In Defense of Universal Empathy: Thoughts on Ukraine War (& Reactions to it)

Picture shows  populations at risk of mass atrocities around the world. Does not include Ukraine yet, or other countries where human rights are under threat (e.g. Belarus)

War sucks.

I’ve been trying to articulate my thoughts on the war in Ukraine and the reactions to it. My thoughts are scattered, go in many different directions, and are full of feelings and emotions. 

So, I thought I’d start in an unprofessional but compelling way. War sucks. Death sucks. Violations of human rights, suck. And they should all suck. Equally. 

That Russian actions in Ukraine are rightly deplored is a truism. At the same time, for days I couldn’t escape the anger, frustration, that there seems to be a hierarchy of empathy. It’s obvious that the “international community” can act swiftly. That our hearts can stop pumping blood in the face of violence. We can feel the heaviness thousands of kilometers away. But only sometimes. The accounts of racism at the border, unsurprising as they are, only made it worse.

But I wanted to interrogate the situation. Besides the actors involved (“the West”, Russia) and the color of most of the victims, what other components distinguish this particular conflict from others? The pain inflicted by conflicts on loved ones is universal, the contours of specific situations, differ.

I believe there are two elements that are specific to this particular case: nuclear threat + crime of aggression.

Nuclear threat.

Russia has nuclear weapons. The US has nuclear weapons. The UK has nuclear weapons.

MAD is the military doctrine that stands for “mutually assured destruction.” The use of nuclear weapons would cause the annihilation of both the attacker and the defender. This is pretty self-explanatory. In the case of Russia, the use of nuclear weapons cannot be discarded. The taking of nuclear power plants in Ukraine is only a small and probably unnecessary reminder.

When any of these states is involved, the whole world is at risk. 

Crime of aggression

After the defeat of Nazi Germany, international justice developed significantly. During the Nuremberg trials the crime against peace was defined, which later became the crime of aggression. 

For the past few decades, most wars and conflicts we have seen have been either civil wars (Ethiopia, Colombia), internal conflict in parts of the territory (parts of Nigeria, Myanmar), involved a terrorist organization (ISIS, Boko Haram), an international interreference in a limited space (Crimea), or the targeting of a specific population (China with the Uyghur, a situation that seems the clearest example of genocide as defined in the convention that doesn’t seem to be gathering much attention).

According to the ICC statute, a crime of aggression means “the planning, preparation, initiation or execution […] of an act of aggression which, by its character, gravity, and scale constitutes a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations. […] means the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State.” 

For long, we have not seen a crime of aggression at this scale (the case of Israel and Palestine has significant differences with the Russian invasion). Its occurrence, then, naturally feels notorious. 

While I understand that the common way of analyzing conflicts– and inevitably, the security/ military approach – centers the state and governments as the main actors and lens of analysis, I think this diverts us from a more universal and empathetic approach. I am not advocating for replacing this lens of analysis, but rather an additive approach more generally, and a human-oriented lens when considering a conflict as a private individual.

From a legal and human rights perspective, it is states that are legally obliged to guarantee human rights. In this sense, states and governments do matter. An attack against the political independence of a state means that the guarantor of those rights disappears (and it would be naïve to believe that the occupier is going to be mindful of the rights of the population, as war crimes seem to abound). 

But from a state centric perspective, it means that we give more preponderance to national sovereignty as a principle than to the respect to life and fundamental rights and freedoms. 

This responds to the current logic of nation states as the most important unit in international relations and respect for national sovereignty as the anchor of our system (hence why China, who holds this principle in high regard, is keeping quiet). As military strategists, as governments, this approach will remain, it makes sense, it is the one embedded in our international system. 

From a public opinion and individual perspective, I’d rather approach it predominately from a human perspective. Or a civil society perspective, one that is not married to nation state calculations but more general principles. Solely because it is the most universalist approach. What hurts is that innocent people are dying, not who are the actors involved. Following this logic, we should care equally when there is a conflict, crime of aggression or none, be it Ukraine, Ethiopia, Yemen, and so forth. That the sovereignty of a state is not under threat shouldn’t mean that we can turn a blind eye, as we so often do.

Another small note: Listening and reading some of the American and European coverage the “international” and “universal” condemnation of the war that is so invoked is not such. It is not such if we consider government declarations as the measure of condemnation. 

Screenshot from Adam Tooze’s newsletter. 

From a citizen and civil society perspective, however, I want to believe that we are, indeed, closer to that international and universal opprobrium. 

PS: I want to clarify that this is in response to the reactions I am observing in the Global North and the actions of international institutions.