It’s not an overstatement that the Oct. 7, 2023 attacks on Israel and their aftermath, the war in Gaza, are reshaping the global political landscape. From the suspension of the normalization process between Arab states and Israel, to South Africa bringing a case to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), the war is shifting geopolitics and taking the focus away from Ukraine.
As 2024 opens, uncertainty also looms over diplomatic meetings. On Feb. 26, the world’s top human rights body, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC), will open its 55th session. Among other things, it will consider a resolution renewing the mandate of the commission it created to investigate Russia’s crimes. It will be the first post-Oct 7 test for multilateral support to Ukraine.
Two years on, support stands strong
The international community’s support for Kyiv to date has been massive. Vote after vote in UN fora, at the General Assembly (UNGA) and at the HRC., overwhelming majorities have sided with Ukraine. The picture is clear: UNGA resolutions ES-11/1, ES-11/2, ES-11/4 and ES-11/6 gathered between 140 and 143 “Yes” votes, and between 5 and 7 “No” votes. Taking abstentions into account, states that refused to side with Moscow ranged between 186 and 188 – over 96 percent of the total UN membership of 193.
At the HRC (47 members at any given time), we’ve observed the same pattern: voting results range from 28-2 (resolution 52/32) to 32-2 (resolution 49/1) and 33-2 (resolution S-34/1). Diplomatic sympathy for Russia is an ultra-minority view.
This succession of votes carries a tremendous symbolic value. It shows where the international community stands when it isn’t paralyzed by UN Security Council veto powers. But if resolutions for Ukraine were adopted with impressive margins, resolutions against Russia (in the sense that they seek to hold Moscow morally, judicially, and politically accountable) attracted less support.
Initiatives that gathered the highest number of positive votes are those focusing on Russia’s assault on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Initiatives on suspending Russia from the HRC and demanding reparations (resolutions ES-11/3 and ES-11/5) scored 93-24 and 94-14, respectively. The reason is many Asian and African states abstained instead of voting in favor. The same holds true for HRC. resolutions: those directly addressing Russia’s domestic situation (as opposed to its actions abroad) scored modestly, namely 17-6 (resolution 51/25, which established a Special Rapporteur) and 18-7 (resolution 54/23, which extended the Rapporteur’s mandate), with 24 and 22 abstentions respectively.
But Russia’s war continues, with its cohort of crimes, devastation and impunity. In this context, most states are likely to keep supporting pro-Ukraine initiatives. Multilateral parameters remain unchanged: defending principles enshrined in the UN Charter, like sovereign equality and territorial integrity, are key determinants of votes.
But these could be a swansong if we underestimate the impact of the Israel-Gaza war, and narratives it carries, on multilateral dynamics.
Geopolitical shifts and what they mean for Ukraine
The HRC’s 54th session ended mid-October 2023, when the world was still in shock at the abominable terrorist attacks carried out by Hamas and Israel hadn’t yet started its intense bombardment on and ground operation in Gaza. The last HRC resolution on Russia was adopted in this context. No resolution on Ukraine per se has been considered since then. The upcoming 55th session will therefore be a test – not just for Ukraine but for other Western-led resolutions, including on Belarus, Iran, or South Sudan.
After Oct. 7, Ukraine quickly offered support to Israel. Atrocities committed against civilians, the surprise nature of the attacks, the shockwave – all of these contributed to a feeling of proximity between Kyiv and Tel Aviv. A refusal to accept a ceasefire until war objectives are reached (liberation of its territory for Ukraine, destruction of Hamas for Israel) kept the two countries close.
But is this position wise for Kyiv? Could it alienate Global South countries and be counter-productive for Ukraine’s cause? Could it translate into significant losses of votes in UN fora?
Denunciation of “double standards” is a powerful rhetorical tool. Notwithstanding an obvious selectivity (Arab states never say a word on atrocities in Sudan; many Muslim-majority states are silent on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs), it’s hard to deny that blind support for Israel is a huge turn-off for many Global South states.
As the death toll approaches 30,000, aligning with Israel doesn’t mean exactly the same, and isn’t the logical consequence, of denouncing terrorism. I won’t discuss the “genocide” accusations (and we’ll probably wait for years for an ICJ. ruling on the merits), but at the very least and prima facie, Israel has committed grave violations of international humanitarian law in its response to Oct. 7.
The bottom line is that what the average person in Gaza is subjected to is very similar to what the average person in Ukraine is going through. Most are innocent civilians who shouldn’t have to pay the price for acts they didn’t commit. It could massively backfire for Ukraine, then, to appear to be turning a blind eye to essentially similar ordeals.
No doubt, Moscow isn’t unhappy to see Kyiv accused of double standards. It will exploit any inconsistency to further denounce the West’s and its allies’ “hypocrisy” – and this could mean faltering support for Ukraine at the UN. Is there a way out?
New risks to defuse
The starting point, for Ukraine, could be to constantly remind its partners that it abides by the laws of war. It targets military objectives, takes precautions to spare civilian lives, and investigates allegations of misconduct. Even on Russian territory, civilian casualties are extremely limited. This stands in stark contrast to Russia’s, but also to Israel’s, behavior.
Another point Kyiv could insist on, in particular with African states, is the folly of Russia’s war of aggression. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s readiness to use thousands as cannon fodder serves what is a colonial and imperial project.
While Kyiv doesn’t have much control over what US Congress or the EU 27 decide, and can only plead for aid to continue to flow in, it is in control of its foreign policy. It can define more balanced positions on the international scene and on the Israel-Gaza war. No doubt, it’s a balancing act between its proximity to key Western allies and the need to keep the international community’s sympathy. But some of the things Kyiv could do include: (1) supporting calls for a ceasefire in Gaza (or at least for civilian protection and humanitarian access); (2) supporting the role of the ICJ.
Irrespective of what Kyiv thinks of the provisional measures ordered by the Court in Gaza, it needs the ICJ in its own case against Moscow. It cannot afford to undermine the Court’s legitimacy.
This is a dangerous diplomatic moment. In a polarized environment in which attacks on the multilateral system multiply, Ukraine needs to be as smart as ever. Because multilateralism is one of its most powerful tools and international law is on its side, Kyiv needs not only to continue finding the right messages, but also to act in a consistent manner.
Nicolas Agostini is a human rights advocate and researcher, currently working between Geneva and East Africa. He has over ten years of experience with human rights organizations at the national, regional, and international levels.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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