With unprecedented speed, the international community has rallied around Ukrainian calls for accountability for crimes committed on its territory. This effort to secure criminal accountability is important, but it is just one piece of what the international community must do to help the Ukrainian people as they seek to rebuild their lives in the months and years ahead.
On March 2, less than a week after Russia invaded Ukraine, the International Criminal Court opened an investigation. Two days later, Chatham House convened leading lawyers and politicians in support of the creation of a tribunal to prosecute Russian aggression. On March 7, the UN Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry with a heavy emphasis on accountability. NGOs and open-source intelligence groups have been working around-the-clock to preserve evidence for prospective trials. Donor funds have been flowing to support all these dedicated efforts.
International institutions’ and donors’ interest in accountability, however, must not overshadow the need for reconstruction support that President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people are also calling for. The scale of this undertaking will be enormous. A Blueprint for Reconstruction, published this week by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) estimates reconstruction costs in the range of €200 billion to €500 billion.
Admittedly some efforts to achieve accountability may also serve the purpose of reconstruction. Ukraine’s use of legal proceedings before the International Court of Justice as a step toward obtaining reparations is one area of possible convergence. But Ukraine’s needs will likely exceed what Russia alone may ever provide.
Some opportunities for convergence in this space require thinking outside the traditional guardrails of accountability. Consider the issue of Ukrainian cultural heritage sites that are being destroyed at a rapid pace and now require substantial international efforts for protection and future restoration (see Brian Daniels’s forthcoming essay in Just Security). Last week, the OSCE Moscow Mechanism released its impressive 108-page document, “Report On Violations Of International Humanitarian And Human Rights Law, War Crimes And Crimes Against Humanity Committed In Ukraine Since 24 February 2022.” The report addresses the destruction of cultural property in two paragraphs framed around whether military targeting operations amount to war crimes. That’s an important consideration, but this work could go further in assessing the losses and advancing the reparations rights of Ukrainians to safeguard their cultural heritage, which is at the heart of Putin’s predation.
Looking more broadly, even with an influx of resources, the reconstruction effort will require enormous international support to succeed. The CEPR’s detailed blueprint is a testament to the complexity of that enterprise. With the huge amount of media coverage Ukraine is currently receiving, it is easy to be lulled into the belief that there is enough political will to secure Ukraine reconstruction funds, even from donors who have spent much of the past two years responding to a global pandemic, and from governments with pressing domestic priorities. But history repeatedly shows how quickly international attention moves from one crisis to the next.
As just one example, there was a time when atrocities in Darfur, Sudan also captured the world stage. At the time, political will was expended in support of a UN Security Council referral of the situation to the International Criminal Court, and for the deployment of a peacekeeping mission. In 2013 Darfur’s Recovery and Reconstruction Strategy estimated reconstruction costs at $US 7.2 billion. By 2017, only $US 1 billion had been pledged. As the first ICC trial for the atrocities began in The Hague last month, over 2 million Darfuris remained displaced, without the means to rebuild their lives.
As those who have studied reconstruction efforts from The Marshall Plan through to Afghanistan repeatedly warn though, it takes “more than money” to succeed. Good governance and security are essential components of any rebuilding effort. Such factors will also affect the transitional justice landscape that Ukrainians will need to navigate in the post-conflict period. Indeed, these and related human rights issues need to be contemplated and engaged now, with the UN reporting that over 870,000 people who fled since the Russian invasion have already returned to Ukraine.
The desire of survivors to return home and rebuild their shattered communities is not unique to Ukraine. As Rohingya youth leaders, displaced to refugee camps in Bangladesh by the Myanmar military have stated: “We want to go home, we want to go to school, we want to work, and we want to be safe. That is what justice means to us.” Their words are a timely reminder that justice involves so much more than criminal accountability. While the interest that external actors are showing in Ukrainian calls for accountability are laudable, we must not overlook the calls that Ukrainians are also making for the longer term project of reconstructing their nation and their lives whenever circumstances permit.