The Quest for Justice
When criminals and dictators commit atrocities with virtual impunity, it raises fresh doubt about the purpose of our global institutions of justice
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky had harsh words this week for the United Nations Security Council—the UN body charged with securing international peace and grants Russia the power to veto any resolution. He spoke after witnessing in person the horrors in liberated Bucha, 40 days after Russia first launched this war in Ukraine.
“We are dealing with a state that turns the right of veto in the UN Security Council into a right to kill,“ a grim, exhausted-looking Zelensky said via video. “Which undermines the whole architecture of global security. Which allows evil to go unpunished and spread the world, destroying everything that can work for peace and security.”
He had more to say, of course, including raising the legitimacy of an organization that allows one of its permanent members to wage illegal war, spread propaganda about the grotesque killing, and continue to participate in its decision-making. “If this continues,” Zelensky said, “the finale will be that each state will rely only on the power of arms to ensure its security, not on international law, not on international institutions. Then, the UN can simply be dissolved.”
Yes, Russia was suspended from the UN Human Rights Council yesterday with 93 countries supporting the move. But 24 countries voted against the resolution over its "gross and systematic violations and abuses of human rights" in Ukraine and 58 countries abstained. While Russia chose to quit the body in response, the reluctance of so many nations to enter their rejection of Russia’s actions makes a mockery of the institution.
On Monday I shared background on the International Criminal Court—its jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. I also noted that, of the thousands of potential cases, it has only successfully tried and convicted nine people over the last two decades. Russia and the United States, by the way, are two of the nations that have refused to participate in this international court as members.
The United Nations, since its founding in 1945 in the wake of WWII, has frequently faced criticism for its reliance on high-minded speeches and often self-congratulating rhetoric rather than genuine enforcement mechanisms to confront the continuing reality of war and violence. It’s obvious that the existence of the UN has not succeeded at preventing war and stemming bloodshed that totals well in the millions of lives lost—Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Yemen, Syria and Iraq included.
The newly revealed atrocities in Bucha—likely to be followed by other Ukrainian cities now facing the vicious brutality of Russian troops—should force us to ask the painful question: Do we have institutions that can stem the mass violence and provide necessary justice in its aftermath—or must we accept that the most powerful, most weaponized states and leaders that lack respect for human life are free to continue their murderous ways with impunity?
This question of accountability—and of the ability to transgress rule of law with impunity—has been deeply disturbing for many of us living through the last five years in America. From the myriad violations of the Emoluments Clause straight to the recent revelations of the utter disregard for the Presidential Records Act, we’ve come to see how weak are the enforcement measures and how reliant is the constitutional system on leaders who adhere to norms and traditions. So, too, at a time when our democracy is in such danger, we see how slowly the wheels of justice grind, especially when driven by a reluctant or overwhelmed Department of Justice—and when a broken and divided body politic is increasingly unwilling to agree on known and knowable facts.
At this moment, there’s no voice on the global stage that matters more and deserves our attention more than Volodymr Zelensky. “The chain of mass killings from Syria to Somalia, from Afghanistan to Yemen and Libya should have been stopped a long time ago, to be honest,” Zelensky told the members of the UN Security Council on Tuesday. “If tyranny had ever received such a response to the war it had unleashed, then it would have ceased to exist and a fair peace would have been guaranteed after it…then, perhaps, we would not have a war, a war in my country.”
“How we will really guarantee the inviolability of universally recognized borders and the integrity of states? How we will ensure the rule of international law?It is now clear that the goals set in San Francisco in 1945 during the creation of a global international security organization have not been achieved. And it is impossible to achieve them without reforms.”
Surely, that began with a vote by the full UN body to suspend Russia’s participation on the Human Rights Council and its ability to assert—as Zelensky put it—its “right to kill.” That also requires finding new ways to prevent aggression and to rethink the systems of justice meant to address, indeed prevent, mass murder. That means serving as actual deterrents, rather than existing as optimistic but ultimately toothless responses that fail to provide even a semblance of real justice.
At this moment, Ukraine’s president deserves the last say, including the space to assert the moral imperative and dream big.
“There can be no more exceptions, privileges. Everyone must be equal—all participants in international relations—regardless of economic strength, geographical area and individual ambitions. The power of peace must become dominant, the power of justice and the power of security, as humanity has always dreamed of.”
These were hopeful words for the UN this week, suggesting his continued belief in the possibility of people and nations coming together to serve a higher purpose and create peace and security. For those of us who still believe in sovereignty, democracy and the possibility of people of good will to triumph over autocrats and dictators convinced of their primacy and power, let’s hope Zelensky’s dream is the way forward. And not “some day” in a distant future, after more and more death and destruction, but soon, when the possibility of justice still seems within our grasp.
As I read through your (again) excellent essay, I started formulating what I might write here in a comment -- but every step of the way, you wrote it first. Yes, it is (past) time for a considerable re-working of some of our most important and powerful institutions. The United Nations is both historically and ideologically significant, and yet in its practice it has been virtually impotent when it matters most. One of the most bitter lessons I have learned over the past five years is one I have written about here before: that our democratic institutions are not as robust as we believed them to be, but rather, as you write, are dependent almost entirely on people being willing to adhere to certain principles (honesty, fairness, justice for all, the rule of Law); enforcing those principles has proven to be another matter entirely. We keep waiting on the sidelines, wondering when the slow grind of due process is going to actually produce real consequences for those that continue to break the law. Meanwhile, the far right is not waiting, and dictators like Putin are allowed to commit atrocities with impunity. I am getting old. These days, I find myself often thankful that I will likely not live another 20 years. I don't think I can bear watching.
Steven, thanks for another provocative post. The Ukraine war certainly brings the issue into sharp focus, and as you say the last 5 years in this country have been discouraging and alarming.
What I have found most corrosive is the certainty that if I, or probably any of your readers, committed *any* of the crimes that powerful politicians commit, we'd have long been fined and indicted and probably in jail. This realty occurs to me often, when I read about - take your pick - particularly from the dark period where TFG was in power. But still now, today, there are examples that really get under my skin.
How can we expect any ordinary citizens to obey laws if those in power can willfully violate them and, it appears, pay no price and even prosper? Talk about moral hazard....