The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Zelensky reminds us that impunity is the enemy of justice

A Ukrainian woman sits outside a building nearly destroyed by Russian shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 15. (Miguel A. Lopes/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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The power of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s video address to Congress on Wednesday owed to something more than charisma born of clarity, tenacity and personal bravery.

Five words, unlikely to make a list of Top 5 sound bites, defined why this is a battle for a generation. The confrontation in Ukraine, Zelensky declared, is a fight “to keep justice in history.”

He’s right. Allowing Russia’s aggression to succeed would mean ratifying a future that privileges power over justice, autocracy over self-determination and impunity over accountability.

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The trial of human decency the world is looking at now should have been obvious long ago. It was seen clearly by some, including a humanitarian well versed in the workings of power politics. David Miliband, who served as Britain’s foreign secretary from 2007 to 2010, is president of International Rescue Committee, one of the world’s oldest and most respected refugee relief agencies.

In 2019, Miliband gave a speech that was unrelenting in describing the suffering of the time and eerily prescient about what was to come. Miliband called our era “the Age of Impunity,” a moment “when those engaged in conflicts around the world — and there are many — believe they can get away with anything, including murder, whatever the rules and norms. And because they can get away with anything, they do everything.”

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And he meant “everything,” listing: “Chemical weapons, cluster bombs, land mines, bombing of school buses, besiegement of cities, blocking of humanitarian supplies, targeting of journalists and aid workers. You name it, we are seeing it, and seeing more of it, and seeing less outrage about it and less accountability for it.”

He specifically called out Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as “two leaders unencumbered by national institutions or by the fear of international law.”

I caught up with Miliband on Tuesday, when he was in Washington to advance the cause of the displaced — work that included a visit with a group of Afghan refugees. He described the conflict in Ukraine as “the capstone on the age of impunity,” both in a negative sense and, possibly, as a turning point.

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On the one hand, Russia’s assaults against hospitals, schools, apartment buildings and civilians generally reflect “a lot of the practice that has been exercised in other parts of the world,” particularly in Syria, “a training ground for some of the tactics that we’re seeing in Ukraine.”

The potentially heartening development is that Ukraine has “woken people up to what impunity represents as a threat to global order, never mind to human rights and to human decency.”

“It’s woken up the liberal democracies to what is at stake,” he continued. “And it’s not just values and it’s not just interests, it’s the future, because the future is either one of impunity in which the powerful do as they please and leave the rest to do as we must, or it’s a future of accountability in which impunity is tamed.”

What Ukrainians are experiencing is entirely in keeping with the horror that Russia rained down on Syria and that others let loose elsewhere. But the earlier conflicts, Miliband said, allowed outsiders to hide behind the idea that conflicts in Syria, Yemen or Ethiopia were internal matters. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was an act of impunity against traditional understandings of national sovereignty. And it happened in Europe, so Westerners could not avert their eyes.

Impunity, Miliband argues, feeds upon itself in a cascade of abuse. So breaking the cycle — seen in the allied response to Russia’s savagery — is the first step toward a rules-based international order that protects the innocent against barbarism.

The response to Putin has been compared to a new Cold War, but it is as much a return to the idea, endorsed (in theory at least) by the United Nations in 2005, of “the responsibility to protect.” This lifts up a shared global duty to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

The mobilization in support of Ukraine will inevitably be seen through the lens of great-power conflict, and U.S. leadership in the effort is vital, as President Biden underscored when he outlined additional help to Ukraine hours after Zelensky’s address. That Russia is a nuclear power makes Biden’s every decision more challenging.

But Miliband’s perspective brings home why the democratic world cannot turn away from Zelensky’s witness. Impunity is a characteristic of autocracies. Accountability should define democracies. Democracy will not fare well in a world where impunity runs rampant.

Zelensky’s performance has been commanding because of the moral commitment behind his passion. He makes an unassailable case that the struggle he’s leading is a hinge point in democracy’s story.