can be no space for any impartiality or neutrality at any time.
But there must be.
Strict public neutrality is a key component in getting the ICRC as much access to prisoners of war (POWs) as it can negotiate with belligerents, or has the capacity to handle. Amnesty and HRW reports would not be taken seriously — nor would they have the influence they do — if either failed to impartially call out anyone breaching international humanitarian law, which has been developed over decades in a bid to try and maintain some humanity during armed conflict, save lives and reduce suffering.
Without these watchdogs, international humanitarian law — setting out what can be done and what shouldn’t be done during armed conflict — would collapse.
Autocratic bullies sneer at humanitarian law and the idea of universal rights. The International Criminal Court’s recent arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin didn’t dissuade China’s Xi Jinping from visiting Moscow. And the vision he outlined in his Global Civilization Initiative is the very opposite of what the international community led by the West has attempted since 1945 — to shape a world of universal rights and values.
Instead, Xi argued nations should “refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stoking ideological confrontation.” The world should be left to the great powers to balance their interests and all diplomacy should be transactional, with leaders like Xi, Putin and former United States President Donald Trump practicing the art of the deal.
But Western governments have a vested interest in observing some space for neutrality and impartiality, to be respectful of humanitarians even when saying things they don’t like — just as U.N. human rights monitors did this week in their first full look at the treatment of POWs during the Ukraine war. Having interviewed about 400 POWs, both those held by Russia and Ukraine, they documented about 40 summary executions, as well as torture.
“We are deeply concerned about the summary execution of up to 25 Russian prisoners of war and persons ordered to combat by Ukrainian armed forces, which we have documented,” Matilda Bogner, head of the U.N. monitoring mission, said. Bogner did emphasize that Russia’s invasion was at the root of this violence against civilians and POWs, adding that while Ukrainian prosecutors were investigating some cases, none had been taken to court yet.
The U.N. rights office also documented five cases in which Ukrainian POWs had died after being tortured by their Russian captors or otherwise ill-treated, and four cases of death due to a lack of medical attention during internment.
In response, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry thanked the mission for documenting Russia’s violations of international law, but it pushed back on Ukraine’s abuses, arguing, “we consider it unacceptable to place responsibility on the victim of aggression. According to the U.N. Charter, Ukraine has the right to self-defense.”
However, the fact remains that if we are to see off China and Russia’s efforts to reshape the world in their likeness, we need to keep faith with our values and respect neutrality — not make exceptions.