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Putin’s aggression in Ukraine: Lessons from Milosevic and the Balkans

Putin’s aggression in Ukraine: Lessons from Milosevic and the Balkans

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Amb. Curtis Ward

Many of the images we see in Ukraine today are reminiscent of the horrors we saw during the Balkans wars of the 1990s, only worse. While the Balkans wars were a complex series of conflicts involving ethnic cleansing and independence driven insurgencies which resulted in break up of the former Yugoslavia into newly independent states in Europe, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an act of aggression against a sovereign state to reverse Ukraine’s independence and destroy its democracy.

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the brutality of the military campaign, the wanton killing of civilians, destruction of the country’s infrastructure, and the humanitarian crisis which has ensued are a manifestation of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s aspirations to destroy democracy in Europe and, simply put, an attempt to resuscitate Russia’s dominance of the former Soviet States. Putin’s attempts at reviving the totally discredited geopolitical hegemony of the Russian empire in Europe is nothing but a dangerous and reckless quixotic illusion of the Kremlin.

The brutality of Serbian president Slobodan Milošević’s military campaign in the Balkans in the 1990s shocked the civilized world. The images of death and destruction in the Balkans carried out by Milošević’s Serbian military angered the international community and sparked a global consensus for the perpetrators to be held accountable. The Serbian-backed genocide in Srebrenica was to be the last such egregious acts against humanity. There were pledges of “never again”, but the opposite is borne out by egregious acts in several countries in recent history. For example, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, and numerous other conflicts, and now the war in Ukraine have exposed weaknesses in the international system, and particularly of the UN Security Council’s ability to prevent recurrence of a plethora of humanitarian disasters resulting from senseless wars and acts of aggression, and wanton violations of international law.

Milosevic on trial at the ICC

The international community, acting through the United Nations Security Council, though slow to respond and prevent the atrocities in the Balkans and elsewhere, was determined to hold Milošević, his military commanders, and enablers accountable for the slaughter of innocent civilians, ethnic cleansing, and humanitarian law violations in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and across the region. The adoption of Security Council resolution 808 (1993) deciding to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which predated the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), received the unanimous votes of all 15 members, including China and the Russian Federation.

Russia, at the time led by Boris Yeltsin, approved this action to establish the ICTY to prosecute and punish Milošević and other perpetrators of the war crimes committed in the Balkans. The international community, acting through the UN Security Council, needed the Russian Federation’s cooperation to hold Milošević and other egregious actors accountable. With the International Criminal Court not yet in existence, only Security Council action to establish an international criminal tribunal could have the jurisdiction and resources required to investigate and prosecute the egregious acts which occurred in the Balkans, broadly speaking in the territory of the former Yugoslavia.

Russian Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Yuli Vorontsov, speaking on Russia’s vote to approve resolution 808 (1993) on 22 February 1993, to hold Milosevic and his cohorts accountable, said, and I quote:

Russia has pursued an unwavering course of putting an end to war crimes and cannot remain indifferent to the flagrant mass violations of international humanitarian law in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. Murder, rape, and “ethnic cleansing” must cease immediately, and the guilty – whatever their affiliation – must be duly punished.”

That was a responsible statement worthy of a civilized country. But that was in 1993.

Russian Ambassador Yuri Voronskov in 1993

Ambassador Vorontsov said that by adopting the resolution the Security Council was deciding that an international criminal tribunal shall be established for the prosecution of persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law. He noted, further, that

the resolution should serve the purpose of bringing to their senses those who are ready to sacrifice for the sake of their political ambitions the lives and dignity of hundreds and thousands of totally innocent people.” He said he believed that the Council’s adoption of the resolution would also serve as a serious warning to those guilty of mass crimes and flagrant violations of human rights in other parts of the world.

The Russian government in 1993 was emerging from the Cold War with aspirations to be a responsible player within the international community.

ICTY Record

That was then, almost 30 years ago!

 Also speaking on the occasion, and perhaps capturing the broad sentiments of the international community at the time, Brazils Ambassador, João Augusto de Araújo Castro, said,

The serious violations of international humanitarian law which have been taking place in the territory of the former Yugoslavia have outraged the conscience of humanity. It is with deep sorrow and concern that the Brazilian Government, and Brazilian society at large, have received the repeated news of unspeakable atrocities committed within the context of this senseless conflict on European soil, which must be brought to an end.”

He noted that there was “substantial evidence of grave breaches of humanitarian law being committed on a massive scale and in a systematic fashion” which included reports of mass killings, torture, rape and the unacceptable practices that are referred to by the equally unacceptable expression “ethnic cleansing”.”

As we see evidence of the gross violations of humanitarian laws by the Russian military in Ukraine and looking back to the images of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, the words of the Brazilian ambassador, in 1993, are applicable today. Those were the views of a country emerging as a leader in the developing world. Not so of the current government in Brasília.

Ambassador de Araújo Castro said then that the international community cannot allow this to continue or to go unpunished. These grave breaches of the most elementary norms of humanity must be treated as what in fact they are: criminal acts, crimes against women and children and other, defenseless victims, but also, in the most proper sense of the expression, crimes against humanity. A cry for justice breaks from every heart, and that cry cannot go unheeded.”

The ambassador said Brazil was convinced that

effective prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators of these crimes was a matter of high moral duty” and supported the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to bring to justice the individuals found to be responsible for such abominable acts.”

These words, “effective prosecution and punishment of the perpetrators of these crimes was a matter of high moral duty … to bring to justice the individuals found to be responsible for such abominable acts” are words being echoed today with regard the abominable acts of the Russian military in Ukraine. Those who unleashed them on the people of Ukraine must be held accountable.

Speaking at the historic Security Council Summit of the Heads of Government of the members of the Council on 7 September 2000 in New York, President Jiang Zemin of China offered some sobering words.  He said then that the international community was confronted with “unprecedented challenges and complex problems”, and “in order to dissolve contradictions and conflicts effectively and achieve a lasting peace and common security, the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter must be strictly complied with. Disputes, if any, must be settled through dialogue, negotiation, and consultation.”

Jiang Zemin said,

Willful use of force and interference in the internal affairs of other countries in the name of humanitarianism not only run counter to the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter but will also cause severe negative consequences. Under the United Nations Charter, the Security Council is entrusted with the primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security. It is at the core of the international collective security mechanism. It is against the will of the vast number of United Nations Member States to act however one likes and bypass the Security Council on major issues pertaining to international peace and security. We must work together to maintain, rather than weaken, the authority of the Security Council, and to strengthen, rather than weaken, its role.”

Important but meaningless words, given the veto power of the permanent members of the Council, China included. China then and China now has not undergone any significant change in terms of intervention, but current Chinese president Xi Jinping is giving Putin a pass on Ukraine.

Most importantly are the words of Russian president Vladimir Putin as he addressed fellow world leaders at the Security Council Summit in 2000.

Russian President Vladimir Putin

He said all the world leaders present were participants in a truly historic and precedent-setting meeting of the Security Council” and noted that the previous few months of the millennium reminded them of responsibility and obligations to our peoples and the whole world. The key United Nations body — the Security Council — has done all it can to safeguard the world from a new global military catastrophe, and to safeguard politicians from the temptation to use any advantage to pursue objectives unworthy of mankind.”

Hmm! These are your words Mr. Putin: “…to pursue objectives unworthy of mankind.” The international community must now apply these standards to you.

Putin said, When the Security Council acts in solidarity and unity, the most complicated problems are resolved. This only serves to enhance the authority of the Council.”

Putin also said,

Before our eyes and with our direct participation, a new epoch is being shaped. It does not matter that we have different ideas about the specifics of this epoch. We are firmly united in our principal beliefs. This epoch must become one of equitable security and just peace. In this connection, I would like to emphasize that the principles laid down in the Charter of the United Nations have passed more than one durability test and proved their effectiveness.”

 And then Vladimir Putin said, The most important of these principles is the supremacy of international law.” Yes, Mr. Putin, and violating international law in the most egregious way, as you have done, have consequences.

What does Putin think now with the gross violations of international law he committed in invading the sovereign state of Ukraine? And continues to violate international law, including international humanitarian laws by his continued military aggression in Ukraine and illegal military occupation of Ukraine territory.

Putin also said, that as world leaders he and his colleagues had a common responsibility to promote global stability and to take a collective approach to settling disputes and conflicts.” He noted that recent history vividly teaches that approaches and measures that ignore international law inevitably undermine both regional and global stability.”

Wow, Mr. Putin! You did say that! And, then Russian ambassador now foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was there with his president. I was also there with my prime minister.

Speaking at the Summit Prime Minister P. J. Patterson of Jamaica challenged the world’s leaders to live up to the responsibilities for the maintenance of international peace and security the primary obligation of the UN Security Council. Mr. Patterson gave a somber reminder of the Council’s responsibility and what needed to be done to live up to its responsibilities. He said,

The United Nations is today facing its most crucial test, that of fulfilling its essential role in a brand-new world. To fulfill its charge to maintain international peace and security, this Council must impact on the lives of people, changing their despair to hope and liberating them from conflict.”

Former Prime Minister P.J. Patterson, ON, OCC, QC

Mr. Patterson said, that

the global landscape is littered with gloom, instability and devastation occasioned by the increasing number of unresolved conflicts, but the Security Council has made significant strides in maintaining stability in some areas of conflict while defusing hostilities in others. The impact of United Nations missions has been felt on almost every continent of the world. And yet, the flagrant violations of international norms and of the rights of individuals continue unabated in many places. The alarming increase in the number of refugees and internally displaced persons, and the inadequately financed operations of the Organization in response to these threats, demand our serious and immediate attention.

Mr. Patterson’s words then were true, and are true today.

He told his colleagues that

Breaches of international humanitarian and human rights laws must not go unchallenged. The resource needs of the United Nations must be adequate to demonstrate the necessary political will for taking action as and when required. Rightful concerns over sovereignty cannot allow us to turn a blind eye to the forces of evil, but the speed and yardstick for collective action cannot be determined purely by strategic geopolitical considerations.”

Prime minister Patterson pointed to the major handicap facing the Security Council – the veto power of the permanent members. He said,

It may sound like heresy in this hallowed and privileged Chamber, but we cannot conceive of an effectively pursued peace and security mandate in the absence of reform of the Security Council itself. The Council must have the benefit of the credibility and legitimacy derived from its Charter-given authority, the transparency of its decision-making process and a truly representative membership.”

Prime Minister Patterson declared that The existence of a veto power is anachronistic and undemocratic.”

And, he said,

By failing to take note of changes in the relative standing of States in the past half century and the expansion of United Nations membership, the Security Council has allowed its representative character to be diminished and its democratic legitimacy to suffer. The Council must become more representative of the world as it is today.” He added that with reform of the Security Council, we can ensure an even more effective role for the Security Council in the maintenance of international peace and security.”

My Podcast on this narrative available here (Available on all popular Podcast players)

That role of which prime minister Patterson referenced is the responsible collective role of the international community acting through the Security Council to hold Milosevic accountable for war crimes in the Balkans, for holding the genocidiers accountable for the genocide of 800,000 in Rwanda, for the slaughter and dismembering of Sierra Leoneans by the Revolutionary United Front aided and abetted by president Charles Taylor of Liberia, a neighboring state, and those responsible for the Cambodia Genocide perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge that killed between 1.5 and 3 million people. The Security Council created criminal tribunals with broad jurisdiction and resources to hold the perpetrators accountable. Many have been prosecuted and punished for their egregious acts. Milošević died in prison of a heart attack on March 11, 2006, while being tried for war crimes at the ICTY in The Hague.

It is the collective responsibility of the Security Council of which Chinese president Jiang Zemin and Russian president Vladimir Putin spoke on 7 September 2000, at the historic Summit. That’s the Security Council acting responsibly without the constraints of the veto of which Mr. Patterson spoke.

It is the responsibility now resting on the international community, not acting through the veto-constrained Security Council, but acting through the International Criminal Court to hold Vladimir Putin, his enablers, and Russian military leaders accountable for the gross violations of international law, war crimes, and the humanitarian crisis – the deaths and mayhem – in Ukraine.

© Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post

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About the author

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward

Ambassador Curtis A. Ward is a former Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Jamaica to the United Nations with Special Responsibility for Security Council Affairs (1999-2002) serving on the UN Security Council for two years. He served three years as Expert Adviser to the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee. He is an Attorney-at-Law and International Consultant with extensive knowledge and experience in national and international legal and policy frameworks for effective implementation of United Nations (UN) and other international anti-terrorism mandates; the legal and administrative requirements to effectively implement and enforce anti-money laundering and countering financing of terrorism (AML/CFT); extensive knowledge of the legal and regulatory requirements for effective implementation and enforcement of United Nations multilateral and U.S.-imposed unilateral sanctions; and the imperatives for Rule of Law and governance.

1 Comment

  • Just got around to reading this post! Interesting, educational and informative! I too remember the wars in the Balkans, as well as Rwanda and the pledges made; never again, yet it keeps happening and the international community doesn’t seem to be able to prevent it from happening! The invasion of Ukraine should not come as a surprise to Western world leaders! They saw what happened in the Republic of Georgia, as well as in Eastern Ukraine and should have realized that Putin would not stop trying to regain control of former USSR countries! Democracy doesn’t mean anything to him; power and money are the only things that matter!

    Thanks for another great article.

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