Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 1 March 2022


Ukraine Presents a Moral Crisis, Not Just a Military One

Olena Zhuk with her daughter, Anna, and Ira Slyvkanych with her daughter, Milena, all from Lviv, Ukraine, after crossing the border into Poland, on Saturday. 
Olena Zhuk with her daughter, Anna, and Ira Slyvkanych with her daughter, Milena, all from Lviv, Ukraine, after crossing the border into Poland, on Saturday. 
Credit...Maciek Nabrdalik for The New York Times

Mr. Miliband is the president and chief executive of the International Rescue Committee. He served as Britain’s foreign secretary from 2007 to 2010.

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With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the military balance of power in Europe is up for grabs. The moral balance is also at stake. The West needs to show that it can live up to its values — as well as defend itself.

Vladimir Putin’s willingness to challenge international norms means Ukraine’s 44 million citizens are living in fear for their lives and their futures. All possible outcomes involve sacrifice and suffering on a huge scale.

More than 500,000 people already have fled across Ukraine’s borders; at least 160,000 more have been internally displaced by the fighting. The United States has predicted there could be as many as five million refugees — joining what is already a record 31 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world.

With Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 required to stay and fight, women and children are on the humanitarian front line. They are scared and exhausted, leaving behind their homes and possessions, desperately trying to make the right choices to stay alive.

How these people are treated presents not only an immediate practical challenge but also a political one, since both Europe and the United States have in recent years turned tail on their values. (Just ask Afghans, Syrians or Yemenis seeking refuge and respite from war.)

Seven years after the 2015 refugee crisis, Europe still lacks an agreed-upon approach both for taking in its share of refugees — many remain in limbo in countries like Jordan — and for processing asylum seekers who make it onto the continent. Germany has done a remarkable job integrating Syrians who qualify as refugees, but across Europe the combustible politics of migration have largely stymied effective and humane policymaking.

In the United States, meanwhile, the refugee resettlement system was decimated in the Trump years. The Biden administration’s welcome commitments to increase the number of refugees admitted and modernize the resettlement system have hit snags. Trump-era policies remain — like at the southwestern border, where people seeking protection still face danger and rejection when trying to assert their legal rights to claim asylum. Tens of thousands of Afghans evacuated with U.S. assistance have yet to attain refugee status, facing an uphill climb in an overwhelmed asylum system.

The West cannot afford a further humanitarian fumble in the Ukraine crisis. Autocrats around the world claim that Western commitment to human rights and rule of law is a hypocritical sham. They must be proved wrong.


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There are three immediate priorities.

First, Ukrainians fleeing for their lives need sanctuary, security and stability. The E.U.’s executive arm will ask member nations to grant Ukrainians temporary asylum, for up to three years. Britain is granting visa concessions only for British nationals’ close relatives in Ukraine. That’s not good enough.

All Western nations, not just those in the E.U., should open their borders to Ukrainians and ensure that they find safety and stability after escaping the chaos of war. That means fully fledged refugee status, with the rights to work and receive state services.

There is also a vital need, immediately, for effective administration of reception and registration centers — with dedicated services for pregnant women, targeted efforts for those with medical conditions, and special attention to children. This will require clear lines of responsibility and close coordination between E.U. and U.N. agencies.

Faced with potentially up to five million refugees, Europe must create a plan to share resettlement among European nations and provide financial support to those countries closest to Ukraine that are likely to bear the greatest burden. The lesson of the Syria crisis — when too much was expected of Greece and Italy, where most refugees first landed — is that Poland and Hungary cannot be expected to do it all.


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Second, Ukrainians remaining in the country will likely be in greatest need. There are already too many examples around the world, from Yemen to Nigeria, of aid being blocked from reaching civilians. Access to aid is a right under international humanitarian law: It must be protected, and it must be sustained.

That is why it is vital that aid efforts across borders and across conflict lines be established immediately and that humanitarians are able to carry out their work without facing political interference or threat to their lives. This is the moment when rhetoric about the sanctity and dignity of human life will be tested on the ground. Experience shows that only massive pressure can keep aid flows going.

Third, there must be accountability for the conduct of the conflict. There are reports of shells hitting a hospital and schools, plus what appears to be indiscriminate bombing of civilian housing. Such serious breaches of international law — banned under the Geneva Conventions of 1949 — can constitute war crimes.

These incidents must be documented and investigated. Just as German courts have convicted individuals for war crimes in Syria, so must any parties violating international law in Ukraine be held to account. Otherwise, the law of the jungle prevails.

The last decade has seen a growing age of impunity around the world. Wars have become not just seemingly endless but also lawless, from Syria to Yemen. In all these places, unresolved humanitarian and political crises bear witness to the abuse of power.

Impunity has fed off democratic recession and Western nations’ crises of confidence. Events in Ukraine are the capstone, with implications far beyond the country’s borders.

Whereas the end of the Cold War marked a victory for accountability over impunity, the war in Ukraine risks a return to a world where the powerful do what they please and the weak do what they must.

Mr. Putin’s attempt to rewind the geopolitical clock by 30 years will reverberate for the next 30. There is no time for moral complacency.

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