By Silvia Ecclesia
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is quickly escalating into a major armed conflict with thousands of dead and over 1 million people fleeing the country. The Geneva Graduate Institute, as a leading academic institution in international law, relations, and economy, convened on March 3rd, 2022 a town hall to provide context and understandings of the current events from different perspectives and areas of expertise. Moderated by the Institute’s Director of Strategic Partnerships, Achim Wennman, the town hall saw speaking : Gopalan Balachandran, Co-Director, Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy; Professor Delidji Eric Degila, Professor of Practice, Interdisciplinary Programmes and International Relations/Political Science; Marcelo Kohen, Professor of International Law; Sara Hellmüller, Senior Researcher, Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding, and Visiting Lecturer; Erica Moret, Senior Researcher, Global Governance Centre, and the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies.
Like professor Balachandran at the beginning of his remarks, I would also like to invite you, reader, to keep in mind all the people that are suffering because of this war. As academics, it is easy to quickly see the geopolitical and legal implications of a conflict forgetting the human side of it.
The town hall began with a video of former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan talking to BBCNews, in the same Auditorium our speakers sit today, about the Syrian war and how leadership, true leadership with the welfare of people at the centre, was absolutely lacking.
“War is always a defeat, a defeat for humanity.” This, the statement released by Directrice Marie Laure-Salles on Tuesday, was often invoked during the event. Professor Wennman, in fact, highlighted how the Graduate Institute has not been timid in taking position supporting immediate action for the protection of Ukrainian people. Gathering several experts, this town hall served the purpose of fostering engagement and understanding, fundamental for a peaceful, equitable and sustainable world.
To begin the conversation, Professor Marcelo Kohen provided us with the international law perspective. A recurring theme among all speakers was the unprecedented nature of current events: First, as it is “the greatest military action since the Second World War” as stated by Marcelo. While it is clearly a breach of the principle of non-intervention in the domestic affairs of other States by the Russian Federation, what is interesting to note is the use by Russia of older arguments developed by Western nations to ward themselves from greater legal repercussions. This first intervention brings up the question of whether we are going to enter an era where force becomes the new normal, thereby leading to immense consequences for the global order.
The possibility of a disruption of global order is picked up by professor Gopalan Balachandran, who highlighted the shift that Russia has undergone, according to him, from a revisionist power to one pursuing a revanchist project. However, considering the past revisionists tendencies and the intrinsic power-based nature of international relations, professor Gopalan raised the question: “Could this war have been prevented?” The voice of Ukrainians might have been muffled by the drumbeats of war of the United States and Britain, according to the professor. However, he believes, the slide from revisionism to revanchism and then to war can be prevented as it does not happen in a vacuum: Several factors are involved and we should make every reasonable effort to arrest this slide.
Talking about efforts, Professor Erica Moret dove deep into the usefulness and meaning that the sanctions imposed on the Russian economy could have for the resolution of the conflict. For a second time we are reminded of the extraordinary nature of the current events; in fact, the imposed sanctions are particularly unique in three aspects. First, it is the first time that a major economy in the world, part of key trade agreements, is sanctioned to this degree. Second, the breadth of the measures adopted is also uniquely scaled up from other sanctions imposed in the past with extremely complicated financial sanctions and imposed on central banks. Third, the speed with which these sanctions have been deployed, which would have left almost no space for preparation. The absence of the Security Council in this endeavour, also sparked the explosion of several autonomous unilateral sanctions from around the world, including Switzerland. Professor Sara Hellmüller spoke on the concept of neutrality: Does neutrality clash with the imposition of sanctions? According to the decision of the UN, no, it doesn’t, since the armed conflict is in breach of international law and neutrality does not prevent from speaking out against such violations.
From a negotiating standpoint, the situation is not ripe yet for successful negotiations, according to professor Hellmüller, as the two countries do not find themselves in a mutually hurting stalemate and do not see negotiations as a viable way out. Nevertheless, the recent General Assembly’s resolution condemning Russian invasion of Ukraine was adopted with a groundbreaking vote of 140 in favour and only 5 against. Again, unprecedented events. Even more so, concluded professor Hellmuller, if we recognize this war as a wake up call, a breaking point: We are in a new multipolar world to which we need to adopt and adapt conflict resolution mechanisms.
Closing the round of interventions from experts, professor Delidji Eric Degila spoke from a non-Western viewpoint on the position of the African continent on the matter: A continent that, through the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) promotes peace and harmonious cohabitation. He made sure to clarify at the outset that the African identity is not singular, but several, and that therefore, stances in relation to the ongoing invasion were also different. In front of the expression of the asymmetries and power dynamics that this conflict embodies, he said it is difficult for countries in the periphery to position themselves. Nevertheless, many took a strong stance against the injustices that African people living in Ukraine are subject to right now.
The floor then opened to questions from a very active public, who were particularly interested in the ethical implications when Western nations consider this particular war to be unprecedented when several others have been ongoing for years.
The town hall concluded with a minute of silence for the people on all sides of the war in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, the discussion should not be over. The Graduate Institute, with its interdisciplinarity and concentration of expertise, should (and will) continue to talk about the possibilities, implications, actions and ethical questions that need to be addressed in an active way in order to truly make a difference.