Russia's invasion of Ukraine 1 year on: Making the perpetrators pay
On the first anniversary of Russia’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine, many areas of the country have become scenes of utter devastation. Whole cities were turned into rubble. The lucky inhabitants who escaped with their lives leave everything behind, illustrating how the usually incredibly expensive weapons of mass destruction, can turn peaceful neighbourhoods into a wasteland.
Ukraine, a country of 44 million people and a GDP of $155.6bn, is now being systematically devastated. UN statistics suggest that over 2 million refugees left in the first two weeks of the war, and 1.9 million were displaced internally. By October 2022, the number rose to 7.6 million Ukrainian refugees in Europe, and 6.9 million internally displaced. Around 13 million others are under siege in their original home areas.
The human and humanitarian toll of such devastation are colossal. Billions of dollars are needed to house, feed and care for these millions who had previously been totally self-sufficient.
''The international community, through some of its most proactive members, should begin to impose what I would like to call a “tax on inhumanity”. First, assets of key perpetrators, like the Assads and Putins of this world and their close aides and financiers, should be traced and seized. This could be done through specific legislation targeting egregious perpetrators, and making it easier for victims and rights advocacy groups to pursue them in the courts.''
Russia’s Vladimir Putin has perfected this art of brutal devastation in Syria, where he helped his ally, Bashar al-Assad, murder and displace millions. The cost of just keeping many alive came at a horrendous cost. Even before the February 2023 earthquake that devastated South East Turkey and Northern Syria, the UNHCR estimated the number of displaced Syrians at 13.3 million, of whom 6.7 million were still trapped inside Syria, as the rest of the world closed its door.
Billions were needed for the bare essentials, but periodic UN appeals for donations to assist victims (including a total of 14.6 million in need of food assistance inside Syria) remain seriously undersubscribed.
However, it is not usually the murderous dictators who pay for this life-saving assistance. Putin and his billionaire friends are not famous for supporting charities, they prefer paying for yachts, luxury homes in Europe and the US, as well as other “necessities”.
It was outrageously ironic that, as Bashar Assad’s thugs were busy with murder and pillage, his wife was shopping online for luxury items from London and Paris. Assad himself, as leaked emails revealed in spring 2012, was equally busy downloading music from iTunes on his iPad, and exchanging vulgar jokes with his wife about their hapless victims. Both used accounts provided by expatriate associates, or carefully disguised Dubai-based companies, to indulge their expensive tastes amid murder and mayhem.
These are only indicative instances of how perpetrators of atrocities remain insulated from the misery that they inflict on their victims. They care even less about the fallout of humanitarian disasters they create for their neighbours and the wider world, as they wipe out living spaces and livelihoods, and cause massive displacement.
The staggering cost of this massive uprooting from the multiplying scenes of atrocities is expected to be shouldered by international actors. However, vulnerable communities elsewhere, including refugees and displaced people from other conflicts, and victim of natural disasters, are usually the first to feel the pain, as resources are diverted from older crises to new ones.
Perversely, the perpetrators often profit obscenely from the catastrophes they create. The luxury life enjoyed by the Assads and their inner circle is only part of the story. In the corrupt world of the Syrian security apparatus, victims of oppression face extortion for “services rendered”, such as information about disappeared relatives, permits to travel, and similar obscenities.
Those who leave, forfeit everything, with perverse laws passed to repossess their homes, mostly to the benefit of regime loyalists or members of foreign (mainly Iranian) militias. Russia also profited financially and strategically from its virtual occupation of Syria, securing for itself military bases and port facilities, as well as profiting from arms sales.
UNHCR’s statistics indicate that the number of displaced people around the world has reached 103 million by mid-2021 (up from 84 million a year before). Of these 53 million are internally displaced. Interestingly, 70% of the refugees come from only five countries (Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan, and Ukraine), while five countries house 36% of these refugees (Turkey, Colombia, Germany, Pakistan, and Uganda).
In 2023, the UNHCR had a budget of $10.2bn, while the WFP estimates the required costs for the year to be nearly $20bn. This is only the tip of the gigantic iceberg.
Unfortunately, humanitarian aid always falls short of actual needs, but it cannot compensate for more forceful action to stop atrocities. Aid can partially benefit perpetrators and provide the “international community” with an alibi. Humanitarian contributions can become a pretext for inaction to stop the atrocities.
Had Assad been seriously threatened with bombing, many Syrians would be safe at home today. Had NATO warned Putin that it will defend Ukraine against an invasion, he would also have stayed at home. Tyrants, like all bullies, are also cowards.
In 2005, the UN General Assembly passed the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect, committing UN members to collectively intervene to stop mass atrocities. Some have criticised the proposal as an attempt to restore colonial hegemony. It looked more like a temporary rally to commit to a pledge (one that humanity repeatedly failed to honour) never to tolerate genocide and mass atrocities again. It was probably too optimistic about the combined moral-military superiority of major democracies, and too naive about motives. It also overestimated the effectiveness of armed forces, and the willingness of major powers to act altruistically to punish and deter atrocities. However, a serious commitment would have deterred many atrocities.
Given that failure, the minimum that could be done is to enact a peaceful version of the doctrine to reverse the dynamics involved in immunity/profiteering from atrocities: perpetrators should be made to pay, directly and literally, for their crimes, and to make humanitarian aid more humanitarian; not only to alleviate suffering, but to also simultaneously punish and deter transgressions.
The international community, through some of its most proactive members, should begin to impose what I would like to call a “tax on inhumanity”. First, assets of key perpetrators, like the Assads and Putins of this world and their close aides and financiers, should be traced and seized. This could be done through specific legislation targeting egregious perpetrators, and making it easier for victims and rights advocacy groups to pursue them in the courts. Litigators should be encouraged and assisted in mounting legal challenges.
It should also be possible to impose punitive tariffs on the exports of offending states and entities complicit in atrocities. Thus, companies importing oil from Russia should be forced to pay taxes to the importing state, but without permission to raise prices as a result. Rather, the exporting country and its agents must bear the cost. By the same token, exports to those countries should also be taxed, this time at source.
In addition to gains from seizure of assets (including state assets), the proceeds from this “tax on inhumanity” should be deposited in national or international funds to help the victims of those atrocities, and support humanitarian operations in general.
External actors complicit in atrocities (foreign states, mercenaries, financiers, etc.) should also be made to pay. The perpetrators should also be held liable for the costs of post-war reconstruction. It is preposterous, for instance, for Russia and Iran to destroy Syria and then ask the “international community” to rebuild it, not to mention allowing them to profit. Similarly, Libya’s neighbours and other players, including mercenaries and other profiteers, should also be made to pay for their complicity in atrocities, and barred from profiting.
If intelligently managed, these measures could become an effective deterrence to atrocities. As one of the few realistic options available to address the anomaly of perpetrators perversely benefiting from their crimes, while forcing the international community to clean up after them. This is the minimal moral commitment to victims of these flagrant atrocities.
In short, making perpetrators pay, literally, sooner rather than later, would achieve more than one aim. It offers immediate and concrete help to the victims, punishes perpetrators, limits their ability to sustain attacks, and acts as a powerful deterrent. It may not deliver total justice just in the immediate, but it is a good – and practicable – start.
Abdelwahab El-Affendi is Professor of Politics at the Doha Institute of Graduate Studies, Doha. He is editor of: Genocidal Nightmares: Narratives of Insecurity and the Logic of Mass Atrocities (Bloomsbury, 2015).
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