The aftermath of a massacre. Mullivaikkal, 2009.
The events of the past week, as Russia sent troops and tanks into Ukraine, grabbed global headlines, dominating news and politics around the world. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are shelled and displaced as Moscow’s offensive gathers pace. Appropriately, there has been an outpouring of sympathy for those trapped in the midst of the conflict, as well as widespread support for those resisting Russian aggression. Along with protests in capitals around the world, there has been deep military and diplomatic support for Ukraine’s armed forces, coupled with sanctions and almost unprecedented isolation of Russia internationally.
However, with global outrage and distress at Russia’s actions, there has also been growing worldwide dismay at the radically different lens through which Western states have viewed Moscow’s offensive and the Ukraine’s resistance to it. The past week has been very bright for many people around the world; it’s not that Western states don’t understand the politics of resisting oppression. It is that they judge certain nations or certain peoples as apparently unworthy of practicing it.
The situation in Ukraine proved to be a glaring example of this double standard. As Russian soldiers began their offensive, Ukrainian civilians were praised for enlisting in the resistance effort to defend their homeland from foreign occupation, even as forced conscription began. There was no call for Ukrainians to lay down their arms in order to avoid a massacre at the hands of the much larger, nuclear-armed Russian army. There was no condemnation from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense because it publicly encouraged all civilians to take up arms – regardless of ageand ordered those who had no weapons on how to shape yourself. Even the soldiers who blew themselves up to slow the Russian advance are praised as heroes in the Western press. The Ukrainian resistance, despite the deployment of some of the methods decried by some Western states, is not considered extreme. Far from there. He is hailed as brave and legitimate, to the point that citizens of other states around the world are encouraged to join him themselves. The overall message is clear: Ukrainian citizens must be allowed to choose their own future, and defending their homeland and resisting foreign occupation is right.
The international community’s swift response to Russia’s transgressions and defiance of a rules-based order has also sent global shockwaves. Along with sweeping asset freezes, divestments and sanctions that have consequences in the tens of billions of dollars, concerted cultural and sporting boycotts unprecedented since the apartheid era in South Africa South have taken place. Multilateral institutions, from finance to culture, immediately mobilized and Russia is shunned internationally in many areas. It is the recipient of rapid, coordinated and concrete global action.
The surprise for many peoples is not the fact that Russia does not deserve these sanctions – it can be argued that given its actions in Chechnya or Syria, it should have faced them long ago. It is that other states, many of which have been consistently more lethal than Russia in Ukraine so far and with far less diplomatic sway than Moscow, have not been subjected to the same. Indeed, with the case of Sri Lanka, a regime run by war criminals that committed mass atrocities, those pushing for similar harsh international action were told it was impossible. Even like bombs are raining down on hospitals and men and women were shot on camera in 2009, Tamils who called for a ceasefire were told they were asking for too much, too quickly. To date, more than a decade later, Sri Lanka has faced little post-genocide action. There are no far-reaching global sanctions, no sporting or cultural boycotts, and those who personally oversaw mass atrocities continue to rule the island freely.
None of this is surprising. Tamils know that the Western liberal order, born out of the legacy of colonialism, remains tainted with racism and has criminalized our struggle for self-determination and others around the world. What is striking, however, is how brazen the indifference has been and how quickly the same language and terms can take on entirely different meanings when Western interests are seen to be at stake. to occupation and aggression is legitimate and must be fully supported. Cultural and sporting boycotts can, indeed, must be enforced. Divestments from unethical and illiberal companies should be enacted. Sanctions must be put in place. All of these are simply framed as fair and just actions to take in defense of a rules-based liberal world peace. And it can all be done in days, not decades.
This hypocrisy is not new. However, his actions reinforce the fact that many around the world perceive the West’s supposed commitment to the universality of human rights, democracy and freedom. More than 70 years after the signing of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document that has been a cornerstone of the international order, criticism continues that any proclaimed commitment to its principles rings hollow. The inconsistency in its application and response to massive violations of international law contradicts the idea that human rights are indeed universal. This selective application almost completely undermines the decades-long progress towards a more cooperative rules-based international order.
It may still be possible to change this inheritance. As the response to the bombing of Ukraine shows, it is possible to create a system in which human rights are more than theoretical. Despite the relative ineffectiveness of bodies such as the UN Human Rights Council, there is evidence that individual states, regional mechanisms and other multilateral institutions can take action to uphold these fundamental principles. Governments around the world can, and must, respond safely and quickly.
The bombing of Ukraine is a terrible transgression to which we respond appropriately. Other states around the world, including Sri Lanka, face similar consequences, even if they are of less geopolitical importance. Only then do the fundamental rules that underpin the global order and bind members of the international community become truly universal. Until they do, the solemn commitments that states around the world must uphold simply become a game between great world powers.